Magic realism is a commonly used genre in Latin American works combining realistic portrayals of ordinary events and characters with elements of fantasy and myth, creating a rich, frequently troubling world that is at once familiar and dreamlike. It first emerged with a German art critic and was later revived and applied to fiction by Venezuelan critic Arturo Uslar-Pietri in the 1960s.
Among the aspects of magic realism, are that idea that the fantastic elements may be intuitively “logical” but are never explained, characters accept rather than question the logic of the magical element, incorporates legend or folklore, and ends leaving the reader uncertain, whether to believe in the magical interpretation or the realist interpretation of the events in the story. The short story, The Moths by Helena Viramontes, uses several of these aspects to portray the life of a teenage girl whose growing bond with her grandmother brings her to a spiritual development that will continue to live with her throughout her life.
In the use of magic realism, the moths become a principal factor of her growth of spirituality and hope. In order to better understand the essence of this story, one needs to know a little bit about the history of Latino culture. Some aspects have developed into deluded stereotypes, but for the most part, the traditions have maintained integrity and dignity throughout the generations of Chicanos. Hispanic culture blends the history of Mexico with Spain and any other country that was colonized by the Spanish.
Although many immigrants who migrated to the United States were looking for new beginnings, their culture has managed to stay solid all throughout daily living. One of the traditions that most Latinos are known for is their use of curanderos. A curandera is a traditional folk healer customary in Latin America, and especially in Mexico and in Chicano communities in the southwestern United States. These women, and sometimes men, are generally valued members of their community, and are almost always extremely religious and spiritual.
Curanderas use natural home remedies to cure illnesses such as ojo or evil eye, espanto or shock, mal aire or bad air, and colico or colic. This is because they believe that the causes of many illnesses are evil spirits or a curse. Curanderos treat these ailments with religious rituals, ceremonial cleansing, and prayers. As one may also know, many of the cures are found in the kitchen. Various items needed for the cures include eggs, red thread, and honey. A very common remedy is to rub an egg over the sick person’s body to cure ojo.
Another is to put a red piece of thread on a baby’s forehead to cure colic. A very popular remedy to use when one has gout, is apple cider vinegar. It has been widely used in many different cultures to cure many other illnesses such as allergies and acid reflux. An herb that Mexicans do not live without is garlic. According to many Hispanics, garlic cures persistent coughs, high blood pressure, herpes, impotence, and even ear aches. Now, there are recipes that are followed for the different symptoms, but all are believed to work soundly.
While most people usually go solely to a curandero to cure the ailment, most Mexican or Chicano families have at least one member who knows how to treat these ailments. These methods of treating health problems often lead to conflict with modern medicine especially in non-hispanic communities. They are however a few instances that some physicians will prescribe a home remedy. These physicians are usually of Hispanic descent or have been raised near a Chicano community. They have accepted the fact that some remedies work and have incorporated them into their daily practice of modern medicine. This isn’t always the case however.
In The Moths, you read about Abuelita stirring up one of her concoctions made of dry moth wings, to help bring the grandchild’s hands back to size. Abuelita sincerely believes in here natural remedies. She even has a treatment for scarlet fever. You go on to read that ever since that day, the narrator never doubts the remedies Abuelita makes. The reader begins to see the spirituality and hope that begins in the grandchild. The bond is set in motion from here on between grandmother and granddaughter. There are quite a few plants that are normally found at Mexican mercados used for curing illnesses.
A book called Las Plantas Medicinales de Mi?? xico by Maximino Martinez lists many of the plants that have natural healing cures. Some of these plants include: aguacate, codo de fraile, culantrillo, lanten, and una de gato. You can find most of these plants at mercado booths or at the curanderos residence. They play the role that pharmaceuticals play for pharmacies. Many of them are imperative to have in stock because many Hispanic families rely on herbal and natural remedies to treat illnesses they could not otherwise be able to afford at a medical facility.
The Mexican family structure has rarely wavered in the roles that each family member takes part in. In the traditional family, the eldest child regularly lives with their grandparents until they marry, even if they remain single until their thirties or later. The other children remain with their parents until they marry as well. It is common for any wedded party to remain living at home or next door to the parents or grandparents. The grandparents play a pivotal role in the family. They hold complete authority over all the family. They have the final word in any family occurrence and are never wrong.
At least that is what they always believe. The family units remain close and usually live if not in the perimeter, in the same community. Loyalty plays a major role in Hispanic culture. The men are over-protective of the women, especially brothers to their sisters. The family business is passed down generation to generation. It is almost certain that the children will work and carry on the family legacy. Not very many children will get the opportunity to have a career of choice. The roles of the parents in Mexican culture are usually specifically defined.
The father is usually the family’s authority and the mother is the family’s heart and soul. Machismo or male chauvinism, is quite often a common quality of the Latino man. The father shows authority in this manner which sometimes causes problems with the women in the family. However, the women are expected to tolerate this treatment from their husbands and some even believe the behavior to quite normal. A woman is responsible for the upkeep of the household and caring for the children. Usually, the man concentrates on the financial income of the household and the woman stays home.
These stereotypes are beginning to be shunned from society but nonetheless they still exist. In The Moths, you can see the family structure even though the narrator doesn’t specifically point it out. You can tell from the very start, that Abuelita has the authority in the family. The granddaughter even mentions that she always felt her grandmother’s gray eye on her. She goes on to say that it made her feel safe and guarded, the way God was supposed to make you feel. She conveys the sense of comfort that she feels with her abuelita and eventually prefers to spend her free time helping her grandmother instead of being at home.
The magic comes to life when you realize that the moths are a metaphor for the grandmother. The narrator refers to the moths as gray and connects Abuelita to them by referring to her gray eye. This comparison between the moth as a saving grace and the grandmother is one in the same. The grandmother is the grandchild’s guardian angel and instills the principles of right and wrong. She alleviates her illnesses, instills values, and brings religion into her life. Throughout the story, you see the maturation of the grandchild and the bond getting stronger between the two.
The moths also represent spirituality. At the end of the story, the moths come for the grandmother’s soul to take it to heaven. So, not only does it occur in the wing balm, but in the death of Abuelita as well. Another metaphor that is used is the sun. The sun is born when it rises and dies when it sets. The sun later turns on a switch when Abuelita supposedly dies. This is a divine metaphor to illustrate spirituality and heaven. The granddaughter’s attitude towards spirituality begins to emerge when she sees what Abuelita can do.
You start to see hope when the grandchild experiences a spiritual rebirth of her own. Proof of the grandchild maturing is seen when the narrator herself states that she wasn’t respectful either I even went so far as to doubt the power of Abuelita’s slices. Towards the end, you can see the enormous respect she holds towards her grandmother. The regret of not knowing her grandmother becomes particularly apparent when the scars on her grandmother’s back become visible. She realizes how little she really knew about Abuelita and how much she wouldn’t get to become acquainted with now that she is gone.
The moths become not only a creature used in one of Abuelita’s natural remedies, but a metaphor for life, death, and rebirth. It gives the grandchild and identity which embodies the grandmother as well. At the end, the cycle has gone full circle when the grandmother dies and is taken care of by her granddaughter. In the tub, the grandchild sits patiently cleansing her abuelita waiting for the moths to come and take her to a better place. When the moth’s finally come, she weeps, “there, there, I said to Abuelita, rocking us gently, there, there. ”
Helena Viramontes illustrates the use of magic realism in her short story through a means of Mexican tradition that today is still widely utilized. The supernatural elements of magical nature and the constant use of Chicano folklore make this story a traditional tool of the culture. It implements the religious eminence and spiritual nature that most Latinos carry on through their cultural values. Some aspects of Latino society have developed into mislead conceptions, but for the most part, the traditions have maintained veracity and decorum throughout the generations of Chicano culture.