“Growing up, the silencing of my voice by patriarchal authority opened my eyes to injustice and oppression, embracing unexpectedly the healing power of serpents—the full account is coming up in my new book,
Nideaquínideallá: I’m from the Stars.”
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been scared of serpents. When I was a child, after a daunting fight with my father, I hid inside a wood shed. Poisonous snakes were likely to nest there. I sat in the dark, wishing one would bite me and I would die. For many years, I replayed this incident in my head several times, blaming myself for my own rebellious voice.
“I hate you,” I yelled to my father as he served himself a piece of steak.
His dark long thin hair was combed back. Some grey hairs were beginning to show. His big ears stood out against his white skin and his eagle-shaped nose was always running from allergies to dust, pollen, dog hair, and mildew. He sniffed into his handkerchief.
My mother gave me one of those looks to shut up. She was always the last one to sit down at the table, arranging the food and what was needed for our meals.
Minerva Gaea, a plumed, medium sized, Indigenous woman with Spanish features, then the main caretaker, helped her with last minute details. The protocol was that once the food was served, she would go back to the outside kitchen and eat there. My two older brothers never helped, and I was too little, the baby girl. Salt, pepper, a serving spoon, a missing napkin, water, and a glass of wine. Minerva moved slowly as she emptied her tray.
“Why are we stuck here?” I kept at the conversation, “I want to be with my friends. I’m missing all the fun they are having in the city.”
“Your father already told you,” said my mother, “we’ll be here until we can straighten things out.”
“It’s been a whole month already,” I stuttered, knowing that I was pushing the boundaries.
The temperature of the room was rising. Minerva’s thick eyebrows rose as she walked towards the door. Unlike my father, her straight dark long hair was always in place. I never saw a sight of frustration or complaint in her face.
My brothers didn’t seem to care we were stranded all summer at the ranch. After all, they enjoyed riding horses and the freedom of the land. One of my brothers kicked me under the table, but it was too late. My dissatisfaction grew and I blurted out.
“I hate this place and everything about it.”
That’s when I didn’t see it coming, and my father’s hand stroke my left cheek. The only time in my life the heavy weight of a man’s open hand was on my face. His face shrunk with anger, as if he couldn’t believe what I had just said. His parental authority was undermined, out the window.
I was still a little girl, and yet my body witnessed a mixed feeling of failure and solidarity. While Minerva was in the same room, I was safe to speak up, and my father held his anger in place. As his irritation unleashed, I was nauseated with the smell of steak and my mother’s pleasing tone. I raised my hand to my mouth, as if I was going to throw up. My whole body contracted and I left the room crying. I then walked into the shed and sat in a corner. I wished for a snake to bite me.
Dying seemed like the only response to my father’s slap, to his repression of my ten-year-old rebellion, to the silencing of my voice. A baby snake slipped through one of the logs as I was standing up. She wasn’t coiled. No bite. May be yararas didn’t bite when they were little.
Yarara was the Guarani name for the regional poisonous snake that roamed the ranch, and was now part of our mestizo heritage. The yarara knew no boundaries, sharing the soil of Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. The Guarani, the Indigenous people of this regional area who appeared in the first millennium, drew her on plates, coiled with spots, moving through the jungle with ease like the jaguar, also called Yaraguarete, another mythical figure in Guarani culture.
“Go ahead and look for Karin,” my mother asked my brother Jorge.
It was a busy morning that day, and my parents were ready for their afternoon nap. I could still hear the dishes clanging in the kitchen. I hesitated between waiting for someone to find me. Instead, I stood up and I walked outside, feeling renewed, as if my old skin had been removed.
The process of shedding had turned snakes into symbols of legends and myths representing neurosis, healing, initiation, death, transformation, wisdom and rebirth. I anticipated the power of the serpent goddess and her many polymorphic and multidimensional manifestations in my life. It would be some time though before the new skin was ready for the world, shameless and free, growing instead a strong woman Self that some day would face my father’s authority, or better yet, how I saw the world through my parents’ eyes.
I met my brother playing outside, and we carried on our usual children’s games. He warned me about my father still being angry, so we went to the back of the house and ate some oranges from the trees.
I’ve held on to this traumatic experience for most of the years I lived abroad, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes buried deep down. I came to see my own affliction with patriarchal authority in the immigrant women I met years later in New York City when working in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Here I met Paulina, Carmen, Altagracia, Maria, Mercedes and Belkis, women in their forties who had powerful stories of family, displacement and survival. I was still in my twenties then, but they left an impression on me.
It took me another twenty years however to acknowledge our struggles from a broader female lenses. We had in common the pain that was rooted in centuries of devaluation of female power and distrust of the female will, as if a snake coiled up ready to attack.