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Laura Esquivel Reflects on Long Journey of “Like Water for Chocolate”, Now in Ballet

Laura Esquivel takes a break from her busy schedule as Mexico’s ambassador to Brazil to chat with GoldenGlobes.com via Zoom about the California premiere of the ballet version of Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), her most successful novel.

Three decades after that literary phenomenon, which was translated into 30 languages and was adapted into a film that was nominated for a Golden Globe, the forbidden love of Tita and Pedro is still alive. It’s now in the hands of the American Ballet Theater whose dance adaptation debuted in London and will make its American premiere at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California on March 29 to April 2.

Esquivel returned to the character of Tita in two other books, and has also written numerous novels, children’s books, and an anthology of her short stories.

If something characterizes your work, it is that you always mixed things within literature. For example, in Like Water for Chocolate, you included cooking recipes and then added music and photos. I imagine that when they told you that they were going to do a ballet with your novel, it must not have surprised you too much.

No, it worried me and filled me with curiosity to see how it could be translated and done without words. I was delighted; the experience was wonderful. I am very grateful to Christopher Wheeldon (choreographer) because he listened to me and included me in the project.

I went to rehearsals and it seemed impressive to me, even a small lap is timed. There is a person who records the indications as it happens in the cinema with the script function. For me, it was quite an apprenticeship. I was dazzled by Christopher’s ability to translate and create that magic so that you can read with your eyes. It is very special what this man achieved. He is an alchemist of the movement.

I understand that the production is huge.

Yes, the technical requirements are tough and a huge place is needed due to the size of the set. In fact, I told them that it would be great to take it to Mexico and they told me that it can’t be done because it doesn’t fit in the Bellas Artes while in the National Auditorium, where it would fit, that fundamental intimacy would be lost a bit.

The interesting thing is that now, the ballet film is being released in various parts of the world and gives many people the opportunity to enjoy the show where the production will not go.

Do you feel that this adaptation is part of the same madness of the novel that you wrote in four months and which quickly became a bestseller?

Like Water for Chocolate has a life of its own. We have walked together for more than 30 years and she has been my great teacher. She has taught me many things. I never know what is coming next. It never ceases to amaze me. What I least expected is that someone would propose to adapt it to the ballet format.

What do you feel the story has gained with this adaptation?

The symbolism. It has some symbolic images that connect with ideas, emotions, thought structures that you cannot put on paper. You have to decipher the symbology that Christopher puts and although there may be people who do not see it, they will feel it since there is an arrangement that impacts you, reaches you and transforms you. That is where I say that it does alchemy.

Christopher made me cry several times and sometimes you feel a jolt inside your chest. He takes you to moments of ecstasy through movement and music.

In these 30 years since the novel’s publication, you have written many more books and you have even used Tita again on two occasions. What have you learned from this success which has not been repeated?

It has taught me that when such a powerful collective bond is achieved, perhaps it is because the receiver had a need, that he was waiting for someone to put those words together to remind him of something.

We writers should keep in mind how far the stories reach you, how you only transmit them, you give yourself the opportunity to listen to them and to be an interpreter of that energy, of those ideas and of that thought. After Like Water for Chocolate, I collected the voices of many women who were there and dedicated their lives to cooking.

I even tried to reproduce that language of intimacy, with which one tells a close, intimate story with no other pretense. That has always been a learning experience. I have a whole practice for when I’m writing – align my energy so it’s right. I try to be honest with myself and with what I feel, perceive, hear and desire at that moment. I try not to come from my separate thinking of a collective but of a shared energy.

What is going to happen? I don’t know. That no longer concerns me. I’m not interested in what the editors say because music and image are also important to me, even if they’re not in fashion. Twice, I have gotten into those adventures of producing a record, in La ley del amor and recently in Mi negro pasado.

The good thing is that now, I can put music on because Spotify is there and then they download it from there. And I got out of trouble because when it came to royalties, there were problems distributing and buying the novel.

For this reason, I asked, “What happens if I am the owner of the music?” They answered me, “Buy the rights and have the adaptations made and you solve everything.” I do that with great pleasure because the final album also fills me with pride.

The place for women has changed a lot from 1989 to what it is today. Maybe you were among the first ones who got the ball rolling.

I didn’t. These phenomena are not of a person, they are collective. I am very convinced that consciousness is not an individual or local phenomenon. Right now, we are in the midst of a great change in the way the world has functioned, which entered into a crisis after the pandemic and urgently needs a reordering of our needs, thoughts and dreams, where we want to go and why.

All these are the questions that lead me to write my latest work, Lo que yo vi (What I Saw). They are memories but of a community that dreamed of seeing a better world and it was distracted because we did not always understand or assume that it is never an individual matter.

I imagine that your current job as ambassador of Mexico in Brazil must generate many commitments and headaches. Do you feel in that sense literature is much freer and more rewarding, that you write what you want while trying to change the world in politics is like fighting Goliath?

I am a product of the 60s, with all that philosophy behind it, with all that baggage of dreams and desires for the world to be different. I have never been able to separate things. I feel it would be a mistake to do so.

When I started to get involved, and even became a representative, people asked me, “Why?” I’m sitting comfortably in my house, opening my computer, writing, giving my lectures and traveling when the country is falling apart, when it is being dismantled? Talk to me about democracy when people don’t starve, when we all really have the same chance as I do, when they have the right to decide what they want to be.

In 2009, when I was in charge of the Directorate of Culture in Coyoacán, I had a program that was designed for change and since then, I have that conviction that has given me enormous satisfaction. At that time, I told all the workers of the Ministry of Culture that art is a human right and that everyone should have the opportunity to hold an artistic workshop during their work hours.

They all came up to me telling me that this was impossible, what I was going to do when my secretary goes to a workshop and I told them not to worry, that I was answering the phone, that my hand was not going to fall off.

The program was launched and when December arrived, the sweeper from the Casa de la Cultura approached me and asked if I could go to his exhibition. His work was incredible, monumental, a wonderful art glass window. For me, that is the commitment.

Now, in Brazil, I am very excited because I come from theater and music, and it is interesting to be in contact with María Bethania, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso, all of whom were part of a musical movement, and in theater with Augusto Boal, who was a deputy and who was also looking for all this.

Now is the time to put art as a transforming element of society, to amalgamate everything. The change will come from small sustainable communities that sow, that share what they harvest and who eat and are fed in a different way.

I am more than happy here, although it is true that it is a lot of work and my only regret is that I have to deal with the fact that Mexico has been requesting in-person visas (not electronic) from Brazilians since June. That is difficult for someone who believes in interconnectedness, free movement and freedom.

Translated by Mario Amaya