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Ever seen Mommy Dearest? If you haven't, imagine the scariest, most violent and unjust mother you can think of. Multiple that by three and you're pretty close to Mama Elena's character. Okay, maybe we're exaggerating a tad, but she's definitely not mushy or emotional.
We don't see it (hugs and kisses), we don't hear it (never are the words "I love you" uttered, and we definitely don't see it in her actions). In fact, she's quite violent with Tita, taking on a rough and masculine approach with her youngest, treating her more like property than a person.
When she finds her crying, for instance, she gives her "a tremendous slap that left her rolling in the dirt […]" (2. 83).
She's also skilled in using fear as a weapon, as with her threats to Tita:
I won't let you start acting crazy. This is the first and last time for craziness. Or you will be sorry, I promise you that. (2.92)
Later on, she threatens to send her to a mental ward. And you thought your mother was crazy.
Maybe, maybe not. We can kinda, sorta understand where she's coming from if we take the story in its historical context: imagine the risk of running your own farm in Mexico in the 1900's as a single mom. Raids by both the rebels and the independents are happening all the time and several characters in the novel are killed by bullets.
Does our opinion change of Mama Elena when we learn about her dark past and tragedy in matters of the heart? After all, she loses the man of her dreams and is forced to marry another.
So maybe she's trying to save Tita from similar loss? Or is she just trying to cover up her scars? We can't help but wonder when she says things like this:
I've never needed a man for anything; all by myself, I've done all right with my ranch and my daughters. (4.284)
At the very least, she makes us think about why we are the way we are. Do we end up being just like our parents, or can we break the cycle and become our own independent selves?