As soon as Don Serafín gives Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez permission to marry his daughter Cleófilas and take her from Mexico to the United States, he predicts the marriage will fail and that Cleófilas will soon return to him. As the two young lovers depart, he looks at his daughter and says, “I am your father, I will never abandon you,” but Cleófilas is too wrapped up in the exciting moment to pay attention to these important words. It’s only later, when she’s living in the United States as a neglected mother that she remembers Don Serafin’s parting sentence. As she and her son Juan Pedrito sit by a river called Woman Hollering Creek, she thinks about love, about “how when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes that love sours. But a parent’s love for a child, a child’s for its parents, is another thing entirely.”
Many stories in Woman Hollering Creek examine romantic love and lust, but Cleófilas’s tale also studies the nature of familial love. In this piece, Cisneros frames parental love in terms of loyalty, suggesting that it never “sours” and that it’s undying. The beginning of Cleófilas’s story hints at trouble to come without articulating the nature of this trouble; for now, Cisneros goes out of her way to establish that a parent’s relationship with his or her child is one of unmitigated support and companionship.
Cleófilas is used to a slow life in Mexico, a life comprised of long afternoons spent going to the cinema to watch that week’s film, walking to get a milk shake, or watching the most recent telenovela episode with friends. For her entire life, she has been waiting for passion, but only the kind of passion that is “in its purest crystalline essence.” She thinks often about the title of her favorite telenovela, “Tú o Nadie”—“You or No One.” She adores the star of this show, as well as the title itself; “Somehow one ought to live one’s life like that, don’t you think?” she muses to herself. “You or no one. Because to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end.”
Cleófilas’s desire to lead a passionate love life is understandable, since most people yearn for intense romantic experiences. At the same time, though, it’s not hard to see that a love that brings on “suffer[ing]” and “pain” is highly volatile. Indeed, this kind of love stands in stark contrast to the steady and loyal love Don Serafin harbors for his daughter, and so Cleófilas’s thirst for passion further hints at the fact that there is trouble to come. Not only is she now venturing away from the safety of familial love, but she’s also physically removed from her home environment, thereby estranged from the familiar, putting her in an even more vulnerable position.
Living in Seguin, Texas, Cleófilas wants to know how Woman Hollering Creek—which runs behind her house—got its name. Unfortunately, though, nobody seems to know, and when she asks a Laundromat attendant, the woman only says, “What do you want to know for?” She says this in rough, rude Spanish—the same kind she uses to yell at Cleófilas for using too much soap in the machines or for letting Juan Pedrito run around without a diaper in public. Since this woman is clearly uninterested in establishing a friendship, Cleófilas turns her attention to the women who live on either of her house. On the left lives Soledad, who is a widow (though nobody knows how her husband died). On the right lives Dolores, an old woman who burns altars and pines over her dead sons and husband.
The Laundromat attendant’s rudeness demonstrates to readers just how alone Cleófilas is in the US. Not only is she far away from her loving father, but she’s also in a place where people are unwilling to answer even the simplest of questions. Criticizing her mothering techniques, the Laundromat attendant seems to resent Cleófilas for being an immigrant, turning away from her instead of welcoming her into the country. Worse, Cleófilas is seemingly surrounded by lonely women, as Soledad and Dolores remain cooped up in their houses thinking about the men who have—in one way or another—abandoned them. As such, alienation (both cultural and relational) exists all around her.
The first time Juan Pedro hits her, Cleófilas doesn’t even try to defend herself. Although she’s always vowed to herself that she’d hit back if a man ever laid his hands on her, she just stands there as her lip bleeds. Later, she strokes Juan Pedro’s “dark curls” as he weeps “tears of repentance and shame.”
That Cleófilas must console Juan Pedro after he hits her—and not the other way around—is indicative of how much men expect of woman in a patriarchal society. Not only does Juan Pedro expect his wife to endure his violence and misogyny, he also expects her to provide him emotional support when he feels guilty for mistreating her. This of course leaves no room in their relationship for her to express her grievances, and so she finds herself in a toxic marriage that only benefits Juan Pedro.
Juan Pedro frequents the local ice house, where a group of men hang around drinking and joking. Sometimes Cleófilas comes along, sitting quietly and slowly sipping her beer as the men make disgusting jokes. She gets the sense that these men drink because “they want to tell each other what they want to tell themselves,” but this proves more difficult than they’d like to imagine. After these nights, Juan Pedro often hits Cleófilas, his “fists try[ing] to speak.” When Cleófilas wakes in the morning and watches her husband sleep, or after they’ve made love, or when they’re sitting quietly at the dinner table, she often thinks, “This is the man I have waited my whole life for.”
Cisneros scrutinizes the toxic qualities of machismo, especially in terms of how men turn away from healthy communication and instead gravitate toward violence and alcohol. Indeed, Juan Pedro appears unable to articulate his emotions, which is why he tries to “speak” with his “fists,” a cowardly attempt to express himself and acknowledge the fact that he has feelings. Observing this husband of hers—who is so afraid and incapable of showing true emotion—Cleófilas tries to reckon with the idea that he is the man she has “waited” her “whole life for,” a notion that seems less and less genuine the more she gets to know him.
Despite Cleófilas’s sorrow, there are moments of happiness, like when she comes home from the hospital after giving birth to Juan Pedrito and takes delight in the comfort of her house. Still, she thinks about her father’s house, wondering if she can ever summon the courage to return—she considers what the neighbors would say if she came back “with one baby on her hip and one in the oven” (a statement revealing that she’s pregnant once again). Confused, they’d ask, “Where’s your husband?” Indeed, she dreads the gossip that would swirl through the town.
Cleófilas’s fear of gossip recalls Abuelita’s mentality regarding Ixchel’s pregnancy in “One Holy Night.” By spotlighting how women must contend with criticism in the public eye, Cisneros reveals the undue pressure women must face regarding arbitrary notions of what’s deemed acceptable; while nobody would question why a man doesn’t have a wife, people are seemingly deeply disturbed by the idea that a woman can exist and raise children on her own.
While Cleófilas does the dishes one afternoon, she hears one of Juan Pedro’s friends say that what she needs is to be taken sexually from behind. The men laugh in response, and she merely mutters “Grosero” under her breath. This same man, she knows, is rumored to have killed his wife at the ice house when one day when the woman attacked him with a mop. “I had to shoot,” Cleófilas has heard him say to the laughter of his friends, “she was armed.” Juan Pedro tells her that she overreacts to comments like these, but she can’t escape the feeling that these stories proliferate throughout the community, as newspapers constantly report similar instances of women found dead and “beaten blue” on the roadside.
It’s clear that Cleófilas is living amidst a culture of abuse, one in which violence against woman has been normalized. In fact, spousal violence has become such an ordinary thing that men find themselves joking about legitimate murder, fraternizing without guilt with genuine killers. It’s no wonder, then, that Cleófilas feels trapped in a helpless relationship—after all, who will pay attention to her complaints when such intense violence is an everyday phenomenon?
When Juan Pedro’s out of the house, Cleófilas goes to the window and watches the telenovelas playing in Soledad’s house. She thinks about how she used to expect that her love life would be like the ones she sees played out onscreen, which are passionate and perfect—at the same time, though, she notes that even the telenovelas seem to have taken on new solemnity, and each episode gets sadder and sadder. Pondering this phenomenon by Woman Hollering Creek one night, she wonders what she would change her name to if she ran away from Juan Pedro.
At this point in her life, Cleófilas turns to telenovelas to find an escape from her violent marriage. She also does so as a way of reconnecting with her Mexican identity, since telenovelas are popular in Mexico. In this small way, then, she’s able to regain part of who she was before moving to Texas and cutting herself off from everything familiar to her.
Cleófilas insists to Juan Pedro that she has to go to the doctor’s to “make sure the new baby is all right.” As she begs him to take her, he makes her promise that she won’t mention anything about how he treats her, telling her to say that she fell down the stairs if the doctor asks about her appearance. She also suggests to Juan Pedro that they write to her father asking for a loan to cover the upcoming pregnancy-related expenses, but Juan Pedro rejects this idea. Still, he agrees to drive her to the doctor’s the following Tuesday.
Once again, Juan Pedro’s machismo attitude brings itself to bear on Cleófilas’s life when he refuses to let her ask for a loan from her father. In this moment, he indulges a foolish sense of pride, believing that to ask for help is to show weakness. This fear of weakness is recognizable in other facets of his personality and is responsible for his inability to open himself up to emotion. Indeed, it’s clear Juan Pedro has a narrow conception of what it means to be a man, a vision of masculinity predicated on independence and pride regardless of the circumstances.
When Cleófilas goes to the doctor’s office, a nurse named Graciela steps out of the room and makes a call to her friend—another nurse—named Felice. “This poor lady’s got black-and-blue marks all over,” she whispers into the phone. Graciela asks Felice if she can help, asking her to drive Cleófilas and Juan Pedrito to the Greyhound station San Antonio so they can board a bus bound for Mexico. “If we don’t help her, who will?” she says. Felice agrees to meet Cleófilas the following Thursday in the parking lot of a Cash N Carry. “Thanks Felice,” says Graciela. “When her kid’s born she’ll have to name her after us, right?” In response, Felice says, “Yeah, you got it. A regular soap opera sometimes.”
When Felice jokingly refers to Cleófilas’s situation as a soap opera, readers realize that Cleófilas has finally obtained the dramatic passion she once wanted so badly, since her current situation is one that could easily be shown on TV for entertainment. In real life, though this passion has led to nothing but sorrow, and Cleófilas’s love for Juan Pedro has “sour[ed].” Passion, then, emerges as a volatile and dangerous kind of love, one that is inferior to the stability of familial love.
When Felice arrives at the Cash N Carry on Thursday, Cleófilas is surprised that she’s driving a large pickup truck. On their way to the bus station, they drive over Woman Hollering Creek, and Felice lets out a loud yell that scares both Cleófilas and Juan Pedrito. “I scared you two, right?” she says, laughing. “Sorry. Should’ve warned you. Every time I cross that bridge I do that. Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues, I holler.” Going on with her laughter, she points out that nothing else in the area is named after a woman, unless it’s named after the Virgin Mary. “I guess you’re only famous if you’re a virgin,” she jokes. In any case, she explains that this is why she likes the name Woman Hollering Creek. “Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, right?”
Felice’s bold attitude and care-free way of talking embodies the kind of agency and power Cleófilas so desperately needs in her own life. Her celebration of Woman Hollering Creek is a welcome sentiment in a story so mired in misogyny and toxic machismo. For the first time, Cleófilas is given a reason—and the permission—to believe in and sing the praises of female independence.
Cleófilas is astonished and impressed by Felice’s behavior. She asks if the pickup truck belongs to Felice’s husband, and Felice says she doesn’t have a husband. She explains that she picked out the truck and bought it with her own money. “I used to have a Pontiac Sunbird,” she says. “But those cars are for viejas. Pussy cars. Now this here is a real car.” Cleófilas wonders what kind of woman could ever talk like this, but then realizes Felice isn’t like any woman she’s ever met. And as Felice starts laughing once more, her voice starts “gurgling out of her” throat, “a long ribbon of laughter, like water.”
Until this point in the story, Cleófilas has only ever heard foul language issue forth from the mouths of ice-house misogynists talking about assaulting women. Now, though, she listens as Felice—a woman who needs no husband and who makes her own decisions—reclaims this kind of sexist vulgarity, weaponizing the word “pussy” and using it to her own advantage as a way of reinforcing her choice to buy a car most people would think only a man would buy.