The performance of masculinity, a theory introduced by Judith Butler, is explored through the characters in Arturo Islas’ The Rain God. Islas introduces male characters that encompass a wide range of masculine representations and roles placed upon the male gender specifically in the Mexican culture. His text constructs masculinity in his characters through the representation and image of the body. At a young age Islas battles polio and is left with a limp, this illness creates an awareness of his own body. This life event along with other parts of his life crosses over into The Rain God and the character of Miguel Chico serves as a surrogate in the fictional autobiographical novel.
The image of the body for each male character correlates to the level of masculinity that he holds and remains significant in identifying the existence of machismo or the lack thereof. Machismo is often seen as a negative characteristic; a trait more specifically attributed to men. Ernest Hemingway describes Américo Paredes as “the most hallowed interpreter of the macho” (Rodriguez 205). Folklorist Paredes defines machismo best in his essay “The United States,Mexico, and ‘Machismo’” as a trait that dominates men all across our world, yet observed majorly in Mexico, because it “is a whole pattern of behavior” (26). He defines it as a trait that represents the bravado in men, the honor and bravery, the “superman of the multitude” (17), yet it has become tainted with a “ ‘false’ machismo” (18) which reflects the negative qualities, such as “the outrageous boast, a distinct phallic symbolism, the identification of the man with the male animal” (17). These contrasting definitions of machismo, play a role in the confusion that exists in society and in men, when attempting to perform the role.
Gloria Anzaldúa describes the concept of “machismo” as the result of the colonizing and conquest by the Spanish. She traces constructed machismo, as a result of “hierarchical male dominance” in relation to the oppression by the Anglo man and to the history of control and dominance over the Mexican man, who due to his own feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, “displaces or transfers these feelings to the Chicano by shaming him” (105). The shame exerted on the Mexican and Mexican American man creates a “deep sense of racial shame” and their loss of pride and honor, “breeds a false machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them” (105). This cycle of violence and shaming continues and becomes a false expectation of machismo and of the performance of masculinity.
The male characters in The Rain God explore the concept of the body as a stage and masculinity as its performance. Just as in theater, the stage is necessary to reinforce the setting in which the actors perform. The same applies to the image of the body since it is the necessary setting in which gender, and in this case masculinity, performs its role. Islas uses the recurring symbol of death throughout the novel to illustrate the tragic consequence and punishment confronted by men who fail at the performance of masculinity. The male characters in The Rain God explore the concept of the body as a stage and masculinity as its performance. Just as in theater, the stage is necessary to reinforce the setting in which the actors perform. The same applies to the image of the body since it is the necessary setting in which gender, and in this case masculinity, performs its role. Islas uses the recurring symbol of death throughout the novel to illustrate the tragic consequence and punishment confronted by men who fail at the performance of masculinity.
Islas uses death as the figurative representation of society’s criticism, a family haunted by death, and serving as a symbol of their inheritance, and their punishment. It is not a mark of the end, but rather punishment for a family of “sinners” (4), as described by Islas. Death acts as the critic, to those who failed to fulfill their role, their performance, their expectation. As we read about each character, death trails closely behind. Death translates as the voice of society, speaking out against the performance of masculinity. Death serves as the ultimate punishment for this sin. The manner in which death manifests itself in each character reflects their performance. In order to explore the role of death as a representation of society’s punishment for the failed masculine body, the novel represents the male images of the body through the characters of Miguel Chico, Miguel Grande, Felix and JoEl, including their performance of masculinity.
Societal views and the media support are responsible for the view of masculinity reflecting on the image of the body and its performance. Islas’ focus on outward appearance, the image of the body, lies in how each character highlights and performs their masculinity. When the image of masculinity is not performed to its fullest expectation a broken sense is experienced and the body becomes the reflection of this narrative. This is when society reacts to those who do not fit the image of masculinity with negative criticism and a lack of acceptance.
Islas explores the representations of masculinity and the construction of male identities in The Rain God. Through the characters of Miguel Grande, Miguel Chico, Felix Angel and his son JoEl, we are introduced to male representations that society has constructed, accepted and rejected. Each one of these male characters represents the voice of masculinity defining itself. Through their actions, their relationships, and their inner most thoughts we can identify the influences in their lives and the pain exhibited and felt by the male gender intrinsically. Each one of these characters is physically different from each other, yet so similar, internally. They all belong to the same family, from the same root, under the same matriarch influence, Mama Chona. Each man has faced their share of impacted life events, and each one is influenced and constructed into their own image. This image is what others use to measure their masculinity.
The image of the male body is the narrative of the masculine identity of each character. Miguel Chico represents the disabled man who lives dependent on a machine; he represents the incomplete “half” man. He is a man in search of completeness, and acceptance, yet burdened by society’s views, their rejection, and expectations of the male identity that he should hold. Miguel Grande, his father, represents the galán. He is the image of the perfect man, handsome, strong, widely accepted by society and his family. He represents the image of masculinity in the eyes of family, society, and of the Mexican culture. He falls into the most widely accepted and recognized image in Mexican culture, the “macho.” This image is a supported act of masculinity that has distinctive features that are repeatedly used in the media and by authors to reinforce the stereotype of Mexican masculinity. Miguel Grande’s brother, Felix, represents the repressed man, the juxtaposition of the galan, and the feminine man. Felix’s denial of his homosexuality bestows death upon him, not only emotionally, but physically as well. He represents the masculine identity that represses desire and voice. JoEl, Felix’s son is the representation of the damaged man. He is tormented and damaged because of the broken relationship he had with his father, and then it worsens after Felix’s death. Though other characters face similar father-son issues, JoEl appears to represent the separation and anxiety that men face from the lack of a father’s presence. Yet his pain and loss are not expressed, allowing for further questioning into the type of relationship that JoEl and Felix really had. His damaged behavior is manifested through his precarious ways of coping and his rejection of any acceptance. Each one of these characters embodies a stereotype constructed from the idea of the perfect “macho.” The machista is a more widely acceptable and recognized representation of masculinity by society. The “others,” such as the disabled or homosexual man are considered taboo and rejected, and viewed as a resistance against nature. The machista serves as the stereotyped male who will not allow for anyone in society to dictate or control his actions and behavior. He lives life in his own accord, and represents the ultimate image of masculinity that everyone must adhere to, because to him it is the only way and the only performance of his body. Miguel Chico is the oldest son of Miguel Grande, the favorite and closest grandchild of Mama Chona. Islas begins with Miguel Chico’s story most likely because this character represents the author’s own voice and holds a closer tie to his personal story than the rest of the male characters in the novel. Miguel Chico’s body represents the disabled man. He attempts to perform and represent an image of masculinity instilled in him since birth, but throughout his life he is considered an inadequate man by his family and society. At a young age, he realizes that there is no avoiding death and this forms the idea that his life is rather to embrace that death will come one day. His decision to separate from his family and continue his education, stem from his idea that knowledge is power, and only through obtaining this, will he be able to prolong death from reaching him, yet straying away from the expectation he should have fulfilled, makes him a sinner, and he pays through punishment.
Society finds his father, Miguel Grande, the perfect image of masculinity; by contrast, Miguel Chico’s disabled body is a failure and is the testament of someone running away from his role of masculinity. Miguel never marries; he fails to fulfill the role of fatherhood, become a family man, or the head of household. A sense of irony lies in all of this, since the only part of his body that still remains and appears whole is his head. Yet this is not enough to create a sense of masculinity accepted by family and society. The body must be whole and work as a whole. His independence and lack of procreating serve as his punishment in the eyes of others. He finds himself ill, and the medication that he takes worsens his condition. His belief of the power in knowledge becomes an irony and his downfall, since the lack of communication and divulging of medical history cause his doctor to prescribe medication that worsens his condition. He ends up in the hospital, connected to tubes, unable to eat, facing death. This moment in his life causes him to give in to death. Knowing that he will have to live wearing a “plastic appliance at his side for the rest of his life” (Islas 7) is far worse than death. His body manifests incompleteness and lacks in performing the role of masculinity. The “appliance” that Islas refers to is the prosthesis in his own life. This “appliance” is an attachment that feels artificial and unfamiliar to him. It is the prop that hinders and impedes Islas’ “own self-perceived capacity for genuine physical (here sexual) relation” (Cutler 8). This appliance is the “impasse of prosthesis, extending and maintaining the body, artificially replacing its functions while simultaneously marking its difference from other bodies” (Cutler 8). He is marked for life as different. He does not meet the expectations of performing his masculinity to the full extent since he cannot have sexual relations. His performance of masculinity interprets as an image of dependence, as someone trapped by their own lack of body. He reflects the stereotype of a woman, trapped by her husband, unable to tear away from the dependency she has placed upon the man. He stands as the incomplete body that cannot perform sexually and appears almost feminine, and is ultimately he image of death, a surrogate to Islas, who constructs this character and uses it to exemplify animage of himself.
“You cannot escape from your body, you cannot escape from your body” (Islas 7) echoed in Miguel Chico’s head as he came in and out of consciousness after his surgery. His thoughts reflect how this novel is a representation of what happens when one suppresses the desires of the body. The novel represents those who live a life that feels the need to exemplify the image of masculinity and is predetermined by others expectations of your gender, of your family role, and of your identity. In the case of Miguel Chico he had to leave home to find his identity and acceptance. At home he was constantly in search of the approval and acceptance of a family and father that judged him and held too many expectations of him. His character reflects the thoughts of the author. According to John Alba Cutler essay, “Prosthesis, Surrogation and Relation in Arturo Islas’s The Rain God,” Miguel Chico is the surrogate of Arturo Islas. Islas was plagued by his own sexual ambiguity and his own disability. He writes that after Islas’ “childhood bout with polio” (Cutler 8) he was left with a limp, and an ulcerative colitis that left him dependent on a colostomy bag his entire life. His condition left him unable to “regard sex casually” (Cutler 8) he admits to feeling rejected and humiliated because of his limp and his bag though no one had actually done so. In Islas’ own words “I feel the constant specter of rejection “You cannot escape from your body, you cannot escape from your body” (Islas 7) echoed in Miguel Chico’s head as he came in and out of consciousness after his surgery. His thoughts reflect how this novel is a representation of what happens when one suppresses the desires of the body. The novel represents those who live a life that feels the need to exemplify the image of masculinity and is predetermined by others expectations of your gender, of your family role, and of your identity. In the case of Miguel Chico he had to leave home to find his identity and acceptance. At home he was constantly in search of the approval and acceptance of a family and father that judged him and held too many expectations of him. His character reflects the thoughts of the author. According to John Alba Cutler essay, “Prosthesis, Surrogation and Relation in Arturo Islas’s The Rain God,” Miguel Chico is the surrogate of Arturo Islas. Islas was plagued by his own sexual ambiguity and his own disability. He writes that after Islas’ “childhood bout with polio” (Cutler 8) he was left with a limp, and an ulcerative colitis that left him dependent on a colostomy bag his entire life. His condition left him unable to “regard sex casually” (Cutler 8) he admits to feeling rejected and humiliated because of his limp and his bag though no one had actually done so. In Islas’ own words “I feel the constant specter of rejection there everywhere, always worrying about the moment of explanation when I’m finally, completely naked” (Cutler 8). A similar description of vulnerability exposes that our author shares the story of the Angel family. Through the performance of Miguel Chico’s disability Islas’ conveys his own story, his own pain, and how he faced the inadequate feelings of masculinity because of his own lack of acceptance in his sexuality, and his own complications. Through Islas’ description of Miguel Chico’s disabled body he shares the image of his own body, his life and even attempts to foreshadow his death. He would later die from AIDS.
During Miguel Chico’s narration we encounter the first death in the novel. It is debated whether his own death is the first death we read about, or merely him drifting off into a sleep where he has expected death to visit him. As Miguel Chico lies on the hospital bed, the surrounding voices appear distant, calling his name, “Meegwell,” as if death were calling for him (Islas 8). This description makes him appear to be on his deathbed, a narration that he recollects of many of the members of his family, the “sinners,” “Felix, his great-aunt Cuca, his cousin Antony on his mother’s side” (4). According to him these are the family members who did not meet the expectations granted on them by family and society. They died possibly feeling shame, rejection, failure and most importantly as sinners. Miguel Chico lives with the belief that sin and failure is paid with death. His death acts as Islas’ way of killing his own self; the death exemplifies how society has rejected the author himself and not allowed for his own representation of masculinity to be accepted. Yet throughout the novel Miguel Chico’s point of view and narration serve as a constant a reminder that though society and his father killed and rejected his identity early on, his voice continues.
Our narrator remains an omnipresent voice throughout each story. The novel appears as a flashback of life, including the moments before Miguel Chico’s death, and the moment after surgery, drugged and drifting into a deep sleep. His last words “I’m an angel…At last, I am what you taught us to be” (Islas 8) are spoken through the pain, through the medical wires, to Mama Chona, who had been long dead. In those last moments, he speaks the truth. Even if this is not the moment of bodily death, it is the moment where his masculinity dies. The surgery creates a new life for him, and the expectations of masculinity become even more difficult to achieve. From this moment he awaits death, because only through death, he finds redemption and finally meets the expectation of masculinity. Death will make his body whole once again, and bring the ultimate redemption, forgiveness, through the eyes of his family. This would be his final act and he would achieve the masculinity he had failed to live.
According to Miguel Chico his disabled, incomplete body causes him more of an emotional pain rather than physical. He fails to identify himself as one of these sinners but does describe that he lives a life away from his family almost as a way of hiding himself. He gives no explanation as to why he never got married, and leaves much for assumption and question of his sexuality. He always says, “Well, I had this operation” as a way in which he lets others decide his identity (Islas 5). His disability makes him feel like half the man he should be. He fails to perform the role he expects of himself. As an incomplete body, he feels robbed of his masculinity. Unable to perform sexually hinders the expectation of masculinity that he desires. Cutler says, “Miguel Chico’s narrative is already familiar as narrative, he becomes the character through which Islas’s own vexingly ambiguous life story is made readable” (9). So not only is Miguel Chico’s body the narrative form of masculinity but it also represents the surrogate role he plays as Islas’ voice. Due to his disability Miguel Chico’s performance of masculinity cannot be achieved to the expectations he has created. The importance of his body as a representation of masculinity floods his thoughts and molds his identity. In this case, Miguel Chico feels a disconnection since he is unable to control his body. This lack of power and control over his body serves as a symbol of femininity, exemplified through his weak state.
His disabled body narrates the lack of masculinity that he feels. His disability conveys the image of femininity. His body is described as weighing “ninety-eight pounds and looked pregnant” (Islas 6) which strips him away from his last bits of masculinity. This comparison to the female body takes it one step further and strips away the last image of masculinity that he can perform. He does not possess the power or strength associated with a man’s body. Instead he describes himself as a female because his abdomen swelled so much that he looked pregnant. The image of a pregnant body supports the idea of him as the surrogate for Islas. His pregnant body represents him as the surrogate who births the image of masculinity and identity that Islas struggled to accept. This continues, after the surgery, when the surgeon tells his mother about how “his intestine was like tissue paper” and that he will be “forever a slave to plastic appliances” (Islas 7). By making this reference the doctor implies that Miguel Chico will forever be dependent on a medical machine to live comfortably, similar to the image of a woman who remains submissive to her husband and family, a slave, without a choice, bound to her home appliances and duties. His body now represents the image of the unhappy housewife who lives her daily life a slave to her stove, her iron, her blender, and her washing machine. This image of dependence, what Miguel Chico rejected by leaving home, follows him and eats away at his body and his portrayal of masculinity. He desires his independence from his family, especially from his father, and in the end he remains dependent on a medical appliance. Masculinity has been stripped from him through the disabled body. He never meets the expectations that the family constructs and places upon him. He never measures up to his father according to society’s perspective. He never marries, has no children, and never becomes close to anyone. Instead he chooses to be on his own, an educated man, whose destiny befalls him through his health. He becomes the voice of the memories and stories of the Angel family. Though he shares that Mama Chona is the matriarch of the family, he chooses to play her role by sharing “the suicide of a cousin, his father’s affair with his mother’s best friend, his uncle’s brutal murder, and the decline and death of his grandmother” (Cutler 10). His body’s condition places him into a space of uselessness, yet he manages to bounce back as the voice of the family, the stand in to Mama Chona, and through his flashback he shares family stories, secrets, and memories, ultimately becoming the surrogate for Mama Chona as well. Women are often depicted as the ones who divulge all the family secrets often labeled as “chismosas,” women who talk to too much and share too much. In this case Miguel Chico has become the feminine role, he cannot perform his gender to his expectation and so he fits the only other role he can.
He is the incomplete man, not only because of his physical deterioration but because of his incomplete spirit and lack of happiness. He lacks the approval of his family. He is envious of how his father’s sins are ignored since everyone has had to rely on him. He believes that judgment on these “sinners” is not given by God; instead it is an act done by the family itself, Mama Chona and every individual that makes up the Angel family. They are the judges who declare rejection and pass judgment upon others. Miguel Chico flees from his own sins and this judgment by leaving the family. His incomplete body becomes his punishment. He cannot run away from the judgment passed over him. It is through this that Islas shows how society deflects their passed judgment by blaming it on God. Death becomes his punishment and taunts him ashis father Miguel Grande remains unpunished.
Miguel Chico’s illness becomes the disabled and frail body, the image of a weak masculinity, what he has always truly felt. Living in his father’s shadow with unattainable expectations formulated the frailness in his spirit and performance of masculinity. He secretly desires and yet feels shame for wanting attention and love from his father. He hates the man his father is, but the reality of not being able to become like his father, turns him into someone who denies the expectation and runs away from everything and everyone who could compare them. Miguel Chico is the voice of Islas; it is his way of injecting himself into the novel. For this reason there is confusion about the identity of the narrator. He is omnipresent, all knowing, and the embodiment of Death, and we ask, “Is he our Rain God?” Each story shares someone’s life and death, along with the impact that influences and creates ripples that do not seem to end. But an exception lies in all of this, one person whose sins go unpunished by death, someone who Miguel Chico is envious of, his own father, Miguel Grande.