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

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).

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