By Liza Bakewell

A book review by Kay Davis



madreDuring her many sabbaticals in Mexico over the years, Liza Bakewell, a linguistic anthropologist at Brown University, inquired about the use of the word madre because she saw it written as graffiti in confusing and sometimes unflattering terms. She heard it used by men in even less flattering expressions during macho verbal jousts. That was unusual because Mexican men do not speak the word in the company of women – she asked when only she and a Mexican man could speak frankly, e.g. a cab driver she used regularly, an educated friend, a worker she knew fairly well.

But the confusion lies in the realization of how strongly Mexico honors mothers. Mothers are in charge of the homes. Most Mexicans follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and therefore honor the Virgin Mary above all women, with the country’s own Guadalupe running a close second. So how could men use the word madre in less than respectful terms and women of any refinement not use the word at all? Mexican women say mamá or mujer (woman). I have to admit not having heard the word madre spoken in more than six years of living in Mexico.

And so Ms. Bakewell’s cultural and linguistic journey began. It is a quest to understand Mexico’s use of language so differently from any other Spanish-speaking nation. As a journey, it is a story that took years to unfold. As an exploration of linguistics, it is an academic adventure. But how did such a phenomenon evolve? I wanted to know. It would be disastrous to use terms for which I would be castigated by the local people I so enjoy.

As Ms. Bakewell reminds us, anthropological history presents us with the most prevalent early madre in the form of Malinche. The Aztecs had ruled for centuries, but when Spanish conquistadors brought their might, their religion and their language and subjugated the people in this majestic land, they needed an interpreter. And Malinche, seeing an opportunity to improve her own situation, became not only interpreter but mistress to Cortez. Despite her effectiveness in that double role, the betrayal and intimacy inclusive in her compromise made her a whore in the view of her own people.

Now women had a double image, virgin and whore.

To learn more about this contradiction, Ms. Bakewell developed a round-table with Mexican women. Feminist, educator, business woman, homemaker, they reiterated the church view of women and its influence, and unraveling the history of words, they laughed together at the expressions used by men – the words, not the men.

After all, men want to take care of their home and family – for women that is, in essence, the virgin role. But, as Ms. Bakewell points out, an educated woman who asserts herself or a working woman who makes choices by her own reasoning may be referred to as a “bitch” in Anglophone countries or puta in Mexico. Madre may be used as a double entendre but at least it isn’t as punitive.

Perhaps, then, it is not so far-fetched that men express frustrations with governments and other authorities by using curses in verbal combat with their peers. Curses relieve some of the frustration inherent in things we cannot change. And so men also prefer their women be more gracious, for women are part of the beauty in their world. Perhaps, all in all, men and women are much the same the world around.

MADRE is a unique book, combining linguistics with cultural studies through travel and memoir. Liza Bakewell is alert to words and their inner lives, the otherwise unexamined forces embedded in them that color the world in which we live.

(Published in 2011 by W. W. Norton & Co., Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun is found on with Four Stars from online reviews. It can be purchased in hard cover at $17.48, but it most easily downloaded onto Kindle at $9.99.)



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