This story displays letters that have been left on religious altars. Taken together, the letters don’t form a cohesive narrative, though some express similar interests and concerns. For example, several worshippers bring up the financial burdens of immigration and moving away from home, writing phrases such as, “My wife and kids and my in-laws all depend on what I send home,” and, “I would like for you to help me get a job with good pay, benefits, and a retirement plan.” Other letters focus on love and its many difficulties. One woman, for instance, voices her wish that San Antonio de Padua send her a suitable man; “I’ll turn your statue upside down until you send him to me,” she writes. I’ve put up with too much too long, and now I’m just too intelligent, too powerful, too beautiful, too sure of who I am finally to deserve anything less.”
The letters Cisneros includes in this piece illustrate the kind of expectations people have when it comes to religion. Indeed, the worshippers in this story all seem to expect something in return for their own piety, and some even act as if the saints to whom they’re praying owe them something. In these cases, pious respect falls by the wayside as worshippers write phrases like, “I’ll turn your statue upside down until you send [a decent man] to me.” However, Cisneros presents this with a sense of humor, suggesting that human longing is often accompanied by this kind of humorous petulance and that such behavior is only natural.
In the final letter of the story, which is also the longest, a girl writes to the Virgen de Guadalupe and tells her that she has cut her hair off and placed the lock on the altar. Apparently this act has upset her mother, who asks her how she could “ruin in one second what [her] mother took years to create.” Having never cut her hair in her entire life, the girl now feels as if she’s “shed” it “like a snakeskin.” For the past few months, the girl has thought she might be pregnant, but it turns out that she’s only had a thyroid problem, a fact for which she thanks the Virgen. “I don’t want to be a mother,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind being a father. At least a father could still be artist, could love something instead of someone, and no one would call that selfish.”
The girl’s assertion that men can step into parenthood without giving up their entire lives illustrates the sexist misconception running rampant throughout her patriarchal society, a misconception that exempts men from having to fully apply themselves to raising children. Yet again, expectations arise in this story, though this time these expectations are applied to society rather than to the religious world, and this young girl feels the crushing weight of responsibility even before she’s even had children.
The girl who cut her hair explains in her letter that she wants to live alone and that she has had a hard time accepting the Virgen de Guadalupe into her life because she has always been upset about “all the pain” her mother and grandmother and “all [her] mothers’ mothers have put up with in the name of God.” Because of her unwillingness to accept religion, her family has long called her a heretic and atheist, but she has always refused to hide her beliefs. Now, though, she feels believes in religion and feels as if everything makes sense—“during a farmworkers’ strike in California” she realized that “maybe there is power in [her] mother’s patience, strength in [her] grandmother’s endurance. Because those who suffer have a special power […].”
In this moment, the girl frames religious belief as liberating rather than oppressive. For the first time in her life, she realizes that the women in her family have all grappled with the same idea she herself had trouble accepting—that society expects different things of men and women, especially when it comes to parenting. It’s worth keeping in mind that she is writing all of these thoughts to the Virgen de Guadalupe, otherwise known as the Virgin Mary: Jesus’ mother and the ultimate symbol of motherhood. Having birthed Jesus by way of immaculate conception, Mary is the epitome of an independent woman, and the girl comes to understand this upon realizing the harsh expectations that men put on mothers.