Given the traditionally masculine narrative conventions of fiction about borders and migration, it is significant that Herrera puts a young woman at the center of his radical reinterpretation of the genre. Equally comfortable and competent in traditionally male and female gender roles, Makina refuses to heed the world’s call for separate, gendered spheres. By rejecting this distinction, Herrera shows that feminist writers need not choose between elevating concerns considered traditionally feminine or merely proving that heroines can be as masculine as men. Instead, Herrera demonstrates what it looks like for a woman to actively move through the world without any doubts about her right to enter male-dominated spaces or interest in tolerating anyone who does not take her seriously because of her gender, highlighting the necessity of rejecting strict gender roles.
Herrera self-consciously mocks the masculine conventions of border fiction and patriarchal social structures of rural Mexico by introducing them into his story and then deconstructing them. The purpose of Makina’s trip northward—her need to contact her wayward brother—actually satirizes the gendered conventions of migration and border narratives. Makina’s brother goes north in search of the traditional symbols of male authority: land and work. Their mother, Cora, sends Makina to make up for his failure because she thinks, “who else can I trust it to, a man?” Through this family history, Herrera both shows why people conventionally migrate and why those people tend to be men, but then shows this script failing and a woman coming to the rescue. This suggests that the norm of male migration is merely an idea and a pattern with no necessary foundation in reality: women can migrate and make new lives for themselves just as well as men can. Similarly, Herrera uses the character of Chucho to caricature the hyper-macho heroes common in literature about migration and the border. Attractive, chivalrous, and extensively knowledgeable about the borderlands, Chucho would play this leading role in a conventional story. But in this novel, he is merely an ancillary figure who guides Makina forward: achieving a masculine ideal does not necessarily save the day.
Beyond writing a backstory that makes room for a woman in a world conventionally dominated by men, Herrera writes a protagonist who feels no qualms about crossing into spaces (both physical and literary) not originally created for her. This allows him to point out the illogic of separate gender spheres not only in literature, but in the world at large. Most importantly, Makina manages to be more masculine than the men she meets throughout the book: she pursues her goal relentlessly, with a superhuman toughness both physically and emotionally, and scarcely pauses even in moments of crisis. Herrera has no interest in reserving old-school tropes of manliness for men, but rather depicts and celebrates a woman who embodies them better than any of the male characters. Makina is also comfortable in male spheres. The three gangsters she meets in the first chapter, Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, and Mr. Q, all respect her deeply. Even though she is the only woman in the spaces she shares with them, this fact does not at all affect how she navigates these spaces: she drinks, smokes, and talks smack with the men without hesitation. By offering Makina as a model, Herrera shows that there should be no question about women’s right to enter, speak, and matter in traditionally male realms. Another example of this principle occurs at the beginning of the second chapter, when a boy on the bus tries to grope Makina. She responds by nearly breaking the boy’s finger as a warning against harassing women. In doing so, she demonstrates how a power imbalance—the implicit threat of violence—is what allows men to objectify and assault women without consequence, and then she responds quickly and decisively by upending this power imbalance and showing the boy what it is like for someone to feel like they are entitled to do what they want with his body.
While Makina’s ability to usurp the traits of a conventional male hero allows Herrera to challenge the misogynistic assumptions of both his literary genre and the world at large, his ultimate message about gender is not that women can (or should) sacrifice their femininity to be as manly as men, but rather that there should be no strict distinction between masculinity and femininity as such. In conjunction with Chucho, Makina is able to shed her own preconceptions about her obligations toward men. For example, when Chucho is fighting the Anglo rancher who shoots Makina, her instinct is to stay: she “[is]n’t used to having people say Run away.” But she soon realizes that she must prioritize her independence, for she is the protagonist and Chucho her support system. She honestly and openly reflects on sexual desire, learning to feel “tension without fear” after meeting Chucho. Suggesting that women’s desire is usually colored by fear of the men in their lives, Herrera again uses Makina to paint a portrait of a woman openly embracing her femininity and sexuality. And Makina also retains heroic traits more conventionally associated with femininity: she helps build communicative bridges, fights for the integrity of her family, and makes connections with almost everyone she encounters without expecting anything in return. She does not have to sacrifice these characteristics to embody traditionally male ones, and she never consciously “switches” between different personalities or ways of treating people based on gender. Instead of occupying both sides of the gender binary, she charts a path beyond it.
The senseless oppression of dividing the world into masculine and feminine spheres—and, in turn, the inanity of dividing literature into manly stories for men and womanly stories for women—is not a drawn-out conclusion, important plot turn, or world-shattering epiphany in this book. Rather, it is a starting point, a principle of Makina’s existence and an assumption of the novel’s perspective that overcoming strict gender divisions should be an active undertaking, rather than a passive state of mind.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Signs Preceding the End of the World
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so he’d know that her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist; it took her one second. The adventurer fell to his knees in pain, jammed into the tight space between his seat and the one in front, and opened his mouth to scream, but before the order reached his brain Makina had already insisted, finger to lips, shhhh, eh; she let him get used to the idea that a woman had jacked him up and then whispered, leaning close, I don’t like being pawed by fucking strangers, if you can believe it.
Scum, she heard as she climbed the eighth hill from which, she was sure, she’d catch sight other brother. You lookin to get what you deserve, you scum? She opened her eyes. A huge redheaded anglo who stank of tobacco was staring at her. Makina knew the bastard was just itching to kick her or fuck her and got slowly to her feet without taking her eyes off him, because when you turn your back in fear is when you’re at the greatest risk of getting your ass kicked; she opened the door and versed.