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

fangs kill.

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)

runs rampant.

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

come together.

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

Sotelian vocabulary.

“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

Barberia bárbara en Ciudad Juárez/Foto Hilda Sotelo

Recent Posts