Re-Fashioning Gendered Mestizo Identity:
A Dress Woven with Guilt and Betrayal in La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas
Elena Garro’s short story, “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas” deals with various contested themes in Mexican culture and history: the conquest of the Nahuas by the Spaniards in the 1500s, the modern perception of la Malinche, the controversial, prevailing view of Mexican women, the mestizo identity, as well as the overt presence of European heritage in contemporary Mexican culture. Through the time-traveling character of Laura, who belongs to both the 16th and 20th centuries, Garro acknowledges these themes and critiques their contemporary representations. Much scholarly literature and discussion has been done in regards to the presence of Garro’s stance on these problematic issues within the story, as well as Laura’s illustration of her beliefs. However, very little attention has been paid to the dress that Laura wears for the majority of the story. While Laura is generally considered to be most emblematic of Garro’s positioning on these issues, the white dress she wears is equally indicative of, and offers a unique perspective on these same contested themes.
In the story “La culpa es de los Talxcaltecas,” the main character of Laura leads two distinct lives in the same space: one as a member of the Nahuatl community in Tenochtitlan during the time of the Spanish conquest, married to her indigenous cousin (primo marido), and one as a mestiza, upper-middle-class woman in 1960s Mexico City, married to Pablo, a mestizo man, who physically resembles her first husband but acts nothing like him. Laura has the magical-realist ability to travel between her two lives via rays of white light. With each temporal journey, she wears the same dress that at first represents her modern life, however with each recurrent trip to the future it returns even more disheveled than before, a destruction that results from the battles in ancient Tenochtitlan. This ultimately leads Pablo and his mother, Margarita, to assume she has been raped by an indigenous man and that she continues to wear it as a victory badge of her sexual exploits. Their treatment of her becomes even more demeaning and violent until she ultimately—after reconciling her betrayal of marriage to a man of European descent in the 1960s with her cousin in the 16th century—decides to quit her life in the present state in favor of the turbulent Nahua city and the known outcome of conquest.
One of the most prominent themes in Garro’s story is that of la Malinche, who is both credited with and blamed for the creation of the mestizo race. Her reception shifted after the conquest from that of a respected indigenous woman to the modern paradigm of “Desirable Whore/Terrible Mother” (Cypess 9), and has been converted into a symbol of feminine duplicity. She allegedly betrayed the indigenous populations to the Spaniards through her forced sexual acts and work as a translator; she is depicted as an overly sexualized figure who has passed this quality on to her female descendants in the Mexican state. In Garro’s story, Laura is subjected to this same identity by Pablo and his mother. Although the representation of la Malinche in present-day mestiza women generally plays a pivotal role in Garro’s story, Laura’s white dress becomes explicitly indicative of this theme.
Garro introduces the contentious garment at the fourth sentence, the end of the first paragraph, of the entire story, establishing it outright as a prominent symbol and factor in the narrative. The beginning of the tale is, in fact, the end of Laura’s journey: she appears in the 20th century one last time before ultimately fleeing sans return to the 16th century. Thus, the garment is introduced in an almost cyclical sense. The story opens at the dress’s end point in the state in which it will be eternalized—a “traje blanco quemado y sucio de tierra y sangre” (269)—a mixture of Laura and Mexico’s two worlds and cultures. This circular positioning and final, both presently —and historically— affected, state of the dress alludes to Garro’s positioning on the need for a reconciliation and return of the modern mestizo identity—in part—to the indigenous side of its roots.
Laura’s dress gives her a dismissive attitude towards her mestizo life and culture. It is initially a contemporary garment from the 1960s and it is most likely solely one pure, crisp shade of white in a modest cut emblematic of fashion norms at the time, norms that were derived heavily from the fashion capitals in Europe, amplifying to the presence of European customs in mestizo society. However, Laura does not allow the article to maintain its original status: she insists on wearing it on her temporal journeys and permits it to be ruined with mud, scorches, and blood in Tenochtitlan, all the while refusing to clean or bleach it back to its initial state. This refusal to permit the plain outfit to remain as such is a nod to her indigenous lineage and first life —the markings, while dirty, serve as embellishments on the otherwise lackluster garment, markings that ultimately parallel the Nahua affinity for heavily designed apparel. At the time of the conquest, Nahua women wore exquisite shifts and skirts; ideas surrounding beauty were associated predominantly with clothing and its patterns (Olko 322). These new decorations can be seen as an attempt by her past to alter, influence, and demonstrate its persistence in her present life, making the dress much less era-appropriate for her contemporary life and causing it to fit in better with her first. These patterns become an attempt by her past to blur and smear away her second life.
Laura’s continuance to wear the tarnished garment further disrespects her modern life through the allegorical connotations of the color white in her societal Catholic surroundings: purity. As an upper-middle-class, wedded woman in 1960s Mexico City, married to a man named after an apostle (Montes Garcés 118), she clearly inhabits a Catholic-dominated realm (García de la Torre and Villa Silva 718). Not only is Pablo’s name a reference to the prevalent religion of contemporary Mexico, but his actions are described in this terminology, such as when he deals Laura “una santa bofetada” (Garro 275), literally a saintly or holy slap, denoting not only his Catholicism, but his attempts to use religion to correct his errant wife. Furthermore, he “solo repetía los gestos de todos los hombres de la ciudad de México” (275), indicating his adherence to common cultural and societal practices in the city, which would include identifying as Catholic. Laura may also even be Catholic in this life as suggested by her inability to recognize one of the Aztec gods she had been taught in her childhood upon a journey back in time: “la imagen de un dios, que ahora no recuerdo cuál era. Todo se olvida” (270). The use of “un” and “cuál,” one of a grouping, indicates a reference to the Aztec pantheon. Thus, in this religious context, in allowing her virginal, dress to be dirtied—with no attempt to clean it—Laura is effectively advertising a lack of chastity. Furthermore, while the sheath is of everyday wear, its color makes it emblematic of a wedding frock; considering her male-dominated relationship with Pablo, their marriage takes part in the Christian tradition, thus her dress becomes a symbol of their Christian union. Her ruining the bridal gown is her destruction of their sacred, religious marriage. This also calls to mind her blasé attitude towards her second wedding: she weds Pablo because he physically resembles the primo marido, but for nothing else. Her love for him was not based on his own self, but rather a longing for her past life.
Apart from the general destruction of the dress as being disrespectful to her modern culture, religion, and husband, the specific markings on it further negate her second life. As Laura tells Nacha, the 1960s indigenous housekeeper and her only confidant about her time-traveling abilities, the voice of the primo marido “escribió signos de sangre en mi pecho y mi vestido blanco quedó rayado como un tigre rojo y blanco” (Garro 272). As the garment was altered without physical contact in the past, this creates the idea that the same mystical powers that allow Laura to time travel have tarnished her outfit. Additionally, it is still the first partner who is ultimately ruining the current garment; continuing to wear the dress in contemporary Mexico without cleaning it prioritizes the first marriage and life over that with Pablo. Furthermore, the designs are described as “rayado,” striped, demonstrating that the decorations were purposeful and not just emblematic of carelessness. The representation of the striped tiger alludes back to the native jungle that grew on the land before it was developed throughout history. Moreover, the stripes parallel the wounds the primo marido sustained in battle: specifically, a “herida roja en el hombro” (277). Not only are both the dress and the first spouse's shoulders outfitted with similar stripe patterns, but Garro’s poignant use of only the colors red, black, white, and brown throughout the narrative causes the parallel of the red wound and the red stripes on the garment to take on even more significance. The new patterns on the clothing are worn to symbolize the bravery of the primo marido and the loss of the ancient civilization against the invaders.
While the garment initially can be read as yet another aspect of Laura’s modern life, it ultimately serves as a palimpsest, prime for further inscription and development, and as such indifferent to the world in which it was created. While initially of 1960s design, its pattern-less, white fabric serves as a canvas for the impression of the ancient Nahua embellishments that ultimately re-inscribe the garment’s meaning and function within society. With these designs, it is no longer emblematic of the culture in which she acquired it, rather it becomes a mixture of its modern origins and the life Laura left behind in the 16th century—alluding to their dual presence in present Mexican culture.
While the modern garment does subvert the world and culture from which it stems, it also serves to undermine the Nahua culture and lineage of Laura’s first life. It arrives in Tenochtitlan plain and white, as it was created. It is thus another object of European influence invading Nahua society. Its whiteness is a connection to the conquistadors’ skin and their imposed presence in the region. Furthermore it would have resonated as completely out of place in the indigenous realm, as traditional clothing was crafted from dyed fabrics with various geometric and natural designs and accented with symbolic animal and mineral embellishments such as fur, feathers, gold, and jade (López Hernández 19). Without these traditional elements, its initial arrival in the 16th century blatantly resonates against local dress, allowing Laura to assume the role of a “malinchista, [an] individual who sells out to the foreigner…in favor of imported benefits,” a term that would come about shortly after the conquest (Cypess 7).
The dress as connecting Laura to the implications and associations of the alleged betrayal of la Malinche are furthered in considering the development of pictographic representations of the infamous mother-figure. Initially, la Malinche is depicted in post-conquest artwork wearing the Nahua huipil, her hair is done up in a way that suggests a maternal, indigenous role. Her feet are barefoot, alluding to her lower status as a servant to the Spaniards, or in traditional sandals. However, in future representations, such as those in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, though she still wears the huipil, her hair is down, suggesting to popular European styles, and she wears European-style shoes (Cortez 80). After being removed from her first life for centuries Laura, in this same manner, returns in European-style garb and symbolizes a “rejection of Amerindian culture” shared with la Malinche and other malinchistas (Cypess 10). This reversal of vesture and style further underscores her link to the mother of mestizos who submitted to the European invaders, just as Laura does to her, at least in part, European second husband.
Laura further disrespects her heritage through her covering of the dress. She cannot wear the damaged garment alone in her modern domestic space without inciting rage and violence from Pablo and Margarita. Thus, “para esconder las manchas,” and appease them, Laura “se puso un sweater blanco encima” (Garro 276) before leaving the house and taking another trip back in time. The white covering of the new designs effectively makes the new ensemble indistinguishable from the old. It serves as a symbolic eraser of the strides her past had made in infiltrating her contemporary realm that quits the garment of its newfound history—suggested by the markings—as well as Laura’s and the nation’s origin. She hides her distressed vesture from her second family just as she keeps from them her other life and her true identity as a native woman. She thus becomes a symbol for a nation of people seeking a foundation in change—not the past (Paz 26)—and subverting the indigenous part of the roots upon which it was created, as the mestizo culture melded “into the cultural vortex of the West” (Klor de Alva 6). The dress had acquired ancient embellishments in going back in time, however her hiding these markings is her ascribing herself to the prevailing modern social mindset of giving preference to the European aspects of its lineage that has carried through into the 20th century, specifically by giving preference for material goods. That the sweater is yet another plain, white fixture demonstrates the mestizo culture’s efforts to construct a new sense of being through consumer materials (García de la Torre & Villa Silva 719). However, due to the ultimate dual presence of the additions—ancient markings underneath the contemporary sweater—the dress simultaneously represents the unification of the modern culture with the indigenous part of roots.
The white color of the dress ultimately ties it very closely, on various levels, to the racially white culture it reflects. This color characterization of the bland outfit contrasts sharply with the primo marido, who is described as a panther in regards to his stillness and his black hair: “se quedó quieto como las panteras”; “le ví el pelo negro” (Garro 277). The implications of his connection to the animal—suggesting that his hair is figuratively fur that is covering his body in blackness—create a duality in the vesture of the two that presents a stark foil as they stand together in the warring city. She is clothed entirely in white, he in black, augmenting her separation from her first life. Not only does she wear all white, she has become all white, as evidenced by her starchy hands, to which the primo marido “reacts in horror at their resemblance with the Other, the white European” (Nanfito 131), stating that one of them “está muy desteñida, parece una mano de ellos,” (Garro 271). This response suggests that her time away from the 16th century has literally bleached her complexion to the extent that she appears like a pure European next to her fully-indigenous husband.
The dress’s original clean, blank state and ultimate adorned with indigenous markings of blood, burns, and dirt allows it to stand as a metaphor for the mestizo race as a whole and the nation’s and culture’s foundation in war: something comprised of both white and colored lineages. However, as the final version of the garment is so shunned in her modern world, it ultimately gives her a stronger connection to her past life. It allows her to fully reconcile her betrayal of the primo marido—by marrying a partially European man—and her Nahua community—through her “[selling] out to the foreigner” as a malinchista (Cypess 7). Laura intentionally re-dons the sheath, reflected by the verb “poner” (Garro 276) used to describe this act both by Nacha and Margarita. She also fosters the dress’s new designs by refusing to wash them out. These combined actions are the ultimate symbolic gestures that permit her to resolve her trespasses in the 16th century and fully reunite with her first husband and society.
As Laura’s outfit is completely void of color initially, its whiteness represents a starchy purity that contrasts to the native land soiled with blood in Tenochtitlan—the very same elements that later serve to color it. The dress’s preliminary sterile state allows it to demonstrate the belief that whitening a lineage was a form of bettering its descendants. These views have been held since the birth of the first mestizo and the creation of the caste system in the New World, “as the notion of purity gradually came to be equated with Spanish ancestry, with ‘Spanishness’” and thus whiteness (Martínez 2), and maintained through the latter half of the 20th century. The dress, in its colorless innocence, represents attempts to wash, or bleach, the indigeneity out of the mestizo culture, specifically, out of the domestic domain constructed by Pablo and Margarita. This is exhibited by the way Pablo reacts in horror every time he sees Laura wearing the damaged garb in his white castle—“¡Déjate de hacer la idiota!..¿Por qué traes el vestido quemado?” (Garro 278)—and she ultimately has to cover up the new version of the costume with a bleach-white sweater to appease him or even earn permission to leave the house and go out in public where she represents his status. Not only is the dress dirty and thus improper to be worn in public by an upper-middle-class businessman’s wife, its muddiness reflects an indigenous lineage shunned in Pablo’s domestic empire.
In this realm, Pablo reigns with the authority of a tyrant and has banned all reminders of his own mixed lineage. This is demonstrated through his forcing Laura under house arrest as if she were his subject who can be jailed for breaking a law (“después, en muchos días no dejaron salir a la señora Laurita. El señor ordenó que se vigilaran las puertas y las ventanas de la casa” (Garro 279). His rejection of indigeneity in the realm can be easily seen through his anger at Josefina’s claim to have seen an indio at the window: “¡Señora, anoche un hombre estuvo espiando por la ventana de su cuarto,” a revelation that causes Pablo to look at his wife “como si la fuera matar” (274). He makes his wife a threat to the stability of his rule and he treats her as though she were an accomplice to an act of terror brought about by the “other,” the indio. Though Laura ultimately defies him, until she quits her modern life she must succumb to his rule and cover her contentious garment.
In continuing to wear the dress, even underneath the sweater, Laura is subverting her tyrannical modern husband along with the aspects of their shared mestizo culture. Furthermore, this continuity in wearing the now-Nahua-style sheath demonstrates a solidarity with her indigenous community suffering in their 16th century battle along with Laura’s desire to have a reminder of this part of her past life in her present one. While Pablo and Margarita lock her in her bedroom under house arrest for even bringing a meek reminder of her indigenous heritage into the modern domain, Laura refuses to mimic this practice with her lineage, flaunting it on her clothing by forcibly bringing her ancestry into her colorless, domestic realm of the 20th century. This camaraderie is viewed as an even greater insult by Pablo who associates the garment with her alleged sexual assault, which is augmented by the other man’s perceivably inferior, fully indigenous, race.
Pablo’s anger at the incident that resulted in the first instance of damage to the dress (returning from car troubles at the bridge in Cuitzeo) stems both from his perception of his wife as sexually unfaithful and inconstant as well as his own, unreconciled, mixed lineage (Tyutina 8). The fact that he resembles the primo marido indicates an indigenous lineage to at least some degree. Laura notes “me enamoré de Pablo en una carretera, durante un minuto en el cual me recordó a alguien conocido, a quien yo no recordaba” (Garro 275) and “a los dos les gusta el agua y las casas frescas. Los dos miran el cielo por las tardes y tienen el pelo negro y los dientes blancos” (274), establishing not only their similar appearances but a shared affinity for nature and weather patterns that were quintessential concerns in indigenous society. However, while Pablo looks like the primo marido to the extent that Laura expects he will act in a similar manner –“a veces, recuperaba aquel instante en el que parecía que iba a convertirse en ese otro al cual se parecía” (275) –, and thus that she could create her modern life as an extension of her past one, the opposite is true. She continues, stating that “Pablo habla a saltitos, se enfurece por nada y pregunta a cada instante: ¿en qué piensas? Mi primo marido no hace ni dice nada de eso” (274) signifying Pablo’s brutish, unintelligible, and incendiary reactions that deviate from the primo marido’s calmer and more caring nature.
Pablo has not only omitted the indigenous lineage from his personal history, but he comes to represent the culture that has all but forgotten it. After Laura fell in love with him for appearing like her first husband, Pablo “inmediatamente volvía a ser absurdo, sin memoria, y sólo repetía los gestos de todos los hombres de la ciudad de México” (Garro 275). His absurd nature and lack of memory are indicative of the dearth of cultural recollection regarding the nation’s Nahua roots. As ethnicity can be seen as a non-fixed societal interpretation (Nagel 111), Pablo represents a consensual mestizo agreement to “perform” its Caucasian origins. The fact that he resembles every other man in the large city gives him a sense of anonymity and demonstrates that his attitude is representative of the one that is shared by the hegemonic, patriarchal force in the nation. This reflects the development of the mestizo identity post-conquest: “Mestizos … sought to cope with the new reality by abandoning indigenous communities and moving into towns and cities” (Maclachlan 249-50) and by “rejecting” any “Indianizing stance,” by “abandoning native languages, dress, eating habits, religions, and sometimes kin—to deflect the negative consequences of being recognized as ‘indios.’” (Klor de Alva 6-7). While this desertion is initially physical and spatial, it becomes figurative, as well. Laura’s preliminary white outfit is thus symptomatic of the anonymous, male-dominated, memory-less culture of the developed, urban center.
Laura’s dress does not just link her to the mestizo culture in the 20th century, but also to the perceptions of la Malinche’s sexuality that eventually expanded to that of mestiza women in general. As the white color allegorically symbolizes virginal purity of the wearer, Laura’s tarnishing this symbol gives the impression that she is no longer chaste and thus fuels Pablo and Margarita’s perceptions of her as overly promiscuous and inconstant. These views are furthered by the family’s shared history, or belief that Laura was raped by an indigenous man: Pablo employs her insistence on wearing the garment after the bridge incident as confirmation of an extra-marital affair with the same native man and quickly decides his wife is unfaithful to him. Thus, her wears renders her as a fickle betrayer in his quick-to-react mentality. In constructing the liaison, he is able to make himself the victim of the situation, rather than allowing Laura to be the sufferer of a sexual assault, further cementing Laura’s connection to la Malinche, “the mother violated but still blamed” (Bartra 221). Laura’s forced assumption of the development of la Malinche’s reputation from its origins in the 16th century through present day ultimately displays Garro’s call for a repositioning of la Malinche’s modern social perceptions and connotations.
Laura’s covering of her tarnished outfit is indicative of the mestizo view towards feminine sexuality. The dress, for being dirty and non-purely white merits concealing, however, she must also cover herself in order to enter the public sphere and maintain her image as Pablo’s respectable wife. Her family sees her continuing to wear the ruined garment beneath its new covering as confirmation of her imaginary carnal exploits and sexuality. They then extend this association to indigenous men as evidenced by Margarita’s initial reaction to seeing Laura’s state in Cuitzeo: Margarita, “asustada, tocaba la sangre [del] vestido blanco y señalaba la sangre que tenía en los labios y la tierra que se había metido en [sus] cabellos” (Garro 273). To her, the only explanation for this appearance is rape by an indigenous man. This is confirmed, later, as the housemaids claim to have seen a similar-looking man at the window, to which Laura confirms that this is “el indio que me siguió desde Cuitzeo hasta la ciudad de México…” (275).
Pablo’s constructions of Laura’s actions calls into question the role of the dress in sexual and marital infidelity. Undoubtedly, Laura has deceived each of her husbands: she has been disloyal to the primo marido by marrying Pablo and she has gone against Pablo, technically, by having another marriage. Pablo, however, has no knowledge of her actual treachery and imagines one that differs greatly from reality. This assignment of the false incident and blame mirrors the construction of history by the Spanish invaders in regards to the conquest the Nahua people: “awed but uninformed, Europeans settled on a popular-history version of events, a heroic myth that at its heart rested on assumed European superiority and Indian incapacity” (Maclachlan 195). In this trope, Pablo functions as the conquistador and boxes Laura into the “[incapacitated]” native. He sees her continuing to wear the dress as confirmation of his theory, furthering her constructed duplicity. The primo marido, however, eventually allows her to reconcile her actions through the garment. Each time she returns to the past wearing the damaged gown, she demonstrates that she is permitting her indigenous lineage to maintain its place in her 1960s world. Furthermore, his reaction to her unfaithfulness differs from Pablo’s: she admits to the primo marido “ya sabes que tengo miedo y que por eso traiciono…” and he responds “ya lo sé” and bows his head (Garro 271), as if assuming a portion of the blame.
Pablo’s assumption of the role of the white conquistador in his crafted narrative about his wife’s sexuality allows him to further box her into the overtly-promiscuous standard to which he holds her on a European level: the harlot. Historically, the Spanish conquistadors confused Aztec women with their image of the harlot due to their shared physical characteristics, their ornamental style of hair and makeup, and their—perceived—luxurious vesture (Evans 173). Laura steadily acquires various aspects of this association throughout Garro’s story: her hair becomes ragged and her dress disheveled and patterned with designs. While unkempt hair and dirty clothing are far from what the Europeans were accustomed to noting as “ornamental” and “luxurious dress,” considering that Laura returns to Tenochtitlan during conquest battles, they are clearly emblematic of this perception. During combat, with little resources and no time to perfect the desired look, disarranging Laura’s hair and damaging her attire with elements of war would have been the most accessible means of re-creating her outfit to fit in with the Nahua population. Through this additional association, Pablo can further ostracize and shame his wife.
The discrepancies in the two men’s constructions of and reactions to Laura’s betrayals accentuate their respective views on feminine sexuality. Laura has almost free agency with the primo marido, who trusts she will return to him in her same disheveled dress. Pablo attempts to quit Laura of all abilities save for her mystic powers to time travel (of which he has no knowledge) by incarcerating her for wearing this clothing at all. Thus, Laura can be sexual in the 16th century, while in the 20th she becomes representative of mestizo society’s view of the dangerous sensuality of women that stems back to the paradigm of la Malinche as the “Desirable Whore/Terrible Mother” (Cypess 9). Laura effectively becomes a symbol for the patriarchal view of Mexican woman than has developed in reaction to the infamous 16th century interpreter. The fact that it is Laura’s sexuality as constructed by her mestizo husband and not her actual sexuality is emblematic of the blind eye turned towards reason and the overarching presence of these negative associations in society. This role of Laura and her dress demonstrates Garro’s rejection of this centuries’-old stereotype.
Due to its dual nature of representing both historical and present-day Mexico, the dress, and with it Laura, is suspended in a liminal, temporal space. In its final state of disarray, it pertains to the era of the conquest, however, in being covered while in this state, it permits Laura to remain in her 20th century realm a little longer. This places it squarely amongst the past and present and allows her to assume varying degrees of allegiances in both. In whatever period she is currently physically in, it constantly serves as a reminder of the one left behind. Furthermore, it is the only object that travels with Laura on her temporal journeys: its presence is almost required for said sojourns, giving it a mythical ability of its own and thus placing it in-between the two eras and assigning it the great task of reconciler and moderator.
In being a liminal object, the dress causes Laura’s own transient state and allows her to be ostracized and othered in both times. In the 16th century, the European and mestizo-based garment puts her on par with la Malinche as well as las Tlaxcaltecas, who aided the Spaniards and were instrumental in the conquest of Tenochtitlan. In wearing apparel of this influence, especially during a battle in which the Nahua were quickly losing ground, general citizens, and manpower –“las filas de hombre caían una después de la otra, en cadena como si estuvieran cogidos de la mano y el mismo golpe los derribara a todos. Algunos daban un alarido tan fuerte, que quedaba resonando mucho rato después de su muerte” (Garro 281) –, Laura demonstrates her betrayal. She abandons her indigenous culture and life for a more comfortable, modern version in the 20th century—one constructed upon a foundation driven by the power of the Spaniards—as if she had deliberately allied herself with the contemporary mestizos and aided them in the destruction of indigenous memory. The clothing, through its additional representation of her second marriage, also affirms to the native community that she presumably had sexual relations with her mestizo husband, underscoring her connection to la Malinche.
In the 20th century, the dress, once ragged, allows Laura’s family to ostracize her, label her as immoral, and treat her as an insane, lesser individual within their shared home. While there are clearly other rifts between Laura and her married family, the gown is the focal point at which they direct their anger and even gives Pablo what he sees as an excuse to physically harm her: “golpeó la cómoda con el puño cerrado…se acercó a la señora y le dio una santa bofetada” (Garro 275). The atmosphere in the house is so tense in regards to the garment that even Nacha and Josefina can sense the anxiety amongst their bosses. During Laura’s confession to her, Nacha recalls “la noche en que volvieron” from Guanajuato “Josefina la recamarera y ella, Nacha, notaron la sangre en el vestido y los ojos ausentes de la señora” Laura. Margarita “parecía muy preocupada,” and “en la mesa el señor se le quedó mirando malhumorada a su mujer” (273). The act of wearing—without cleaning—the garment creates a bellicose domestic space that parallels the war to which Laura continuously returns in Tenochtitlan.
The dress’s symbolization of alleged inconstancy offers an excuse for both Pablo and Margarita to shun and reign superior over Laura. This ostracizing devolves into them treating her both as a child and a hysterical woman. Margarita screams at her “¡Por Dios, Laura, no te pongas ese vestido!” (Garro 276) and remarks to her son “¡pobre hijo mío, tu mujer está loca!” (279); eventually the two decide to lock her under house arrest given her frantic state and sudden disappearances. When she is finally allowed to leave the house, Margarita accompanies her: “la señora salía acompañada de su suegra y el chofer tenía órdenes de vigilarlas estrechamente” (280). This act of surveillance by the mother-in-law suggests that her family does not trust her and believes that only vigilance and proper, modern decorum will rid her of her evil ways and garment. The dress’s role in this exclusion is evidenced as Garro introduces it at the story’s onset in terms of Laura’s insistence to Nacha that her family cannot know of her return whilst in this attire: “La señora Laura apareció con un dedo en los labios en señal de silencio. Todavía llevaba el traje blanco quemado y sucio de tierra y sangre” (269). That the story opens as such, upon Laura’s last journey before her definitive move to the past, further emphasizes the torridness of the contemporary relationships, fostered by her costume, that drives her back in time to the relative safety of the conquest battles.
Laura’s altered white dress additionally serves to reflect the discrepancies in her marriages that ultimately stem back to the disparities in gender roles and perceptions that developed over time. In the modern era, the garment causes her relationship with Pablo to deteriorate rapidly as his anger at her stems from and is directed towards her wearing the outfit. This irritation eventually leads him to physically assault her and force her to flee her materially comfortable lifestyle for the protection of her materially-void first life and husband. Even with the battles raging in Tenochtitlan, the loss of her family and community at the hands of the Spaniards –as she notes about a visit with her primo marido “la casa estaba ardiendo y que atrás de mí estaban mis padres y mis hermanitos muertos” (Garro 277)–, Laura decides her domestically violent, modern life is the greater of two evils. She ultimately elects to live in a world where she has the potential to be killed by era-revolutionary weapons at any time in the Aztec capital, yet this risk is lesser than that of being hit by Pablo in Mexico City. Thus, the dress is emblematic of the severe negativity to which her second marriage has been reduced.
As the dress represents the unequal, violent, and estranged relationship with Pablo, it exemplifies the eventual state of the relationship with the primo marido, it becomes the manner through which she reconciles her betrayal with him. His reception to her is initially cold: Laura comments that he “quiso decirme que yo merecía la muerte” (Garro 271). However, each time the primo marido sees her returning to the 16th century wearing the unbleached, purposefully-donned outfit and allows it to be further embellished with war stains, he opens up more to her. This resolution is compounded when Laura lets the primo marido remove the garment, cementing her decision to stay in the era of the conquest. That she permits the primo marido to take it off (but won’t even consider taking it off for Pablo) is emblematic of her true sexuality and allegiance. The removal of her clothing suggests a consummation of her first marriage. While Garro never explicitly states if Laura has had relations with either man, it is significant that she only presumably does so with one in the story. There is a clear selection of the first husband over the second as well as a stark negation of the licentious nature to which she is ascribed in the 1960s. This non-promiscuous sexual act further demonstrates a reconciliation between the indio and his (now) mestiza wife, paralleling Garro’s call for reconciliation between the modern mestizo nation and its roots.
The primo marido’s method of removal of the garment further exemplifies his more delicate and caring nature: he barely lays a hand on the dress or Laura at all. Before fully quitting the garment, in one of her earlier journeys to the conquest, the primo marido “carició” Laura’s gown “con la punta de los dedos” (Garro 272). When he does remove the costume in her last temporary journey back in time, he does so only with, again, “los dedos” (277), presenting a stark contrast to Pablo hitting Laura with his whole fist for only wearing it. Ultimately submitting to the Nahua culture, not the mestizo one, demonstrates the now-mestiza-seeming Laura’s re-integration into indigenous society and a denunciation of the modern culture. The fact that Laura rejects someone with Pablo’s caliber of a very influential and affluent businessman with connections to the president of Mexico (Montes Garcés 117) further compounds her refutation of the contemporary culture.
The dress demonstrates that there is a sliding scale in Laura’s two marriages. Laura’s relationship with Pablo worsens due to the garment while her partnership with the primo marido improves via the same vessel. They both cannot be on the same level simultaneously; as one improves, the other deteriorates. This is evidenced by the fact that when Laura meets Pablo, he reminds her of someone she had once known but can’t quite remember. As her union with Pablo depreciates with time, this first encounter represents its best state: at the height of her second marriage, there effectively is no other husband. Laura is too far removed from her first life in order to recall the other man. As soon as she starts traveling back in time and reconciling her 16th century betrayal, her union with Pablo worsens rapidly, allowing her to fully abandon it. This leads to the height of her connection with the primo marido when she finally decides to reside only with him. The blossoming of the mutual relationship with the first husband causes Laura to realize the discrepancies in her modern union and to feel a “gradual estrangement” from Pablo (Nanfito 135-6). Eventually, the scale is fully tipped in favor of a life in Tenochtitlan.
Laura’s dress also gives Garro a space on which to comment on gender stereotypes. Pablo’s treatment of and beliefs surrounding his wife are emblematic of his adherence to the prevailing machista attitude often found in contemporary, mestizo men. This outlook is reminiscent of the conquistador’s views of indigenous women: they saw these figures as exotic and whose function lay in their erotic value, as they served as a fetishized release to the European males an ocean away from their docile and proper Spanish wives. This exoticism is based, in part, in the constructed physical resemblance of the Nahua women to the figure of the European harlot and a belief that natives had an “uncontrollable sexual drive” (Young 181). This association is heavily misplaced, however. Although the harlots were overtly-sexual beings, the connection between the Nahua women and these figures was based solely on outward appearance—their shared affinity for ornamental hair, attire, and makeup—rather than a demonstration of this same, explicit carnality by indigenous women (Evans 173). This paradigm would then be accredited to them, by the invaders, due to their resemblance to the harlot figure and the Spaniards’ desire to fulfill their “[feared]” carnal fetishes of the exotic, native woman (Young 149). Pablo sees Laura’s new, ragged appearance as emblematic of this same image. Unlike the conquistadors who celebrated this sexual attribute however, Pablo shuns this self-created characteristic of his wife as it does not resonate with his moral values.
Pablo then attempts to control Laura and reign in her embarrassing behavior. While he cannot stop her from wearing the dress, he can lock her indoors and prevent society from seeing her in it. In this, he quits her of her earthly abilities. In fact, the only way that Pablo would have been able to remove the costume would have been through a suggested sexual act; the fact that he makes no attempt at this demonstrates his refusal to take part in his wife’s promiscuity. On the other hand, the primo marido is much more lenient with his wife’s freedom, as evidenced by the erotic act suggested by his confiscation of her garment. Furthermore, he treats her as an equal, as shown by his assumption of part of her guilt. Garro’s distinctions amongst the perceptions of these two men in regards to feminine sensuality force readers to reconsider the mestizo perception of la Malinche as well as their general stance on the taboo subject of feminine carnal agency.
Just as the dress serves to differentiate between the 16th and 20th centuries, and places Laura in a liminal space among between the two temporal worlds, it ultimately acts to unify her lives and the two eras. It serves as the talisman that allows her mystic, time-traveling abilities to flourish, linking her amid the two epochs. The article is striped with stains just as the light that accompanies each temporal journey occurs when “el sol se vuelve blanco y uno está en el mismo centro de sus rayos.” The first time this phenomenon of time travel occurs to Laura in the story, she “en ese momento, [miró] el tejido de [su] vestido blanco y en ese instante [oyó] [los] pasos [del primo marido]” (Garro 270). The fact that she instinctively reacts to her temporal journey by looking at her wears indicates a connection of the garment to the time-travel producing light and their combined function as a talisman. It is the only physical object that accompanies her journeys and is subsequently physically altered in both eras, demonstrating its role in the unification of her two worlds.
As the garment is eventually eternalized as a mixture of both cultures, it ultimately stands as a combination of both of her lives and thus a metaphor for the mestizo race as a whole: something rooted in both European and indigenous lineages. It serves as a forced reminder that mestizos are, at least in part, indios and emphasizes Garro’s stress on integrating the historical reality of the nation-state within its modern development. The dress then serves as a vessel for Garro to call for a unification and reconciliation of the Mexican nation of history, race, and gender. Laura’s confessions and testimony to Nacha serve to eradicate the boundaries amid the two temporal worlds (Nanfito 130), augmented by her successive journeys (131) between, although physically the same space, completely different worlds. The outfit calls to attention the true, national heritage of Mexico, while discouraging a continuation of the narrative of the mestizo people as being born of a whorish traitor.
As the dress acquires its native aspects and helps to reconcile Laura’s betrayal through the acquisition of dirt and blood—literally the ground beneath the conquest and the corporal mixture of the Spaniards and Nahuas—these elements take on immense symbolism. They are not arbitrary stains: they represent the nation’s beginnings in the violence of the conquest. They are the earth of the native land conquered by the whites and the blood of the two warring factions mixed in battle, shed fighting to defend it: the ground and the blood of the mestizos. As the ground is foundational, this mixture of stolen land and combatant bodies demonstrates that these spots are part of the same physical, literal mixture upon which the modern state was established. The imperfections on the garment thus serve as “a constant reminder of the injury inflicted by the Spanish conquistadors on the body of the Mexican nation” (Montes Garcés 123): they represent a national guilt.
“La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas” deals with some of the most controversial themes in Mexican history and present culture. Garro’s stance is not left unnoticed throughout the story: she proposes a re-envisioning both of la Malinche and Mexican women, as well as for the acknowledged integration of the indigenous presence in current Mexican lineal and cultural heritage. Through the magical realism of Laura, Garro explores these contested themes, however the plain white dress Laura wears now serves to further accentuate, problematize, and develop these ideas and the issues surrounding them. The garment illuminates the relationship between the history of Mexico and its modern culture, the contested perceptions of femininity and female sexuality based off of the centuries’ old perception of la Malinche, as well as the (mis)understanding of the past and present and the indigenous and European-influenced mestizo culture. It serves to subtly hint at the profound need for a reconciliation of history and actuality and a reassessment of Mexican gender perceptions.
Bartra, Roger. La jaula de la melancolía : identidad y metamorfosis del mexicano. Grijalbo, 1987.
Cypess, Sandra Messinger. La Malinche in Mexican Literature from History to Myth. Texas UP, 1991.