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My Madre, Pure as Cumulous Clouds

He wraps his left fist around the shot of bourbon. Then types, with his free index finger. "It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico." His warning peppered with laughter. "I don't know how I can explain this to you, but expressions with madre in them are fuertes, powerful." Underscored, italicized, emblazoned across the screen. A kind of watch-out fuerte. Like a blow to the face. Or a bulldozer.

"Madre?" I'll ask him. "The noun, mother?"

"Esas madres" Those mothers, he replies, writing from Guadalajara. And tries to explain, these from those. In journalistic prose.

"Why is it dangerous to say madre in Mexico?" I later ask Odette, a young university student.

"It's because mentarse la madre es la peor ofensa entre los mexicanos." The worst way to offend a Mexican is to say something insulting about his mother. And begins to explain in more detail the journalist's warning.

"To Mexican men and women?"

"Men, not women."

"Same in Colombia." Enrique says to me years later. And reminisces, now that he lives in the States and teaches Spanish to undergraduates there.

I invite Odette into the living room where I am staying in the south of Mexico City. "Let me first say," she continues, "that there are expressions with madre that cause no harm when spoken." And mentions a few. A toda madre, for example, means terrific. Desmadre, literally without a mother, means a mess. Your desktop, your life. But they aren't dangerous. And she goes on.

We sink down into two plush polyester couches, stuffed like overfed animals. There is a side table lit by a low watt bulb in the lamp above it. The light of a street lantern pours through the kitchen window and rests just beyond Odette. The windows near us open onto a courtyard where caged canaries accompany the sweeping of the afternoon's jacaranda blooms into small purple piles.

"It all begins with this. Madres are pure and perfect. In Mexico." Like the Virgin of Guadalupe, the mother of God. Worshipped. And untouchable.

Nevertheless, when in Mexico, a handbook warns, almost better to avoid saying the word altogether when you are there. Make inquires instead about a person's mamá rather than his or her madre. 1 It's safer. In Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Argentina it isn't so. How's your madre? they all ask. Not in Mexico. Shhhh. Index fingers are raised to hissing lips. Don't say that word.

"Some men will insult each other with a mentada de madre, an insult to their mother, just to pick a fight," Odette continues. Or they will pitch these insults around as a game when they are with their cuates, their buddies, drinking.

Madre, a word. A world. An object that turns into action when it rolls off a tongue. And falls into a conversation in Mexico. Or plunges. Depends on how it's said, if women are present, the level of alcohol, if it is night or day. So many different ways of using it, abusing it, tossing, throwing, kicking, hurling it. To insult.

"In Mexico men hang out in groups all the time. Women aren't invited. Never any women. In these groups they'll say all the madre insults there are in the world." And she begins to list them.

" Te voy a partir la madre, chinga tu madre, hijo de tu puta madre, tu chingada madre, tu madre."

I'm going to break open your mother or rape or fuck your mother or son of your whore mother or your mother's a whore or your fucking mother or just your mother. No need for chingada, people will know on most occasions. Or keep chingada, leave out madre. "There're many ways to insult someone's mother, to pick a fight," she says, her Catholic schooling long in the past. "But the harshest involve rape." Her friends were more affected by it. "It's the nuns in the school. It's everyone's mothers. Well, not my mother. If you are of a certain class you go to Catholic school, not to secular, public schools. Eighteen years of schools with nuns. And, now my friends are sending their kids to these schools." Generations of children, mothers, and grandmothers. Virgencitas, little virgins. So accepting, so uncritical. "They act like martyrs even in their own homes. They're not my role models."

"Those mothers." Odette returns to the journalist's email. "He's warning about spoken madres." Utterances that pierce the air like hot oil left on the stove to splatter and scar. So powerful that even if only implied, hardly mentioned at all, these expressions can incite a man to harm, even to kill. Or bond forever with his cuates. Forever. The evening, the hour, a couple of minutes.

"You have to respond with a grosería, slang, ill-mannered and rude. Something just as crude," Odette explains. Or respond physically, with a madrazo, a big jolt, a mother of a blow. "No te rajes. Don't back down," men will say. Or open yourself up, like a woman. Instead, be a macho.

"You have to fight to prove you are a man. It's a machista attitude, no? If a guy hurls one of those madres at you, and you don't respond, you're acting like a woman," She continues.

"Esas madres. They translate, Fuck your mother." But if you don't fight back, they mean fuck you, you're fucked. Or, you're dead. "It's like sex, women open themselves up. But men don't."

Not real men. And not good women, either. Not virgins, pure and white and heavenly like clouds, like Guadalupe, Concepción, Rosario, Luz, Dolores. No. Not like Rosary, Light, and Sorrows. Like bad women. Like the madre down the street who opened up and then had his children*

Whose children?

. . . one by one as she fell from grace, fucked by her children's father.

"No te rajes. You have to fight back for your honor, your manhood," Odette repeats. And says, "Not me. If some guy in the street said something insulting about my mother to me, I'd keep walking. Because I'm a pacifist. But most men, they would turn around and punch the guy because they can't take the insult." To confuse fuck your mother with fuck you, to admit that your birth was not a virgin birth.

"Men can't say these groserías in front of women. Women can't say them at all. Society won't allow them. Too vulgar." Odette adds. "There are some women who do use groserías, but they are considered bien cabronas. Unfeminine, foul mouthed, machas, feminists, lesbians." The evolution of male thought on the topic.

Or eccentric like Odette and her mother. Also Frida.

"Madre," I muse. It's not like padre, is it? I ask Odette. And we laugh by rolling our eyes. While I recall standing with Laura, an artist, in her studio not far from here, watching her watercolors drop onto the bare floorboards, one after another. Upright, for us to see. Her scenes, raw. Her colors, assaulting.

"The sky could have been any color." She explains, pointing to one that just fell. "But I chose red." And swirls around it. Her long skirt in bloom. "In life if you want the sky to be that particular red, well, tough luck. But, in painting? You can create whatever you want." She says this opening her arms wide. " Eso es lo padre de la pintura." That's what's so incredible about painting. Then brings them back to her side.

" Padre?" I'll ask.

" Sí. Padrísimo.¡No? "

"Father- ísimo?"

"Really, really padre." She explains.

And that's when I was introduced to padre-the-adjective for the first time.

"An expression," friends and acquaintances explain, when I ask. I was still a novice, learning the language. Meaning wonderful, fabulous, amazing. "It's for emphasis." To punctuate, underscore, amplify. Exclaim.

And from then on I hear it applied to a million occasions. People. Places and things. Last night's dinner, the movies, her handbag, the weather, our growing friendship. Heck, the Mother's Day barbecue at Tia Marta's. Padre ¡No?

Padre, far more public than madre. Above ground and well-behaved. Upper-class. Okay to say padre at dinner, on television, at gallery openings, in polite company. No punches pulled if you do.

And padre is far more simple. "A padrote, or big father, is a pimp," a foreign journalist writes, "while something that is excellent is muy padre."2 And that about says it all for padre in Mexico. He concludes.

"Simple and unambiguous. In charge. Of excellence and sex." I summarize.

"It's a word," taxi drivers, professors, artists and students tell me. Like many words. Added for the sake of the meter. The rhythm. The bravura. The bravo. Other than that, it has little meaning.

"Like the symphonic pauses you take while eating a taco for breakfast?" I grasp for analogies to rest on. "Those moments of enlightenment, of soaring high on savory sensation, of feeling mmmmm, sabrosísimo?"

"No, no, no." Like the crescendos, the salsa you put on top of the taco. An exclamation point. You know. Like, Wake up, they tell me, over the years.

"Ah ha." But to this day I am not convinced that padre is nothing more than an exclamation point with hot peppers and cilantro. Instead I think, Padre, a patriarchal conspiracy. And this leads me back to esas spoken madres. And I wonder, what happened to madre? How did she get into this complicated situation in the first place? Undermined. Discharged. Unlike padre, say madre and duck. If someone swings at you. I'm confused. "Doesn't it take two equal players to mover el bote? To dance the tango?" I ask friends. "Odette? Could you come over and help me out?"

Odette stands up to stretch. "It's not because mothers are so important here. Although they are. It's that they are untouchable." As in, Don't you touch my virgincita, my mamá. "Las mentadas de madre are about being macho. It's street slang," Odette says. Her mother feels the same way. "When men use these madres, in their expressions, it's because they feel bigger, more powerful." Chests puffed, vocal tracts full, tongues, soft palates and extended lips colluding to modify their formant frequencies.3 Then, a madre comes up from the chest, over the vocal chords, onto the tongue, into the mouth, out onto protruding lips. And boom. Fuck your mother.

No. Fuck your mother. It's tu madre who opened up. Your mother, not mine. Yo no soy un hijo de la chingada. Yo sí tengo madre. I'm not the son of a whore. I, yes, have a mother. Unlike you, thank you very much. And mine, she's a virgin mother. Pure as cumulus clouds at daybreak.

Excerpted from Madre: Travels with a Spanish N(o)un (ms)


1. Gerrard, Arthur Bryson, 1981, Cassell's Colloquial Spanish. Including Latin American Spanish. A Handbook of Idiomatic Usage, John Wiley & Sons; 3rd Rev edition, p .99.

2. Riding, Alan, 1985, Distant Neighbors, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 14.

3. Fitch, W. Tecumseh, 1997, "Vocal tract length and formant frequency dispersion correlate with body size in rhesus macaques," Journal of Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 102 (No. 2, Pt. 1), August, p. 1213-1222.