As she watches her lover—Emilano Zapata—sleep in her bed, a Mexican woman named Inés reflects on their relationship, the history of the Mexican Revolution, and her relationship with her parents. Zapata is a revolutionary leader fighting for agrarianism in the Mexican Revolution, and before he can wake up and rush away once again, Inés seizes the opportunity to observe him, studying his clothes and body. In the past, he has told her that he doesn’t sleep well anywhere but in her bed. Knowing that the war is going badly, she is aware of the fact that Zapata has grown nervous and skittish; as his men begin to fear him and the enemy looms large, he worries that his vision of land reform and prosperity for peasants will die with him whenever he’s killed. As she watches him sleep, Inés wishes she could “rub the grief” from him.
“Eyes of Zapata” is the only story in Woman Hollering Creek that takes place in a bygone era, and Cisneros’s choice to focus on the Mexican Revolution is indicative of her greater interest in examining Mexican and Mexican-American cultural and national identity. In “Remember the Alamo” she fleetingly references some of the history that has contributed to the construction of what it means to be either Mexican or Mexican-American, but in this story she more pointedly studies Mexico’s history by presenting Emiliano Zapata, a man who lived in real life and led a revolutionary group advocating for land reform. In doing so, she doesn’t neglect her other major themes regarding love or female objectification and power, both of which are brought to bear by Inés and her strong feelings for this complicated man.
Inés, whose two children—Nicolás and Malena—also belong to Emiliano, reveals to readers her ability to rise like a bird over the town. From her high vantage point, she surveys the village and the land surrounding her home, the sound of her “wings” beating in the air. Inés believes that, though she can “abandon” her body whenever she wants, humans never “free [themselves] completely until [they] love.” She explains to readers that her father has disowned her because of her relationship with Emiliano; he begs her to reconsider her love, and when she won’t do so, says, “Well then, God help you. You’ve turned out just like the perra that bore you.” She never feels more alone than after this conversation, packing up her belongings and leaving her father’s house forever, though she wants to return and sleep once more against the “cane-rush wall.”
Inés’s dispute with her father recalls a similar—though less argumentative—moment in “Woman Hollering Creek,” when despite her father’s misgivings Cleófilas leaves home to live with Juan Pedro. In this case, Cisneros once again highlights the tension that can often arise between familial and romantic love, showing that it’s complicated to determine where allegiances and responsibilities lie when a person must juggle lovers and family members. Of course, Inés’s father ultimately disrespects her by calling her a “perra” (a bitch) and insulting her mother, thereby chauvinistically demeaning her and driving her away.
Emiliano hates talking about Inés’s father. Inés thinks these two men make such “perfect enemies” because they’re so much alike. The only difference, she notes, is that her father has always been a terrible fighter, even when he’s enlisted to help the government fight off Pancho Villa, yet another revolutionary leader. Her father is injured while fighting and never fully recovers, living the rest of his life with a strange hole in his back that gasps with air as he breathes; when he finally dies, calling out his wife’s name, “the syllables came out sucked and coughed from that other mouth, like a drowned man’s, and he expired finally in one last breath from that opening that killed him.”
Yet again, Cisneros shows that love is a complicated thing, as Inés’s father refers to her mother as a “perra” but then dies calling out her name in sorrow. The fact that her name sounds from the hole in his body—near his heart—suggests that his love for her is a visceral, almost bodily force that escapes the mind’s control. In other words, while he might think he hates her, his spirit knows otherwise, forcing her name from the depths of his body in the last moments of his life. (For clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that Inés has not yet revealed why, exactly, her father calls her mother a “perra.”)
Inés continues to tell the story of her relationship with Emiliano. Upon returning from fighting with the cavalry (years ago), Zapata stays with Inés and leads her to believe that he has forgotten about politics, but within the year he gets involved in the governor’s campaign. Around this time, he gives Inés a wedding gift of two gold earrings, but reiterates to her that he hasn’t agreed to actually marry her. Now, as he sleeps in her bed, she wonders, “What am I to you now, Miliano? When you leave me? When you hesitate?” She admits that she never voices these thoughts aloud because she knows he will tell her “these aren’t times for that,” insisting that she should wait to bring such things up in conversation. “But, Miliano,” she writes, “I’m tired of being told to wait.”
When Inés says, “I’m tired of being told to wait,” she is unfortunately only saying this to herself, pretending to finally stand up to Emiliano even though he’s fast asleep. Herein lies the problem with their relationship—Inés only dares to stand up for herself in private, when Emiliano isn’t listening. In real life, Emiliano discourages her from trying to define their relationship, thereby keeping her from possessing any form of romantic power or autonomy. Indeed, he recognizes that she loves him dearly, and exploits this to his advantage, knowing her adoration of him will allow him to act however he wants, even when that means ignoring her feelings.
Overtime, Inés has learned there are women in other villages that Zapata loves, too. One of them is María Josefa in the nearby Villa de Ayala. During the daytime, Inés finds it easy to cope with this knowledge, since she can distract herself with chores. But at night she finds herself distraught at the idea that Emiliano might be with another woman, and one evening she lifts out of herself and flies over the town, eventually spying Zapata sleeping next to María Josefa, who she now reveals is his true wife. Shocked that María Josefa isn’t what she imagined, Inés flies close and studies her carefully until María Josefa makes a small noise and Emiliano gently—lovingly—pulls her toward him, at which point Inés feels “a terrible grief inside.”
Jealousy and rejection swirl through Inés in this moment as she watches the love of her life give somebody else the attention she wants for herself. Zapata claims he doesn’t sleep well anywhere but in Inés’s bed, but he seems perfectly at ease next to María, sleeping peacefully in a romantic embrace. On the contrary, the only glimpse readers catch of Zapata in Inés’s bed involves no cuddling at all—instead, Emiliano lies separately as Inés watches him.
Inés says that people believe she is the reason María Josefa’s children have all died. Apparently certain neighbors think she cast her jealousy and pain onto the children, who perished before even stopping breastfeeding. “You married her,” Inés, writes, “that woman from Villa de Ayala, true. But see, you came back to me. You always come back. In between and beyond the others. That’s my magic. You come back to me.” Still, she wonders what Emiliano has told María Josefa about her. She imagines her lover saying, “That was before I knew you, Josefa. That chapter of my life with Inés Alfaro is finished.” Nonetheless, she doesn’t allow her confidence to be shaken, saying, “But I’m a story that never ends. Pull one string and the whole cloth unravels.”
Inés’s pride in the fact that Emiliano always “come[s] back” to her mirrors the delight Clemencia takes in being able to lure Drew away from Megan in “Never Marry a Mexican.” In keeping with this kind of loose connection that holds different stories together, Inés evokes the idea of interconnection when she says, “Pull one string and the whole cloth unravels.” In this moment, Cisneros seems to be commenting on the construction of Woman Hollering Creek itself, acknowledging that these stories—and the lives they contain—exist in concert, ultimately depending upon each other despite their differences.
Since the war, Inés explains, she and her children have grown accustomed to sleeping in hills and forests to escape Zapata’s enemies. These enemies even burn her house one night while she’s weak with a fever. Hearing a commotion outside, she puts Malena on her back and sets off toward the hills, hardly able to support herself, let alone her daughter. When she returns in the morning, the village looks completely different, and their house is gone. Apparently, Emiliano’s enemies have razed everything because, in their words, “Even the stones here are Zapatistas.” In response, Inés’s neighbors point their fingers at her, saying it’s her fault the soldiers destroyed the village. “Then I understood how alone I was,” she writes.
That Inés is ultimately punished for her association with Zapata only further emphasizes how unfair and thoughtless it is of him that he won’t fully accept her as his primary lover. Having committed her life to this man, Inés now must shoulder an enormous burden without even benefitting from her lover’s unmitigated emotional support. This is why she comes to the sudden realization that she’s utterly alone as she stands amidst the wreckage, surveying everything she’s lost, which includes not only her worldly possessions, but her reputation, too.
Inés relates another tale of similar hardship, this time drawing from her childhood. When she was a small girl, it’s rumored she “caused a hailstorm that ruined the new corn.” To take revenge, the fellow villagers murdered her Inés's mother, returning her corpse to Inés on her parents’ front door. Shunned, she and her father went to live with her aunt, Tía Chucha, who slowly took on the role of her mother. In fact, Tía Chucha is the one who taught her how to rise into the air and look around at hidden things happening far away. Apparently Chucha’s own mother taught her how to do this, and now Malena is capable of these powers, too, since Inés has taught her.
As a way of counterbalancing the intense disrespect and hardship the women in “Eyes of Zapata” are forced to undergo, Cisneros imbues Inés and her female family members with an otherworldly power. It’s worth considering that this power of sight involves hovering over the village, as if these downtrodden women are literally able to rise above their oppressors, a significant metaphor for resilience in the face of suffering.
As their strange relationship continues, Inés explains to readers, Zapata continues to come and go as he pleases. Eventually he takes their son Nicolás with him, right after the boy loses his first tooth. After leading the boy into battle, though, Zapata quickly brings him back, terrified because Nicolás was captured by the enemy and only narrowly avoided death before Emiliano was able to save him. At this point, Inés’s attention strays from this story, and she decides to accept the idea that she might be a witch; “If I am a witch, then so be it,” she tells herself, resolving to eat only “black things.”
That people think Inés is a witch trivializes her powers, giving them a negative connotation rather than recognizing that she deserves to lift above the town, considering all the hardship she must endure at the hands of a sexist and apathetic man. That she embraces the idea of being a witch—resolving to eat “black things”—is troubling, since it suggests that public perception can negatively influence how a woman sees herself. At the same time, there’s no particular reason to think that Inés sees this new label as a negative influence—indeed, her acceptance of the term “witch” ultimately renders the insult harmless.
As Zapata’s revolutionary successes rapidly decline, Inés tries harder and harder to understand the nature of their love. “Are you my general?” she asks. “Or only my Milianito? I think, I don’t know what you say, you don’t belong to me nor to that woman from Villa de Ayala. You don’t belong to anyone, no? Except the land.” Rising once more above the village into the black night’s sky, she sees her future and her past, sees her mother's violent death, watching as male villagers rape her in a field of flowers until finally her lifeless eyes stare into the sky, her braids taken out, a sombrero perched on her head, and a cigar fixed into her mouth.
When the desecration of her mother’s body comes to Inés, her ability to see into the past and future works against her, bringing back haunting images of the ways in which men disrespect women. If Inés had a true lover—one who devoted himself to her and supported her emotionally—perhaps she could turn to him and seek his help in shaking from her mind such horrid visions, but Emiliano doesn’t “belong” to anyone, thereby remaining closed off to nonsexual intimacies in the same way that a character like Juan Pedro in “Woman Hollering Creek” refuses to open himself up to true emotion.
Looking into the future, Inés sees that Malena has two female twins who will never marry, instead spending their lives selling herbs in Mexico City. She also sees Nicolás as an adult, a man who disgraces the Zapata name by quarrelling with the government because he thinks he deserves a larger portion of land due to his father’s prominent reputation. Returning to the present, Inés looks once again at Emiliano as he sleeps, disappointed because the sun has risen, meaning he’ll soon leave her. She remembers the first time he kissed her, a beautiful moment under her father’s avocado tree. “My sky, my life, my eyes,” Inés writes fragmentarily. “Before you open those eyes of yours. The days to come, the days gone by. Before we go back to what we’ll always be.”
Inés’s last line cuts to the heart of the story’s conflict: that no matter what happens—terrible violence, passionate love, the birth of children—Zapata will always “go back to what” he is, a man unwilling to commit himself to just one woman. Unfortunately, Inés plays her own part in this dynamic, knowing that she too will go back to being Emiliano’s “sometime lover” (as the narrator of “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta” puts it). As such, she will once again resume the role of a passive lover, ignoring her extraordinary powers and the ability to lead an autonomous life, a sacrifice made in the name of a hopeless love.