Read the Reviews…

"…charming book, a mix of memoir, research and travelogue."
The Economist

"...illuminating new book..."
Portland Press Herald

"One of Bakewell's goals…was to 'write to everyone,' and she does…with aplomb."
San Antonio Express News

"I adopted Madre for my "Language and Society in Latin America" course..."
Dr. Laura Hobson-Herlihy, U. of Kansas, AMAZON

"Madre is a passionate, fun filled...."
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¡Padrísimo! No sooner does Liza Bakewell take the helm than it becomes obvious how much joy and enlightenment might come from the study of language.”
—Ilan Stavans, author of Spanglish, and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature

Madre is a…marvel. Liza Bakewell brilliantly weaves a story that peels away layers of hidden meanings of the most fraught word of Mexico’s maternal cultura, revealing secrets many natives dare not speak. This is a book that will get tongues wagging.”
—John Phillip Santos, author of The Farthest Home is in an Empire of Fire


Teaching with Madre? | DOWNLOADS | BOOK GROUPS

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun began with some graffiti on a wall: A toda madre o un desmadre. I was in Mexico doing research for my Ph.D., and although my Spanish, I thought, was fluent, I had never seen that expression before. So I asked what it meant, and I was told that it was not proper for a woman to use those words. Not proper, because madre or qué madre or de poca madre are used in the bar, on the street, and only by men.

Over the years, I developed a long list of madre expressions, and I found friends to help me translate them. I became intrigued with the way the Mexican speakers shape their language and how language in turn shapes them, their goals, their dreams and their children.

I think of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun as part memoir, part travelogue and part investigation into a culture and its language. How can me vale madre mean worthless and ¡que padre! mean marvelous? Why does madre mean whore as much as virgin?  Join me as I travel thorough Mexico to investigate the madre phenomenon.

Whether you have lived in another country, are studying to learn another language, speak Spanish as your first language, enjoy learning about other cultures or just enjoy reading about how language affects our lives, I hope you enjoy Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun.

Teaching with Madre?

Madre is currently required reading in a number of college classrooms in the U.S., including Spanish, English, Women Studies, Linguistic Anthropology, and Latin American Studies. In addition, there are some intrepid high school Spanish teachers who have adopted it.

Download Discussion Questions for Spanish 201 (Download PDF) Download Discussion Questions for Spanish 201

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Book Groups

Madre is a wonderful book for book groups that are interested in reading:

Memoirs, Travel Literature, Spanish and Mexico, and How cultures shape language and how language in turn shapes us, our goals, our dreams and our children.



1. While traveling in a foreign country, have you ever found yourself asking native speakers about certain expressions? Did any of those expressions turn out to be inappropriate, profane, sacred? What kinds of reactions did your questions provoke? How did you finally figure out the meanings?

2. Did this book give you a different impression of the word “mother?” Discuss other languages that include demeaning (or celebratory) mother expressions.

3. Can you think of examples in your native language or in another you have acquired where certain words or expressions are tied to very old histories? Can you think of words in English that might have religious origins?

4. Have you ever attended any rituals (weddings, birthdays, religious services, others) that were as sensory as the one Bakewell describes for a Mexican, Catholic wedding? How did words figure into those rituals? Did they take on more meaning for you because of the context (for example, “I do”).

5. The word “madre” conjures deep emotions. Can you think of words in your own life that conjure deep emotions? Do you know why or how they have this effect? Does it matter who says the word, when, where and why?

6. Have you ever considered the use of grammatical genders in Romance Languages like Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese? Do you agree with Bakewell’s argument that the masculine gendering of the words sex, love, pregnancy, childbirth, and birth may not be arbitrary? Have you ever wondered about where the women go, grammatically, when one man enters the room?

7. Bakewell draws upon the research of scientists who argue that not only does a culture influence a language, but languages can influence cultures and an individual’s perception of reality. For example, Germans think of bridges as feminine, while Spanish speakers consider them masculine (the word for “bridge” in German is in the feminine, in Spanish in the masculine). What do these findings imply for the impact of language on our psyche? What do they imply for the word “mother” and its numerous applications in Mexican Spanish?

8. When you sound out “mmmmmmm,” what do you feel? Are there other sounds that make you feel a certain way? Good, relaxed, excited, tense, at ease?

9. Consider Armando’s role in the book? What do you think of his relationship to his parents? What does this relationship tell the reader about the word “madre,” the word “padre”? Do you know anyone whose story reminds you of Armando’s?

10. Bakewell argues that the State and the Church are largely responsible for the many meanings and uses of “madre” in Mexico. Do you know of any institutions, large or small, in your own country’s history that have helped shape the meaning of English words?

11. How might Madre have been different if you had told the story, if a male linguist had told it, if a Mexican man or a Mexican woman had narrated it? What insights and/or subjects might have been left out or added?