In her illuminating new book, Liza Bakewell of Freeport, a linguistic anthropologist with sparkling credentials, turns to a single Mexican-Spanish word, “Madre,” and discovers controversies and challenges centered on women in Mexico. Beyond the obvious public issues in our headlines, all is not serene in our neighbor’s house.

That Bakewell should point this out, with chapter and verse to support her conclusions, is not surprising. She directs The Mesolore Project at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University, which places her in a strategic position to contemplate developments in Mexico.

Bakewell is not a dilettante in her field. She is a scholar. And despite her attempts to keep the tone of her book as conversational as possible, “Madre” takes a scholarly approach.

Why is it, Bakewell wonders after decades of travel, interviews and other research, that public praise in Mexico attaches to the word “padre” and insult attaches to its feminine counterpoint? “I couldn’t stop asking, why, if one has any manners at all in Spanish-speaking Mexico, can’t one say the word ‘madre,’ the word for mother, without raising eyebrows or sometimes dodging punches?” she observes.

Why, too, does the masculine noun always take pride of place over the feminine? In Bakewell’s words, “What happens to the 99 Spanish-speaking madres seated in the auditorium after the one father enters and the Spanish feminine plural, ‘madres,’ is cast aside for the male plural, ‘padres,’ to describe the group of women plus one man?” And perhaps most intriguing of all, why is the word for childbirth — el parto — surely the most feminine of procedures, masculine in gender?

Having asked these — and many other questions — Bakewell sets out to find answers. And the answers take her and her readers into the evolution of culture in Spanish-speaking Mexico, the role of women in the home and outside it and, more recently, into concerns about where widespread change will take the country as more women enter the work force.


Still, she wades into all aspects of the controversy. “How has it come to be that madre means whore as much as virgin and that you should give the word up altogether and talk, if you must, about one’s ‘mama’,” she muses. In this she touches on a tension familiar in many languages and cultures — to say nothing of American television and movies — that places the Virgin Mary at one end of a spectrum that has Eve, the temptress, at the other. It is not new, but it is very much a part of “madre” culture in Mexico.

Language both helps shape and express a culture, Bakewell maintains. And she makes her case well. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College with advanced degrees from Brown and experience teaching at Bowdoin and Colgate, Bakewell has a world of insight in her consciousness as well as in her notebooks.

Unlike mothers charting the tricky waters of adulthood for their children, Bakewell contemplates the physical pleasure of profanity — or as she puts it, “just how good it can feel to swear.” Bakewell elevates profanity from a glossary of gutter talk to the complex functions of the brain, “the language processing centers in the left side … that are firing away as you exclaim yourself (and) your basal ganglia and limbic system as well….Two very old parts of our brains are at work.” And madre is right there in the middle of it all.

“Here’s the point:” Bakewell declares, “while cursing causes the pulse to rise, the hairs to bristle on those within earshot, it is equally true that swearing works to relax, to relieve tension for those uttering the coarse language, when alone or among friends.” It is, she states with a nod to Timothy Jay, author of “Why We Curse,” “‘a form of anger management’ that is highly underrated.”

So, we discover, is the single word, “Madre.”

Nancy Grape is a freelance writer who writes book reviews for The Maine Sunday Telegram.


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