Dreaming with serpents-Mujeres cósmicas
August 2017 Don Burness (Founder of African Literature Association at Yale University
The year was 1975. My wife Mary-Lou and I and our dachshund Trudi were
living in Nayarit, in Rincon de Guayabitos. The young couple in charge of the bungalow
(there were only three bungalows) were in love. On the walls of their lodging were
blatantly erotic pictures, sculpted bodies.
When the girl’s parents came to visit, the images on the wall suddenly changed. The
Virgin of Guadalupe was on every wall. The sexy Malinche women were gone.
This was my first introduction to Mexico and women. A second introduction took
place on the beach. At this time Rincon de Guayabitos was a mere rincon. No hotels.
No development. Just fishermen and the brown eso, the diving pelicans and
soaring frigate birds. There was one small restaurant on the beach. No tourists. One
night while we were eating pork (I think pork in Mexico is sabroso), a mariachi band
entered. The musicians were local. The music with the haunting power produced by
the trumpets and the emotional restlessness produced by the violin enchanted.
Suddenly one trumpet player left the building made with palm fronds. His
trumpet cried, his trumpet lamented - “mama, mama I am lost.” Mother, the other
trumpet that remained inside responded – “my child my child, come to me.” The
trumpet player outside went perhaps 50 yards away and once again, the child cried -
”mama, mama, I am lost.” The trumpet-mother again called for her lost child – “my child my child, come home.” A few minutes later the lost child (el niño perdido) from farther away cried beseeching the mother. I was being introduced to La Llorona, a third
mythical woman in the Mexican soul.
Gloria Anzaldúa tells us La Llorona probably comes from Cihuacoatl, ancient
Aztec goddess. Coatl, the serpent is a mythic figure among various indigenous people.
The Olmecs see the snake as a holy place. The serpent’s mouth is the vagina with
teeth, a symbol of birth and death, light and darkness. The womb is fertile, creative, the
I have not forgotten this night in 1975 or early 1976. The music took me to a
place of beauty, of love, of loss. I was living in Mexico. And the Virgin of Guadalupe (I
have visited the black virgin of Guadalupe in Spain), Malinche and La Llorona were
present, these women of mystery and power. I never realized what I was experiencing
until I read Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands – The Frontera – The New Mestiza (1987)
and Hilda Sotelo’s Mujeres Cósmicas (2011).
Love, sex, desire – the power of woman. These themes repeat themselves from
Eden to Delilah, to Helen of Troy, to Gertrude, mother of Hamlet. All over our planet
woman’s power is recognized. In India the religious and the erotic are interwined.
Octavio Paz notes this in his The Monkey Grammarian (1974). In Crete and Santorini
there are paintings perhaps 4000 years old of lovely beautiful women with black hair,
lipstick and an inviting body.
The Greeks honor women in their sculpture. Greek sculpture is essentially a
praise song to women. Winged Victory from the island of Samothrace, the highlight of
the Louvre, is set at the top of circular stairs. The statue has no head. But the form, the
shape is so staggerly beautiful that to approach her is to find heaven. The Greek word for beauty “omorphia” is the same word as shape. Aphrodite rises from the sea and Boticelli captures her. Her beauty gives birth to the Renaissance.
In literature women can be light, women can be darkness. Don Quijote acts
nobly; he practices knightly conduct for knightly conduct’s sake. He is inspired by
Dulcinea, more a symbol than an individual woman. There are various Dulcineas in
Don Quijote. We will see that in Mujeres cósmicas various women are one woman.
Dante’s La Comedia Divina is inspired by Beatrice, a young woman Dante never really
knew, only dreamed about. Dante’s wife does not serve as muse. Beatrice Portinari, a
young woman, who probably had no idea that Dante loved her, serves as muse. And
Petrach’s Laura joins the list of idealized woman as goddess.
Different cultures have created different stories of women, different stories of love
between woman and man. In Italy opera tells the story. Verdi and Puccini know love’s
power. France, la belle France, knows love and sex and freedom from restraint are at
the heart of living. Courbet’s painting of a vagina, l’Origine du Monde, has been
challenged as pornographic. To Courbet it is woman. It is life. From Madame Bovary to
Nana women, women, women.
It is interesting to note the tradition of the salon in France. Here women of
intellect, culture and beauty provide a home for art, poetry, music. The current President
of France, Monsieur Macron’s wife is 25 years older than him. She is an intellectual, a
woman of culture. She has molded him. She is elegant, stylish, beautiful at 64. She is
How different is the Anglo world where puritanism and pornography are at war.
There is no dominant love story in American literature. There is no celebration of
women in art, in sculpture. This is not Greece. The two American novelists who explore the facets of love and sex, James Baldwin and Edith Wharton, left USA to live in
France. Edith Wharton is buried in Versailles.
The principal English novelists, Dickens, Trollope, Graham Greene, do not write
much about love. Although some writers like Fielding and Austen and Iris Murdoch do.
But in Jane Austen’s novels, sex is repressed. Shakespeare of course paints a world in which women, experienced and innocent, have great sexual power. We see this in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Measure for Measure. And Shakespeare plays with sexual imagery.
Women are central to Japanese literature. Not only is Lady Murasaki, who wrote
over 1000 years ago the most honored literary figure in Japan, but love and sex in the court of Kyoto and Uji define her Tales of Genji.
Women writers have not backed off. Particularly in the modern age. These
writers refuse to be silent, refuse to be defined by men. Women writers declare we are who we are and we are multi-faceted. All over the world serious and talented women
novelists, poets, playwrights speak out, trumpeting woman’s songs. But in different
cultures, the women naturally reflect their cultures. Perhaps Sappho from the Greek
island of Lesvos is among the first mujeres cósmicas. There is a statue of her in the
lovely town of Mtilini.
In Mexico writers such as Anzaldúa and Sotelo and Sor Juana (Juana de Asbaje)
in the 17th century not only tell women’s stories, they tell stories of Mexico. They are
Mexican writers, who happen to be feminists. They know Mexico. They both love and do not love Mexico. For Mexico has been a disappointing lover in too many instances.
Political corruption has for 200 years betrayed women – and Mexico. Violence has
often raped the hope of Mexico. Today from Pueblo to Juarez “feminicidio” (feminicide)
Mujeres cósmicas is as much a Mexican novel as it is a feminist novel. Hilda
Sotelo was born on a farm in the town of Monclava in Coahuila. In her life “amor” and
the cacti of “desamor” have in part defined her. But only in part. Books have been her
best friends and as in the case of Anzaldúa, books enabled her imagination to fly with
quetzal like colors. She has lived many years on the El Paso– Ciudad Juárez border
where gringo and Mexicano connect and do not connect. She has traveled throughout
Mexico from Oaxca to Copper Canyon, from Pueblo to Guadalajara, from Veracruz to
Mexico City. Because her great grandmother was Tarahumara, she has chosen to
identify with her mestiza past and present. She identifies with Olmec and Maya and
Pakal of Palenque. They are all present in her world. Prophecy, mysticism, dreams
flower in the garden of her being. She sings in her being and her writing “Yo soy
Mexicano” celebrated by Jorge Negrete.
In Mujeres cósmicas, various women and Mexico are the protagonists. Octavio
Paz uses the phrase “cosmic significance” in referring to the place of women in
México’s psyche. In El Labertino de la Soledad Paz acknowledges in Mexico, “Woman
is only a reflection of masculine desire.” Hilda Sotelo challenges this patriarchal
dehumanization and in so doing, does not offer easy answers. There are no easy
answers in the fútbol game of life. The metaphor of life as a fútbol match for the women
in Mujeres Cósmicas appears and reappears. And like Mexican fútbol against the
world’s best teams, victory is a dream more than a wanted reality.
Sotelo is honest. She recognizes women’s sexual power and celebrates it. This
is a very sexy novel. Orgasms explode. Not just sexually. The author refers to “la
sensación de un orgasmo…en el corazón (p. 71) and to “orgasmo gastrónomico (p. 77).
This women-novelist offers multiple orgasms. Unlike most Western feminist writers,
Hilda Sotelo takes pride in female beauty. Her many heroines are described deliciously.
“siendo muy bello cuerpo escutural
ojos olivo, piel morena clara, cabello
rizado…pecho amplio…torso esbelto” (p. 148)
Lovely full breasts, slim waist, beautiful hair - Sotelo is woman and like Maya Angelou
thrusts her physical beauty onto the page.
Who are the mujeres cósmicas? Is Lucy and her various incarnations one
woman or many women? These women are women, including bisexual and lesbian
women. There is a painful psychological discomfort in the lives of these women. Hilda
Sotelo jumps from narrator to narrator as one woman appears and disappears only to
reappear. These women, at least the women living in the modern world, live in the
culture of facebook (feisbuk). Pornography, fake friends and loneliness, as in a Bellows
painting, suggest the lives of these women are not so different from lives of women
across borders. These women seek love and happiness. Most do not find it. In their
lives impersonal sex erupts like Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl and the men leave. Love
leaves. Dreams leave. These women live in Chihuahuas of emotional disappointment.
Kindness, tenderness, loyalty, compassion, unselfishness – these are phantoms more
often than not. Divorce is as common as a sunset. Love is disposable.
There is a lot of love-hate in Sotelo’s women. The word “odio” perhaps appears
as much as any noun in the novel. Other recurring nouns include “infierno” (hell),
“dolor” (grief), “bruja” (witch), “demon”. Much of the hate is internalized. This is not the
life they wanted when they were girls. And soon they will be old.
These women ask – who am I? how did I get where I am? where am I going?
How can I increase compassion and forgiveness? All these women are different. All
are the same woman with various faces as in a Picasso painting. Sotelo knows women
are mysteries. Even to themselves.
Taken together, las mujeres cósmicas are like a Russian doll, matrioshka. Within
each doll there is another doll. Who is Marisol? Who is Ramona? Who is Lucy? A
serpent both life giving and destructive. Light and darkness. It is to be noted that
quetzalcoatl is a glorious bird as well as a snake. Quetzal is arguably the most beautiful
bird on earth!
In Sotelo’s world the natural and the supernatural come together. Dreams,
visions are as real as objective reality. Lucy is snake and is consumed by snakes. The
theme of Metamorphosis repeats. Sotelo in her novel refers to Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Butterflies, crocodiles are present. Among the Maya a butterfly is an ancestor greeting
the living. Sotelo’s world rejects life as practical, logical. Life is not understandable.
Literature, however, enables her to confront a world where the serpent and quetzal
This is a very personal novel. All of these women exist in the imagination of
Hilda Sotelo. And the author is as beautiful as the beautiful women in her world of
Mujeres Cósmicas. Thoughts of suicide, depression affect some of these women. But
so are thoughts of forgiveness. Ramona was sexually abused at age five. The political
violence in the novel is echoed in violence against women.
The violence in Juárez is not merely background. The drug gangs from Mexico
and El Salvador rain storms of violence. Murder, rape, torture of women. Juárez in
recent times has been one of the most violent cities on earth. But Hilda Sotelo sees
Juárez not just as a war zone, but as a place where men and women live, creating
individual lives, seeking love amidst the rubble.
Sotelo is as much a social activist as she is a writer. She is a teacher with many
classrooms. A bus can be a classroom if one gives poetry books to the passengers, if
one reads poetry to the passengers. Hilda Sotelo in her womanly generosity is a mujer
Recently she edited a magazine Espiral-Literatura Juvenil in Ciudad-Júarez. It is
a celebration of individual identity. Poems by young women in Ciudad-Juárez, in El
Paso are testament to the power of the imagination to recreate a life. On the cover is a
magnificent art work – a nubile naked woman comes out of the mouth of the plumed
serpent. The vagina is the warm place where literature is born. Hilda Sotelo has
encouraged these girls to look within themselves to see themselves as rising above
clouds of violence. Included in Espiral is a poem by Susan Chávez (1974-2011), an
activist speaking out against the drug cartels, who was murdered for not remaining
silent. Chávez writes, “hablo del corazón frente a la muerte.” She is the Garcia Lorca
of Júarez. Like Susan Chávez, Hilda Sotelo sees literature as a social force. Using her
own life as a springboard, she has written in Mujeres Cósmicas a novel unmasking the
hidden worlds of ordinary women who are not ordinary. No art for art’s sake here. Art
serves society in the world of Hilda Sotelo.
Male writers are present in Espiral. Sotelo’s feminism is not anti-male, unlike
much American feminism. Men need women to humanize them, to free them from their
own prisons. Men and women need to complete each other.
As an indigenous woman, Hilda Sotelo can look at hispanic culture from the outside as well as the inside. Living on the borderlands, she knows the souls of the gringo and the souls of the mexicano. She creates characters who live on the border of
subconscious worlds. But these people are all each other. There are no borders when
people can see the other as an equal being. Mujeres cósmicas flies above Trump walls
seeking separation, distrust and defining the world in a narrow way. It flies above the
pitbull feminism of many American women who without warmth wage war against men.
The women in Mujeres Cósmicas are all Mexican women. Every woman was a
child. Every old lady was once young and desired. The child, the girl, the sexy young
woman, the old lady in a wheelchair - these are one person. And they all are present in
Sotelo’s insightful novel.
Yet Hilda Sotelo is not preaching. She shows us. And there is a streak of playfulness in this woman. In the acknowledgements she thanks her mother, perhaps the most important woman in her life. She also thanks her millions of readers!
Hilda Sotelo plays with her characters. She plays with words; she creates a
“Sexoso” – is very libidinous
“Hermoza” – is a sexy “hermosa”
She plays with English and Spanish. “La más hermosa de todas” is “la more pretty.”
Two languages on the border marry to produce a mestiza world. Mujeres Cósmicas
presents a sorority of women whose stories are memory and hope.
August 2017 Don Burness (Founder of African Literature Association at Yale University