Companionship, loss, motherhood, and the many other forms love takes features in the thematic foreground of Sandra Cisneros’ Puro Amor. Republished and bound as a chapbook with the addition of Liliana Valenzuela’s Spanish translation and never before seen sketches by the author, Puro Amor itself portraits a kind of triptych: English on the left pages, Spanish on the right, both supporting, and enriched by, wispy drawings interspersed throughout the text of, presumably, canine companions belonging to the story’s central character: Frida Kahlo.
Only Puro Amor’s Frida Kahlo is not famous. Called only “the Missus” or referred to as “Mrs. de Rivera,” the Frida Kahlo of Puro Amor is ailing and quiet, relegated to an assistant’s role beneath her famous and powerful, yet emotionally frail husband. Even under the Mister’s thumb, the Missus carves her own identity, literally by her dabbling in self-portrait, but also figuratively by her tending to a zoo-like collection of animals when she feels she should be tending to him. With that identity she harnesses the power to both love and resist him. What is true love? the text begs to ask, and between human and animals perhaps it offers an answer. But between two humans the mud is thick.
Several artistic degrees away from The House on Mango Street which first launched Cisneros’ career in the 80’s, Puro Amorenchants readers with language that is at once both loving and sad, passionate and lonely. Cisneros makes imagining the most deeply intimate and difficult moments of real people’s lives appear easy, natural even, through a delicate blend of fact with fiction. The Missus’ persisting health problems, her husband’s infidelities, the animals who sleep in her bed while he is absent, all construct a love story interrogating love. A love expressed in tender moments that Cisneros lulls readers into believing simply must have existed:
“A veces ella se encerraba para alejarse de él, pero nunca podía encerrarlo afuera a él, porque el amor es así. No importa cuánto muerda, lo disfrutamos y admiramos las cicatrices.”
“Sometimes she locked herself away from him, but she could never lock him out, because love was like that. No matter how much it bites, we enjoy and admire the scars.”
Puro Amor captures a specific middle-to-late stage of the Missus and Mister’s marriage. Using a timeless, retrospective lens to unpack layers of the past, the text examines the different modes of love experienced by the Missus at a time after fiery passion has given way to cohabitation colored with an odd hint of maternity, even though the Missus has no children. At its core, Puro Amor is an examination of these different modes, how they conflate and contort to define the relationships that make us human.
Most interesting is the maternal mode, which the Missus directs at both her animals and husband. Unfulfilled by the life she shares with the Mister, caring for her animalitos has become a coping mechanism.
“Así que la Sra. de Rivera se rodeaba a sí misma de animalitos. Pues qué podría ser mejor que las criaturas cuando a uno lo han traicionado, qué mejor emblema de lealtad y constancia y puro amor.”
“And so Mrs. de Rivera surrounded herself with animals. For what could be better than creatures when one had been betrayed, what finer emblem of loyalty and steadfastness and pure love.”
The Missus feeds, speaks to, and even listens to her animals as a mother would her child because the animals offer, for her, the truest form of love. No lies. No pain. All her animals—from the cats and birds to the monkeys and iguanas—have no concept of dishonesty. And, like her husband, they need her. The Missus finds peace in that relationship. She finds purpose.
A purpose which, perhaps, also begins to explain the mothering relationship the Missus experiences with her husband. It’s unsettling at first, how the Missus treats him like a boy and not the adult man he is. But the Mister plays into it too, craving her attention and acting out whenever she does not direct all her attention to him. Even though between the two of them she has the health concerns, Puro Amor positions the Missus in the role of caregiver. And the Missus leans into that role.
“Mi niñita,” le decía, pero en realidad era él quien era su niño. “Mi niñito,” le decía ella, porque era la realidad.
“My little girl,” he would say, but it was really he who was her little boy. “My little boy,” she would say, because this was true.
If there is any love left to be found between humans in this story, this is it. The mothering love between a wife and her famous and unfaithful husband, who is really just a boy in need of care. Questions of whether the Mister deserves that care, and if the Missus could even live without providing it, are left up to the reader.
¿Quién quiere amor?—who wants love?—the Missus asks her animals toward the end of the story, and her creatures rise to meet her. An unspoken, collective answer. As the Missus watches she muses, What a lot of work it is to love you. And isn’t that the truth? What toil it is loving anything. Certainly Puro Amor is not the first to engage these questions, but its valiant effort to find beauty in what remains, to outline the human heart, to define what is pure love, is certain to touch readers where we love to be hurt.
Eric Rubeo lives and teaches in Tuntutuliak, a remote village in southwest Alaska. His fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, (parenthetical): the zine, and other publications.