Liza Bakewell takes us where we may never have thought to go: Down Mexico’s dusty back roads and cobblestone alleys, across neighborhood plazas lined with madre-derrogatory grafitti, through bustling markets, in a high speed car zig-zagging the wrong way down a one-way street, in provocative conversation with wise and deferential men, sequestered on the coast of Maine deep in contemplation, in lively debate with feminists, and befuddled and amused by encounters with people at all social and economic levels, including one’s own children.
Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun is not your everyday discussion about Mexico – her culture, history, politics, women’s issues (and men’s, too), language, social structure, and how a people come to define and understand self. Yet it includes all of this! Bakewell’s premise is that language informs culture and vice versa. After reading this book, I understand and agree. It opened my eyes. Mexico is an idiomatic maze and “madre” plunges us into the cultural and linguistic depths, revealing the mysteries and idiosyncracies of this most beloved and maligned noun. And, this most beloved and maligned country!
Some have described this book as a “memoir,” and in some limited respect that is true. Yet it is much more than that because the academic discussion (Bakewell is a professor of linguistic anthropology at Brown University) about the etymology of “madre” prevails throughout. But the book is flavored with slang, the vernacular, curse words, and romance. It describes her personal and professional quest to understand this most complex of Spanish nouns. It is human, engaging and real.
Most importantly, this book is entertaining, witty, clear and insightful. It is a must-read for anyone who is thinking about visiting Mexico or who is living there. Understanding the culture helps one enjoy the travel, and this will definitely bring you enjoyment before or during your stay.
Bakewell examines what the word “madre” conjures up in Mexican society, and how it defines manhood and womanhood. She takes us on a journey to explore gender roles, relationships, customs, traditions, church doctrine, and stereotypes. The perilous journey is a metaphor, I believe, for the evolution of the word — one small, simple word now infused with powerful emotion: manhood, womanhood, honor, obedience, pride, machismo, “fight to the death,” and identity, plus all that is disparaging, insulting and base.
I love Bakewell’s discussion about the dualities and conflicts of Mexican identity and womanhood as exemplified by “The Malinche” and her alter-ego counterpart, Dona Marina. They are one and the same woman, the first “bad and forbidden” and the second “baptized, good and pure.” I see this drama danced out every year in the Danza de la Pluma that reenacts the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. Through this description, we come to understand who is the whore and who is the virgin, the themes that recur in the recesses of the language and icons hanging from every rear view mirror.
Bakewell explores the mixed messages and signals, expected behaviors, and role definitions for women and what constitutes femininity. She describes Malinche, the translator for Cortes, and how her name became synonymous with traitor and betrayal. An indigenous woman from the southern coast of Mexico enslaved since childhood, passed from one tribal group to another, she was given to Cortes by her captors. She was multilingual because of her circumstances. Yet, she was redefined during the 1857 revolution as the antithesis of the good Mexican woman. Mexican feminists are branded as Malinchistas.
Madre is about paternal creation and the power of the church to define and control. It explores the subtle meaning of Virgin and Eve, and what constitutes purity. The dilemma of madre in Mexico, according to Bakewell, is that the church believes the bride, once married is Eve, not the Virgin, and vulnerable to all the transgressions put before her. Like Eve, Malinche was the mother of the first mestizo (indigenous Indian and Spanish blend), child of Cortes. While Eve listened to the snake, Malinche listened to Cortes, betraying her people.
I imagine Liza Bakewell asked me to review this book because of my association with Oaxaca and love for Mexico. In 2009, she spent the year there on sabbatical as a single mom with her twin daughters finishing up the manuscript in preparation for publication. She talks about it being a warm, welcoming, safe and nurturing place for herself and her young children where she could bring her madre journey to a close.
Here, while she wrote, she also discovered that the liberal revolutionaries of 1857 – Benito Juarez, Melchor Ocampo, and Justo Sierra — politically reinterpreted what it meant to be a woman in Mexico. In their endeavor to liberate Mexico from the stranglehold of the Catholic church they replaced one set of padres for another.
Ocampo, in his “Epistle,” defined the virtues of woman to be “self-abnegation, beauty, compassion, shrewdness and tenderness, and must give and shall always give her husband obedience, affability, attention, comfort, advice and treat him with reverence due to the person who supports and defends us.” Ocampo’s “Epistle” became required reading at state civil marriage ceremonies until 2007, when Mexican feminists asked individual states to replace it. Most have, but Oaxaca has not. The Epistle outlines perfection and impossible expectations for women to achieve.
The quest for the meaning of “Madre” was not a straight path. Just like the taxi driver zigzagging the wrong way down a one-way street, “Madre” the book takes one turn and then another, to describe how “madre” the word came to include derogatory meanings in the Mexican Spanish language. It caused me to sit up and take notice about our own gender slurs and how we casually use them until they become embedded in the vernacular and we are no longer conscious of the meaning.
Just as you are beginning to think that you understand, Bakewell starts a discussion about the articles “el” and “la” and “los.” Spanish is organized by the system of la and el,” she says. If you are confused about which article to use, consider el amor (love), el sexo (sex), el matrimonio (marriage), el prenado (pregnancy), el embarazo (pregnancy), el parto (childbirth) and el nacimiento (birth). Why are these words “masculine?” she asks. A friend of Bakewell’s who studied Indo-European languages, traces it to the concern about descent lines – the patrilineage. Culture and language are powerful padres.
Finally, Bakewell asks us to consider the origins of madre and padre. She delves into the sounds of mmmmmm and ppppppp. MMMMMmadre. PPPPPPPPpadre. She takes us to the very essence of birth, identity, survival and continuity. She describes the mmmm sound as internal, humming, soothing, nurturing and nourishing. Pppppppppadre is the force of spitting out, putting one’s imprimatur in the world, the first attempt at aggressiveness for what we must do to make our way as human beings. One is internal and the other external, almost synonymous with how our bodies and reproductive organs are purposed. She describes how the sound origins across languages and cultures are consistent. Fascinating. Try these sounds and you’ll see what I mean.
Anyone who travels to or lives in Mexico, studies Latin American culture, history, art, Spanish language, or anything related MUST read this book. Furthermore, there are no madre insults in Italy and very few in Columbia, Chile and Argentina.
Madre IS made in Mexico.
And, if you want to know the expletives, you’ll have to read the book! They are plentiful.
Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, by Liza Bakewell, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-07642-4. You can order the book direct from Dr. Bakewell.