I awoke with the ocean in my bed. That was how she came to me. Salty, she swam toward flesh, planting her naked torso on my thigh. Fishtail tightened around my muscle; her cancion seeped into my blood. As the voice filled my veins I felt her grip through my spine. This is how she came to me. She has not left me since.
It has been several years since that moment I first woke up with a sirena lover in my bed. But like the instinctual, unnamed desire of the young queer, my adult introduction to the woman of the sea was merely a matter of reunion. In this liquid visitation, a long-forgotten girlhood intrigue was reborn within me, and with it, a return to a cultural past. That place: the warm, quiet nights of South Texas, where young children still hear the wails of La Llorona. Only when I was a girl, I never listened to her cries. I was too busy singing with mermaids.
"La Sirena" -- I remember her arms reaching out toward my grandmother's hands as they placed the card with the small image before me. My childish eyes would search for a match on the game board. With a fistful of raw beans in my tiny hands, I would find the sea creature's mate -- another naked sirena, wading and waiting there between pictures of the sun and the moon. I'd place a single bean on the game board and my grandmother would again touch the deck, drawing another image.
I often played this card game while sitting on top of my abuelita's bed; her sabanas registered in my memory as a faded but deep, intense blue. From those first moments of visual connection, I was becoming aware of the ritualistic power of symbol: of all 54 images I repeatedly saw in the Loteria card deck, only La Sirena lingered with an intensity unparalleled until much later in life. There was something odd yet fascinating about this womanfish, a creature that lived in two worlds. My girlish imagination was hooked. (And besides, her chi-chis turned me on.)
So too, was I developing a love affair with language. Fluid in both English and Spanish, I marveled at the words my mouth formed to communicate with different people in my life. There was a certain regularity in the words I used with my parents. Pero con mi abuela, the words took on a magical quality, much like her deck of cards where strange images were paired with a special language. A mermaid was simply a mermaid. To invoke her name in Spanish, however, was to transform the creature into Sirena.
From then on, I always connected Sirena with feminine space -- a feeling I carried with me when I accompanied my grandmother to the homes of her many hermanas. There, amid all the familiar icons of a Mexicano household, the seven sisters would sit at the dining room table playing the game with my grandmother's deck of magic cards. High rollers that they were, the old women would throw pennies, nickels and dimes into an empty margarine tub, placing their respective bets. I loved the rough clang of the coins shaking against one another.
This mix of metals marked my first experience with alchemy.
Alchemy (n.) -- a medieval chemical philosophy concerned primarily with the conversion of base metals into gold; a metaphor for the spiritual perfection of the soul.
Chicana author Gloria Anzaldua, another Tejana, speaks of alchemy as the act of making face, making soul ("haciendo caras"). As a queer Chicana feminist alchemist, I construct my soul with the raw materials of the ancients: earth, air, fire, water, and their corresponding aspects of personality. Ritually, I examine that psychic cavity where the intercourse of elements takes place. Indeed, my cultural reality demands that I never stop, for it is a simple matter of creative and political survival. Here, in this space where earth, air, fire and water consummate and consume one another, my consciousness is born, molded by The Foremothers' hands.
Mujeres such as Anzaldua have already named this volcanic creator: from Her all things come; it is She whose lava bleeds the four elements with the birth of each full moon. Spewing rock, gas, liquid flame, her cunt is a cauldron of alchemical perfection. Her power speaks to us -- the daughters and the brujas -- telling us stories of spiritual creation. And not unlike my own abuela, her hands hold the power to reveal those cultural archetypes so important to our lives. She acts as her own midwife, delivering from her firewomb a pantheon for a new generation of politically engaged mujeres.
Standing at the water's edge of a new millennium, we must now retell these stories of spiritual creation, the tales of how we make our souls anew.
"La Sirena . . . La Dama . . . La Luna," I remember my abuela calling out as each mysterious image met our eyes. "El Arbol, El Diablo, El Sol . . ."
"El Cantarito . . ."
El Cantaro, the water pitcher, was another symbol telling of spiritual creation. In this case it was my own creation: I entered life under the sign of Aquarius, the water bearer.
The sign of Aquarius is not water, but rather that of air. It is an appropriate element, for in our vases we carry the element of water, whose properties are associated with emotion. Yet as an air sign, we are creatures of the intellect. Long associated with mind and thought, the Aquarian must literally carry the waters of emotion on her back. She contains this liquid, fearful of getting wet.
An air sign given the responsibility of controlling las aguas del corazon, I stayed rational until that moonrise when I awoke with an ocean in my bed. There, returning from my childhood rousings of language, emotion and sexuality, lay my sirena. We embraced, my tongue licking the salt from her pores. The thirst grew, and as she enticed me to drink, I brought my mouth to the edge of my own wetness. A taste. The vase spilled, and I unleashed the Rio Grande, river of my youth.
A Chicana Aquarian who has always carried the weight of a river on my back, I look to Sirena and discover the key to my spiritual and political survival. Her very existence speaks to my need for wholeness -- a search integral to any paradigm of resistance I may create. As a living creature of alchemy, she coexists among water and air, emotion and intellect: she is the evolving mystical body. Seamless, my Sirena exposes Western dualistic thought as the colonizer's lie. Indeed, her presence is a constant reminder of my struggles against the numerous colonizations that inhabit the collective unconscious of the brown queer. She remains, for me, the single most important archetype of this reality.
In Sirena's embrace, I may choose to be guided through the waters of memory, returning to my Atlantis/Aztlan. This politicized place of origin speaks to us as activists. We remember the utopian homeland, renewing our hope for human possibility. Simultaneously, we mourn The Loss. For while A(z)tlantis may be the indigenous source of our political myth and magic, our mestizo blood still circulates the white tidal wave that crushed a civilization. Hence, the paradox of Sirena's cancion -- she is at once guardian and devourer of the dream.
Amidst the chaos, we too are swallowed whole, only to emerge from her fish belly. Transformed, we have moved from victim to survivor to witness, still breathing in the wake of catastrophe. Our stories become our most powerful testimony. Such testament, I believe, is the basis for the New Myth we must create if we are to flourish as a vibrant and decolonized people. The ancients called this endeavor the Great Work; as a modern alchemist-activist, I too must document the journey, calling attention to those elements we can mold in our quest for a new paradigm. I remain, after all, a firm advocate of the power of myth and symbol, malleable by necessity when cultural survival is concerned.
Ironically, the relatively recent conquest of Mexico by the United States has left many of us negotiating our definitions of "cultural survival." I speak here of language, and how Sirena for me has also become a metaphor for the dilemma many modern Chicanos face in their relationship with the Spanish language, itself a colonizer's tongue. For those of us born and raised in the Southwest, our remnants of the catastrophe have always been sedimentary; each layer of colonization weighs down upon the psychic terrain while a river erodes the cortex. In South Texas, where I was raised, this erosion often takes the form of historical erasure. Though the side of the mountain screams with the visual record of centuries, many of us are blinded by a mirage of political barrenness. In this environment, my early cultural consciousness was most tied to the notion of language, symbolized in many ways by La Sirena.
It has been several years since I sat as a child on the bed of my grandmother, playing a card game of words and images. My early emotional memories, such as my queer sexuality, included those that came from speaking fluently en espaņol con mi abuela. This notion of unrestrained expression, of joyous familiarity, was soon shattered by the invisible hand of white supremacy. To this day I have never experienced a "direct" attack on my brown self and yet, as a young child, the stealth messages that Spanish equaled Mexican equaled something to be ashamed of infiltrated my young mind, causing me to ban my parents from speaking to me in a language other than English.
My entrance into the school system finalized this severance; English became the language of critical thought and analysis while Spanish -- the romantic and "irrational" -- became the depreciated language of the heart. For the next several years I communicated with my grandmother in a fragmented Spanish of contained emotions. My own grandmother -- the primary tie to a culturally decapitated past -- died unable to fully understand the thoughts and feelings I wanted so much to share with her.
To this day I often wonder if part of my difficulty behind relearning Spanish has to do with the fact that I am not yet ready to confront the emotional flood that comes with rediscovering one's culture. I liken this flood to the coming out process. For so long I ached to taste a woman; with this same tongue I now struggle to heal the split of my denied cultural self. My experience with this forked tongue of shame still haunts me. And as a Chicana, I know I am not alone.
Like the Little Mermaid of the folk tale, many in our culture become mute as we make the tragic pact to step on land, emulating the footsteps of Anglo colonizers. We ache to breathe the air of English, inhaling the privilege it carries. We have seen this prince of privilege from the refracted pool of history, fallen in love with a distorted view. When the fish tail is finally sacrificed and white legs walk on land -- a land that once was ocean -- we discover emotional indifference. The prince we search for never loved us. The attempt fails, and we are left psychically severed in two, wishing again for a tail and the fluidity it once gave us. We yearn for the emotion of home and familia. Mute and broken hearted, the mermaid's body disintegrates into spray, returning to her native source.
I choose to believe the Little Mermaid is reborn as Sirena, an oceanic curandera singing the joys of a healing ritual. Alchemical in nature, her rites are the prima materia for the New Myth I must now create. This is the crux of the The Great Work. Defiant in the face of fragmentation, I fuse my political struggle with a profound sense of the sacred, speaking con cuerpo y corazon. Only then do I begin the true integration of her form. Sirena becomes my body, never to leave me again.
(This essay is an excerpt from a book in progress.)
Dolissa Medina is a San Francisco-based writer. A version of this essay will appear in an upcoming anthology on women of the Southwest, to be published by Javelina Press in the Fall of 1996.
Ms. Medina's work can also be found in "Generation Q: Inheriting Stonewall," an anthology from Alyson Publications due out this Fall.
Back to Sirena Home Page