A Cup of Water Under My Bed Themes

The main themes in A Cup of Water Under My Bed are language and identity, the power of writing, and queerness and the “other.”

  • Language and identity: Hernández interrogates the relationships between people’s identities and their language, especially in looking at Spanish versus English and oral versus written language.
  • The power of writing: The memoir affirms the “power” in telling one’s own story rather than allowing other narratives to dominate.
  • Queerness and the “other”: Hernández’s exploration of her sexuality as a bisexual woman, as well as the “othered” identities of many, becomes a major component of the narrative.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on April 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

Language and Identity

Hernández is enormously concerned, in her memoir, with the importance of the language a person uses, and how this affects their identity. Throughout the course of the book, she tracks her journey away from Spanish and then back to it again, through a circuitous route. She also...

(The entire section contains 1022 words.)

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Language and Identity

Hernández is enormously concerned, in her memoir, with the importance of the language a person uses, and how this affects their identity. Throughout the course of the book, she tracks her journey away from Spanish and then back to it again, through a circuitous route. She also interrogates the ways in which a bilingual person might have an entirely different relationship with the mother tongue than with the learned one, describing Spanish as an “aunt” who, although largely forgotten, generates a feeling of safety.

Hernández never learned Spanish as a written language. She notes that her mother, Alicia, was proud of being able to sign her own name; nobody in the family thinks of Spanish as a written language. To them, it is a familial, organic, changing tongue. In the communities in which Daisy grew up, multiple forms of Spanish were spoken, all contributing to the eclectic mix of different Spanish-language cultures—and ultimately creating something new.

Daisy is sent to school to learn English, and at first, it is quite foreign to her. As time goes on, however, her Spanish becomes increasingly incorrect, its syntax inflected by her knowledge of English and its vocabulary limited. As a teenager, Daisy rejects Spanish, becoming “resentful” of it and trying to carve out her own identity with her sister by speaking only English with her. Daisy tries to educate her mother in the majority language of the country they are living in.

But Daisy’s sense of having “lost” Spanish grows and begins to pain her. She joins a class with others who have learned Spanish only as an oral language, all of whom hope to have their “Spanglish” corrected and their vocabulary improved. But the memoir also questions whether it is fair to describe the Spanish Daisy spoke to her mother growing up—a Spanish which incorporated English words and used simplified syntax—as “incorrect.” Daisy’s aunts try to improve her Spanish, but as Rosa says in her defense, she is “Americana.” This home-Spanish Daisy speaks is a representation of that identity, in its own way. It is a language born out of a very particular identity that is neither Cuban, nor Colombian, nor white, but entirely American.

The Power of Writing

Hernández is a writer, and her memoir foregrounds this fact and what it means for her and her community—as well as what it means for people with similar backgrounds, who can use their writing to represent their own diverse histories and experiences. It is not by accident that Hernández specifically notes that her parents were almost illiterate, even in their native languages—their communities have many stories and traditions, but these are passed on orally. By writing, Hernández steps into the “white” world and distances herself from that of santos and cups of water placed under the bed to catch nightmares. At the same time, however, Hernández has a special power that her parents do not have: the ability to memorialize people and their stories through writing.

Both of Hernández’s parents work with their hands. They perform physical, often grueling work. Hernández mentions that she doubts, upon watching her elderly father leave for his cleaning job, the value of “arranging words on a computer screen.” Is this the best thing she can do with her hands? Ultimately, she decides,

Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

By characterizing herself as a writer, Hernández partially excludes herself from the community of Spanish oral transmission from which she came. However, this is what her father wanted for her. He does not want her to be like him, and so she is honoring him, in a way, by not being like him. At the same time, she is putting on paper the histories of the men and women who shaped her, through her own lens, and not through that of a “mancha,” a white person controlling the narrative. Being able to tell her own story seems, to Hernández, a particularly tangible “power”—the means to “testify” for a community which is otherwise, without writing, rendered mute.

Queerness and the “Other”

Hernández is a bisexual woman. She writes about this in detail: how she has come to feel that she is able to choose a female partner because her mother has so encouraged her to think for herself, and how this affects her relationships with her family. As a woman who loves women, she is “the other” not only within her familial community, but also within the world. Her sexuality leaves Hernández estranged from one of her aunts, Dora, for some time. It affects her life. She has taken on the mores of the white society into which she has moved.

Hernández is also concerned with degrees of queerness, and how far these lead to othering. She details her various girlfriends and boyfriends to such an extent because she is interested in how far they “pass” and what the impacts of “passing” are. Her aunt Dora reconciles with her when she is dating Alejandro, because Alejandro, a passing trans man, appears to be—in Dora’s eyes—“normal.” Passing as a cisgender and hererosexual couple, both Hernández’s bisexuality and Alejandro’s transness are erased.

By contrast, those with more visible signs of queerness or difference suffer far more. A trans boyfriend of Hernández’s who passed less well left Hernández always conscious of the threat of violence. In its most extreme form, violence from fear of the other leads to such incidents as the murder of the young trans woman, Gwen, who was killed by two men after her secret was discovered.

Hernández’s story depicts a person at the intersection of not one culture, but several. She is not wholly Spanish-speaking nor English-speaking; she is not wholly Colombian or Cuban or American. She is also neither straight nor gay. No matter where she stands, some part of her identity is “other.”

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