Mexican screenwriter Laura Esquivel's first novel, Like Water For Chocolate, met with unusual success when it was published in 1989. The enthusiasm about the book led to a Spanish-language movie of the same title, which also was immensely popular. Upon translation from Spanish into English in 1992, the novel incited similar excitement, becoming a best-seller; subsequently, the English-subtitled film became one of the most popular foreign-language films in American film history. In addition to this popular success, Like Water For Chocolate received critical acclaim, as it emerged during the early 1990s, when new ideas about multiculturalism in literature brought attention to the work of previously ignored minority women authors.
Like Water For Chocolate belongs to the genre of magical realism. This literary style, first developed by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in his 1949 essay "Lo maravilloso real," generally describes novels by Latin American writers (though it is increasingly applied to writers of any background) that are infused with distinct fantastic, mythical, and epic themes. Magical realism is often explained as a unique product of the Latin American condition, particularly its history of European colonialism, which resulted in a delicate relationship between the contradictory yet co-existing forces of indigenous religion and myth and the powerful Catholic Church. In the case of Mexico, Esquivel's homeland, one need only look as far as two of the country's dearest cultural narratives for an example of this balance. The first is the Aztec myth describing the founding of Tenochitlan, which later became Mexico City. The myth tells the story of the Mexica, wandering hunters who received the vision that their empire would be built upon an island where an eagle sat on a cactus devouring a serpent. The fulfillment of this apparition is still held today as the historical beginning of the Aztec empire and modern-day Mexico. The second cultural narrative involves the Virgen de Guadalupe, who, according to legend, appeared to the indigenous man Juan Diego as a brown-skinned Madonna amidst a flurry of rose petals. Catholicism came to the conquered natives thus embodied, and the Virgen eventually became the patron saint of the country. Both stories rely on potent visual imagery that heightened natural elements and events by adding an element of the fantastic.
The characters in Like Water for Chocolate are set against the backdrop of the most important modernizing force in Mexican history, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17. During this time, peasants and natives banded together under the leadership of figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata to reject the old order's dictatorship, revive democracy, and claim Mexico for the everyday man and woman. Esquivel uses the revolution to explore themes of masculinity and gender identity, and examine how individuals appropriate for themselves the revolution's goal of liberty.