"The Highly Original Country of the Yanquis": Dramatic Irony and Double-Voicing as Cultural Critique in Maria Cristina Mena's Fiction

Article excerpt

As part of the ongoing process of recovery work in early Chicana/o literature, the fiction of Maria Cristina Mena, one of the first Mexican American writers to publish in the United States, recently has started to receive long overdue critical attention. (1) Mena's stories, published between 1913 and 1931 in American, Century, Cosmopolitan, and Household magazines, may be seen as part of the local color tradition that depicts for a white American readership scenes of life in Mexico before and during the Mexican Revolution. Three of her stories, "The Gold Vanity Set" (1913), "The Education of Popo" (1914), and "Marriage by Miracle" (1916), also portray cultural influences from the United States in the early twentieth century through the presence of Anglo-American visitors to Mexico. However, these stories rely on dramatic irony to suggest that the values such characters represent, particularly the attitudes and behavior of "modern" young American women and the idealization of Anglo-Saxon beauty, are not worthy of the respect they receive in Mexico. Rather, through the carefully controlled tone of Mena's narrators, these manners and ideals are presented as questionable forms of cultural colonialism from the United States.

Furthermore, Mena weaves into her narration stereotypical notions about Mexicans that are undercut by this dramatic irony, exposing the inadequacies of such views. These three stories, therefore, may be seen as examples of Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of "double-voicing." Discussing discourse in the comic novel in The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin asserts that the author may involve broader social "voices" in his or her own commentary:

The relationship of the author to a language conceived as the common view...is always found in a state of movement and oscillation. ... [The author exaggerates, now strongly, now weakly, one or another aspect of the "common language," sometimes abruptly exposing its inadequacy to its object and sometimes, on the contrary, becoming one with it, maintaining an almost imperceptible distance, sometimes even directly forcing it to reverberate with his own "truth," which occurs when the author completely merges his own voice with the common view. (302)

An author may incorporate a "parodic stylization" of certain languages, such as official or ceremonial languages, with the result that "the speech of another is introduced into the author's discourse (the story) in concealed form, that is, without any of the formal markers usually accompanying such speech" (303), such as quotation marks. The author, thereby, interacts in a dialogic manner with the reported speech, often in order to "unmask" its limitations. Mena performs such a resistant function in these three stories, for though her narrators invoke stereotypes about Mexicans, the texts themselves problematize such generalizations, often even reversing the expectations set up by such views.

Other tales by Mena also turn a critical eye upon values within Mexican society at the turn of the century, such as its class hierarchy and subjugation of women. (2) However, "The Gold Vanity Set," "The Education of Popo," and "Marriage by Miracle," which were published in mainstream American periodicals, clearly criticize dominant social values of the United States in the early twentieth century. Categorized in their time as charming portraits of Mexican life for largely white, middle-class audiences, Mena's works now can be seen as complex, parodic commentaries about Anglo-American life by an author who lived both within and outside it.

Mena's own experiences of cultural plurality may have inspired her preoccupation with border-crossing and cultural contact. Born to an affluent family in Mexico City in 1893, she was raised within the traditional parameters of the Mexican upper class during President Porfirio Diaz's regime, attending an elite convent school and learning foreign languages (Doherty vii). …