There are green-eyed Mexicans. The rich blond Mexicans. The Mexicans with the faces of Arab sheiks. The Jewish Mexicans. The big-footed-as-a-German Mexicans. The leftover-French Mexicans. The chaparrito compact Mexicans. The Tarahumara tall-as-desert saguaro Mexicans. The Mediterranean Mexicans. The Mexicans with Tunisian eyebrows. The negrito Mexicans of the double coasts. The Chinese Mexican. The curly-haired, freckle-faced, red-headed Mexicans. The Lebanese Mexicans. Look, I don't know what you're talking about when say I don't look Mexican. I am Mexican. Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.
Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cultural References in "You Bring Out the Mexican in Me"

As I was analyzing this poem, I found I didn't understand many of the references Cisneros made. Here's a quck glossary!

lagrímas: tears

Dolores del Río: a Mexican actress from the Golden Age of movies, known for her exotic beauty and refined demeanor

navajas: pocket knives

mariachi: a group of Mexican musicians, usually composed of a trumpet and various string instruments

obsidian: a black, hard volcanic glass formed by rapid cooling of lava, often found in Mexico

berrinchuda, bien-cabrona: essentially, a bitch with a temper

Mexico City '85 earthquake: a reference to two massive earthquakes (8.1 and 7.5) that hit Mexico City in the span of two days; the death toll was estimated from 5,000 to 10,000 lives

Popocatepetl: "Smoking Mountain," an Aztec name given to the active volcano located SW of Mexico City

Ixtaccíhuatl: "Sleeping Woman," an Aztec name for a volcano close to Popocateptl

Agustín Lara: a twentieth century Mexican singer and songwriter; Gutierrez y Muhs calls him a "perfect example of impossible, nostalgic love, a 'sufrido'" (26)

barbacoa taquitos: barbecued tacos

Me sacas lo mexicana en mi: “You bring out the Mexican in me”

Uled-Nayl: a dance performed by Arab harem women, notably in Algeria

Flecha Roja mountain disaster: I couldn’t find an explanation of this one, but the people of Flecha Roja are very proud of their autobuses!

¡Alarma! : Caution!

Tlazoltéotl: an Aztec goddess who represented sexual impurity and sinful behavior; she was an important and complex earth-mother goddess.

Piñón: a pine seed

Copal: a resin of recent or fossil origin, obtained from various tropical trees and used in certain varnishes

Virgen de Guadalupe: patron saint of Mexico

Coatlicue: Aztec Earth Goddess of life and death

Quiero ser tuya: “I want to be yours”

Quiero amarte: “I want to love you”

Atarte: “to bind you”

Amarrarte: “I want to tie you to me”

Cultural Significance of Author

Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954, the only daughter in a family of seven children. Traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States as a child imbued a sort of outsider’s perspective in her writing; once unable to see herself as a full member of either nation, she now embodies the cultural blending of the Chicano/a movement. Cisneros received her M.F.A from the University of Iowa in 1978, and she has worked in the field of academia as a creative writing instructor, counselor to high school drop outs, college recruiter, arts administrator, and visiting writer for many prestigious universities (Sandra Cisneros). In an interview with Knopfgroup Publishing, Cisneros stresses the importance of education as a means for women to secure a writing space of their own through economic independence. She advises all young writers “to go to school and to get as much of an education as possible. I think its very difficult to become a writer without the education;” to further that end she founded and presides over the Macondo Foundation, “an association of socially engaged writers working to advance creativity, foster generosity, and honor our communities” (“Writing,” Sandra Cisneros). She is also founder and president of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, a grant-giving institution for Texas writers (Sandra Cisneros).

Cisneros has published two full length poetry books, My Wicked Wicked Ways and Loose Woman, which won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers' Award. Her collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories was awarded the PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction of l99l, the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Lannan Foundation Literary Award, and was selected as a noteworthy book of the year by The New York Times and The American Library Journal, and nominated Best Book of Fiction for l99l by The Los Angeles Times (Sandra Cisneros).

Cisneros has also published a children's book, Hairs/Pelitos, and two novels, The House on Mango Street and Caramelo. Vintage Cisneros, published in 2003, is a compilation of selections from her works. The House on Mango Street, first published in 1984, won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1985. A Chicana bildungsroman, it is required reading in middle schools, high schools, and universities across the country. Since its initial publication, The House on Mango Street has sold two million copies and counting, a testament to Cisneros’s enduring popularity. Caramelo was selected as notable book of the year by numerous newspapers, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and the Seattle Times. In 2005 Caramelo was awarded the Premio Napoli and nominated for the Orange Prize in England (Sandra Cisneros).

Cisneros’s refreshing use of language and unique writing style have garnered numerous awards. In 1995, she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Not satisfied, she “subsequently organized the Latino MacArthur Fellows — Los MacArturos — into a reunion focusing on community outreach” (Sandra Cisneros). She has also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Loyola University; an honorary Doctor of Letters from the State University of New York at Purchase; two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships for fiction and poetry, l988, l982; the Roberta Holloway Lectureship at the University of California, Berkeley; the Chicano Short Story Award from the University of Arizona; the Texas Institute of Letters Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; and an Illinois Artists Grant, l984. In 2003 she was given the Texas Medal of the Arts (Sandra Cisneros).

Cisneros’s works have been translated into multiple languages, including Spanish, Galician, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Japanese, Chinese, Turkish, and, recently, into Greek, Iranian, Thai, and Serbo-Croatian (Sandra Cisneros). Her prose has global appeal: while her novels brim with Mexican references, her treatment of larger themes—love, family ties, female suffering—speak to the commonality of human experience. She is one of the few Chicano/a author to be seen as hugely commercially viable by her publishers—Caramelo is the “first Chicana/o novel to appear in Spanish without the condition of first becoming a bestseller in English” (Gutierrez y Muhs 23). The translated Spanish edition sold 13,000 copies in its first six months in bookstores, a groundbreaking number when compared to the dismal sales of typical Spanish translations in the 1990s (23).

Indeed, many critics see her as the defining female voice of the Chicano/a movement, the first woman who made the Latino community accessible to outsiders. In her criticism, “Sandra Cisneros and Her Trade of the Free Word” Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs asserts that, in the skilled hands of Cisneros, the Chicano “traverses languages, stages, cultures, and systems of mainstreaming values where pop culture, past and present, is inscribed and differential articulations of racialized notions of skin color and cultural icons are exhibited” (34).

You Bring Out the Mexican in Me

You bring out the Mexican in me.
The hunkered thick dark spiral.
The core of a heart howl.
The bitter bile.
The tequila lágrimas on Saturday all
through next weekend Sunday.
You are the one I’d let go the other loves for
surrender my one-woman house.
Allow you red wine in bed,
even with my vintage lace linens.
Maybe. Maybe.

For you.

You bring out the Dolores del Río in me.
The Mexican spitfire in me.
The raw navajas, glint and passion in me.
The raise Cain and dance with the rooster-footed devil in me.
The spangled sequin in me.
The eagle and the serpent in me.
The mariachi trumpets of the blood in me.
The Aztec love of war in me.
The fierce obsidian of the tongue in me.
The berrinchuda bien-cabrona in me.
The Pandora’s curiosity in me.
The pre-Columbian death and destruction in me.
The rainforest disaster, nuclear threat in me.

The fear of fascists in me.
Yes, you do. Yes, you do.

You bring out the colonizer in me.
The holocaust of desire in me.
The Mexico City ’85 earthquake in me.
The Popocatepetl/Ixtaccíhuatl in me.
The tidal wave of recession in me.
The Agustín Lara hopeless romantic in me.
The barbacoa taquitos on Sunday in me.
The cover the mirrors with cloth in me.

Sweet twin. My wicked other,
I am the memory that circles your bed nights,
that tugs you taut as moon tugs ocean.
I claim you all mine,
arrogant as Manifest Destiny.
I want to rattle and rent you in two.
I want to defile you and raise hell.
I want to pull out the kitchen knives,
dull and sharp, and whisk the air with crosses.
Me sacas lo mexicana en mi,
like it or not, honey.

You bring out the Uled-Nayl in me.
The stand-back-white-bitch in me.
The switchblade in the boot in me.

The Acapulco cliff diver in me.
The Flecha Roja mountain disaster in me.
The dengue fever in me.
The ¡Alarma! murderess in me.
I could kill in the name of you and think
it worth it. Brandish a fork and terrorize rivals,
female and male, who loiter and look at you,
languid in your light. Oh.

I am evil. I am the filth goddess Tlazoltéotl.
I am the swallower of sins.
The lust goddess without guilt.
The delicious bedauchery. You bring out
the primordial exquisiteness in me.
The nasty obsession in me.
The corporal and venial sin in me.
The original transgression in me.

Red ocher. Yellow ocher. Indigo. Cochineal.
Piñon. Copal. Sweetgrass. Myrrh.
All you saints, blessed and terrible,
Virgen de Guadalupe, diosa Coatlicue,
I invoke you.

Quiero ser tuya. Only yours. Only you.
Quiero amarte. Atarte. Amarrarte.
Love the way a Mexican woman loves. Let
me show you. Love the only way I know how.

A Close Reading of "You Bring out the Mexican in Me"

“You Bring Out the Mexican in Me” addresses the speaker’s charismatic lover, but it also serves as a metaphor for Cisneros’s relationship to writing itself, an act that brings out all of the passion and verve she associates with her Chicana roots. She seeks understanding not only from a nameless lover, but also from an audience otherwise unversed in her culture. Short-lined and chant-like, this list poem is written in a repetitive free verse that celebrates the speaker’s ethnic identity. Through its multilayered Aztec, Mexican, and Latin imagery, the poem expresses the speaker’s unrepentant, brazen pride in all that she is, as well as a certain vulnerability in her plea for acceptance.

The list poem style/repeated sentence structure grounds the poem’s disparate, warring images. In the second stanza, the lover brings “out the Dolores del Rio in me / The Mexican spitfire in me.” Cisneros pits the elegant and sophisticated del Rio against a fierce-tempered Latina stereotype. Del Rio, marginalized by Hollywood executives as a refined exotic beauty, is the opposite of the wild woman Cisneros proceeds to conjure. She illustrates what it means to be such a spitfire, a “bien-cabrona” with “Pandora’s curiosity” and mariachi rhythms in her blood, a woman capable of “destruction ... rainforest disaster, nuclear threat.” The spitfire is a woman motivated by a “holocaust of desire.” And yet, we catch a glimpse of the speaker’s one hundred percent female, Dolores del Rio-like tendencies in the first stanza by way of her lace linens.

In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker betrays an uncharacteristic feminine fragility. She admits to her lover,

“You are the one I’d let go the other loves for

surrender my one woman house.

Allow you red wine in bed,

even with my vintage lace linens.

Maybe. Maybe.

For you.”

Unlike the violence and disaster of later stanzas, here she is just a woman who buys beautiful bed clothes and drinks red wine, a woman willing to make room for two, to surrender her freedom for the love of a man. She cries Mexican flavored tears, spills “tequila lagrimas on Saturday / all through next weekend Sunday,” the “bitter bile” rising in her throat. Whether her emotional turmoil is on the man’s behalf or a mourning of her lost independence is uncertain. Either way, this Mexican-colored weakness is echoed only in the last stanza of the poem, after a tumultuous series of hard-nosed and insidious statements about the strength and unmistakable vitality of her character.

The speaker’s traditions, like “barbacoa taquitos” and cloth covered mirrors at a funeral, are deeply ingrained, and she relishes this inveterate belonging to her culture. In the sixth stanza she quips, “Me sacas lo mexicana en mi, / like it or not, honey.” It is in this stanza that she fully recognizes the dichotomy of her psyche:

“Sweet twin. My wicked other

I am the memory that circles your bed nights,

that tugs you taut as moon tugs ocean.

I claim you all mine,

Arrogant as Manifest Destiny.”

Her unapologetically ‘bad’ streak taunts her “Agustin Lara hopeless romantic,” her good, self-righteous Mexican girl. It threatens to consume both the lover and the speaker completely. The lover brings out “a primordial exquisiteness” and “nasty obsession” in the speaker, a darkness and horrible desire that is both scary and exhilarating. Cisneros builds wonderfully wicked images, giving the reader a clear sense of what the phrase “I am evil” really means.

Although Cisneros never directly cites Malinche in her poem, her influence is unmistakable; like the author, “Malinche functions as a multivalent sign of ... multiple loyalties—the need for both fidelity and betrayal—a cultural translator who must mediate between the U.S. and Mexico, the written and the oral, English and Spanish, a dominant discourse and a ‘minority’ one” (Cutter). The poem is peppered with Spanish and indigenous imagery; for example, “the eagle and serpent” of the Mexican flag simultaneously represent a modern city and an ancient Aztec legend. She proclaims a connection to all aspects of the Chicana experience, the good women and the bad. Like Malinche, she cuts a complex figure that crosses many cultural boundaries.

Cisneros’s speaker also employs Spanish when she feels an emotion particularly strongly; what she cannot say in English she lets slip in her native tongue. In the final stanza, she writes, “Quiero ser tuya. Only yours. Only you. / Quiero amarte.” Translated, the words are heartbreaking—I want to be yours; I want to love you. She implores of her lover, “Let / me show you. Love the only way I know how.” Her “like it or not, honey” bluster of previous stanzas softens, becomes a plea for understanding. In cyclic fashion, the speaker once again become the flesh-and-blood woman of the first stanza. Ultimately, Cisneros’s poetry is young and strong, laced with feminist as Cisneros discusses her sexuality, spirituality, and guilt (or rather, lack thereof).