Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Ángeles Mastretta’s life ripped apart

Bernardo Ng
Imperial County, California, United States

Photo of Ángeles Mastretta
Ángeles Mastretta. Photo (“Ángeles Mastretta y el poder de crear”) by Salvador García Bardón, 2009, on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Ángeles Mastretta, born in 1949 in the city of Puebla, Mexico, is a poet, journalist, and author who was brought to fame by her novel Arráncame la vida, which was translated as Tear this heart out, or more literally, “Rip my life apart.” Published in 1985, it became such a success that it was turned into a movie in 2008 under the direction of Roberto Sneider, who wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Mastretta herself.1,2,3

The novel is based on historic events in Mexico’s post-revolutionary society, depicting the relationship between General Andres Ascencio and the teenager Catalina Guzman. In stylish and graceful prose, the novel portrays the misogyny, abuse, and objectification of women during the 1930s and reminds us of the limited progress in this area in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

The plot

Andres Ascencio was a military man, intelligent and relentless, with boundless political aspirations. After the Mexican revolution ended in 1924, he worked through the ranks of his political party and became governor of the state of Puebla. His goal was to become president of Mexico, but his plan was frustrated as the country evolved from a military to a civilian based government. Catalina was the second of five children from a lower-middle class family. Her parents had migrated from a rural town to the state’s capital and had a family business selling homemade cheese that granted them a barely decent income.

The two met in a coffee shop in the city’s main square, where he assertively approached her and managed to impress her and her family, despite rumors that he was a coldblooded criminal and a womanizer. The key to the story is that Catalina, at sixteen years of age, realized that “I wanted things to happen to me . . .” Within weeks, General Ascencio invited Catalina to visit the ocean for the first time in her life, which she accepted, only to get scared when the time came for them to have sex.

Cover of the novel Tear This Heart Out
Cover of Tear This Heart Out by Ángeles Mastretta. Source.

“What are you afraid of?”
“. . . no, nothing.”
“Then why do you look at me that way?”
“. . . it’s just that I’m not sure that . . . will fit in me.”
“Of course, it will, girl.”
Catalina did not oppose the sexual advance. Instead, on their first night, she asked him to teach her about sex, as she did not understand what she was supposed to feel.
“Why don’t you teach me . . .”
“Teach you what?”
“Well . . . how to feel.”
“No honey, that is not something you teach, that is something you learn.”

Besides being a beautiful adolescent, Catalina was smart, opinionated, assertive, diligent, and curious, so she visited a gypsy woman to learn “how to feel.” While Catalina did not know what to expect, the gypsy woman reluctantly taught her how to masturbate: “you’re way too young to be inquiring about this.” Just a few weeks later, the General visited her again and simply told her they were going to get married.

Once married, she was overwhelmed and seduced by her husband’s power, prosperity, goals, and expectations. She learned to deal with accusations against him of corruption, murder, bribery, and illicit wealth. Even when she discovered him cheating on her and confronted him, she learned to deal with it:

“Are you lacking anything? Are you not properly fed? Are you not properly fucked? Stop it and get in the car.”

Later she became pregnant, during which time he chose not to have sex with her. Catalina took the opportunity to cheat on him for the first time. After their second child, Andres surprised her with two other children from a previous marriage, and more children kept coming in the following years.

Despite these developments, she genuinely tried to meet his expectations and supported his plans, looking beautiful and graceful next to him, until she became First Lady of the state of Puebla. Unexpectedly she became an activist, trying to pursue justice and undo her husband’s unfair business deals, including one involving her own father. At this point, the marriage began to deteriorate.

Nine years after they married, they moved to Mexico City. Catalina originally refused and demanded a divorce, to which he replied, “There are presidents who are widowed, but not divorced, and I’m going to be president.” She fearfully moved to the new city, only to meet the man who would be the love of her life, a young idealist and orchestra director affiliated with the Communist party. Their allegedly secret affair continued with General Ascencio’s awareness, as he used her to spy on his political opponent until he realized that she was in love with him.

The plot thickens, with complex and dramatic turns. Rich dialogue displays the psychological abuse, sexual aggression, subjugation, objectification, and dominance that Andres exerted over Catalina during their fourteen years of marriage. Episodes of rape and infidelity continued on the basis that he was a man; if a woman behaved the same, she would be regarded as a “whore.”

The story ends with a form of reconciliation, in that the General’s behavior was considered acceptable by the society of their time, and because in his very own way, he really loved Catalina.


The book won the “Mazatlán,” the Mexican national award of literary arts, in 1985 and was translated into German, English, Italian, Danish, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Dutch. The movie was awarded various Mexican awards, including the Ariel prize in 2009 for best screenplay, art direction, make-up, and costume design. It also won the Diosa de Plata, or Silver Goddess, in 2009 for best actress, and the Premio ACE for best supporting actress in 2010.2,4

Mexico in the twenty-first century

This story is set in 1932 in the city of Puebla, but almost a hundred years later the violence and discrimination against women has only partially improved in this country of some 126 million people. There were 1,925 documented homicides of women in 2009 and 3,893 in 2019, amounting to about ten women per day. According to UNICEF Mexico, there were in 2019 nine sexual crimes against women for every crime against men. For the year 2018 there were 19.2 million episodes of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, intimidation, or coercion against women and 40,303 women were raped. In that same year, 32.8% of adolescent girls fifteen to seventeen suffered some form of sexual violence. Furthermore, in 2020, working women’s salaries were 18% lower than men’s salaries.5,6,7,8

It is also notable that on March 8, 2021, during the celebration of International Women’s Day, Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was widely criticized for his apparent inattention to the growing violence against women. In spite of the pandemic, women marched in protest outside the Presidential Residence, which was surrounded by a newly built twelve foot tall iron wall.9

Mastretta’s art should remind us that the work on gender inequality remains unfinished. She writes in a way that leads readers to come to their own conclusions about a societal phenomenon that should be dealt with by a more attentive president and legislators, and in the way children are raised, especially boys. It should be dealt with decisively, or it will never be resolved.10


  1. Mastretta A. 2012. Arráncame la Vida. Editorial Planeta Mexicana, S.A. de C.V. Ciudad de México. ISBN 978-970-37-0756-0
  2. PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/19377/angeles-mastretta/.
  3. Tear this heart out at IMDB. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1130981/
  4. Tear this heart out awards at IMDB. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1130981/awards
  5. INEGI población y Vivienda.2020. https://www.inegi.org.mx/programas/ccpv/2020/
  6. INEGI. 2021. https://www.inegi.org.mx/sistemas/olap/consulta/general_ver4/MDXQueryDatos.asp?#Regreso&c=28820.
  7. UNICEF. 2019. https://www.unicef.org/mexico/comunicados-prensa/onu-m%C3%A9xico-hace-un-llamado-eliminar-todas-las-formas-de-violencia-sexual-contra#_ftn1
  8. CONEVAL. 2021. https://www.coneval.org.mx/Medicion/Paginas/ITLP-IS_resultados_a_nivel_nacional.aspx.
  9. El País. 2021. https://elpais.com/mexico/2021-03-08/8-m-el-dia-internacional-de-la-mujer-2021-en-directo-mexico-comienza-las-movilizaciones-con-la-demanda-de-detener-los-feminicidios.html
  10. García-Moreno C, Zimmerman C, Watts C. 2017. Calling for action on violence against women: is anyone listening? Lancet. 389(10068):486-488. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)30271-4.

BERNARDO NG, MD, was born in Mexicali, Mexico. He is a medical graduate from the University of Nuevo Leon in Mexico. He completed residency both at Texas Tech University and University of California, San Diego, in the United States. He is currently the President of the Mexican Psychiatric Association and the World Psychiatric Association representative for Zone 2. His activities include the direction of the Sun Valley Behavioral and Research Centers in Imperial California and Centro Geriátrico Nuevo Atardecer in Mexicali, Mexico.

Summer 2021



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