Borderlands / La Frontera Summary

Borderlands / La Frontera is a 1987 work of memoir, critical theory, and poetry that explores Chicano culture and identity from a queer feminist perspective.

  • Gloria Anzaldúa recounts the history of the Chicano people and her own early experiences of being ostracized from her community as a queer Chicana woman.
  • Delving further into exploration of Chicano culture and queer female identity, Anzaldúa describes her concepts of the “Coatlicue state” and the “New Mestiza consciousness.”
  • Finally, Anzaldúa presents a collection of poems on six different themes, including her childhood, the lives of agricultural workers, the queer and Chicana experiences, spirituality, and unity.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051

Introduction

Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa is a combined nonfiction memoir, work of critical theory, and poetry collection. Published in 1987, it offers insights into the Chicano sociocultural movement while also defining a unique state of consciousness, which Anzaldúa refers to as “border consciousness.” The work centers on the history, culture, language, art, and future of the Chicano people, specifically those who dwell along either side of the Mexico–United States border. This proximity to the border, which Anzaldúa establishes as both arbitrary and historically disruptive, gives Chicanos access to a unique perspective, which produces both discomfort and, hopefully, a transformative mindset that can liberate the world. Following its initial publication, Borderlands / La Frontera was listed as one of Library Journal’s thirty-eight best books of 1987, and it remains a landmark work of Chicano, queer, and feminist literature.

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The text is divided into two separate parts, with the first part being primarily prose theory and memoir and the second part entirely poetry. The text also employs frequent code-switching between Spanish and English, which Anzaldúa intended as a representation of the linguistic borderland inhabited by Chicanos.

Summary

Anzaldúa begins part 1, “Crossing Borders,” by explaining the history of the Chicano people, dating back to the Aztec empire. According to legend, the Aztec people left their homeland of Aztlán, believed to be what is now the American Southwest, at the behest of their god. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico, which was later conquered by the Spanish. The offspring of the Spaniards and the Aztecs produced the mestizo people, who occupied Mexico. A robust Mexican identity developed over the next several centuries. However, when the United States began invading Mexico in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the border between the two countries was pushed over one hundred miles south. Mexican individuals were subsequently trapped on either side of this new border, creating what Anzaldúa describes as a “border consciousness.” For many Chicanos, the border is only legitimate in the practical sense, as it presents a danger to those who cross it. However, as US corporations continue to foster dependence within the Mexican economy, an increasing number of people are forced to take the risk of immigrating illegally in search of a better life.

The book then transitions into a discussion of Anzaldúa’s own childhood and her subsequent ostracization from her community as a result of her lesbianism and general rejection of patriarchal authority. She claims that the borderlands foster a resilient, rebellious spirit that does not respect authority—border walls included. Anzaldúa states that she will defend her culture against outsiders who try to criticize it, but she also acknowledges that it is not without its flaws. Anzaldúa is a scholar of Chicano history and culture, and that is why she advocates for the creation of a “New Mestiza consciousness” that is infused with ideas drawn from feminist and queer theories. As it exists, Chicano culture is often hostile toward women and prevents them from reaching their full potential.

In response to her culture’s efforts to control and suppress women, Anzaldúa looks to the ancient Aztec goddesses for wisdom and strength. Coatlicue, the Aztec mother goddess who is sometimes said to have birthed the earth itself, is of particular inspiration. Many modern goddesses, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, are venerated for their purity and nurturing instinct. Anzaldúa finds Coatlicue compelling because she contains both light and dark aspects. This embracing of the monstrous gives rise to what is called the “Coatlicue state,” wherein a person must face their inner self and make peace with the internal conflicts inherent to being a mixed-race woman.

Anzaldúa also identifies language as an important part of Chicano culture, and she describes the efforts of both standard Spanish and English speakers to suppress Chicano Spanish as “linguistic terrorism.” Chicano Spanish is not “incorrect” Spanish, nor is it an affront to English. Instead, it should be respected as a unique linguistic profile that was developed to suit the needs of those who straddle the border between English- and Spanish-speaking countries. Art and expression are vital vehicles for both the advancement of language and overcoming the “tradition of silence” that shame has encouraged in Chicano people.

Anzaldúa believes that through the oftentimes painful act of creation, Chicanos can transform centuries of pain into hope for the future. The New Mestiza consciousness will not come about naturally, but must instead be created. It is only by rejecting misogyny, heterosexism, and racism that society can be advanced. However, change must come from the inside first: people must begin by facing their inner Coatlicue, accepting their trauma and insecurities in order to move past restrictive, reactive ways of thinking. Then, the culture can shift from within, leaving behind harmful and violent beliefs. Finally, the world can come together in greater understanding as cultures begin to share the different parts of themselves, creating a global society built on love, trust, and understanding.

Part 2, “Ehécatl, the Wind,” is a collection of poetry, with each of the six sections loosely encompassing a broader theme. The first section, titled “Mas antes en los ranchos,” or “Earlier in the ranches,” explores scenes from Anzaldúa’s childhood in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The second section, titled “La perdida,” or “Loss,” depicts the lives of farm and agricultural workers. Some of the poems are an homage to and celebration of those who dedicate their lives to such arduous work, while others explore the oftentimes exploitative nature of the agricultural business. The third section, titled “Crossers,” engages with narratives about queer individuals. These individuals are often considered transgressive within Chicano culture, and they are often met with loneliness and violence as a result. The fourth section, titled “Cihuatlyotl, Woman Alone,” explores the Chicana experience. The section’s titular manifesto asserts the need for female autonomy and the individual right of self-actualization. The fifth section, titled “Animas,” explores the quest for spiritual fulfillment and the dire consequences of refusing to confront one’s inner demons. The sixth and final section, titled “El Retorno,” is a call for unity and perseverance from the Chicano people, who Anzaldúa believes will someday reclaim their social power and dignity from their oppressors.

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