A Literary Analysis on “Mother Tongue” By Demetria Martinez
“His nation chewed him up and spat him out like a pinon shell, and when he emerged from an airplane one late afternoon, I knew I would one day make love with him” (Martinez, 3). And so it starts, the story of a nineteen year old Mexican- American girl named Mary (Maria; as he only chooses to call her), who helps out and eventually falls in love with Jose Luis Alegria, a Salvadoran refugee. Martínez's story of María is told against the backdrop of the 12-year civil war in El Salvador. Maria and Jose Luis develop a friendship that slowly turns into a typical novella love affair. Through their relationship, both characters are forced to confront the violence of their pasts—his at the hands of Salvadoran torturers who abducted him and murdered his fiancé, hers at the hands of a sexually abusive neighbor.
Their story is told through several different voices. Here they are in a nutshell - first it starts with Maria as an older woman who is now relieving her memories of the summer Jose Luis entered her life. As Jose Luis gets introduced and we get to know him the story will shift to his and perspective of their situation, then it would shift back to present day Maria; and then the nineteen-year-old Maria. There are also other voices, including that of their son (also called José Luis), as well as through newspaper articles, diary entries from the past, and poems. Martinez gives us a chance to really get a closer look into the bigger picture of the story because we get to here it from so many different voices.
That being said, we can also see that the novel contains four main characters and three 1st person narrators. Maria, who is the principal narrator, is nineteen years old (as previously stated) at the story’s beginning. Through her friend Soledad, a fifty-year-old Mexican immigrant, she becomes involved in the “helping out immigrants” movement and meets Jose Luis, who back then was twenty-nine years old. José Luis stays at Soledad’s house in Albuquerque, New Mexico during the summer of 1982, and the majority of Mother Tongue’s narrative centers on this time period. The story unfolds mostly from Maria’s perspective as she, nearing forty, recounts her relationship with José Luis. Through a diary that Maria translates, this is how we also get to peak into to José Luis’s true thoughts and feelings; not just what Maria THINKS are his true thoughts and feelings. José Luis Jr., narrates the fourth and final section of the novel, telling us of his and Maria’s trip to El Salvador to search for information about his father.
Existing criticism on Mother Tongue has focused primarily on issues of voice, community, language, as well as the novel’s themes of violence, belonging, solidarity, and group identity. The first line of the novel that I used in the beginning of the paper, (written from Maria’s perspective) , really reflects Maria’s individualistic orientation as she mentions José Luis’s nation only to distance him from his homeland. Neither José Luis’s nor Maria’s country is named. It looks like right away Maria turns a issue that has everything to do with national identity (his and hers), and José Luis’s membership in a targeted community, into a purely personal affair. Her reliance on singular personal pronouns—“he,” “I”— just shows us how Maria understands ( or think she understands) herself and José Luis. Maria continues to stress her inability to understand either herself or José Luis in relation to anything or anyone besides each other. Again, in her opening section she writes: “Before his arrival the chaos of my life had no axis about which to spin. Now I had a center” (Martinez, 4). It seems to me that José Luis exists only in relation to Maria, and she only in relation to him. Later, in a moment of mistranslation, the lovers share their visions of El Salvador, his based on raw knowledge and hers on fantasies and ignorance:
Cited: Americas Watch. 1991. El Salvador’s Decade of Terror: Human Rights since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. 2007. On Latinidad: U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
Kandiyoti, Dalia. 2004. “Host and Guest in the ‘Latino Contact Zone’: Narrating Solidarity and Hospitality in Mother Tongue.” Comparative American Studies 2, no. 4: 421–46.
Lomas, Laura. 2006. “‘The War Cut Out My Tongue’: Domestic Violence, Foreign Wars, and Translation in Demetria Martínez.” American Literature 78 (June): 357–87.
Martínez, Demetria. 1994. Mother Tongue. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe.
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