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In Drown by Junot Diaz, there are decisive spaces for men and women within the text. Yunior and his mother demonstrate a compelling and complex dichotomy between a dependent maternal figure and an independent male figure. These two figures are each unique in their presentations of masculinity and femininity as they exist outside of traditional gender roles and expression. However, by transcending gender expectations, both Yunior and his mother are policed and ostracized because they do not adhere to normative ideologies.
Yunior’s mother represents traditional Latinidad roles as she remains loyal and supportive of her son and husband. Conversely, Yunior’s mother is presented as maintaining distance between herself and her son, as the only things that pass between them are money, silence, and protection. Undoubtedly, she is playing a role that she cannot escape, because if she did not adhere to societal norms she would lose her connection to her son and her sense of safety. Physically, Yunior’s mother predominantly exists in the domestic sphere, wading from room to room in silence. As Yunior describes her, “She’s so quiet that most of the time I’m startled to find her in the apartment” (Diaz, 94). Metaphorically, this silence represents her inability to express her true desires or her true self. The importance of silence permeates the text as Yunior’s mother becomes the embodiment of isolated fears within the familial relationships. Yunior struggles to understand how his mother maintains a sense of loyalty and even love for Yunior’s father, especially when Yunior remains a target of fears and anxieties throughout his youth. Misery and loneliness are etched into her very being, as is evident when she treats a trip to the mall like a celebrated occasion. Like Yunior himself, Yunior’s mother deviates from the norm. The phone calls to her former husband demonstrate a type of yearning that is non-normative and thus regulated by Yunior, who believes that his mother’s desire to remain close to her husband reflects his own repressed desires surrounding Beto.
Though Yunior does not necessarily mimic his mother’s relationship with Yunior’s father, he nonetheless construes his desire and potential desperation for Beto as a flaw that connects him and his mother. The central fear for Yunior is that he will inevitably experience the world as his mother has experienced it and crave the attention and love that a man like Yunior’s father can provide. For Yunior, this means that he cannot offer love and comfort; instead, he must offer stability and strength. These masculine ideologies persist throughout the text and are specifically maintained by Yunior in the face of a sexual awakening, potential job opportunities, and his role as the rock in the domestic sphere.
Yunior’s sexuality is clearly something that affects his identity as a man of machismo. However, there are clear distinctions made within the text between what is socially accepted and what Yunior is willing to participate in. Yunior has no problem with drug dealing because he believes that, as a product of an economically unstable environment, dealing is a choice that’s worth the risk if it yields an effective gain. Beto and Yunior’s sexual experiences, however, negatively affect Yunior self-image and drive him towards self-deprecation. The two encounters take place in Beto’s home, which gives the boys a sense of safety in their isolation and security in their expression of desire. Though these experiences are not morally problematic, Yunior cannot handle the thought of his social deviance, and that thought is what causes him to resent Beto. Crucially, Yunior does seek out Beto at the pool where they used to hang out during the summers. The pool represents their ability to be fluid in their expressions of sexuality and youthful in the midst of a transitional period in their lives.
Diaz purposefully avoids placing his characters into boxes because each individual has complex identities that are policed by themselves, their communities, and other institutional systems. Public and private spheres of expression are crucial for Yunior and his mother, allowing them to symbolically express their desires without complying with normative behaviors. Without the ability to go to the mall or call her husband, Yunior’s mother is rendered silent and in some ways becomes a ghost of what she once had — a persona which only exists in photos and in her own mind. Yunior struggles to maintain control of himself and his own desires, as well as the desires of his mother. By policing his mother’s actions, Yunior is able to protect his own cognitive dissonance with his own behaviors that exist outside of the performance of his perception of masculinity. Yunior and his mother deviate from normative behaviors, but in doing so are able to fully express their desires and transcend traditional gender roles.
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