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Mother Tongue

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"It is a great beauty of a book, and I am so proud of you for standing with and for the disappeared. A sister, a lover, a witness."
--Alice Walker

Mary is nineteen and living alone in Albuquerque. Adrift in the wake of her mother's death, she longs for something meaningful to take her over. Then José Luis enters her life. A refugee from El Salvador and its bloody civil war, José has been smuggled to the United States as part of the sanctuary movement.

Mary cannot help but fall in love with the movement and the man. And little by little, she begins to reveal to José Luis the part of herself she has never known. . . .

"A book that becomes more timely every day, in our present political climate, and deserves the widest possible audience for its beautiful prose and humanitarian heart."
--Barbara Kingsolver

"Demetria Martínez has pulled out all the stops: here is truth to arouse any hardened heart; here is the 'insanity' of a woman in love calling forth a revolutionary lucidity. Read it. Get angry. And act."
--Luis J. Rodríguez, Author of Always Running

208 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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Demetria Martínez

17 books14 followers

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5 stars
148 (26%)
4 stars
206 (36%)
3 stars
161 (28%)
2 stars
43 (7%)
1 star
7 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 60 reviews
Profile Image for Velvetink.
3,512 reviews224 followers
August 28, 2010
score! 50c op shop find today.

Lyrical & poetic, it's like silk and barb wire caressing your heart. Brings to life the heartache of refugees from El Salvador and the war there in the 80's. Based partly on the authors experiences helping the underground railroad of refugees out of El Salvador, it's an easy and quick read. Contains poetry from various Latin Americans and is written via the voices of several characters and three generations and at it's heart is love and justice. Most of the details of the politics and atrocities cited are true although woven around the fictional characters. If you know nothing of the horrors committed in the Salvadoran civil war....the film "Salvador" (1986) directed by Oliver Stone & starring James Wood, is a good place to start. (if you get the DVD version with extras the 62 minute documentary "Into the Valley of Death" is also insightful. While the Salvadoran war fades into history the impact of that still resonates today with the people it has touched. With so many countries tightening their borders these days (including Australia against the influx of "boat people") one has to reflect back on situations like El Salvador and be mindful that we don't cast all refugees into an enemy role.
Profile Image for The Awdude.
89 reviews
October 5, 2010
Mostly this book is about the El Salvadorian civil war, for the prolonged duration and extreme violence of which the U.S., of course, was primarily responsible. There's some nice prose here; by "some" I mean a little bit; and Martinez does bring genuine heart to such a heartbreaking subject, there's no doubt about that, but she also frames it in one of the sloppiest narratives that I've read in a long time. It's the story of a romantic idealist, Mary/Maria, who falls head over heels in love with an El Salvadorian political refugee seeking asylum. Mary/Maria's godmother (who's basically the Latina reincarnation of Obi-Wan Kenobi) charges her goddaughter with the task of harboring said refugee. After fifteen pages, it's pretty clear what's going to happen over the course of the remaining two hundred. Sad girl meets traumatized boy, sad girl tries to build conceptual womb to protect traumatized boy, glove doesn't fit, trauma re-surfaces, violence ensues, child is born. The characters are types, vehicles for a political allegory, the structure of which, basically, is dialectical Hegelianism par excellence. Mary/Maria and her knight in traumatized armor are classic victims of the neoliberal machine. They've been marginalized, de-humanized, and purgatorialized (yes, purgatorialized) to the extent that both of them are without a homeland, without a language, without a piece of geography to cordon off as their own. So, in conceptualizing one another as the objet a (yes, Lacanian jargon), they try to find the borders wherein lie the safety, desire, and self-recognition from which the master discourse has kept them excluded and relegated to spaces of perpetual abjection. So, naturally, they have some sex and have a kid (who's not quite a Christ figure for Martinez, but the narrative is so sloppily done I almost think she meant him to be but couldn't even pull that off). Another quick summary of the love story: two worlds collide, said worlds compromise, presto out pops third world. Which is Hegel in non-Hegelian times. It's not even interesting enough to be considered dialectical in the Marxist sense. The main characters are representative of political ideologies, sure, but within the same class system. Which pretty much becomes, in its most essential form, good old-fashioned black on black crime. It's the same kind of violence. All in all, I I'm going to go ahead and say that this story is almost as politically ineffectual as it boring, transparent, and self-sabotaging. Which is indicative of how complicated the problem of globalization really is, if something as innovative and interesting as Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera can be written only a few years apart from something as pointless and regressive as Mother Tongue.
Profile Image for Eleanor Jones.
139 reviews19 followers
November 3, 2022
This book explored one really interesting idea. I get the feeling that it wasn't trying to do much else. For what it was, I liked it, but it also felt really short. I honestly found the writing style a bit difficult to get into but all around it wasn't bad.
Profile Image for Jon.
189 reviews11 followers
March 1, 2021
"Mother Tongue by Demetria Martinez. I confess a bias, because I know Martinez and was there for parts of this. While the author does not claim it to be a memoir, much of it is - although with names changed, timeline tinkered a bit with, and perhaps characters conflated. You're reading an important part of her history here. A compelling and moving book about the dark days and the deaths in El Salvador in the 80's. I commend it to you. If you're interested in this author, know that she is a skilled journalist, but an excellent poet as well!
Profile Image for Jason Chavez.
84 reviews
December 14, 2021
This book made me want to learn more about the US involvement in the El Salvador civil war. For that reason alone I liked it, although in a short amount Of space it takes on many subjects such as PTSD, finding religion, and child abuse.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,768 reviews56 followers
April 3, 2015
To anyone interested in El Salvador and the Sanctuary movement, I enthusiastically recommend this novella. A New Mexican poet and journalist who was once jailed for her alleged participation in smuggling Central American refugees, Martinez has written an often lyrical, poetic story of a young woman (Maria) falling in love with a Salvadoran refugee (Jose Luis, a divinity student of liberation-theology bent) and dealing with the emotions and consequences engendered by that relationship (as well as a forgotten, troubling past of her own). Although at times the shifts in tense and voice were somewhat disconcerting, as well as the jumping around in the telling of the story, I thoroughly enjoyed this novella. Several times I stopped, re-read, and even underlined sentences and passages that I just liked, such as: "I thought my arroyo of grief had long ago dried up, leaving only an imprint of the storm." Another, "the letters lassos with which I struggled to rope in feelings that galloped off in no clear direction." The book is full of these gems, which makes the rather simple story so much more vibrant and moving. I think especially women will like it (although I hesitate to call it feminist writing, because its messages are broader than that). It would be a great book for high schoolers, because it might bring up a lot of discussion possibilities. . . about U.S. participation in the third world, reactionary movement in South America and the destruction of the peasantry and leftist activities, the impact of terror and torture, the human spirit (good and bad) and risk, love, taking chances. There is a lot packed in this slim volume. One could whip through it in hours, but it is best to read it in sections, enjoying each tidbit separately. I was, however, slightly unhappy with the ending, but I can't say why in order to avoid spoiling it for the reader.
Profile Image for Kimee.
324 reviews10 followers
February 7, 2019
Books like this are why fiction matters. I have probably heard in passing and read in news articles here or there that when I was born in the U.S. the government was financing a civil war in El Salvador that left 75,000 people desaparecidos. I don't really start to grapple with or understand those facts until I read the intimate stories of characters like María and José Luis. "Soledad is always carrying on about how we have to change 'social structures' in order to change the world, but, frankly, I think you have to break a few hearts first, make people look ugliness in the face." This book does that.

It's lyrical and lovely, "And I hoarded them, rose petals stashed between the pages of my days," with images that stick, like a lover lighting his cigarette on a devotional candle.

A self aware narrator, one looking back critically at herself, makes this book so much more than a romance. "To love a man more than one's self was a socially acceptable way for a woman to be insane," she writes, before diving many pages later into how that can be of a cover for the other kinds of abuse that can make it almost impossible for a woman to know herself, or know why she should wake up in the morning, or what name she should go by. This is a book about the many kinds of forgiveness and healing and I am so glad I read it.
Profile Image for Michael Blackmore.
250 reviews5 followers
March 14, 2013
Despite a bit of a rough start I really enjoyed this book. I initially read it because it dealt with the turbulent times in the 1980s with the US supporting horrific acts by oppressive governments in parts of Central America (and supporting equally horrific terrorist groups in other parts) and the community of activists in the US working on solidarity issues.

The beginning was difficult because it was told through the eyes of a clearly troubled woman and the self involved nature of it caused it to feel very claustrophobic for me. But then it when shifted to being through the eyes of the man she was involved with as more importantly her future self looking back on that time it expanded into a more complex and interesting narrative.

The extra bonus was the regular reference to not only actions, events and times I knew well since I was then a Central American solidarity activist, but only to native herbal uses and healing which I know well now as an Herbalist.

It's short so it worth working through the rougher beginning if you can and the language is so poetic at times that it can be fulfilling unto itself.
Profile Image for Πάνος Τουρλής.
2,149 reviews134 followers
July 24, 2014
Ένα από τα ωραιότερα τρυφερά μυθιστορήματα που έχω διαβάσει. Έρωτας μεταξύ Μεξικάνας και πρόσφυγα του Ελ Σαλβαδόρ στις ΗΠΑ. Χωρίς πλοκή ιδιαίτερη, χωρίς ευθύγραμμη ροή, με αφηγήσεις της Μαίρης-Μαρίας, του πρόσφυγα, της φίλης τους και του γιου τους. Πώς γνωρίστηκαν, τι αισθάνθηκαν, πώς δόθηκαν ο ένας στις αγκαλιές του άλλου. Πώς αγαπήθηκαν, τι σημαίνει έρωτας και συναίσθημα για τον καθένα, τι αγώνα είχε η Μαρία να φέρει τον πρόσφυγα στην πραγματικότητα, να σταματήσει να φοβάται και να αγχώνεται και να πονάει και να θυμάται τα φριχτά βασανιστήρια (τη δεκαετία του 1980 ξέσπασε εμφύλιος στο Ελ Σαλβαδόρ). Καρπός τους ο γιος τους, άλλος αγώνας να πει την αλήθεια στο παιδί της, πώς θα το μεγαλώσει σωστά, πώς θα το φέρει σε επαφή με την κουλτούρα της χώρας του πατέρα του. Ψυχικά τραύματα, έρωτας σφοδρός και πεισμωμένος να αντιπαρέλθει κάθε εμπόδιο στο διάβα του. Και η λύτρωση, χρόνια μετά, να γνωρίσει η Μαρία το Ελ Σαλβαδόρ μεζί με τον γιο της. Ψυχολογικό, τρυφερό, γνήσια ρομαντικό, χωρίς να καταντά μελό. Απλά πολύ ωραίο κείμενο!
3 reviews
November 1, 2014
I tried to find some redeeming features in this book, and I just couldn't. None. The narrator is absolutely insufferable. It's like reading 200 pages of a particularly delusional, self-obsessed teenage girl's diary- which is essentially what this novel is, except that Martinez is trying to use it as a vehicle for commenting on the El Salvadorian civil war and the treatment of refugees in the USA. Unfortunately, she doesn't actually gives the reader any information about those things except through a few scattered news clippings and occasional vague memories from Jose Luis. The main character never cares about El Salvador except when it suits her efforts to make the man she's obsessed with (in a seriously mentally unstable way) fall in love with her. So why should readers care?
I've read plenty of bad books before, but this one is a disappointment because it's a wasted opportunity from someone who was supposedly passionate about her topic.
Profile Image for Aime.
18 reviews5 followers
March 18, 2016
I loved this book. The beautiful lyrical prose is so haunting as she retells her love for a man that was both torn and made by war. The way the book is narrated through a series of journal entries, letters and recipes make it even more real.

The story touches on El Salvador's bloody civil war and the rise of Liberation theology in the Catholic church.

I also love that Jose Luis deals with his pain in realistic ways and I love when we get to read his letters. It gives us an insight into understanding that the narrator isn't as reliable. Which to be fair she points it out herself that maybe the way she is remembering things aren't fact. She even says that she doesn't remember the whole thing and she is just filling in the gaps with how she wished things had played out.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about love, war and the ramifications of being a refugee.
Profile Image for suz.
66 reviews1 follower
May 10, 2007
Reviewer: John Phillips "johnphillips61" (Plano, TX USA)

You can tell the author is a poet. This story was beautifully written, insightful and certainly rang true. When I finished reading it I felt I had gained a new perspective about how it must be for people who have their homeland torn apart by war. They love their homes, so the answer isn't just fleeing to freedom and safety. For some, there just is no answer. This book turned on new lights for me and moved as well as frustrated me. We can't just save the world with our wealth and generosity, as such actions are viewed by so many good and honest people as signs of arrogance and naivety. I enjoyed the closure the author proveded with the epilogue (after all, it was in part, a love story), but in reality the fugitive's fate probably would remain a mystery. This is a wonderful book, a keeper.
Profile Image for Patti.
13 reviews
April 26, 2015
although maria's perspective keeps jumping one moment from the past and then back to the present, i appreciate her sentiments. i bet most of us who have fallen in love at some point would relate to all those roller coaster of emotions she had for jose luis. i also liked that the reader was given a glimpse of jose luis' perspective thanks to few journal entries that he wrote.

i'll forgive the inconsistencies in terms of who maria is addressing to, as well as the somewhat confusing timeline (or maybe it's just me?? haha), i have to confess i fell in love with this book. it's cheesy and it's like a teenage girl's diary, but i guess it's just the romantic in me and those relatable passages on falling in love with a stranger. i've gotten too attached to the characters and the emotions and the events that all led them to.. well, the present.

(but can i just tag this with #feels??)
Profile Image for Elaine.
Author 5 books25 followers
June 16, 2015
Set against the backdrop of the 1980s sanctuary movement in New Mexico, Demetria Martinez tells a tender, funny and politically packed love story between 19-year-old Maria and the mysterious Jose Luis, who arrives from El Salvador needing a new home, new identity and safety. As he gains a foothold in his new life, eventually speaking out publicly about the brutal war in his homeland and U.S. complicity in it (this was the Reagan era...) she romanticizes him, and what she imagines of his past --- and their future together. Told through letters and diary entries, as well as narrative, Martinez weaves and beautiful and very real tale. She was herself arrested for "aiding and abetting illegal immigrants" when she helped two pregnant Salvadorans to sanctuary in New Mexico -- accompanying a minister on Christmas eve.
Profile Image for Ruth.
Author 20 books59 followers
June 6, 2008
Demetria Martinez is going to be my workshop instructor at the Wm. Joiner Center, so I was happy to be able to read a couple of her books in anticipation. This novel became more compelling to me the longer I read, as the young Chicana protagonist matures in spite of herself in the process of loving & losing a Salvadoran refugee being sheltered by the Sanctuary movement in the early 1980s. The story gains surprising depth & resonance--as I finished I felt exalted.

Martinez is a wonderful poet: "As the twin steeples of San Rafael pierced the sky and more hot air leaked into the world, the old men of the area flocked to benches on the plaza, their canes feeling the turf in front of them like trunks of elephants."

I can't wait for the workshop!
Profile Image for Irma Fox.
43 reviews
July 2, 2016
This short novel was good. My favorite part is the way she describes altar making, it's definitely very Latin and reminds me deeply of my own culture and ancestors. My least favorite is the ending/epilogue. Why did he come back only after he heard she went looking for him? It makes me feel like he waited for her to be desperate as a refugee before he would acknowledge her pain or her humanity. He knew she went looking for him but the end of his letter says "hope you haven't forgotten me". He knew she never forgot him. I felt like this character was an asshole and his son became an asshole too.
I enjoyed reading this book though. The culture rift might be too big for me to see the other side?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Linda.
10 reviews11 followers
August 31, 2017
A beautiful, poetical book honoring the disappeared. We need to remember our humanity and realize that any one of us at any time could be the victim of violence. With humility, we need to know the ones we have never known and who will never be known to anyone ever again. So many immigrants are fleeing horrible things. More has to be done, even if it is only to acknowledge that they exist and that they once existed (lives filled with love and fear and dreams and hope...). And this little book speaks to the heart of us all.
52 reviews1 follower
May 25, 2015
A wonderful story, beautifully written, and bursting with love and compassion. The novel revolves around the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980's in which mass atrocities were committed by U.S. backed Salvadorian death squads. It is not all political as the book delves into the human wreckage in different ways. The longing for love, meaning, and personal fulfillness are also important elements that are explored.

An unforgettable book.
1,276 reviews12 followers
December 10, 2018
This novel tells of a young New Mexican woman, Maria, who falls in love with a Salvadoran Sanctuary seeker, Jose Luis, who comes to Albuquerque in 1982 and Maria takes care of him. Eventually, they fall in love but he disappears before he finds out that she will have a son from him. She carries on the story as they try to find out what happened to him. The book is written by a poet who was involved in the Sanctuary Movement and the story of these two people is told very well.
18 reviews17 followers
June 9, 2011
sweet sweet fast read ... she writes with her heart in her hand.

her stuff is very familiar, the fiction story is about a southwest chicana enamorada de un salvadoreno /perdida en el amor/ se encuentra after having a son and is on her own.

This book did spark interest in her poetry collection ..
Profile Image for Estela Anders.
227 reviews2 followers
October 8, 2015
A book about uprooted people trying to cope with the weight of their wounds ( the obvious and the hidden, inflicted by war or by loss), using each other to keep afloat. The language is beautiful as is the vivid descriptions of the pain of culture clash, exile, duty and secrets that can't be dealt with until named.
Profile Image for Kathryn Shumate.
100 reviews32 followers
December 6, 2013
This book was amazing. True, there are parts I can't relate to, but there are so many I can. I read this book because it was assigned in my literature class. I'm so very grateful that it was. I would go so far to say that this is the best book I've read all year.
Profile Image for Ariana .
27 reviews5 followers
May 22, 2019
The story was okay, but I did really appreciate being able to get some insight on the affects the Salvadoran Civil War had on individuals. Also, the best part of the book is definitely the second half; parts 4 and 5.
Profile Image for Maret.
26 reviews2 followers
January 15, 2008
This book really helped me imagine life in the Southwest of the U.S. and how unofficial Central American refugees might feel when living in the U.S. undocumented. It was pretty romantic too!
Profile Image for Jenyne.
38 reviews1 follower
June 11, 2008
This is an incredible story about a refugee from El Salvador. It is in English and is beautifully written and desperately tragic.
Profile Image for Jana.
444 reviews3 followers
January 26, 2009
Ah.. New Mexico, refugees from El Salvador, and the US Government all mixed in with a little Spanish flavor.
Profile Image for Eileen Sam.
23 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2010
Super beautifully written and I like that it's kinda of like a political love story...excellent sensory detail of culture as well.
Profile Image for Kaily.
38 reviews15 followers
May 29, 2011
Great commentary on the Salvadorian diaspora.
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