Madre by Liza Bakewell – Book Review

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Madre means mother, right? Well, technically. Madre may mean mother in Spanish, but it means a whole lot else besides that in Mexico. There is an extensive list of madre idioms, nearly all of which have negative meanings along the lines of disaster or whore. How can this be, when mothers traditionally hold a very high place in Mexican society, in a land where the Holy Virgin, the mother of Christ, is so venerated? What question could be more fascinating to a social anthropologist with an interest in linguistics and feminist leanings from the United States living in Mexico? It was this first question, in fact, that turned Liza Bakewell from a social anthropologist into a linguistic anthropologist with a particularly interest in madre and the intersection of gender and language.

“It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico. Underscored and italicized. His words would blow fire across the screen. A kind of watch-out fuerte, not only powerful, but really powerful. Like a match to gasoline, or a blow to the face.” -p. 47

Out of this fascination came Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun. The subtitle of Madre is really the best description of what this book is. Far from a strictly academic treatise, Madre is more of a travelogue/memoir combo by someone who is simply very intelligent and likes to think deeply about issues of language and society. In spite of this, the chapters are organized topically within the larger subject of madre: talking about piropo and albur, the grammatical dominance of maleness even in a room predominantly female, las mentadas de madre.

Perhaps this begins to explain the origins of the symbolic dilemma of madre in Mexico. The Church believes the bride, once married, is Eve, not the Virgin. -p. 175-176

Maybe it is just me, maybe I missed my calling as an anthropologist, but I think that the intersection of gender, culture, and language is a fascinating place to linger and observe, and I’m so grateful that Bakewell brought me to this particular intersection. Even better, she does not manage to lose a non-Spanish speaking, non-linguist on her journeys. It could be occasionally disconcerting to have the very personal style interacting with the linguistic and anthropological insights, but overall it worked very well.

A very interesting book, if the concept interests you, then I can recommend Madre.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
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14 comments to Madre by Liza Bakewell – Book Review

  • This is very interesting. But I’m not entirely sure if I could read a whole book about it. Maybe I could! We need to learn something every day don’t we?

  • This sounds interesting. Thanks for the review!

  • Writing this title down now :)

  • This does sound fascinating.

  • Just wanted to drop by and say hi- found you as a fellow blogger on TNBBC’s indie book list. This one sounds very interesting! (also wanted to find you on twitter but not sure of your handle). Look forward to reading more on your blog 😀

  • This book is actually right up my alley. The school I work at is 80% hispanic and as a “white-girl” thru and thru, there are many words that mean different things in various *hispanic* cultures. Most of my kids ARE puerto rican, but we definitely have cubans, mexicans, dominicans, etc. to name a few. I love that their language is universal yet identifies their specific culture. Does that make sense?

  • I JUST saw this on Vasilly’s sidebar and thought the cover was magnificent and wondered what it was about.

    Thanks for clearing it up. As I’ve been on a nonfiction kick and love anthropological studies, I think I’ll add this one to my list. I have had to start keeping Shelfari open when I go through my GR so I can add books and not forget about them.

  • Lu

    How do I not know about this?! This sounds awesome. Thank you for posting :)

  • Hi Jen, Awesome review and love the comments!! Many thanks. I’ll have to think about writing another book on another word!! Hmmm. Ideas? Liza

  • One thought I had was “estar” and “ser,” both meaning “to be,” but they cannot be used interchangeably. One is used for more fleeting “being,” the other for a more essential kind. They make the famous question: “To be or not to be?” more complicated! But then, maybe I should write a book on . . . hmmm. Let me know if you run into any word or phrase that is wild and crazy.