Liza Bakewell is a Cultural turned Linguistic Anthropologist who discovered her obsession with the word, the mystery and the often negative connotations of the Spanish word “madre” while studying in Mexico (D.F.) in the 1980’s. The word for “mother,” while spoken with reverence and affection in other countries, is often spoken with disdain in Mexico. Her journey to understand the origins, meaning, and evolution of these negative connotations continues. Professor Bakewell has not yet found the answers to the questions that arise in her book, though she sheds tremendous light on a complex subject unique to Mexico.
Though this is an academic work, it is disguised as a hilarious narrative and is a joy to read. Working with more than just a seemly simple word as “madre,” Bakewell applies social commentary that extends beyond Mexico’s borders. She discusses – and not always subtly – topics such as race, class, gender and sexism, religion, history, politics, politicos, and of course society.
“’Madre' lives in a man’s world,” Bakewell writes while discussing the powerful and dangerous uses of a word, whereas “padre” enjoys the benefits of being a positive slang word that roughly translates to “cool, awesome or wonderful.” Women living in the machista culture of Mexico are faced daily with the duality of expectations that is the virgin/whore dichotomy. Bakewell juxtaposes La Virgen (of Guadalupe) and Eve (or in a more Mexico sense, Malinche or as she is often referred to, La Chingada) to speak to this duality.
Oh and did I mention the book is littered with expletives? Especially “fuck?” That’s my kind of journey into academic linguistics!
After numerous conversations with men who were unwilling to discuss the subject and a few young women (and men) who finally were, she divides the use of madre into four separate categories: useless, fierce, putas, and (rare) super awesome (e.g. una poca de madre). Crazy, no? In a country where mothers are so revered, the word “madre” is one of the biggest insults you can throw at someone, because insulting their mother is worse than insulting the person. Intriguing, I know. Really, read the book.
I’ll let you take the crazy ride of meaning, dualities, insults and reverence the word “madre” invokes in Mexicans on a daily basis for yourself, but take my word for it—this book is well worth the read. If Professor Bakewell is half as humorous in person as she is on paper, it would be well worth your while to attend the Bookworks event on Saturday, February 26 at 3 pm. If you cannot make it to the North Valley, the Student Organization for Latin American Studies (SOLAS) at UNM is hosting her during one of the Brown Bag Speaker Series on Tuesday, March 1 from 1:00-2:30 at the Latin American Iberian Institute Library (near Yale and Las Lomas).
Now, go give your mom a big hug, pick up this book and attend one of Liza Bakewell’s lectures!