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Sometimes women face the courage to do something unimaginable that changes their life. This is the story of Altagracia—Stay tune for more in my upcoming book, Nideaquínideallá, I’m from the Borderlands: A Goddess Journey from Trauma to Rebirth.

I met Altagracia in a community literacy class that met regularly on P.S. 182 in Washington Heights, the largest Dominican community in northern Manhattan. Mayra, one of my colleagues from the Women’s Collective, invited me one night. We walked together into a classroom of ten to twelve women who sat in school benches in a circle. Mayra introduced me to the group as a researcher from Argentina who was writing a book on women’s migration. That night, Altagracia’s narration stood out because of the added dangers posed by crossing the Mona Canal, one of deepest passages in the world, in a small boat.

“When I climbed on that yola all I could think about was my children. I did it for them,” Altagracia said as tears fell down her cheek. The women in the room nodded in empathy. During the seventies and eighties, it took an average of eight years for most women to reunite their families; their migratory journeys becoming a leap of faith into the underworld.

“It was about fifty of us,” Altagracia continued. “By the last day, there was little food and water. We had been at sea for four days waiting for the right moment to sneak passed the Coast Guard watches. It was so scary to be in that boat. Sharks were surrounding us and the Captain asked the women whether anyone of us had the menstrual cycle. We all said no but he was suspicious. He kept looking at me for any signs of blood.”

My eyes widened. I had heard of Captains who threw menstruating women off the board to avoid sharks.

“There was a baby in the crowd who kept crying and the Captain told the mother to nurse him and make him stop. Two men suggested that we all nursed as well because soon we would have no food or water, but the other women didn’t allow it.” Altagracia’s voice trembled.

“After four days at sea, the Captain announced we were almost at shore and we had to jump.” Altagracia fidgeted with her fingers. “So when he said jump, I did. The weight of the plastic bag with a change of clothes pulled me down and then up. When my head was above water I could see the lights ahead of us and I swam towards them, hoping I would soon reach the shore.” Her eyebrows rose as if looking for an act of faith. Then she continued.

“One of the men swimming next to me was drowning and he tried to grab my leg. I held on to my bag to stay afloat but I kept sinking with his weight. I thought that was the end of the trip, and my family would read about me in the papers. Then I saw my friend pulled out a knife and he threatened him. He let go of my leg, and I grasped for some air. I was so tired. I didn’t think I could swim all the way to the shore.” Altagracia’s hands fidgeted with her hair.

“The ocean led us into the beach shore of a condominium complex and I hid in a back yard. It was just the two of us now. Everyone else had run in different directions. I must have dozed off when the voice of a woman woke me up.”

“Wake up, wake up. You can’t stay here. I could be fined for hiding illegals,” She said in a Puerto Rican accent, rolling the r’s.

“Please help us,” I said as I lifted my hands begging. She frowned, but something made her change her mind and she took pity on us.

“Okay, you can spend the night, but you have to leave by dawn. I’ll bring out some food and blankets. There is a shed in the back.”

“My heart stopped pounding. I knew we would be safe. The next day we wandered around the streets of the town of Cabo Rojo. The idea was to blend in with the locals and pretend we were tourists. I had a few dollars and I invited my friend for breakfast. As soon as we saw a public phone, he made a call and his cousin picked us up an hour later. We both had a plane ticket to New York where our families were waiting. That night I dreamt about my children and when I woke up I knew I had done the right thing.”

“Why?” I asked while I wiped my tears.

Altagracia responded. “I couldn’t pay for my children’s books, shoes or school uniforms. My husband migrated but he couldn’t send any money. I worked hard but it wasn’t enough to pay for rent and food. If I had stayed we would still be poor. Being afraid was not an option.”

Growing up, the silencing of my voice by patriarchal authority opened my eyes to injustice and oppression, embracing unexpectedly the healing power of the sacred feminine symbolized by the serpent—more about this story in my upcoming book, “Nideaquínideallá, I’m from the Borderlands: A Goddess Journey from Trauma to Rebirth”  

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 your sister,” 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 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 to let go of family and ancestral conditioning.

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. We had in common the pain that was rooted in centuries of devaluation of female power and distrust of the feminine–its wisdom and knowledge.

Like a snake coiled up, it took me another twenty years however to acknowledge my own struggle, from a broader female lenses, in my own soul’s path, reimagining the power of the serpent and its feminine symbol of transformation and rebirth.