Mexican-American Culture and La Malinche’s Story: A Review of A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying
By Karen Ramirez |
A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying is a collection of poems written by Laurie Ann Guerrero. In this book, the author uses complex and conflicting aspects and views of “La Malinche,” such as motherhood, womanhood, treachery, and language, and relates them to bigger themes from her life as a Mexican-American woman from San Antonio. The collection of poems, published in 2013, voices the cultural struggles of the Mexican-American people. Poems such as “Mexican Love Pot,” “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona,” and “Sundays After Breakfast: A Lesson in Speech” depict the lives of a mixed, or mestizo, culture and the positive and negative influences of American culture.
La Malinche represents many things in Mexican culture, and those dynamics are also explored within Guerrero’s collection. La Malinche has multiple names such as Malinalli, Malintzin, Doña Marina, etc., and she is viewed in conflicting ways. She’s been represented as a temptress, a traitor, a victim, and sometimes even as the symbolic mother of the new generation of Mexicans. The story of La Malinche is basically this: she assisted Hernán Cortez as a translator because she spoke two native languages and eventually learned Spanish and was able to translate between all three. She was also his lover and helped Cortez bring about the demise of the Aztec Empire. Cortez was also the father of her first son, who is considered to be one of the first Mestizos (People of mixed indigenous and European-American blood). This is why she represents so many different themes and ideas. She was a smart, beautiful, and powerful woman who betrayed her people. She birthed one of the first members of a new generation; she is also sometimes linked to the legend of La Llorona. Given her multiple and contradictory traits, La Malinche is the perfect vessel to capture Guerrero’s depiction of Mexican Americans. Her story and the strong reactions it receives from different audiences create the perfect mix that symbolizes the new life of Mexican Americans, and is why Guerrero uses her and her story in the way that she does.
The poetry collection explores motherhood, specifically what it means to be a Mexican mother. The poem “Little Mexican Pot” compares motherhood to the “Mexican pots” (the round, deep pots made of red clay) used in traditional Mexican cooking. The poem states that they are “filled to the edge with bubbling love potion” and have “a wide, red mouth that doesn’t shut completely” (15). I really love the comparison to the pot in this poem and in other poems of the book where comparisons are made to food. As a Mexican American, I know firsthand that food is an important part of our culture and is often how women in our families show love. The pot imagery in this poem also expresses the idea of Mexican mothers as being “filled” with love for their children, opinionated, hardworking, and beautiful. The devoted mother, the most popular image of the Mexican mother, is revisited in other poems where mothers give up their entire lives to raise their children. Family and motherhood are extremely important in Mexican culture, and I love how Guerrero depicts women in her poems who are just as smart, devoted and as beautiful as La Malinche.
Guerrero also touches upon the idea of mixed cultures as seen in poems like “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona.” Esperanza is seen a second-generation Mexican-American daughter, and in the poem she is telling her friend the Legend of La Llorona. While telling this popular and well-known legend, she changes bits and pieces of the story. The changes turn the legend into a more modern and Americanized story. However, although she makes some changes, she still claims the story as hers and something her friend cannot connect to in the same way because “[her] mom’s not even Mexican like us.” This poem reminds me of the symbolic cultural sacrifice that is made when Mexicans (and others) make the decision to come to a new country. Their future generations will be brought up with different values and experiences, but because of culture and tradition, their experiences will belong solely to them as Mexican Americans
Race is also discussed in Guerrero’s collection of poems. Oftentimes in American culture, we tend to mainly focus on the very important and ever relevant conflicts between whites and blacks and forget about the plethora of other races that make up our country. Guerrero brings up the Mexican’s point of view in issues like these. In the poem “Sundays After Breakfast: A Lesson in Speech,” she discusses a conversation with a grandfather, had at a breakfast table after hearing the news of a black boy who was killed and thrown into a river by white men. There is one line where the grandfather states “no importaba que no eras negro, pero que no eras gringo” (It does not matter that you were not black, but that you were not white) . The poem kind of brings up this middle ground area where we Latinos usually find ourselves: in the words of the poem, “head above the cotton, between white men and black boys.” This poem calls into being this kind of middle ground where Hispanics find themselves in situations like these. They aren’t the same minority as blacks, they have differing cultures, traditions, and languages, but deal with stereotyping and racial injustices just the same. The poem also lightly touches on bilingualism as well as what it means to be an “in-between” in America. There aren’t many Spanish voices speaking up for us and our places in certain issues may be a little gray at time.
Guerrero’s work and style, as well as the topics she discusses in her collection of poems, reminds me of the important Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa, who used her poetry and words to animate the voices of Mexican people and what it all means, the experience of the bilingual, in-between, combined culture of Mexican Americans. La Malinche created the first generation of new Mexicans, and just like them, Mexican Americans are a mixed breed who have their own new traditions and cultures that are solely theirs. This fact makes “A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying” an important collection of poems because it adds to the very limited canon of Mexican-American voices and literature. Guerrero not only writes about big themes like motherhood, race, and mixed culture: she also embraces more personal themes like her grandfather having cancer. This book isn’t exactly a history lesson on what it’s like to be a Mexican American, but that’s something I really enjoy about the book too. Not all books written by Spanish authors should be some sort of history lesson of injustices and “this is what it’s like to be different.” We have regular everyday problems too.
Karen Ramirez is an English major at Lehman College, where she is also pursuing a minor in Secondary Education.
J. Bret Maney (he/him)July 17, 2017