Transformations of the Mulata Heroine
Detail from the oil painting entitled Filé Melé, the escape (24” x 32”) by artist Rafael Trelles ©2007
by Lara I. López de Jesús
translated by Zachary Romansky
Baroque, eager and extravagant, yet very clear, and always from an interdisciplinary perspective, are words that describe Professor Mercedes López-Baralt’s writing about the works of the most renowned Hispanic authors such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Guamán Poma de Ayala, Benito Pérez Galdós, José María Arguedas, and Julia de Burgos. For more than two decades, López-Baralt, of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus Hispanic Studies Department, has focused her studies on the elimination of boundaries dividing knowledge, wisdom, and the search for beauty. “From the trenches of criticism, I’ve produced my work in the most literary way possible because, for me, beauty is an unconditional value,” she says. In every essay or book she has published, she affirms her reverence for life’s beauty.
Currently at press is López-Baralt’s painstaking verse-by-verse study of the entire Filí-Melé cycle of poems on love and death written by Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos between 1949 and 1957. In her book, Orfeo mulato: Palés Matos ante el umbral de lo sagrado (Orpheus the Mulatto: Palés Matos Upon the Threshold of the Sacred), López-Baralt reads Palés’s last poems from a mythical viewpoint, underscoring the forcefulness of the poet as he displays human thought in its freest, most natural and spontaneous form. This, she says, can be found in the way he creates mythical archetypes. The professor examines two key moments in the work of Palés: the Negrista poetry of Tuntún de pasa y grifería (Tom-toms of Kinky Hair and All Things Black) and the most intimate and quintessential verses of the Filí-Melé cycle.
“Like all great writers, Palés is a mythographer. His myth-building contrasts strikingly with that of Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén, whose interest lies in mimetically recreating the urban life of the black men and mulata women of Havana. Palés, on the other hand, seeks to reveal the intrinsic blackness alive within the people of the Caribbean by going back to mythical and ancestral Africana,” she explains.
Pales’s most powerful and polysemic mythical archetypes are feminine, says López-Baralt. From his Negrista verses, the poet gives rise to heroines in constant transformation: Tembandumba de la Quimbamba is transfigured into Mulata-Antille, only to then show us her darkest and most sinister face as Lepromónida, and she finally becomes Filí-Melé, the main character and focal point of López-Baralt’s book.
In an earlier book, El barco en la botella: la poesía de Luis Palés Matos (The Ship in the Bottle: the Poetry of Luis Palés Matos), López-Baralt presented her first analysis of the mythical dimensions of Palés’s poetry. A small section of the book appeared as an essay included in a triptych—a work composed of music, art, and literature—commissioned by Pro Arte Musical in homage to Palés. Professor, guitarist, and composer Luis Enrique Juliá created a Quintent for Clarinet and Strings inspired by the Filí-Melé cycle; artist Rafael Trelles created a silk-screen print; and Professor López-Baralt developed an essay on the relationships between music, the poems of Filí-Melé, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
López-Baralt identifies how Palés adapts the Orpheus myth in several poems. She also establishes reverberations of Ovid in the poet’s verses and reads Filí-Melé as a Eurydice of sorts, detecting in her traces of Daphne, Galatea, and Medusa.
“Nevertheless, as Eduardo Forastieri so intuitively expressed much earlier, Filí-Melé is a mulata heroine. Although the muse can be appreciated from an Ovidian standpoint, as I have done in my first essays, we cannot ignore the affirmation Filí-Melé presents to us through her very name, alerting us to the diversity that begot her,” she says.
The professor has constructed arguments that lend credence to Palés’s image of the mulata as heroine, and she has approached the muse from the angle of Yoruba mythology, an interpretation she never had taken on before. “I have spoken to santeros and have read books on Santería. The writer Mayra Santos-Febres also has been enlightening me. I have seen some very important parallels between Filí-Melé and Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love, sensuality, and dance,” she explains.
According to López-Baralt, both heroines share key elements of the symbolic complex such as mixed blood, sensuality, honey, dance, escape, multiple transformations, the mirror, and the look in their eyes. The professor has textually validated Filí-Melé’s mixed race and has perceived the heroine’s Africanness.
She also points out that all of Palés’s heroines are related, essentially convening into a kaleidoscope of images. Filí-Melé is both Oshun and Eurydice, and in the cycle of poems she is also island, dream, tree, vessel, smoke, ash cathedral, and even becomes, at the end of the cycle, the very poetry and Palés himself. Orfeo mulato: Palés Matos ante el umbral de lo sagrado is soon due to be published by the University of Puerto Rico Press.