Melody Nixon


The Value of Maternal Silence and Speech in
Carmen Naranjo’s
Sobrepunto and Luisa Gonzalez’s A ras del suelo


Ursinus College, EE.UU.



Latin American writers, particularly women writers, have often created fictional families as a space in which to explore national and social questions. Ileana Rodríguez’s book House/Garden/Nation looks at several novels by women writers of the Caribbean and Central American region and points out that women’s narratives that debate moments of national formation and transition often do so from the social nucleus of the family, postulating “changes in the ego that simultaneously unveil the indigenous forms of organization and the multiethnic, polyclassist nature of the state of the common social space, and of the feelings and the psyche that accompany it” (1994: 51-2). This article focuses specifically on the roles that mothers play in the families narrated by two Costa Rican women writers as a way to explore shifts in the class system in Costa Rican society at two different historical moments. The first text, Luisa González’s autobiographical A ras del suelo (1970), narrates the author’s experiences from the 1910s to the 1930s, a time when previously disenfranchised popular sectors began to participate actively in political life and to demand better living and working conditions (Araya, 1987: 420-2); while the main action of the second text, the novel Sobrepunto (1985) by Carmen Naranjo, takes place in the late 1960s, twenty years after the 1948 Civil War that established the social democratic state that put into place many of the improved conditions and social guarantees González fought for, particularly for women and working class citizens. However, forty years later, rather than improvement we see in Naranjo’s novel a female protagonist adrift in a society stagnating in apathy and empty rhetoric where women are still limited to certain acceptable roles and the poor are largely ignored. An examination of the roles of the mothers in these texts can give us a deeper understanding of the significance of the dramatic shift in these two portrayals of Costa Rican society. In these novels the mother’s voice or lack thereof in her family is directly correlated to the degree to which class mobility and social change within the Costa Rican body politic is possible. My analysis highlights this correlation in order to illustrate the complicity between patriarchy and a rigid class system, a complicity implied in the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit’s suggestive phrase, “[e]l estatuto de la indigencia materna,” (1990: 17) or “the law of maternal poverty”. This “law” refers to the way in which the maternal body becomes a site where the repressive power structures of patriarchy and the class system intersect, although this intersection marks and molds the bodies of upper- or middle-class and lower-class mothers differently, as will be shown.

From one feminist perspective, motherhood has become an oppressive institution and a space of loss (a kind of “poverty”) under the rule of patriarchy. The dominant western metanarrative of subject formation and individuation, i.e., the Oedipus story, in which the child must leave the mother behind in order to become a successful adult, effectively associates the mother with loss. As Marianne Hirsch points out in her book The Mother/Daughter Plot, even many feminists accepted this pattern as the correct path to liberation, valuing horizontal “sisterhood” over the vertical relationship of mother/daughter, as women began to reject both the traditional gender roles and restrictions that their mothers’ generation experienced and the hierarchy implicit in such a vertical relationship. However, since the late 1970s some U.S. feminist thinkers, like Hirsch, Adrienne Rich, and Sara Ruddick, have become more interested in exploring the potentials of the space of motherhood, instead of viewing it only as a type of domestic prison or institution imposed by patriarchy or the space of loss as the Oedipal plot imagines it. They incorporate many ideas from the French psychoanalytic feminists like Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray who, finding the Oedipal plot insufficient, also rewrite the maternal as a space of female empowerment and imagine new models of female development. Irigaray suggests that women remain under the constraints of patriarchy, basically repeating the lives of their mothers, because verticality among women, or a female genealogy, does not exist (quoted in Hirsch, 1989: 43). Rich also advocates for a stronger connection between generations of women as a way to overcome patriarchy’s restrictions:

“Until a strong line of love, confirmation, and example stretches from mother to daughter, from woman to woman across the generations, women will still be wandering in the wilderness.” (1986: 246)

Thus, following this line of logic, in order for women to successfully challenge patriarchy, the mother must be able to break the silence and repression to which the discourse of Oedipus condemns her and tell her story (or “herstory”) to her children. Her access to language then plays a crucial role in determining her place in the structures of power. Departing from this idea of maternal silence vs. speech, I contrast the two textual representations of mothers/motherhood: what I call the “mother-who-speaks” in González’s A ras del suelo and the absent or silenced mother in Naranjo’s Sobrepunto. My guiding questions are: what happens to the family when the mother can or cannot speak? And how do these representations of the maternal illustrate the overlapping nature of power relations in Costa Rican society, particularly gender and class relations?


A New Hero: The Mother-Who-Speaks

With the construction of the “mother-who-speaks” in her autobiographical novel A ras del suelo, the activist and educator Luisa González (1904-1999) explores the positive possibilities of a maternal figure with presence and voice. Leaving behind the Jocasta-like mother doomed to silence and isolation, González creates literally “out-spoken” maternal figures who are positive role models and educators who actively teach their children about the oppressive realities of class hierarchies and the social power structure. She rewrites the Oedipal plot to make the maternal figure the center of the child’s narrative of development, rather than the father. This shift away from the paternal as the center of development reflects a questioning of gender and class hierarchies, showing the mother as a force with the potential to disrupt the status quo. Yet despite the power with which González invests these mothers, she rejects the archetypes of the devouring matriarch and the phallic mother, refusing to depict maternal power as inherently destructive or malevolent, or as merely appropriating the attributes of patriarchal authority. The maternal manifests here as a contestatory and oppositional force but goes beyond mere reaction to create and construct alternative social models that reject the traditional hierarchies, as Seidy Araya argues (1987: 424). Motherhood then loses the pejorative connotations of “reproduction” that patriarchal western thought has assigned to it as an activity inferior to “creativity.”

Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi’s analysis of the mythical archetypes of motherhood points out that the epic of the hero necessarily excludes the experience of motherhood, as the hero must leave behind all ties that bind him in order to embark on his quest or journey, while motherhood signifies one of the most intimate ties and connections to another human being we can imagine. The hero inherently seeks his individuality, to define and distinguish himself, while the mother literally does not exist without another being, her child. I read González’s text as attempting to cast motherhood in a “heroic” mold in an “epic” of a different sort: the development of a progressive sociopolitical consciousness in Costa Rica that embraces rather than stratifies.

We can see the heroic nature of such a mother in A ras del suelo in its depiction of the narrator/author’s mother and aunts. In this narrative of her experiences growing up in a poor working class family in urban Costa Rica in the 1910s and '20s, we read Luisa’s process of moving beyond “a ras del suelo”: getting a good education and a job as a teacher, being able to take her family out of the misery of the working class slums where she grew up to enter the material comfort of the middle class neighborhoods, finding her political voice as a member of the Communist Party, and becoming involved in publishing and movements for social justice. González constructs her mother and aunts as her role models and the ones largely responsible for her success in life. Describing her reactions to reading the classics of western mythology in school, Luisa finds herself unable to relate to or sympathize with its heroes, instead saying that her mother and aunts were her heroes and examples. As a token of her deep gratitude and admiration, the author dedicates the book to her mother as well as to the Communist Party.

We can also see the shift from the paternal to the maternal as the center of the child’s development narrative quite clearly, as González portrays the adult women of her family as its backbone, illustrated in the fact that neighbors identify them collectively as “las Gutiérrez” (1988: 15), using the feminine pronoun and her mother’s family name, rather than the usual patriarchal identification, “los González.” The author credits these strong women with instilling their values, morality, and practical wisdom in the children of the family, while the fathers are somewhat insignificant figures: disciplinarians and financial contributors, often insensitive or cruel, who make little impact on their children’s daily lives. Seidy Araya explains that

“[e]n las grandes familias populares de los barrios bajos, las matronas –la madre, la abuela y las tías– tienen voz y voto en la vida del clan y toman decisiones fundamentales. Los hombres, los esposos o compañeros, se integran, generalmente, al seno de estas familias y allí crecen los niños, casi como hijos de todas las mujeres, indistintamente. Se ejerce casi una suerte de derecho materno.” (426-27)

This more “matriarchal” model characteristic of large urban poor families subverts the patriarchal model of the family held up as the ideal by the ruling classes, in which mothers are restricted to domestic and reproductive duties. Throughout the text Luisa gives many examples of how the dominant bourgeois ideals of “hogar, dulce hogar” (1988: 18) that she learns in school conflict with her working class realities.

However, the greater importance of the mother does not translate into some sort of domestic utopia. Luisa refers to her childhood home as “la casa de la plancha” (1988: 15), identified by the instrument of labor used by the family’s women and undeniable symbol of their poverty, since families like Luisa’s do not have the luxury of separating home from the public space of labor and the market as do middle and upper class families. For Luisa the home is a place where labor occurs, “un gran taller” (1988: 16) with no privacy or personal space, and by age 13 comes to feel stifled and trapped in this environment. She admires her mother and aunts for their hard work and strength but decries the poverty that forces these women to convert their home into their workplace. Luisa’s mother was also determined to see her intelligent and sensitive daughter live a better life, or as she phrased this desire, “No quiero que mi hija sea otra mula de carga” (1988: 67). She worked hard to pay for her daughter’s schooling despite other family members’ objections, because she recognized the value of an education that would allow Luisa to escape the life of full-time drudgery she herself had known as a poor working-class woman. When Luisa starts classes at the teacher-training school, it is her mother who proudly helps her hang the school’s flag in their house, giving the house another symbol that stands in contrast to the iron.

Despite their difficult lives in neighborhoods filled with misery and vice, her mother and aunts manage to teach their children their core values of solidarity and integrity, which in part inspire Luisa to commit her life to the struggle to improve the lives of the working classes. Their attitudes toward the neighborhood prostitutes serve as a good example of the values they hold. Although they fear associating too closely with the prostitutes who are seen as social pariahs and sinners, Luisa sees that her mother and aunts have a secret sympathy for them and some even defend them when men make crude jokes about them, because they recognize the male hypocrisy of using them for sex on the sly, then insulting and mocking them publicly. At one point the family had to decide whether or not to sell their services and wares to the prostitutes, and they decided to do so, because they judged that money from rich “decent” people is just as tainted as money from “putas.” Solidarity of gender and class wins out over the dominant bourgeois morality in the end.

By privileging this alternative model of the family González’s narrative thus constructs these working-class “matriarchs” as making political change possible. As Araya describes,

“las mujeres trabajadoras ..., fuertes y ennoblecidas por el trabajo artesanal y el rol de madres, cabezas de familia, constituyen las bases del cambio social. Promueven el ascenso de sus grupos por medio de la educación y presentan proyectos alternativos de organización político-económica, de carácter socialista” (1987: 434).

As a product of an environment of strong maternal figures who impart their values to her and support her ambitions, Luisa rejects the political, economic, and social structures that kept her family and so many others “a ras del suelo,” poor, uneducated, and marginalized from political processes, and eventually comes to embrace a socialist vision of Costa Rica, which includes the popular sectors as active citizens and contributors to the nation. In her final chapter Luisa says that she joined the Communist Party because it was the only group that could explain the answers to her questions sensibly and because she saw it as the culmination of her utopian dreams and her desire to stay and fight for her class.

Luisa finds another mother-who-speaks in her mentor, the teacher/writer/political activist Carmen Lyra, with whom she started Costa Rica’s first Montessori school. She describes Lyra’s work and beliefs, so influential on her own, with the highest admiration and respect, emphasizing Lyra’s eventual rejection of the idealistic belief that “culture” can improve the lives of poor people and her subsequent embracing of Marxist ideology as the answer to Costa Rica’s problems.

It is significant that González published this book, which describes the optimism and growth of Costa Rica’s popular movements of the 1930s, during a time of great political disillusionment with the social democratic government and the deterioration of popular organizations. Araya explains that from 1948 to 1975 many leftist organizations were banned, including the Communist Party, and thus, “[e]l texto de González cumple, en 1970, una labor de apoyo a la transformación del clima hostil a la legalización de las actividades políticas de la izquierda” (1987: 423). In such a political context then, this narrative attempts to reinsert the socialist alternative into a national political spectrum that excluded the left and the popular sectors it represents. It is also in this narrowed political spectrum that Naranjo’s novel appears,1 a novel of marked pessimism and disillusionment with the national political and social climate post-1948.


Mourning Jocasta: The Absent/Silenced Mother

If González’s text shows the positive social impact that mothers can make by resisting the repression of the Oedipal plot and claiming their voices within the family, then Naranjo’s novel shows the negative impacts on the family and the society when the mother figure is absent and unable to give love or to pass on her knowledge and memories. In the absence of a “female genealogy” the consequences for the daughter are particularly devastating. An article by Barbara Dröscher called my attention to the fact that a significant number of novels by Central American women writers since the 1960s feature a heroine who is somehow motherless and painfully aware of this loss, among them Naranjo’s Sobrepunto. I propose that this insistence on the missing mother in part is a reaction to the dominance of the Oedipal plot and the “law of maternal poverty” it institutes. Naranjo and other women writers of her generation mourn the lost mother by exploring the negative effects of the lost, silenced, or dead mother on her family and children, such as feelings of incompleteness, lack of self-confidence, and emotional blocks and frustration. These feelings often push the child, especially daughters, to search for the lost mother or to seek a substitute maternal figure that can give them the love, support, and guidance they need. Marianne Hirsch argues that many 19th- and 20th-century European and North American women novelists attempted to rewrite the Oedipal plot by having the heroine replace the absent mother with a fraternal attachment, a brother or a lover/husband who is also a friend or in Rich’s words “the-man-who-would-understand” (1986: 43). Sobrepunto follows this pattern, and as will be seen, this quest for the “brother” fails to provide the heroine with the nurturance and access to greater power that she seeks. Hirsch’s psychoanalytic approach to “mother/daughter plots” in western literature sheds an interesting and useful light on Sobrepunto and the other novels with orphaned heroines that Dröscher analyzes, but like Dröscher, I believe that these writers are also returning to and rewriting a particularly Latin American mother/daughter plot, the story of la Malinche: the story of the daughter/mother who is eternally betrayed and betrays. As a daughter sold into slavery by her own parents, she elicits sympathy, yet as a mother she is reviled as a traitor and a source of shame for her children. The daughter and mother in Sobrepunto face these central issues of betrayal and love, attachment and separation, guilt and shame, in their relationship with each other across the chasm of maternal silence. I read this fraught relationship not only as commentary on the mother-daughter connection and women’s roles but also on Costa Rica’s self-image(s) and the relationships of power that structure the society, as the lack of a “female genealogy” in this fictional family contributes to the maintenance of an oppressive status quo, stemming from a lack of social consciousness in the motherless daughter.

Sobrepunto depicts the negative consequences of the absent mother through its telling of the story of the protagonist Olga, a woman raised by her wealthy paternal grandparents because they deemed her poor, alcoholic, prostitute mother Celina as unfit. Although her grandparents provide her with all the material and social advantages their high-class status affords them, Olga grows up without love or family closeness and is forbidden from ever knowing her mother for whom she searches unsuccessfully at one point in her adult life. She is also plagued by the rumor that her grandparents “bought” her from her mother for a certain sum of money, like la Malinche. As a result, she seeks to fill this emotional void everywhere, particularly with men in her life, but fails in her search, eventually succumbing to drug addiction and suicidal depressions. Ironically, Olga suffers because she has no mother, but also because of who her mother was. As a motherless child Olga suffers from feelings of abandonment and incompleteness, and as the daughter of a social pariah she never wins the full acceptance of her clannish, elite social circle. Even her grandparents plague her with the belief that she will turn out like her mother, “una mala mujer ... una viciosa incurable” (1985: 105). The failed search for the missing and denigrated mother in this case contributes to the daughter’s inability to create a healthy and complete identity for herself and to her eventual tragic death, as she is caught in the web of all the ready-made identities society had prepared for her.2

On one level we can read this failed family as a critical commentary on Costa Rica’s failed national project of social democracy. Like many of Naranjo's other narratives, Sobrepunto reflects the growing disenchantment among progressive Costa Rican intellectuals with the increasingly bureaucratic and ineffective social democratic government established after the Civil War of 1948 and the materialistic, bourgeois society this government fomented. Barbara Dröscher argues that orphanhood is a trope for the change in the traditional structure of the family, related to modernization, which began transforming Central American societies in the 1950s. The traditional mother-daughter relationship is broken, and the mother loses control over the daughter as new spaces, previously only open to men, open to women. The separation from the mother then represents a rupture in the traditional role of women and becomes a condition for the new role that the daughter plays in Central American history. However, Dröscher points out that there is no happy ending for the orphaned daughter in these narratives, symbolizing the failure of the national project of modernization in Central America. Olga’s death shows from a woman’s perspective the limits of a late development project in the periphery and indicates the crisis of a nation that doesn’t fully respond to women’s demands for self-determination and autonomy (Dröscher, 1999: 195). Although women gain greater freedoms with modernization (for example, Olga works outside the home and is sexually liberated), they are ultimately unable to participate in a fully satisfying way in society and suffer criticism and ostracism when they depart from societal expectations. Olga complains about the materialism and prejudices of San José’s ruling class and cannot fully conform to these beliefs and expectations because she knows there must be something more to life beyond these narrow confines, but her desire for transcendence only makes her a target in a hostile environment. As the narrator says to her,

“Tu trascendencia de mujer en esta ciudad no llegará más lejos de ser un blanco, un lucido y vistoso blanco en que se descargará la pasión de un aburrimiento (porque no hay nada que produzca más pasión que el aburrimiento y estamos en el centro de la gente aburrida o aburriéndose ...).” (1985: 29)

In addition to Dröscher’s analysis of orphanhood as portraying the moment of collision between modernity and tradition and the consequent ruptures and irritations this collision meant for women, I would also argue that the loss of the mother in this narrative can be read as the ruling class’s exclusion of “undesirable” elements from their imagined nation. Olga’s grandparents adopted Olga because after her husband’s death Celina became desperately poor and had turned to prostitution to support herself and her young daughter. She also fell victim to alcoholism. But rather than including their daughter-in-law as part of their family and trying to help her, the grandparents chose to exclude Celina and take her daughter away from her forever. The focus on the image of Celina’s degraded body, which eventually disappears from the text, reveals the overlapping social forces of patriarchal rule and a repressive class system. It is also significant that only the narrator, Olga’s longtime friend despite his lower social class, interacts with Celina in the text, never Olga or the grandparents. She exists outside of their social sphere. The narrator finds Celina years later, unbeknownst to Olga, under the pretext of a census interview, and begins to meet with her in a rundown bar. With a “mirada triste” and hands that tremble as she drinks, Celina describes her sense of her own deterioration and defeat to him in the following manner:

“Pasan los años y cada día se va pareciendo una más y más a los trastos de la cocina, desvencijados, gastados, enseñando las huellas del uso, inútiles casi ... mis gustos empezaron por las rosas, me encantaban, sobre todo las blancas, y ahora cambiaría las más lindas por una copa de brandy.” (1985: 52)

The last time the narrator sees Celina, in her final appearance in the text, he emphasizes her deteriorating body:

“Y su madre tiene las manos tan cansadas que las deja caer a lo largo de su cuerpo y allí pesan con una fuerza que le inclina su cuerpo … Mientras hablo veo su rostro ajado, el negro falso de su pelo, la flaccidez que le corre como un nervio por los antebrazos, las piernas, las caderas. Su cuerpo expuesto sin piedad a la salmuera del tiempo.” (1985: 61-62)

Naranjo presents Celina as the victim of a poverty that grinds her down and a rigid class hierarchy that oppresses her specifically as a mother. The narrator observes that “[l]a maternidad se roba como cualquier otra cosa” (1985: 46), and refers to her maternity as “maltratada” (1985: 49). Celina’s motherhood can be stolen and abused because she is poor and because the upper class values the continuance of the father’s lineage over the mother’s rights.

Olga’s grandparents could not accept as a member of their family someone as poor and abject as Celina, and later when Olga fell into drug addiction and her endless affairs they disowned her as well, abandoning her to self-destruction, saying that she had turned out just like her mother. In the same way that Olga’s grandparents disassociate themselves from Celina, her poverty, and her shameful problems, the ruling classes of Costa Rica distance themselves from the poor and the “unpleasant” circumstances that create and sustain poverty. The narrator, a disillusioned ex-politician, points to this distancing in his stinging criticism of Costa Rican politics:

“… siempre había sacrificados, siempre había patriotas, siempre hombres honrados, siempre servidores de la colectividad, palabra con la que se ocultaban las mil caras y se dibujaban casas, calles, cañerías, electrificación, escuelas, obras que se volvían pretexto para no encontrar el llanto desnudo de unos ojos tristes y envejecidos en el puro afán de asir una mañana con olor de sopa caliente ...” (1985: 68)

Neither Olga's grandparents nor Costa Rican politicians want to see, much less understand, the face of poverty and try to cover it up with “good works” and cheap rhetoric. Olga’s grandparents adopt her and give her all manner of material advantages but ignore her ever-present emotional poverty: the luxurious house, exquisite education, and beautiful clothes never satisfy her desire for the simple warmth and nurturing that she lacked, “la sopa caliente.” Naranjo’s imagery in this passage reveals the opposition between body and civilization constructed by a ruling class clearly uncomfortable with poverty’s raw physicality: “llanto desnudo,” “ojos tristes y envejecidos.” They reject the abject bodies of Celina and the nation’s poor, which would “pollute” their ideal of a “civilized” collective.

The consequences of such a willful blindness and callousness are that Olga’s existence too is eventually obliterated and the status quo is maintained at the end of the novel: the “law of maternal poverty” is upheld, and the ruling class’s hegemony remains unchallenged. Forbidden to know her mother’s story in her own words, Olga has only her grandparents’ version of Celina’s life, which strips her of all dignity and respect. In such a version of a poor mother’s life, the prostitution and alcoholism born of utter necessity and despair become undeniable signs of a grave moral defect. In fact, Olga has only her grandparents’ (and their class’s) version of life in general and finds it severely lacking in integrity, authenticity, and satisfying life paths for women, but she fails to find a viable alternate “narrative.” Unable to conform completely to her class’s expectations for its women yet cut off from other possibilities beyond her limited classist milieu, Olga looked to sexual relationships with men and substance abuse for fulfillment, like her estranged mother, and met the same fate as her mother: social ostracism and abandonment in her hour of need.

Ironically Olga ended up repeating the only narrative that she had heard about her mother's life, despite her grandparents’ efforts to prevent this from happening. The narrator, perhaps the only person in the novel who truly loves her and never abandons her, leaves us with the sense that her life could have been so much more, but the “city” swallowed her up, just as it swallowed her mother. Compare the description of Celina’s erasure from the text, “Desapareció como desaparecen tantas personas en la pequeñez de esta ciudad,” (1985: 60), with the novel’s final elegiac sentences that describe Olga's disappearance:

“Y llegamos corriendo hasta las primeras esquinas de la ciudad, … pero ella suelta mi mano y rápida como un parpadeo se pierde en una calle desconocida por donde mi voz, mi grito y mi lamento no la alcanzan.” (1985: 206)

Ultimately Celina’s marginalization from her husband’s family and separation from her daughter lead to the continuation of the cycle of hopelessness and self-destructive behavior in her daughter's life. Like la Malinche, Olga, once betrayed by her mother, also becomes the mother who betrays, when she takes her life, leaving her own children behind to be raised by her materialistic ex-husband and grandmother, who we can imagine will continue to uphold their patriarchal, classist values and perpetuate the myth of the traitorous mother, now Olga instead of Celina. The Oedipal plot’s erasure of the mother and the myth of la Malinche triumph in this narrative, but with the purpose of revealing not only the profound wounds that such plots inflict on mothers and daughters but also the deep schism between rich and poor in modern Costa Rican society.

This text shows the harmful effects of the mother’s loss or silence on the family, in particular the daughter, thus responding to the negative models of motherhood provided by the dominant Oedipal and Malinche narratives and emphasizing the vital roles that a mother plays in the healthy formation of her child’s self-image. Naranjo’s questioning of the mother’s “poverty” or status as a “second-class” citizen without voice or agency also questions the hierarchies that structure the Costa Rican class system. The text makes the maternal body a site of overlapping oppressions to bring out the connections between maternal voicelessness under patriarchy and the disenfranchisement of the underclasses of Costa Rican society. The repression of the maternal voice or the lack of a “female genealogy” contributes to the maintenance of an oppressive status quo, because this lack of maternal history/narrative creates daughters with large gaps in their social awareness. Celina’s surrender of Olga to her wealthy in-laws and subsequent absence scar Olga irremediably and contribute to her eventual self-destruction. The cycle of maternal poverty continues, as Olga plays out the role that was pre-scripted for her, and the potential challenge to class and gender norms that Olga represented is effectively put down.

Forty years earlier in a more politically open climate, the mothers-who-speak in González’s text are role models, educators, mentors, and heroes, who refuse to play the roles of Jocasta or la Malinche. They speak out against social injustice and actively teach their children the value of human solidarity. Such constructions redeem the mother as a positive and central force in her children’s lives and consequently as a molder of Costa Rican communities, laying the bases for the development of a more compassionate and egalitarian sociopolitical consciousness. These mothers help their daughter to be an active member of a community. Conversely, the daughter of the silenced mother, Olga, is cast adrift in her society, without an authentic sense of where she belongs or how she fits into it. Another important contrast to point out is that González’s mothers-who-speak are of the lower class, while Celina, Naranjo’s silenced mother, was, at least while she was married, associated with the upper classes. The class difference allows the lower class mothers greater freedom to depart from traditional bourgeois gender roles that make the father the bearer of civic and social responsibility and the leader in public spaces and matters, whereas the upper class mother becomes the victim of patriarchal, repressive structures of power because she has these traditional gender roles fastened more heavily and restrictively on her. By constructing the positive maternal figures as members of an underprivileged group, González’s text defies the law of maternal poverty and includes this group in her construction or vision of community. The text shows how groups historically marginalized from constructions of nation in Costa Rica contribute to the building of a community that provides an alternative model to the hegemonic visions or projects of nation.

On the other hand, Sobrepunto, a narrative emerging from the exploration of maternal silence, also offers insights on the topic of community. The dysfunctional and devastated family of Sobrepunto reflects the effects of the marginalization and oppression experienced by underprivileged groups, in this case the poor and women in general, to the detriment of the national “family”. Patricia Rubio identifies the importance of the family as a key theme in many of Naranjo’s works, including Sobrepunto, which stress

“the notion that a strong family structure is fundamental for healthy individual and social development. The sense of community, experienced first in the family setting, is central to the child’s development of a strong self, and of his or her sense of loyalty and responsibility for the group” (1995: 203).

Thus, Naranjo emphasizes the importance of the maternal figure in the formation of a positive self-image for her children as a way to emphasize the importance of the “maternal” (i.e., connections to the past, the importance of community, and the values of love, acceptance, and nurturing) in the formation of a healthy society in Costa Rica. Ultimately both texts suggest that through a revindication or recovery of this lost “maternal” voice Costa Rica could become a more egalitarian and compassionate society, one based on notions of community rather than hierarchies.

© Melody Nixon

Works Cited


Araya S., Seidy, 1987: “La enajenación social de la mujer en A ras del suelo, de Luisa González,” en: Revista Iberoamericana, 53, 138-139: 419-434.

Dröscher, Barbara, 1999: “No tienen madres: Deseo, traición y desaparición en la literatura centroamericana escrita por mujeres”, en: Preble-Niemi, Oralia (ed.), 1999: Afrodita en el trópico: Erotismo y construcción del sujeto femenino en obras de autoras centroamericanas. Potomac, MD: Scripta Humanistica, 183-195.

Eltit, Diamela, 1990: “Las aristas del Congreso”, en: Berenguer, Carmen, et al. (eds.), 1990: Escribir en los bordes: Congreso Internacional de Literatura Femenina Latinoamericana: 1987. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Cuarto Propio, 17-19.

Flores, Angel, 1992: Spanish American Authors: The Twentieth Century. New York: H. W. Wilson.

Gómez Lara, Rubén L, 1999: “Narciso versus Eros en Sobrepunto de Carmen Naranjo”, en: Preble-Niemi, Oralia (ed.), 1999: Afrodita en el trópico: Erotismo y construcción del sujeto femenino en obras de autoras centroamericanas. Potomac, MD: Scripta Humanistica, 91-109.

González, Luisa, 1988: A ras del suelo. San José: Editorial Costa Rica.

Hirsch, Marianne, 1989: The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Naranjo, Carmen, 1985: Sobrepunto. San José: EDUCA.

Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen, 1988: Motherself: A Mythic Analysis of Motherhood. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Rich, Adrienne, 1986: Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Rodríguez, Ileana, 1994: House/Garden/Nation: Space, Gender, and Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Latin American Literatures by Women. Durham: Duke UP.

Rubio, Patricia, 1995: “Carmen Naranjo: From Poet to Minister”, en: Agosín, Marjorie (ed.), 1995: A Dream of Light and Shadow: Portraits of Latin American Women Writers. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 195-206.



vuelve 1. Naranjo wrote the manuscript in the late 1960s but did not publish it until 1985 due to difficulties in publishing in Costa Rica (Flores, 1992: 580).

vuelve 2. An article by Rubén L. Gómez Lara argues that Olga’s suicide is not tragic because she dies in the noble struggle to define herself in a hostile society, but I cannot read such a failure to achieve a fully satisfying humanity as heroic or uplifting. In such an analysis we can see the academy’s tendency to read narratives as “epic” struggles and tales of heroism, imposing the male archetype of the hero on women’s stories, when one of the main points of this narrative is to show how women in such a society are not allowed to be heroes and individuals.


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