The power of Yuri Herrera’s prose and the power of his narrator, Makina, are both intimately linked to a facility with language: they share a profound instinct for when to use and withhold words, how to communicate old ideas through new language (and vice versa), and how to navigate the multilingual landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Herrera’s deliberately pared-down prose and Makina’s capacity to form connections through translation highlight language’s emotional weight, showing how transformed language can in turn transform the world.
Makina’s role as a translator, by both profession and temperament, illuminates language’s power to create relations where none existed before. In the village where she lives, she operates the local telephone switchboard, facilitating (and, when necessary, translating) calls in Spanish, English, and the local indigenous language among people in her area, their friends and families in the Big Chilango and other cities, and their relatives abroad in the United States. Without her, this web of communication would be impossible; she sustains and brings into being relationships across linguistic difference. Narratively, Makina also functions to unify disparate worlds and linguistic traditions: as a character adept in three languages and the three cultural contexts they signify (indigenous Mexico, Latinized Mexico, and the United States), her story itself becomes triple: a new incarnation of the traditional Mexica (Aztec) underworld tale, a story about migration and family in rural Mexico, and the narrative of a recent, embattled immigrant in the United States. The most important moment when Makina uses language to unify is when she writes a letter that convinces the “patriotic” policeman to leave her and the other immigrants he is harassing in peace. By writing from the perspective of “we the barbarians,” who (in Makina’s portrayal of the policeman’s mindset) “don’t know how to keep quiet” and “deserve to be chained by neck and feet,” she forces the policeman to see her and her fellow migrants as full human beings with their own experiences, hardships, and emotional lives, rather than as subhuman invaders or a faceless pool of labor. Arguably, this is less because of what she says than the very fact that she is capable of speaking back to him in his language, which shows him that she understands the assumptions in his head and implores him to try and understand her experience in turn.
The novel also frequently treats language itself as an important object and plot device, highlighting its power to shape Makina’s experiences. The purpose of Makina’s journey is to deliver her mother Cora’s letter to her brother. This letter, Makina discovers, is merely one sentence: “Come on back now, we don’t expect anything from you.” In carrying this letter to the U.S., Makina again becomes a vessel for language. This short sentence, scribbled down by Cora herself, represents motherly love with an immediacy that Makina could never capture by merely reporting Cora’s earlier words. In a clear parallel, Makina’s brother gains a new identity by learning to copy the signature and life story of the boy he is supposed to impersonate in the U.S. Army. The identity he assumes on paper, through writing, transforms his own identity in real life. This process repeats in the final chapter, when mysterious bureaucrats in the underground world where the novel ends hand Makina new papers that signify her transformation into a new person. This is clearly a metaphor for gaining “papers” (residency or citizenship) in the United States and points to the way that written language can dominate people, to the point of determining and transforming their identities. This conclusion is announced in advance by a sign Makina sees above the door to the underground cavern. It reads, “Verse,” which translates to the invented Spanish word jarchar, Herrera’s principal neologism in this book. The sign “Verse” above the door announces to Makina that, in leaving the world from which she has come, through the very process of her journey across a threshold and into a new space, she will transform from something hybrid or liminal into something new. And yet, tellingly, she also muses that she has forgotten the word’s meaning in every language—which is itself evidence of her transformation.
Beyond the invention of jarchar, throughout his novel Hererra carefully deploys language in order to transform his readers’ understanding of the world he writes about. His prose is deliberately sparse and even otherworldly at times. He believes this use of language “open[s] some space for the reader to resignify the text in his or her own terms,” much like Makina uses language to create new life possibilities for those around her. Herrera also deliberately avoids using many terms like “the United States,” “Mexico,” “Mexico City,” “the Rio Grande,” “English,” “Spanish,” and “drug/narco-trafficking,” because these words’ meanings are already fixed and emotionally-charged. Similarly, he also refuses to name the vast majority of his characters. Naming these places, people, and topics would allow the reader to cloud their thinking with connotations and preconceptions. By leaving them nameless, Herrera leaves this connotative baggage aside and forces readers to reconsider objects they already know, to transform their understanding of the world and create something new. Although Hererra has frequently explained this point in interviews, he also voices this directly in the novel, when Makina begins to understand how Mexicans in the United States create an interlanguage between English and Spanish, which offers them a new perspective on the world. Herrera writes that their speech is “not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world is happening anew, Makina realizes; promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects.” This directly speaks to the transformative power of language, which is creative in life as well as on the page.
The delicateness of Herrera’s intentionally sparse language made translating his book, especially into the “anglo tongue,” a deceptively challenging task. Just as Makina both wields language to influence those around her and allows language to transform her own reality, Herrera’s writing translate the well-worn narrative territory of the U.S.-Mexico border into something ripe for new modes of understanding the immigrant experience.
The Power of Language ThemeTracker
The Power of Language Quotes in Signs Preceding the End of the World
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect
circle and Makina was saved.
Slippery bitch of a city, she said to herself. Always about to sink back into the cellar.
The Little Town was riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust, and from time to time some poor soul accidentally discovered just what a half-assed job they’d done of covering them over.
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
Sometimes they called from nearby villages and she answered them in native tongue or latin tongue. Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North; these were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own new tongue. Makina spoke all three, and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too.
She couldn’t get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn’t get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon: or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces. That was why she chose to travel underground to the other bus depot. Trains ran around the entire circulatory system but never left the body: down there the heavy air would do her no harm, and she ran no risk of becoming captivated. And she mustn’t get lost or captivated, too many people were waiting for her.
They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.
Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes; promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, but there they are, doing their damnedest.
He’s homegrown, he said. Joined up just like me, but still doesn’t speak the lingo. Whereas me, I learned it, so every time we see each other he wants to practice. He speaks all one day in past tense, all one day in present, all one day in future, so he can learn his verbs. Today was the future.
We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.