Alienation, Marginalization and Assimilation in Sandra Cisneros’ My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn and Barbie-Q Essay
Alienation, Marginalization and Assimilation in Sandra Cisneros’ My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn and Barbie-Q
Mexican-American poet and short story writer Sandra Cisneros (b. 1954) is well-known for her frank exposition of the plight of poor and marginalized Mexican and Mexican-American women. Critics often argue that the characters in Cisneros’ works were drawn from her own life. Like her, they also have a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother, grow up between two cultures and have a desire to leave the barrio in search of independence and greener pastures. The free-spiritedness and determination of Cisneros’ characters were believed to be her ways of changing the traditional perspective of Chicano litereature, which “only reaffirms patriarchal values and the unrealistic, if not abusive, treatment of Chicanas”
(Cushman, n. pag.).
My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn
The usage of food as a major element in Chicano literature is usually interpreted as a demonstration of matriarchal connections between generations of women that are established through the kitchen. Because Mexican culture is very patriarchal, most Mexican men would be ashamed to take their wives’ place in the kitchen. Hence, the kitchen is considered as the “kingdom” of the Mexican woman – it is here that she can assert herself through cooking, one of the few activities that Mexican culture allows her to participate in. Furthermore, food is regarded as a pleasurable social activity in Mexican culture. As a result, the scent of food is known in Chicano literature as the immigrant’s way of looking back at happy past memories, particularly with his or her family (Christie, n. pag.).
In Cisneros’ short story My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn (1991), the scent of corn is a clear manifestation of how the burden of raising an immigrant family often fell on the women, as well as the immigrant’s adherence to his or her Hispanic identity and culture. In Mexican society, akin to other patriarchal societies, it is the father who is the breadwinner of the family. Unable to get jobs once they migrated with their families to the United States, most Mexican fathers resorted to alcoholism and or left their families altogether. Hence, it is the mother who ended up eking a living for the family while taking care of the children at the same time:
“There ain’t no boys here. Only girls and one father who is never home hardly and one mother who says, Ay! I’m real tired and so many sisters there’s no time to count them… I think it would be fun to sleep with sisters you could yell at one at a time or all together, instead of alone on the fold out chair in the living room” (Cisneros, n. pag.).
Through this passage, Cisneros implied that the Chicano family is “a world without men” (Thomson, n. pag.). Mexican women were traditionally brought up to be subservient to men. But the economic hardships that they encounter upon reaching the US forced them to discard the said upbringing and assume the roles that their husbands left behind. They take on several odd jobs while raising children, drawing support from other Mexican women who have been abandoned and or neglected by their husbands as well. In effect, this is how Chicanas acquire the independent nature of their white counterparts (Thomson, n. pag.).
Despite their dilligence, most Mexican immigrants remain mired in poverty even after moving to the US, a sharp contrast to the “American Dream” or prosperity through meritocracy. Since they cannot afford meat and other foodstuffs that white Americans eat, Mexican immigrant families eat corn, a cheap vegetable that also happens to be their staple food. Thus, the narrator’s observation about her friend Lucy smelling like corn is a symbolism of the seemingly unbreakable bond between being a Chicano and poverty.
Cisneros’ short story Barbie-Q (n.d.), meanwhile, discussed the pressure on Chicanas to become the [“ideal American woman.”] Barbie is a stereotypically beautiful young woman – slim, blonde and fair-skinned. In addition, she has fancy clothes, trendy cars and an equally “perfect” set of friends. Although Barbie is just a fictional character, she eventually became the impossible standard of beauty for girls of all races.
The narrator in Barbie-Q, a poverty-stricken child, loved Barbie dolls so much that she practically knew the latest Barbie fashions. However, her low economic standing forced her to content herself with just buying damaged Barbie dolls at the second-hand store:
“So what if we didn’t get our new Bendable Legs Barbie and Midge and Ken and Skipper and Tutti and Todd and Scooter and Ricky and Alan and Francie in nice clean boxes and had to buy them on Maxwell Street, all water-soaked and sooty. So what if our Barbies smell like smoke when you hold them up to your nose even after you wash and wash and wash them. And if the prettiest doll, Barbie’s MOD’ern cousin Francie with real eyelashes, eyelash brush included, has a left foot that’s melted a little-so? If you dress her in her new ‘Prom Pinks’ outfit, satin splendor with matching coat, gold belt, clutch, and hair bow included, so long as you don’t lift her dress, right?–who’s to know” (Cisneros, n. pag.).
For Cisneros, the narrator’s fixation with Barbie dolls (even if they are already damaged) symbolizes the Chicana’s futile attempt to turn herself into a white American woman. No matter how hard a Chicana works and or studies, she will always remain inferior in the eyes of mainstream American society because she is poor and of Hispanic ancestry. No amount of aping American ways will remove these two “stigmatizing” qualities. Hence, the symbolism of the Barbie doll’s melted left foot under its prom dress.
The above-mentioned passage from Barbie-Q is also usually interpreted as Cisneros’ criticism of all the feminine stereotypes that are being promoted by the Barbie doll. This observation was probably derived from the passage below:
“Every time the same story. Your Barbie is roommates with my Barbie, and my Barbie’s boyfriend comes over and your Barbie steals him, okay? Kiss kiss kiss. Then the two Barbies fight. You dumbbell! He’s mine. Oh no he’s not, you stinky! Only Ken’s invisible, right? Because we don’t have money for a stupid-looking boy doll when we’d both rather ask for a new Barbie outfit next Christmas. We have to make do with your mean-eyed Barbie and my bubblehead Barbie and our one outfit apiece not including the sock dress” (Cisneros, n. pag.).
The narrator and her friend made do with engaging their Barbie dolls in a role-playing game with an imaginary Ken until they were able to afford to buy an actual Ken doll. This part of the short story can be construed as a reflection of the absence of male figures in Chicano culture (Thomson, n. pag.). However, the two girls made their Barbie dolls fight over Ken. This promoted the misconception that women are supposed to be emotionally dependent on men. Instead of being strong and self-sufficient in the absence of a male figure, women are actually looking for and are even fighting over one.
In addition, the Barbie doll’s melted left foot under its prom dress can also be regarded as a metaphor that described the hiding of a woman’s “faults” by acting and making herself look stereotypically pleasing and attractive to men (Thomson, n. pag.). The very character of Barbie emphasized this trait, as seen in the passage below:
“Yours is the one with mean eyes and a ponytail. Striped swimsuit, stilettos, sunglasses, and gold hoop earrings. Mine is the one with bubble hair. Red swimsuit, stilettos, pearl earrings, and a wire stand. But that’s all we can afford, besides one extra outfit apiece. Yours, ‘Red Flair,’ sophisticated A-line coatdress with a Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat, white gloves, handbag, and heels included. Mine, ‘solo in the Spotlight,’ evening elegance in black glitter strapless gown with a puffy skirt at the bottom like a mermaid tail, formal-length gloves, pink chiffon scarf, and mike included. From so much dressing and undressing, the black glitter wears off where her titties stick out. This and a dress invented from an old sock when we cut holes here and here and here, the cuff rolled over for the glamorous, fancy-free, off-the- shoulder look” (Cisneros, n. pag.).
Given the aforementioned vanity associated with the Barbie doll, it is indeed a dangerous role model for young girls. By immersing themselves in the narcissism being promoted by the Barbie doll, they are being taught at an early age that women are commodities that are subject to the approval of men. Instead of developing themselves to become independent and secure within themselves, they are basing their self-esteem on what men will think of them. These girls will eventually grow up into women whose sexuality revolves around the presence of a male figure in their lives (Thomson, n. pag.). While there is nothing wrong about a woman being concerned about her physical attributes, she should be aware that physical appearance does not make up her entire personality.
By veering away from the conventional pathetic image of women in Chicano literature, Cisneros has shown audiences that women who have the initiative to make things happen are the ones who become successful in overcoming life’s obstacles. On the other hand, her analysis of “harmless” female activities enlighten women on the more subtle forms of opression against them. Women should live their lives on their own terms and not on anyone else’s. Self-sufficiency and a healthy sense of self are the best weapons for a woman to be able to break free from the chains of male domination.
“Barbie-Q.” 10 November 2005. Bridgewater.edu. 20 May 2008
Christie, John S. “Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination: Chapter Five (Part II).” 19
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Cushman, Susan E. “Sandra Cisneros Biography: Critical Studies.” 2008. Brief Biographies.
20 May 2008 <http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4215/Cisneros-Sandra.html>.
“My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn.” PDF File. n.d. Kealing.org. 20 May 2008
Thomson, Jeff. “’What is Called Heaven’: Identity in Sandra Cisneros’ ‘Woman Hollering
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