Mexico City — In the so-called developed Western world, every generation of women seems to get the book it deserves, or demands, whether it's "A Room of One's Own," "The Second Sex," "The Female Eunuch," "The Bell Jar," "Fear of Flying," "Sex in the City" or, heaven help us, "Menopause for Dummies."
But in Mexico, things haven't exactly worked that way. Forty years after Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" sparked a massive consciousness-raising movement among American women and helped launch a publishing sub-industry, many Mexican women are awaiting their feminist ur text.
In this socially conservative, profoundly Roman Catholic country, where abortion is illegal, women didn't gain the right to vote until 1953, and it's still perfectly OK for employers to run secretarial help-wanted ads seeking an "attractive" 25-year-old, the primary mass-culture venues for exploring women's inner lives are the lurid, cliche-besotted Cinderella stories of the telenovelas (soap operas) that saturate prime-time TV.
When Mexico's female intelligentsia talks about home-grown feminist role models, they usually cite Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, the brilliant nun who challenged the patriarchy when she wasn't busy penning erotic poetry. Unfortunately, Sor Juana passed away in 1695.
So it was understandable that when the Mexican division of Random House published "Gritos y Susurros" (Cries and Whispers), a collection of witty, well-written and unusually candid first-person essays by 38 Mexican women last July, its initial print run was an unassuming 10,000 copies.
Cutting a swath through an array of topics -- sexual betrayal, macho men, creeping mortality, the joys and frustrations of single parenthood and the harrowing challenges of middle age -- the book, which has become a surprise bestseller and a budding pop-culture phenomenon of sorts, paints an intimate, painful and at times painfully humorous mosaic of modern Mexican womanhood.
Several essays deal with deadly serious subjects. Journalist Rossana Fuentes-Berain writes about the dismissive, machista attitude of the male editors at a Mexico City daily newspaper when she began to investigate the murders of scores of women in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. One or two entries have set jaws flapping in the capital's higher circles, such as Guadalupe Loaeza's red-faced remembrance of a midnight screaming match she had with "the other woman" while her two-timing beau stood by.
Among the most revelatory essays is that of Marta Lamas, one of Mexico's leading feminist scholars, who also runs a pro-choice advocacy group here. In her essay, titled "My Breach," she writes about having had a passionate affair some years ago with an unnamed married man, a member of Mexico's judicial forces, whose social status and conservative views were diametrically opposed to her own. For Mexicans, it was as if Gloria Steinem had admitted to having an affair with Newt Gingrich.
Six months and an additional 25,000 copies later, "Gritos y Susurros" is in its sixth printing and will go on sale in Spanish this month in the Los Angeles area and other U.S. markets.
Perhaps more significantly, Mexico's largest television network, Televisa, recently finished shooting an adaptation of the book that will air on Mexican television in January and also will be broadcast on Univision, the Spanish-language U.S. network -- a virtually unprecedented effort on behalf of a book about Mexican women with no pop diva or supermodel's name attached.
Meanwhile, the Mexican media have lavished attention on "Gritos y Susurros." "Delightful and touching" was the verdict of radio commentator Ricardo Rocha. Glossy women's magazines have devoted lengthy, full-color spreads to the book and its contributors, while a few male writers have reacted with respectful but puzzled essays of the "what-do-women-want?" variety.
Localized editions of the book already are in the works for other Latin American countries, and a planned English-language U.S. version will feature prominent Latina Americans.
While marketers haven't determined exactly who's buying and reading the book, letters and e-mails of thanks have been pouring in from both men and women, some offering their own intimate tales of personal crusades, life-altering experiences and/or thoughts on the state of male-female relations in Mexico.
"Suddenly I'm like this political Ann Landers, which is a role I'd never envisioned for myself," says Denise Dresser, 41, the Mexican-born, Princeton-educated political scientist who arm-twisted the project into being. Dresser admits that even she has been slightly "bewildered" by the reaction to a project that began for her partly as a way to meet other interesting, accomplished women.
"I think people are sort of stunned," she says. "It's pushing back the boundaries of what's permissible to say as a woman in Mexico."
Dresser's who's who