Review: Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story

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Ruth Behar’s book titled, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story, is a vividly-written text that explores the life of a Mexican woman named Esperanza. Behar, a teacher and anthropologist, chooses Esperanza as her subject of analysis for a variety of reasons. The main one centers on Esperanza’s status as a common Mexican woman, a member of a group which is generally marginalized and glossed over as an insignificant subject of scrutiny in cultural studies. During the course of her work, Behar asks the question, “Can an ethnographer portray her subject, in this case Esperanza, while employing her own voice and experiences as well?”

Esperanza is introduced to the reader as a seemingly typical Mexican woman who makes her living as a street peddler. However, as we proceed through Behar’s writing, her story becomes a more profound example of what it means to be a Mexican woman of a specific social class. To answer her own question of whether its possible to create a valid work that includes the voice of the ethnographer, she employs a twofold tactic: (1) writing against culture – Behar uses Abu-Lughod’s methodology of recognizing perspectives previously excluded from ethnographic writing such as the feminist perspective, and reinforcing its missing significance (giving voice to the insignificant other) and (2) writing using reflexivity – reflecting on her own life and experiences in relation to the subject. 

Behar breaks up her text into three main sections. Part one is called “Coraje/Rage”. Part two is titled “Esperanza/Redemption”, and part three is “Literary Wetback”. The story begins with Behar’s first encounter with Esperanza and how they came to know each other. In her introduction, Behar explains to the reader that much of Esperanza’s story rejects the patriarchal distinction in traditional discourse and blurs the line between historical and fiction. In essence, what Esperanza tells us is her history, as she experienced it. This produces a personal account, akin to a memoir, and what Behar presents becomes less informant interview and more of a personal confession on the part of the subject. What develops is a personal exchange in dialogue. Fiction and history are the same for Esperanza and what she imparts to us as readers is her own, subjective, truth.

The questionable ability to verify the details of her account is problematic and casts doubt as to the reliability of Esperanza’s story as a valid ethnographic work. Throughout the work, Behar questions her own methodology in the handling and translation of Esperanza’s story. She realizes that Esperanza’s storytelling is a subjective account of her life and knows that it cannot be used as a primary and objective source to gain an understanding of Mexican culture or Mexican womanhood. However, Esperanza’s story is still relevant in a broader perspective. It can be taken as a lens through which to view the status of women in third world countries as it provides a visceral account of cross-cultural female abuse and subjugation.

As the story evolves, we find that the first two parts of the book are mostly details of Esperanza’s life going as far back as when she was a young girl living with her mother and her siblings. From the onset, we are presented with a young Esperanza as a victim of both child abuse and neglect. It sets the ground for what Esperanza is later to encounter: a life of suffering and strife. It is also in the first two parts of the book that we learn that Esperanza believes her life to be one of martyrdom, as though her life’s choices and its path are predestined for suffering. Behar’s relationship evolves as she interviews Esperanza and we are given snippets of her own perspective throughout Esperanza’s storytelling in the form of chapter introductions. Behar’s text also serves to remind readers of where they are in her six-year relationship with Esperanza.

Esperanza presents herself as a lively subject more than willing to dictate the terms of her researcher/subject relationship with Behar. Part one of the book presents an underlying theme that becomes Esperanza’s main motivator – coraje, or rage. She experiences this rage as a Mexican woman who has no rights or power. As wife, mother and daughter, she is constantly disempowered, yet in spite of this overwhelming disadvantage, she amazingly endures. She battles an abusive husband, ungrateful and disrespectful sons, and the loss of six children to child illnesses. After all of this, she finds solace and redemption in the cult group of Pancho Villa.

Finally, in the last chapter, the reader sees Behar engage more fully with her own frustrations in articulating both Esperanza’s and her own stories. Here, readers are presented with an interweaving of both of their narratives and implementation of reflexivity at its height. In her sub-chapter, “The Biography in the Shadow”, Behar presents her own story of how she came to be privileged in academia and the similarities she sees in her life’s story and Esperanza’s. Readers learn of her struggles with male dominance and self-realization and see how she emerges, like Esperanza, from what she considers to be a series of tragic events in her own timeline, both personally and professionally.

In evaluating the entire text as ethnography and not simply as literature, some misgivings arise; for example, as Behar states, there is a glossing over by Esperanza on the topic of sexuality as well as fuller contextual understanding of the cult of Pancho Villa. Secondly, although complete leeway is given to Esperanza to tell her story, many aspects seemed overly reiterated and reemphasized. Also, though it was the author’s intention to choose a reflexive strategy in which to present her ethnography, there is a lack of comprehensiveness as a cultural study when given such a specific and personal account. As readers, we cannot necessarily verify or filter what is truth in the writing. In spite of this, Behar is successful in her creation of a narrative that combines Esperanza’s story, as Behar says, in a new tongue of “translated woman” and crossing borders.

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