An Interview with María Amparo Escandón about Esperanza’s Box of Saints

Q. You have been asked before why you chose to write about a mother who loses her  daughter. Is there a personal connection with this subject?

A. Every writer always has personal connections with the topics we write about. For me,  writing is such a luxury that I must choose my themes very carefully. I wouldn’t want to  invest months and years working on something that doesn’t mean much to me. Every  time I’m about to begin a new work, I search deep inside and dig out my innermost  fears, wants, or needs, and I write about that. Call it exorcism, call it therapy, or simply  call it honest writing: I believe it’s the strongest, the most powerful kind. In Esperanza’s  Box of Saints I explored the terrible fear I’ve had of losing my daughter: what if she gets  abducted, what if she goes missing, what if she dies and I can’t confirm her death? How  could I deal with this loss? How would I reach closure? This is a very personal topic, yet  I’ve found as the book gets translated into different languages that it’s a feeling I share  with millions of mothers out there. The fear and the pain are universal, human feelings  that anyone can relate to.

Q. Esperanza’s Box of Saints is considered a literary phenomenon. The book has been  translated into more than 20 languages around the world. It is read in over 85 countries.  There is a movie based on it, Santitos, which won awards at 14 international film  festivals. How did this change your life?

A. Imagine going from oblivion, anonymity, to a certain –modest‐‐ prominence in just a few  weeks. It’s not an easy process; you need to adapt quickly to the new status without  losing yourself, always keeping in mind that it’s only a status, and a temporary one at  that. All my life I wrote for fun and I still do, but never thinking I would get my work  published. I’d write short stories, photocopy them and share them with my friends. I  was working full time at Acento, an ad agency that my ex‐husband and I founded in  1983 and sold in 2009. I had two small kids and was running my household. Writing had  been a hobby up until then. When Esperanza first got published by Simon & Schuster  and when the film was released, I stepped down from my Creative Director position at  the agency, hired someone to take my place and went on book tours, festivals,  conferences and presentations. First I sent Esperanza on the road, and then she sent  me. People said to me: “Wow, instant success! The doors just opened for you!” The  truth is I’ve been ringing this bell for thirty years.

Q. Some critics consider Esperanza’s Box of Saints to be part of the Magic Realism genre.  You have called it Magical Reality. Can you explain the difference as you see it?

A. Magic Realism is a beloved and long‐established genre, mostly among Latin American  authors, but with affinities in other parts of the world. It deals with stories where  extraordinary events happen in daily life and which the characters perceive in a matter‐ 2 of‐fact way. These characters ‐‐and the reader too‐‐ buy the events at face value, no  questions asked. There is a widespread use of symbolism, preternatural occurrences,  and a sense of fatalism, among other characteristics that you can find listed in many  books and academic papers on the subject. This is a genre with fuzzy edges when it  comes to its definition, so it’s best to know what it’s not. It is not Fantasy literature, like  The Lord of the Rings. You won’t see hobbits or elves in a magic realism story. In Fantasy,  writers create imaginary worlds with their own set of rules, characters based on  inexistent beings, faraway planets and alternative realities. In Magic Realism, writers use  the real world –at least the one we know‐‐ but inexplicable things happen in it. And no  one really feels compelled to try to explain them. I call Magical Reality my subtle  departure from Magic Realism for lack of a more accurate term: I describe inexplicable  incidents from the real world that can actually happen. To illustrate the point, here’s an  example of the difference: in One Hundred Years of Solitude the blood of Úrsula  Iguarán’s son travels across town to notify her of his murder. Although blood does exist,  it does not have a will of its own. This would not happen in the real world. In  Esperanza’s Box of Saints, on the other hand, Esperanza witnesses an apparition in her  oven window in which Saint Jude tells her that her daughter is not dead and instructs  her to find her. This event may be improbable, but not impossible. Millions of people  have claimed to have visions of saints, virgins, and dead ancestors. Factual minds  question apparitions, but cannot prove their inexistence. That’s what I mean by Magical  Reality, but in truth I may be splitting hairs here.

Q. Let’s talk about Esperanza. Why did you give her such personality?

A. My characters are usually composites of people I know, including myself. But I don’t  plan for it. When Esperanza began taking shape on the page, I was surprised to see  some of my own personality traits emerge because we come from very different  backgrounds. Esperanza is a simple woman, with little formal education who lives in a  sleepy Mexican village. I am a college graduate, a city girl who has traveled the world. I  have a much broader outlook than she does. I think Esperanza has two things in her  favor, which she’s not aware of: first, she has amazing spunk; when she puts her mind to  something, she will go for it and do whatever it takes to accomplish it. She also has a  great naïveté: she does not foresee all the dangers and possibilities of her plan; she just  believes she will be fine and moves forward. Those two elements shield her and guide  her through her ordeal. But what gives her strength? It’s the power of faith. She is  unstoppable because she believes in her story, the interpretation of what Saint Jude has  revealed to her in his apparitions. Her faith is not contemplative: it is actionable. Others,  like the priest, or her comadre, use their faith like a blanket: for Esperanza, her faith  gives her wings.

Q. What is Esperanza’s underlying motive when embarking on her quest?

A. Women have different social roles, almost always in relation to someone else. If you are  a woman, you’re a daughter, a mother, a sister or a wife. In Esperanza’s case she has  lost her parents, so she’s not a daughter anymore. She’s not a wife either, since her  husband has died. Now her only child is dead or missing, so Esperanza is suddenly  3 nobody. When she sets out to look for Blanca, her search goes way beyond –even  though she may not know it‐‐ deep into her own identity as a woman. As she goes from  brothel to brothel experiencing terrible fear, disgust, using her wits to get out of having  sex with customers, and figuring out her saint’s messages, she slowly discovers who she  really is, who she is becoming, the woman who was never allowed to be because she  had always been expected to be someone else’s someone. When she finally finds  herself, when she asks her saints to hold off on giving her conflicting signals, she feels  empowered and she is ready to have a new relationship, but this time on her own terms  and with a man who will honor them.

Q. This is an interesting point about which there seems to be an inconsistency between the  movie and the novel. Is this correct?

A.You are exactly right: in the book she’s not a prostitute, while in the film she becomes  one. The film’s director, Alejandro Springall, and I had our biggest debates about  precisely this issue: I wanted Esperanza to go through the swamp and come out clean.  Alejandro thought that it would make the movie more dramatic if Esperanza actually  became a hooker. Over the years, as I thought about our discussions, I realized that our  divergent points of view were explained by the masculine view of women in Mexico: for  a Mexican man, women are either saints or demons, virgins or prostitutes, their own  mother or “the other women.” I wanted Esperanza to be a departure from that  amazingly constraining and demeaning dichotomy: Esperanza is a free and yet pure  woman, who sails through the worst possible environments and comes away unsullied,  precisely because she is pure. Interestingly, self‐righteous people would deny  prostitutes, or women they deem to be their equivalent, access to religion. Whores  don’t deserve to be a part of the religious community. The question is: who are those  prostitutes’ customers? Well, they would be precisely those self‐righteous, church‐going  men, wouldn’t they?

Q. Now let’s get into the subject of religion, a big topic in your novel. How does Esperanza’s  Box of Saints challenge traditional practices of Catholicism?

A. I never felt I was challenging the traditional practices of Catholicism. In the Mexican  culture, those depicted in my book are the traditional practices of Catholicism. The  beliefs and practices of Mexican Catholics are very much in line with how Esperanza is  portrayed. First, Mexicans tend to have an intimate, familiar, relationship with the  saints, the Virgin and Jesus Christ, and we are accustomed to calling on them instead of  God. We only bother God with the really big issues. This might date back to our pre‐ Columbian polytheist religion in which we had many gods with specific talents and jobs:  the god of maize and produce, the god of fertility, the god of artists, the god of healing,  the god of rain, the god of war, and so on. It was easy for us to become monotheists and  believe in one god when we could still have all these little gods on the side, the saints  and virgins, that is, to whom we could call on for favors and petitions in their own  specialty just as we did with our previous religion’s players: the patron saint of animals,  of lost causes, of sickness, etc. And since they’re not as high in the heavenly hierarchy,  we’re not shy when we ask them to intercede for us. I addressed this thought at Notre  4 Dame University Virgin of Guadalupe Conference and I was surprised to see that it  seemed to resonate among scholars, but in truth it’s just a thought. There are highly  knowledgeable academics that can give you a much better explanation. Secondly, the  way Father Salvador is depicted in the book is not far off the way it is with priests in the  Mexican reality. Sometimes priests are not just the confessors and spiritual guides but  they also get involved in the family life. Psychotherapists are not as popular in Mexico as  they are in the US, so the local priest satisfies the need people have to voice out their  behavior so they can understand it, accept it, or modify it. In many instances, this role  gives the priest a position of power in the community. He knows everything about  everyone. Thirdly, the apparition of Saint Jude in the oven window is Esperanza’s much  needed earthly connection to Heaven. We need physical evidence of God’s existence to  comprehend such complex, metaphysical thoughts, and miracles serve that purpose. So,  to answer your question, I did not challenge the traditional practices of Catholic religion,  at least the way we practice it in Mexico.

Q. Did you think about the most famous Catholic miracle in the Americas, the Virgin of  Guadalupe, when you wrote your novel?

A. I don’t even have to think about this miracle to be inspired by it. It’s so ingrained in my  mind that it’s as much a part of me as my language. The miracle of Juan Diego and the  Virgin of Guadalupe is grounded in the need for magic and divination in the spiritual life  of people. You have to have a connection with the metaphysical and it has to be a  physical one because otherwise, it is another world and it is disconnected from you.  Once there is access to the metaphysical world it becomes real. That is why I believe it is  essential, at least in the Catholic faith, to have apparitions. Esperanza needed to hear  from her beloved saint what she wanted to hear: “Blanca is not dead”. She’d rather  consider the worst of all options short of death, the option of her girl suffering horribly,  kidnapped, being forced into child prostitution, because that meant for Esperanza that  there was still hope to recover her. Once confirmed dead, there was nothing she could  do. There would be no novel.

Q. Talk a little about Esperanza’s altar building.

A. The fact that she builds the altars wherever she goes and collects all these figurines and  statues reflects what I call “el culto al bulto,” which means the worship of the actual  figurine. Not what the figurine represents, but the actual little plaster or wooden statue.  This practice must also come from pre‐Columbian times, although Catholics in Europe  were doing the same in those days. No wonder Catholicism fit us like a glove. People take the statuettes to church to get blessed. If the figurine breaks, they never throw it  away. I believe that it is a way to bring the metaphysical into the physical world in order  to accept it and make it real, because otherwise religion would be too ethereal. People  in Mexico have real, life‐threatening problems‐‐drug wars, earthquakes, street violence,  kidnappings, deadly viral outbreaks‐‐and they need to believe in real, higher powers that  they can touch and see, not just metaphysical comfort.  5 Q.  One of the most beautiful passages of your novel is when Esperanza comes upon a  mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe in East LA. How is religion mobile for Esperanza? A.  When you drive around East Los Angeles, you see a lot of murals depicting the Virgin of  Guadalupe on storefronts and walls. This makes me think about what we bring into this  country when we immigrate. We can’t bring a moving van with all our belongings. We  leave everything behind, even our children and our wives. Because most of us, or our  ancestors, have immigrated illegally, many times under very dangerous circumstances,  we have crossed over light and swift, carrying only our most valuable weapon of  defense: our Swiss Army knife of religion, if you will, with an array of saints to use  accordingly, like tools, when the specific need arises. Religion is weightless carry‐on  luggage ideal for desert crossing, cannot be stolen by border muggers, or lost in the  Colorado River, it’s a very powerful shield in times of danger or despair, great for travel.  It’s also what ties us to our origin, to where we come from, the familiar element that will  feed the deep‐rootedness to our land. When Esperanza crosses the border to the United  States with her box of saints, she carries the same internal box that immigrants bring with them on their journey.

Q. Is there tension between official and popular religious practices and do you offer a social  critique of both?

A. When I went to the archdiocese of Mexico to give a lecture, I knew I was going to be  asked this question. So I thought a lot about it and came to the conclusion that there are  two ways to view faith: you have the popular faith and you have the educated faith. The  latter is more challenging, because the more you know about something the more you  can see its complexities and inconsistencies. On the other hand, it seems easier to  believe in God if you are more ignorant and ask yourself fewer questions. A religious scholar might be more skeptical about religion than someone like Esperanza. The  Catholic religion of Mexico is very permissive in terms of these practices. For instance, in  the 1970s in Oaxaca, Maria Sabina was not just a woman performing mass, but she also  offered hallucinogenic mushrooms to her congregation. In many places across Mexico  people drift away from the official practices: they worship Juan Soldado (the illegal  migrants’ saint), Malverde (the drug dealers’ saint), or the Niño Fidencio: none of them  recognized by the Catholic Church, but necessarily tolerated. So I don’t think that I  depict the tension between official and popular religious practices: what I describe is the  actual coexistence of both.

Q. Would you say that Esperanza’s character reaffirms the politicization of motherhood?  Does she revolutionize motherhood?

A. Motherhood is a genetic privilege, not a political stand. And although there have been  waves of politicization throughout history (always with underlying agendas) Esperanza is  not part of one. Esperanza can’t be political about motherhood because she isn’t even  conscious of it. Just as she doesn’t question her beliefs, she doesn’t think twice about  her sense of motherhood, and you can’t revolutionize any established concept if you  don’t challenge it. She’s not thinking, “I’m going to show everyone what a mother  6 should be.” When you are political you have very strong beliefs and you want others to  share these strong beliefs with you. Esperanza is on a personal quest: she does have  strong beliefs but she doesn’t care if anybody else shares them with her. Her quest is  not so much about motherhood, but about womanhood. She already was the super  mom, so she did not need to prove anything in this regard. But regarding her  womanhood, this is where she transforms herself at the end of her story.

Q. Is Esperanza saved in the end by her own daughter? Or did you intend for Angel  Justiciero to be the fairy‐tale knight—the wrestler—that comes in and rescues her?

A. Neither, actually: In the end she saves herself. She needs to lose Blanca to grow into the  woman that was latent inside of her, undeveloped. She has to go through the ordeal to  emerge as the complete woman she is when she meets the wrestler. Only after this  growth she is ready to approach him at the arena, to accept his invitation, and to have  an egalitarian relationship where there is reciprocity and not just servitude. The  presence of any fairy‐tale knight in any love story is an indicator of an asymmetrical  relationship, not like Esperanza and Angel’s. Some feminist readers accused me of  having the Angel of Justice scooping her up and saving her. I replied: “No way. She walks  away from him.” It is not like she clung onto his wings. It’s only after she realizes she  can’t have him and look for her daughter all at once that she chooses to leave him. She  ultimately stays on course, searching for her daughter, in spite of the temptation of  love.

Q. Will there be a sequel?

A. Life goes on. Thankfully fiction can stop at the last page. I have written Esperanza’s story  as a short story, as a screenplay, and as a novel both in English and Spanish. I am yet to  write the musical, the soap opera, the sequel, the prequel, the remake, the TV series  and the videogame. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I have too many other stories to  tell, too many other characters wanting to come out and live, like Libertad in González &  Daughter Trucking Co. At the speed I’m going (one novel every five years) and if I have  the privilege of a long and healthy life, I’d say I have another five novels in me. I have  very few years left to write. It’s frightening.

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