In Chapter 3, “Entering Into the Serpent,” Anzaldúa writes a history of patriarchy within Indigenous and Mexican culture and spiritual practice. At the beginning of the chapter, Anzaldúa recounts an encounter she had with a rattlesnake one morning. Her mother had always cautioned her against them, not only because they were dangerous, but because she perceived them as a threat to her daughter’s chastity. After the snake was killed, Gloria snuck out to drink some of the snake’s blood, and, later that night, dreamt that she saw “through snake eyes” (26).
After this personal story, Anzaldúa shifts to discuss the history of Mexican spirituality, and the changing role of female deities over time. Noting the influence of Indigenous religious practice on contemporary Chicano Christianity, Anzaldúa focuses on the figure of la Virgen de Guadalupe, largely seen as a Catholic image of the Virgin Mary. Anzaldúa argues that la Virgen is really an instantiation of the Indigenous deity Coatlalopeuh. Coatlalopeuh is herself only one aspect of the earlier goddess Coatlicue, or “Serpent Skirt,” possessed of both light and dark aspects (27). In order to disempower this female figure, “the male-dominated Azteca-Mexica culture” got rid of those more powerful and complicated aspects, representing them with male gods instead while redefining Coatlicue as Tonantsi, her nurturing and motherly guise (27).
This tale of disempowerment continued with the arrival of the Spanish, who dismissed Indigenous religion as the work of the devil, and redefined Tonantsi as a guise of the Virgin Mary. The inherent sexuality of the serpent goddess was thus removed from this new version of Tonantsi, who became the virgin mother. The Spanish thus came to define female sexuality as beastly or devilish, the opposite of the nurturing, blessed, and motherly figure who was la Virgen de Guadalupe. Nevertheless, the Indigenous origins of la Virgen persist, despite the colonial assumption that she is merely a Catholic figure. Anzaldúa argues that she is a symbol of the Chicana who remains true to their Indigenous values, because she exists at the intersection of the colonially imposed religion and the Indigenous religious tradition. However, Anzaldúa argues that she must be understood in conjunction with two other foundational mythical mothers: la Llorana, the mother who looks for her lost her children, and la Chingada, the raped mother who has been abandoned by her people.
Despite this persistent importance of la Virgen, Anzaldúa nevertheless argues that the problem of male dominance was deeply rooted in Aztec culture, and cannot be fully tackled only through confronting the colonial Spanish. By disempowering Coatlicue, the Aztecs stripped women of their power and created a profound imbalance. It was this imbalance that led to the emigration of the Aztecs, and their creation of a violent empire that demanded war and human sacrifice. In the face of these endless wars, the Indigenous women’s only option was to wail for their lost sons, brothers, and husbands, a wailing which exists today in the figure of “la Llorana” and persists in the protests of Indigenous, Mexican, and Chicana women who have no other paths of resistance. Ultimately, it was this lack of solidarity across gender and class lines that allowed for the conquering of the Aztecs by the Spanish.
In the last two sections of the chapter, “The Presences” and “La Facultad,” Anzaldúa argues for the importance of knowledge rooted in myth and imagination. Western culture draws a strict distinction between rationality and fiction, a distinction which allowed them to dismiss the beliefs of Indigenous peoples who put more stock in dreams and imagination, and to assume that Indigenous peoples had no access to rationality, which Western culture deemed the superior mode of knowing the world. Thus the prioritization of rationality enabled Western colonizers to dehumanize Indigenous peoples and deem them “savage.” In opposition to this colonial mindset, Anzaldúa argues for the importance of “La facultad” or “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface” (38). This way of seeing, which functions independently of rationality, allows people, especially oppressed people, to understand the true nature of reality by opening up a shift in perception, one which allows people to see more than what we expect to see.
In Chapter 4, “The Coatlicue State,” Anzaldúa gives an account of her own relationship with Coatlicue, and how it allows her to perceive the world differently. The chapter begins with a poem that describes a descent into night punctuated by bodily transformations and snake imagery. From here Anzaldúa shifts into prose and begins to discuss self-perception by talking about mirrors, which paradoxically allow us both to objectify ourselves as images, and to perceive the world at a deeper level. When she was younger, Gloria would look in the mirror and perceive that she was different. She felt herself inhabited by Coatlicue, or by the “Shadow-Beast” within herself, which gave her a magical way of perceiving the world as well as a rational one.
In order to protect herself, Gloria grew to reject the parts of herself which other people hated and feared. She connects this individual action to the whole Chicano people, who, she argues, terrorize themselves as a defense mechanism against a hostile colonial culture. One result of this self-hatred is the adoption of routine and addiction in order to make life stable and livable. Although this coping mechanism provides safety, it also prevents change. In order to break out, Anzaldúa argues, we need to return to Coatlicue, to the disruptive power of unconscious darkness.
The Coatlicue state, as Anzaldúa defines it, is an entrance into the turmoil of one’s unconscious. For her, Coatlicue symbolizes this space because she embodies contradiction, the “fusion of opposites” (47). Within the Coatlicue state, Anzaldúa is able to see herself in the mirror in a different way, perceiving herself as the “Shadow-Beast,” the goddess, rather than objectifying herself as a woman in a mirror. This confrontation is terrifying: it renders her inactive, an inactivity which she wants to reject in herself because the colonizer dubbed Mexicans lazy and she already has to work “twice as hard” to defy that stereotype. Instead of giving in, Anzaldúa has to accept her stasis, enter into darkness, and meet her inner self. Once she does this, she feels newly present in her own body, in possession of her whole self, able to perceive the world fully and honestly.
“Entering Into the Serpent” is a very particular kind of history. Anzaldúa’s account of the transformation of Coatlicue into the disempowered Virgen is not necessarily trying to be historically “accurate,” in the sense of a verifiable documentation of the past. Instead, Anzaldúa is engaging in a practice of myth-making, building an alternate, feminist story of the past to contend with the patriarchal narratives which resulted in the exultation of the Virgin Mary as the only female deity in Chicano culture.
The ultimate result of this approach is the summation, “Thus the Aztec nation fell not because Matinali (la Chingada) interpreted for and slept with Cortes, but because the ruling elite had subverted the solidarity between men and women and between noble and commoner” (34). Anzaldúa here challenges mythical narrative, rather than a historical “fact.” In chapter 2, Anzaldúa relates a popular piece of Chicano storytelling: that the Aztecs were overthrown because one Indigenous woman slept with Cortez and betrayed the people. Here, she returns to this patriarchal story and offers an alternative feminist reading of the past, in which the Aztec rejection of female power, and their refusal to listen to the wailing of the women whose children were sent off to slaughter in their wars, ultimately led to their destruction. Within this myth, it is not women, but patriarchy, which proves deadly to Indigenous sovereignty.
Another major theme in “Entering Into the Serpent” is female sexuality. In the anecdote which begins the chapter, Gloria’s mother warns Gloria that the rattlesnake could impregnate her. Anzaldúa emphasizes the bodily aspects of this mythology, “A snake will crawl into your nalgas [vagina], make you pregnant…Under my bare buttocks and the rough planks the deep yawning tugs at me” (25). The snake here becomes a kind of penis, while Gloria and her mother both focus on her sexual organs as the site of the snake’s threat to her chastity. The phallic serpent represents active male sexuality, while Gloria’s body, in the mythology her mother passes on, represents a passive sexuality that is threatened by the snake. When Gloria swallows the snake’s blood, she welcomes the serpent into her own body, and embraces an active sexuality which her culture denies to women.
In “The Coatlicue State,” Anzaldúa develops this connection between the serpent and sexuality into a more comprehensive discussion of her own relationship to her body. Here, the serpent is no longer the literal rattlesnake which she encountered as a child, but instead Coatlicue, the serpent goddess, embodied within Gloria as the “Shadow-Beast.” Anzaldúa dwells upon Coatlicue’s own embodiment, as represented in a painting at the Museum of Natural History: “She has no head. In its place two spurts of blood gush up, transfiguring into enormous twin rattlesnakes facing each other, which symbolize the earth-bound character of human life. She has no hands. In their place are two more serpents in the form of eagle-like claws, which are repeated at her feet: claws which symbolize the digging of graves into the earth as well as the sky-bound eagle, the masculine force” (47). This image emphasizes the connection between Coatlicue and the serpent. Additionally, by dwelling upon the strange physicality of the goddess, but also emphasizing the symbolic resonances of that embodiment, Anzaldúa challenges a reading of her as monster. Instead, she suggests that what the Western culture marks as hideous or monstrous might actually be a source of power and balance. Here, Anzaldúa especially focuses on the contradictory elements of Coatlicue, such as the contradiction between the grave and the eagle, or between the female goddess and the “masculine force” of the sky. These contradictions suggest that Coatlicue herself inhabits a kind of borderland, existing at the meeting of dichotomies. This meeting does not render her illegitimate, but instead invests her with strength and importance, just as Anzaldúa suggests is true of the mestiza.
By the end of “The Coatlicue State,” Anzaldúa is able to turn that kind of awareness towards her own body. Just as she is able to perceive Coatlicue’s mythical significance and power, so she is eventually able to inhabit her own body on her own terms, free of patriarchal or colonial lenses. In contrast to the way her mother collapses her body into a few sexual organs threatened by active masculine sexuality, Gloria sees her own body as powerful and interconnected, neither reduced to passive sexuality nor virginal. When she gives up control to the Shadow-Beast within here, she finds that “Suddenly, I feel like I have another set of teeth in my mouth. A tremor goes through my body from my buttocks to the roof of my mouth. On my palate I feel a tingling ticklish sensation, then something seems to be falling on me, over me, a curtain of rain or light.” (51). Her hyperawareness of her own body enables her to pay attention to every part of herself, from her “buttocks to the roof of [her] mouth.” In turn, this new form of self-perception, in which she sees herself as an active participant in the world rather than an object, enables her to connect with the world beyond rationality, to perceive “a curtain of rain or light” above her. It is this different form of perception, of vigilance to the deep realities of the world, which signals that she is now seeing with a “thousand sleepless serpent eyes” (51).