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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,022 words.)