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Mother Tongue, by Demetria Martinez.

April 3, 2012

Mother Tongue, by Demetria Martinez. One World/Ballantine (1997), Paperback, 208 pages.

An exquisite little novel, full of human longing, about a young Hispanic woman who falls in love with a refugee from the war in El Salvador in the 1980s.

Mary/Maria is a young single woman, living in Albuquerque, working at dull jobs, and feeling her life is without meaning. Then she agrees to help and hide a young man escaping from the U.S.-supported violence in El Salvador. She immediately falls in love with the stranger and gradually finds her love returned. Looking back from the perspective of twenty years, she is the primary narrator of their summer together and her life since.

Despite the beautiful writing of this novel, I was initially irritated with Mary and her explicit desire to love a man who can save her from meaninglessness. Then I realized that the narrator, looking back on her younger self, realizes the problems with such a goal. In addition, she knows there was no realistic future in loving a man whose real name and real past she could not know and who was only a temporary presence in her life. He does leave her with a sense of meaning for her life, however, if not the one she or the reader expects.

Demetria Martinez worked with refuges from El Salvador in the 1980s, even being indicted and later freed for the assistance she gave them. Her knowledge of the people who came and those who helped them gives depth to her book. While she clearly recounts the horrors which the U.S. government countenanced in El Salvador, her discussion of politics is more personal than polemic. The specific details provide historical context for the story of living human beings, scared by war and other abuses of power. That the major characters in the book are Hispanic is also assumed but not dramatized.

Martinez is a talented writer. Her book is full of haunting descriptions of people and places. Just below the surface, she explores deeper questions. Maria realizes that her memory cannot always be trusted, but that does not stop her from writing. Maria and her author also probe the issue of what is reality and whether can we know the reality of another person.

As Martinez points out that the stories of refuemgees were not psychoanalysis, but testimonio, “facts assembled to change not the self but the times.” The change which she seeks would be an end to war and other violence. “War is a god that feeds on body parts. It deforms everthing it touches, even love. It got to me, too. It made me hold my tongue.” Overall Martinez gives us a novel about various kinds of love.

I highly recommend Martinez’s Mother Tongue for pleasure, and ultimately, for understanding of love and loss.

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