Saludos todos! Welcome to this month’s first blog post! Throughout the month of March we will be celebrating Women’s History Month by focusing our attention on wonderful women in history, literature and our every-day lives. More specifically, this month we will feature books about female icons in Latin America, the representation of women in indigenous folklore, and the every-day experiences of female protagonists in works of children’s literature. These books will celebrate the life and role of women in societies across the Americas, and the enduring inspiration of women’s history. Furthermore, with this month’s theme, we aim to diversify our understanding of Women’s History Month by focusing on timeless female icons and heroic activists, but also on the every-day women who have sustained life, love and culture over the years. Women worthy of recognition are all around us and this month we celebrate their infinite contributions.
We are starting the month off with Fiesta Femenina, Celebrating Women in Mexican Folktale, written by Mary-Joan Gerson and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. In this collection, Gerson has compiled a series of Mexican folktales, drawing from Maya, Aztec, Mixtec and Yaqui traditions. The tales have been selected for their strong female protagonists, in an effort to highlight the role of women in Mexican folklore. Gerson explains her intentions in the introduction of the book:
One way in which Mexican stories represent their magical quality of life is through their female characters. Although they do not take the stage as frequently as men, women in Mexican folklore are extremely powerful. They often possess special talents or traits that enable them to rise above the challenges presented to them. These challenges may come in the form of misguided men, powerful sorcerers or even the Devil, himself. But these remarkable women, through their inner strength and creativity, are able to overcome the forces of opposition.
As noted by Kirkus Reviews, this book is a celebration “not only of the strength and complexity of Mexican women, but of the richness, vibrancy, and miraculous qualities of Mexican culture.” From resourceful women and their talking animal friends to suffering goddesses and cunning moon women, these tales emphasize the strength of female characters while celebrating the beauty of Mexican culture.
Kirkus Reviews also comments upon this book’s wonderful illustrations: “The bold, colorful illustrations include borders along the bottom of each story to reflect its theme and full-page pictures of the heroic women in central scenes from each tale.” Gonzalez’s stunning paintings certainly add to the proud commemoration of these women, illustrating them all as large, central figures, full of vibrant color and texture.
Gonzalez is a prolific artist and illustrator for children’s books, many of which touch upon themes of femininity, gender and social justice. We’ve previously featured some of Gonzalez’s books on our blog, such as Call Me Tree/Llámame Árbol, a story with a gender-neutral protagonist, and Prietita and the Ghost Woman, a feminist adaptation of the legend of La Llorona. In Fiesta Feminina, Gonzalez’s illustrations shine through as an additional ode to womanhood. Moreover, her illustrations also add to the overall celebration of Mexican culture by complementing Gerson’s prose with aesthetic flavors—patterns, symbols and color-schemes—of Mexico.
The collection includes a wide variety of legends. In the Mayan tale, Rosha and the Sun, for instance, Rosha helps free the sun who’s been trapped by Rosha’s conniving younger brother. Thanks to Rosha, the sun is free and in return he promises: “your eyes, and the eyes of all the Mayan women, will shine with my golden light forever.” Another story, the story of The Hungry Goddess, tells the tale of how the Hungry Goddess became Mother Earth, and how she continues to persevere, “eating and drinking and creating the earth while we rest in our beds.” Her insatiable appetite symbolizes her tireless determination, necessary for the creation and sustenance of the earth. Furthermore, my personal favorite, Why the Moon is Free, tells the story of how the moon escaped the shackles of marriage with the sun. The sun amorously insisted on making a dress for the moon; when the dress was complete, they would be married. However, the sun could never get the measurements right, since the moon’s body kept changing, waxing and waning from full to crescent and back to full again. Moon is “sometimes slim, often full, and frequently in-between, but always glowing with shimmery silver light.” This tale beautifully emphasizes a woman’s independence, while also celebrating her ever-changing body.
Finally, the collection also includes historical legends of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the venerated symbol of faith and protection, and La Malinche, the brilliant yet controversial aid to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador. While La Malinche’s work interpreting indigenous language and culture was invaluable for Cortés, many view it as a betrayal, that enabled the violent conqueror: “Some people say that Malintzin (La Malinche) fell in love with Cortés, and because she loved him so much, she tried to help him in every way she could. But others say that because she was born a princess and had lost everything, she was clever enough to recognize a chance of gaining back her birthright of power and comfort.” Nonetheless, these character descriptions show the complexity of women, in real-life and in fictional representation. This is an important element to this book’s mission, as women and girls are often oversimplified or objectified in popular media.
While Gerson’s adaptations of Mexican folktales are rooted in the past, focusing on the rich heritage of folklore in Mexico, they also call attention to present-day conditions and the role of women in contemporary Mexico. According to Gerson, the virtues of these legendary women—strength, ambition, ingenuity, courage and kindness—still shine through the lives and work of Mexican women today:
We see it in the strength of the village woman, who rises every day to prepare tortillas, the staple of the family’s diet. We see it in the dedication and intelligence of college graduates and professional women, as more and more women are attaining their degrees and entering the workforce. And most of all, we see it in the collective power of Mexican women, who are forming groups like weaving collectives in Chiapas and Guanajuato, and health centers in Oaxaca, to achieve ever higher standards of life. All over Mexico, women are embracing models and ideals such as the ones in these tales. It seems as if they, like the Hungry Goddess, have a new hunger—to claim their status as the life-giving forces of their Mexican world.
These female characters display the role of women in legend and literature. They embody the values and ongoing contributions of women in Mexican society, and across the globe. To use Gerson’ allusion, this month we are celebrating the virtues of the “hungry goddess,” highlighting the status of women in the world, their ambition and innovation, and honoring their every-day impact.
For those of you interesting in learning more about the contemporary role of women in Mexico, here are some additional links:
- International View Point article on Mexican Women- then and now
- Weaving for Justice information about Women’s weaving collectives and activism groups in Mexico
- Link to weaving collective activist group, Madre, Demanding Rights, Resources and Results for Women Worldwide
- Global Press Journal article, Female Mexican Artisans Use Innovation to Preserve Local Craft, Thrive Financially
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom to teach about women’s rights or Mexican folklore, here are some additional links:
- Learn NC article on The role of Mexican folklore in teaching and learning, includes bibliography of children’s books on Mexican folklore
- Scholastic lesson plan on Women’s Rights (grades 3-5)
Stay tuned for more great books celebrating Women’s History Month and beyond!
Images Modified from Fiesta Femenina, Celebrating Women in Mexican Folktale: pages 27, 33, 43, 61