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Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun (2011)

by Liza Bakewell

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263728,034 (4.33)4
Leaping off the page with energy, insight, and attitude, Liza Bakewell's exploration of language is anything but "just semantics." Why does me vale madre mean worthless, while ??Qu©? padre! means fabulous, she asks? And why do one hundred madres disappear when one padre enters the room, converting the group from madres to padres? Thus begins a journey through Mexican culture in all its color: weddings, dinner parties, an artist's studio, heart-stopping taxi rides, angry journalists, corrupt politicians, Blessed Virgins, and mothers both sacred and profane. Along the way, a reader discovers not only an invaluable lexicon of Mexican slang (to be used with caution or not at all) but also thought-provoking reflections on the evolution of language; its winding path through culture, religion, and politics; and, not least, what it means-and what it threatens-to be a creative female, a madre.… (more)
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This is a book for people who like to know the origins of words. I'm not that type of person, so this book started out pretty slow for me. I put it down one day and it hasn't beckoned me. Bakewell wants to figure out why "madre" is such a curious word in Spanish. I'm recommending this for true wordsmiths and grammar nerds.
  roniweb | May 30, 2019 |
Before I share my thoughts on Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, I want to dispel a concern some people may have that Madre might be inaccessible. On the contrary! Ms. Bakewell does a beautiful job of making her subject clear and easy to follow. Even if you’re new to the study of language, you’ll learn from and enjoy what Ms. Bakewell has to say. She is an academic, certainly, but she is also a gifted writer, and Madre is a pleasure to read. Her vivid descriptions of life in Mexico, her wordplay, and her light touch of humor combine to make Madre as engaging as it is interesting.

Ms. Bakewell’s journey with madre is, indeed, a fascinating one. Each time I thought she’d run out of angles from which to study the elusive noun, she’d introduce yet another factor that contributed in some way to madre’s contemporary meaning. It would be difficult to examine the word for “mother” without also examining the role of women, and Ms. Bakewell does so: as speakers of the language, as brides, as historical and Biblical figures, and, of course, as mothers. Masculine and feminine exist even in the Spanish language itself.

If your curiosity is piqued by language, if you enjoy diving into other cultures, if you’re interested in gender studies, or if you like memoirs that teach while they transport, I would absolutely recommend Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell to you. My full review is posted on my blog, Erin Reads. ( )
  erelsi183 | Oct 15, 2011 |
You wouldn’t think there could be a whole book about just one word, but Liza Bakewell, a linguistic anthropologist from Brown University, has managed to write a fascinating one.

Madre is a word that, both alone and in phrase, has many uses and meanings in Mexico. This author set out to catalogue these, as well as the reasons the word madre came to be so freighted. According to Ms. Bakewell, the book is “part memoir, part travelogue and part investigation into a culture and its language.”

The idea of “mother” is sacred to Mexicans, primarily for two reasons. One is because of the Catholic Church and the prominent position of the Virgin in Mexican society. The Church has a history of excluding women and imagining them as lesser to men, except for the Virgin Mary, who is valued for her role as the quintessential mother. Furthermore, the Dominicans, who were Mary worshippers, were very powerful in Mexico. Additionally, according to tradition, the Virgin appeared to a poor peasant in 1531 near Mexico City. She is known as the Santa Maria de Guadalupe. Mexican society thus has a history of close ties to Mary that led naturally to the veneration of motherhood.

The second reason motherhood is sacred to Mexicans is a result of political maneuvering in the mid-nineteenth century when the government wanted to keep women out of the work place lest they compete with men for jobs. What better way than to exalt the role of motherhood and turn it into a cult? Subsequent regimes – including so-called revolutionaries - continued the practice, even erecting a shrine to mothers in 1949, the Monumento a la Madre, that bears the words, “To the woman who loved us before even meeting us.” Themes promulgated in popular culture and the Church reinforced the practice. Even today, Mother’s Day is bigger than Independence Day in Mexico.

But madre has also become part of many expressions having nothing to do with its sacred associations, and quite a few of them are obscenities. [Ms. Bakewell points out that obscenities are often inversions of a culture’s sacred symbols. In Spain, for example, the word (la) hostia, or The Host (i.e., Roman Catholic Communion bread) serves much the same function as does madre in Mexico.]

The author divided her list of madres into four categories: “There were the Ugly and Useless ones; the Fierce, Fiery, Scary, and Violent ones; the Whores; and the Sensational and Totally Awesome ones.” There is, for example, me vale madre, de poca madre, bendita sea la madre, madrero, madrecitas, rayarse la madre, que madre, desmadrado, puras madres, hecho madres, and on and on seemingly ad infinitum! [She explains all of these and more in the book.]

The author also delves into the grammatical rules for Spanish, which reinforce male hegemony in countless ways. In a room of 100 persons, for example, if there is even only one male present and all of the remaining ninety-nine are women, the crowd is still addressed in the masculine (e.g., “Bienvenidos, amigos”). Words indicating “male descent lines” are also masculine; thus, el preñado (pregnancy) and el parto (childbirth). As the author explains:

"...love, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, birth, marriage are in the masculine because of their relationship to patrilineality and the rise of property ownership. I proposed this in reaction to the received wisdom that grammatical genders are arbitrarily assigned. It makes perfect sense, as well, that uncontrolled sexuality, producing children out of wedlock, children whose fathers might be unknown, where the patriline would be undetermined, would be feminized. Chaos is almost always feminized, around the world, in patriarchal societies."

Moreover, not only young boys but also young girls are socialized to accept the "Virgin-Whore model of good-bad female behavior." Both the Church and the State in Mexico propagate this model. Women depicted as sex objects, juxtaposed with images of the Virgin, is a common aspect of Mexican visual culture.

And finally, what about the uses of the word padre? I asked the author if "padre" was also used to signify other meanings besides father, and she told me there are two:

"...qué padre and padríssimo. They both mean fabulous, awesome, wow. That’s it. There is not one expression with padre in it that is negative. Given the fact that language is reflective of society, there’s some obvious information here."

Evaluation: There are so many wonderful things to learn in this short but rich foray into the way language and culture intersect in Mexico. More generally, one can observe how imbalances in languages reflect and reinforce imbalances in culture. Above all, this little gem of a book got me interested in further investigations, such as into the idea of La Malinche (also known as La Chingada), another concept popular in Mexico that will get your gender sensitivity in an uproar. I always love a book that stimulates my desire to learn! ( )
1 vote nbmars | Apr 6, 2011 |
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Leaping off the page with energy, insight, and attitude, Liza Bakewell's exploration of language is anything but "just semantics." Why does me vale madre mean worthless, while ??Qu©? padre! means fabulous, she asks? And why do one hundred madres disappear when one padre enters the room, converting the group from madres to padres? Thus begins a journey through Mexican culture in all its color: weddings, dinner parties, an artist's studio, heart-stopping taxi rides, angry journalists, corrupt politicians, Blessed Virgins, and mothers both sacred and profane. Along the way, a reader discovers not only an invaluable lexicon of Mexican slang (to be used with caution or not at all) but also thought-provoking reflections on the evolution of language; its winding path through culture, religion, and politics; and, not least, what it means-and what it threatens-to be a creative female, a madre.

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465.54 — Language Spanish Grammar

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