Anzaldúa defines the “New Mestiza consciousness” as an intersectional perspective that combines elements of traditional Chicano culture with anti-racist thinking, feminist philosophy, and queer theory. It encompasses all of the central ideas laid out within Borderlands / La Frontera, and Anzaldúa claims that a more widespread adoption of this method of thinking is the key to Chicano empowerment.
The entire first chapter of Borderlands / La Frontera is concerned with the history of the Chicano people, and Anzaldúa traces their cultural legacy and developments all the way back to the Aztecs and their departure from the legendary homeland of Aztlán—believed by many to be the Southwestern United States—and subsequent relocation to the Valley of Mexico. From there, she outlines the history of colonial conquest by the Spaniards, which led to the births of the first Mestizo individuals, or those of both Spanish and Indigenous decent. Over the next several centuries, the mestizo people developed a distinctive culture and occupied much of Mexico. However, during the early and mid-nineteenth century, racial tensions between Mexicans and the white residents of the Southwestern United States began to rise, culminating in the Mexican-American war of 1846–1848, which pushed the US-Mexico border down approximately a hundred miles practically overnight. Since then, Chicanos, or Mexican people living in the United States, have faced economic oppression, immigration challenges, and increasing levels of racism. These challenges are even more prevalent amongst undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been forced to make the dangerous and illegal border crossing as a result of the power that many United States companies hold over the Mexican economy.
According to Anzaldúa, many modern Chicano and Mexican individuals who live directly along either side of the US-Mexican border occupy a unique sociocultural role: they are often not fully identified with either American or Mexican culture, and most are bilingual by necessity. This has led to the development of a unique “border consciousness” that embraces a complex cultural identity while also granting border residents a unique qualification to criticize, reimagine, and transform the negative aspects of indigenous, white, and Mexican societies. Chicana women, in particular, embody both a literal and metaphorical border lifestyle, facing both cultural pluralities and the unique challenges associated with being women in a patriarchal society.
Anzaldúa expands on this notion of a gender-based borderland, and transforms it into a discussion of the ways in which Chicano society is steeped in patriarchal beliefs and power structures. Misogyny, homophobia, and sex-based oppression is prevalent within all levels of Chicano society, a phenomenon that Anzaldúa attributes in part to the war-based culture of the indigenous Aztecs and in part to the loss of power that many Chicano men feel as a result of their oppression by white people. Chicana women, then, exist at a painful intersection between racism and misogyny, which in turn makes them especially capable of providing a balanced perspective on and criticism of their own culture. However, for all that Anzaldúa is willing and able to criticize her own culture, she cautions white people against using said criticisms to further fuel racist perceptions of cultures of color.
This is where the concept of the New Mestiza consciousness arises. In order to dismantle the racist, patriarchal, and queerphobic tendencies within Chicano culture, Chicana women and queer individuals must become the “priestesses” of a new era, who teach both Chicano men and white people how to live more peaceful, thoughtful, and intersectional lives. In the Spanish language, the suffix -a denotes a feminine word, while the suffix -o denotes a masculine one. Traditionally, mixed-gender groups are referred to with the masculine suffix as the default, as is the case with the word “Mestizo.” By changing the suffix in “Mestiza” to reflect a feminine usage, Anzaldúa foregrounds both the importance and presence of women within the development of this new consciousness.
In the Chicano social movement of the 1960s and 70s, women, queer individuals, and undocumented immigrants were often excluded and written off as either radical or undesirable elements that would dilute the movement’s message of social progress and empowerment. Anzaldúa explicitly rejects this exclusivity in the theory of the New Mestiza consciousness, instead stating that this intersectional way of thinking must be adopted by all Chicanos. Abandoning hurtful and harmful ways of thinking will be difficult, she acknowledges, but by embracing diversity and letting go of toxic habits, Chicanos can regain their social power and help guide the world to a more equitable and kind state.