At the intersection of Cinco de Mayo (May 5) and Mother’s Day (May 8), we’re celebrating both holidays with a look back at Liza Bakewell’s essay “My Madre, Pure as Cumulous Clouds,” from our February 2006 issue of new Mexican writing. In an opening straight out of noir, a (male) Mexican journalist says darkly, “It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico,” and Bakewell sets out to investigate. She learns the worst way to offend a Mexican is to speak of his mother. The mentada de madre—the insult to the mother, of which a friend obligingly lists a number of vivid examples—or even the mention of someone’s mother, is an invitation for a punch in the nose. So charged is the word that it’s safer to avoid saying “madre” at all. “Padre,” on the other hand, is not only benign but also used as an intensifier, an amplification of excellence: muy padre, padrísimo. Bakewell hears it constantly in expressions of enthusiasm, often with predictable absurdity (“even the Mother’s Day barbecue at Tia Marta’s. Padre. ¡No?”). “Mother” profane, “father” elevating: Bakewell’s discovery and consideration of this dichotomy provides a lesson in both vocabulary and culture, and an instructive insight into both.
Image: The Virgin of Guadalupe imprinted on the cloak of Juan Diego, 1531, cropped, Wikicommons.