Somehow we can't stop defining the unknown by referencing the known, or better known. Just as using the language and the vocabulary of the patriarchy is the only way for women to communicate, whether it suits them or not, so too must the instructor mention D. H. Lawrence as a touch point to explain the period in which we find Maria Cristina Mena. Perhaps not must, but does, though the touch point is quickly retracted, because Mena can stand on her own terms. And while I certainly have heard of D. H. Lawrence, I know less of him than I now know of Mena.
This work, "Marriage by Miracle," is the first work we have read which is explicitly fiction. I use explicit, because we have read works that have what could be considered fantastical elements with religious origin, though they were true to the authors' experience. Did she write in English, or was this a translation? It must have been written in English, to have included so precisely a few Spanish words and phrases. Do those words and phrases emphasize the otherness of the author?
As a tie between time periods, between the age of superstition and the rise of medicine, "Marriage by Miracle" begins like a fairy tale, complete with a mysterious suitor and a 'princess' locked away. When the beautiful young woman is not allowed to marry her suitor until her elder, less attractive sister marries, the setting is ripe for a magical resolution. However, many years pass before the young sister finds a solution.
The solution is not magic after all, but rather, the marvels of modern medicine. Plastic surgery will make her older sister marriageable! At this point, Mena brings religion into the story. The elder sister, Ernestina, argued that “it would be the height of impiety to have [her face] made over by a surgeon of beauty from the United States” (Mena 120). The possibility of being able to change the body that is given by the Creator is temptation. And yet it is also just the evolution of what has been done with cosmetics and wigs for centuries. One more step farther in the seeking of beauty and perfection.
But not just beauty and perfection. In class, the instructor brought up common medical ideas of the time that included a classification of personality traits based on the shape of the nose. Naturally, the nose typical of whites was the highest status, while those belonging to Hispanics, Asians and Blacks were thought to denote, essentially, servile traits. Weakness. To move from a wide flat nose, like Ernestina had, to the nose she gained, “a nose of dignity” (121), was to transform to a more civilized person, in the perception of so-called modern medicine.
The surgery itself is concealed by a lie of piety, to conceal the trick from the girls’ mother. And once the bandages come off, Ernestina does not thank the surgeon, but God. Nor does she wish to marry, though her ‘miracle’ does persuade their mother to let the younger sister marry at last. Mena’s story illuminates the changing landscape of medicine, religion and beauty.