Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8520
SOURCE: Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: Cultural Studies, ‘Difference,’ and the Non-Unitary Subject.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora, pp. 11-31. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998.
[In the following essay, originally published in a 1994 issue of Cultural Critique, Yarbro-Bejarano discusses Anzaldúa's theory of mestiza or border consciousness in relation to the theory of difference and the mixed critical reaction to Borderlands/La Frontera.]
In 1979, Audre Lorde denounced the pernicious practice of the ‘Special Third World Women's Issue’ (100). Ten years later, the title of one of the chapters in Trinh T. Minh-ha's Woman, Native, Other—‘Difference: A Special Third World Women's Issue’—alludes to the lingering practice of acknowledging the subject of race and ethnicity but placing it on the margins conceptually through ‘special issues’ of journals or ‘special panels’ at conferences. In her ‘Feminism and Racism: A Report on the 1981 National Women's Studies Association Conference’, Chela Sandoval critiqued the conference's structure, which designated one consciousness-raising group for women of color yet offered proliferating choices for white women (60). Nine years later, a conference at UCLA on ‘Feminist Theory and the Question of the Subject’ replicated this scenario, presenting a plenitude of panels on different aspects of the question of the subject, while marking off a space for ‘minority discourse’ that simultaneously revealed the unmarked status of the generic (white) subject of the other panels. Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, the guest editors of a special issue of Screen, formulate its title as an ironic question: ‘The Last Special Issue on Race?’ They point out that the logic of the ‘special’ issue or panel ‘reinforces the perceived otherness and marginality of the subject itself’. In their critique, they invite us to identify the relations of power/knowledge that determine which cultural issues are intellectually prioritized in the first place … to examine the force of a binary relationship that produces the marginal as a consequence of the authority invested in the center.
The persistence into the 1990s of discourses and practices that reinscribe the margin and the center indicates the problems inherent in theorizing ‘difference’. In ‘The Politics of Difference’, Hazel Carby suggests that discourses on difference and diversity in the 1980s functioned to obscure structures of dominance. Linda Gordon offers a ‘white-woman's narrative and perspective about the appropriation of the notion of differences among women by a white-dominated women-studies discourse’ in her article ‘On Difference’ (100). The reinscription of the politics of domination within the discourse on difference inheres in part in the practice of theorizing difference within a paradigm that implies a norm and the tolerance of deviance from it (Gordon 100 and Spelman). The ‘additive’ model, in which heretofore excluded categories are ‘included’ in an attempt at correction, works against understanding the relations among the elements of identity and the effect each has on the other (Spelman 115 and Uttal).
This critique has been accompanied by an awareness that the failure to produce a relational theory of difference (Lippard 21) is not just a sin of omission, a result of ‘laziness or racism’, but points to a profound ‘conceptual and theoretical difficulty’ (Gordon 101-2). What is needed is a new paradigm that permits the expansion of categories of analysis in such a way as to give expression to the lived experience of the ways race, class, and gender converge (Childers and hooks). The writing of women of color is crucial in this project of categorical expansion, producing what Cherríe Moraga calls ‘theory in the flesh’ (Moraga and Anzaldúa, Bridge [This Bridge Called My Back] 23). This embodied theory emerges from the material reality of multiple oppression and in turn conceptualizes that materiality. The embodied subjectivities produced in the texts of women of color allow for an understanding of ‘gendered racial identities’ or ‘racialized gender identities’ (Gordon 105).
Cultural studies would appear to provide ideal terrain for the mapping of this new paradigm, with its ‘commitment to examining cultural practices from the point of view of relations of power’ and its understanding of culture as both ‘object of study and site of political critique and intervention’ (Grossberg et al. 5). However, it is important to keep in mind that the current attention to the intersections of race, nation, sexuality, class, and gender within cultural studies is the result of struggles initiated by people of color within the British movement to construct ‘new political alliances based on non-essential awareness of racial difference’ (Grossberg et al. 5). Lata Mani and bell hooks, among others, express concern at cultural studies' potential failure to articulate a new politics of difference—‘appropriating issues of race, gender and sexual practice, and then continuing to hurt and wound in that politics of domination’ (hooks, Discussion 294).
In what follows, I will examine Gloria Anzaldúa's theory of mestiza or border consciousness and its contribution to paradigmatic shifts in theorizing difference, as well as contentious issues in the reception of this text: on one hand, the enthusiastic embrace of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by many white feminists and area scholars and, on the other, the critiques voiced by some critics, particularly Chicana/o academicians.
Given the above discussion on the conceptual difficulty in theorizing difference, it is understandable that a text like Borderlands would be warmly received. But, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty points out, the proliferation of texts by women of color is not necessarily evidence of the decentering of the hegemonic subject (34). Of crucial importance is the way the texts are read, understood, and located. Two potentially problematic areas in the reception of Borderlands are the isolation of this text from its conceptual community and the pitfalls in universalizing the theory of mestiza or border consciousness, which the text painstakingly grounds in specific historical and cultural experiences.1
Unlike Sandoval's use of the adjectives ‘oppositional’ or ‘differential’ in her theory of consciousness,2 Anzaldúa's choice of the terms ‘border’ and particularly ‘mestiza’ problematizes the way her theory travels. Clearly, non-Chicana readers and critics may relate to the ‘miscegenation’ and ‘border crossing’ in their own lives and critical practices. For example, in her discussion of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, Marjorie Garber uses the term ‘border crossings’ in a way similar to Anzaldúa to describe the activity of presenting binarisms (West/East, male/female) in order to put them into question (130). The point is not to deny the explanatory power of Anzaldúa's model, but to consider the expense of generalizing moves that deracinate the psychic ‘borderlands’ and ‘mestiza’ consciousness from the United States/Mexican border and the racial miscegenation accompanying the colonization of the Americas that serve as the material reality for Anzaldúa's ‘theory in the flesh’. If every reader who identifies with the border-crossing experience described by Anzaldúa's text sees her/himself as a ‘New mestiza’, what is lost in terms of the erasure of difference and specificity?
Other readings are possible that resist the impulse to read the text as one looks in a mirror. Elizabeth Spelman cautions against what she calls ‘boomerang perception: I look at you and come right back to myself’ (12). Appropriative readings are precluded by the constant interrogation of the conditions and locations of reading. It is one thing to choose to recognize the ways one inhabits the ‘borderlands’ and quite another to theorize a consciousness in the name of survival, to transform ‘living in the Borderlands from a nightmare into a numinous experience’ (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 73).
A useful strategy in teaching or reading Borderlands is to locate both reader and text: the reader, vis-à-vis plural centers and margins, and the text, within traditions of theorizing multiply embodied subjectivities by women of color3 and living in the borderlands by Chicanas and Chicanos. Contextualizing the book in this manner, rather than reading it in a vacuum, helps avoid the temptation to pedestalize or even fetishize Borderlands as the invention of one unique individual. Given the text's careful charting of mestiza consciousness in the political geography of one particular border, reading it as part of a collective Chicano negotiation around the meanings of historical and cultural hybridity would further illuminate the process of ‘theorizing in the flesh’, of producing theory through one's own lived realities. Angie Chabram-Dernersesian documents Chicana texts dating from the early 1970s that represent ‘shifting positionality, variously enlisting competing interests and alliances throughout time and space’ and ‘multiple evocations of a female speaking subject who affirms various racial identities’ (85-9). Women of color thinkers such as the writers in Bridge and Sandoval were developing notions of multiple subjectivity in a context of political resistance in the early 1980s. In the mid-80s, Chicano artists such as David Avalos and the Border Arts Workshop attempted to expose, or even to celebrate, the political and economic contradictions of the border that sustain the officially illegal but unofficially sanctioned market in undocumented workers from Mexico. In Chicana/o criticism, the border constitutes a powerful organizing category in such works as Sonia Saldívar-Hull's ‘Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics’ and the collection Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, edited by Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar.
In her discussion of ‘deterritorializations’, the displacement of identities, persons, and meanings endemic to the postmodern world system, Caren Kaplan examines the process of ‘reterritorialization’ in the movement between centers and margins and how that process of reterritorialization is different for First World and Third World peoples. For Kaplan, the challenge of the First World feminist critic is to avoid ‘theoretical tourism’ (or in the case of Anzaldúa's text, becoming ‘boarders in the borderlands’), to avoid ‘appropriating … through romanticization, envy, or guilt’ (194) by examining her simultaneous occupation of both centers and margins: ‘Any other strategy merely consolidates the illusion of marginality while glossing over or refusing to acknowledge centralities’ (189).4 Rather than assuming Anzaldúa's metaphors as overarching constructs for like-minded theoretical endeavors, it might be more helpful to set them alongside the metaphors garnered from the rigorous examination of one's own lived personal and collective history. Kaplan argues that recognizing one's own processes of displacement ‘is not a process of emulation’ (194); Minnie Bruce Pratt states: ‘I am compelled by own life to strive for a different place than the one we have lived in’ (48-9; quoted in Kaplan 364).
Universalizing readings of Borderlands occur in the larger ‘postmodern’ context of increasing demarginalization of the cultural practices of people of color as well as the simultaneous destabilizing of certain ‘centered’ discourses of cultural authority and legitimation (Julien and Mercer). Although many critics of the postmodern proclaim, either nostalgically or celebratorily, the end of this and that, very few focus the crisis of meaning, representation, and history in terms of the ‘possibility of the end of [Euro-] ethnocentrism’ (Julien and Mercer 2). Stuart Hall, former director of Birmingham's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and a black Jamaican who migrated to England, savored the irony of the centering of marginality at a conference entitled ‘The Real Me: Post-modernism and the Question of Identity’:
Thinking about my own sense of identity, I realise that it has always depended on the fact of being a migrant, on the difference from the rest of you. So one of the fascinating things about this discussion is to find myself centred at last. Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed, I become centred. What I've thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxically, to be the representative modern experience! This is ‘coming home’ with a vengeance! Most of it I much enjoy—welcome to migranthood.
Hall sees it as an important gain that ‘more and more people now recognize … that all identity is constructed across difference’, but he also insists that narratives of displacement have ‘certain conditions of existence, real histories in the contemporary world, which are not only or exclusively psychical, not simply “journeys of the mind”’ (44). Whereas Jean Baudrillard and other Eurocentric postmodernists explain the fragmentation of identity in relation to the end of the Real, Hall refers here to what some have called the Real that one cannot not know, the ‘jagged edges’ of poverty and racism.5
For this reason, Hall proposes the possibility of another kind of ‘politics of difference’. New political identities can be formed by insisting on difference that is concretely conceived as ‘the fact that every identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language, a history’. This conception of the self allows for a politics that constitutes ‘“unities”-in-difference’ (45), a politics of articulation, in which the connections between individuals and groups do not arise from ‘natural’ identity but must be articulated, in the dual sense of ‘expressed in speech’ and ‘united by forming a joint’.6
Anzaldúa's Borderlands exemplifies the articulation between the contemporary awareness that all identity is constructed across difference and the necessity of a new politics of difference to accompany this new sense of self. Dorinne Kondo points out the difference between deconstructions of fixed identity that ‘open out’ the self to a ‘free play of signifiers’ and Anzaldúa's representation of multiple identity in the ‘play of historically and culturally specific power relations’ (23). While Anzaldúa's writing recognizes the importance of narratives of displacement in the formation of her subjectivity, she is also aware of the material conditions of existence, the real histories of these narratives. Hers is a ‘power-sensitive analysis that would examine the construction of complex, shifting “selves” in the plural, in all their cultural, historical, and situational specificity’ (Kondo 26).7
Borderlands maps a sense of ‘the plurality of self’ (Alarcón, ‘Theoretical’ 366), which Anzaldúa calls mestiza or border consciousness. This consciousness emerges from a subjectivity structured by multiple determinants—gender, class, sexuality, and contradictory membership in competing cultures and racial identities. Sandoval has theorized this sense of political identity that allows no single conceptualization of our position in society as a skill developed by those marginalized in the categories of race, sex, or class for reading the shifting of the webs of power (‘Report’ 66-7). She sees the term ‘women of color’ not as a single unity but as a conscious strategy, a new kind of community based on the strength of diversities as the source of a new kind of political movement. Her theory legitimates the multiplicity of tactical responses to the mobile circulation of power and meaning and posits a new, shifting subjectivity capable of reconfiguring and recentering itself, depending on the forms of oppression to be confronted. Anzaldúa enacts this consciousness in Borderlands as a constantly shifting process or activity of breaking down binary dualisms and creating the third space, the in-between, border, or interstice that allows contradictions to co-exist in the production of the new element (mestizaje, or hybridity). Crucial in her project are the ways ‘race’ works in the complex ‘interdefining’ and ‘interacting’ among the various aspects of her identity.8 Her essay ‘La Prieta’ (the dark-skinned girl or woman), published in Bridge, already introduced the concerns she will explore in Borderlands: her relationship to her dark Indian self and the denial of the indigenous in Chicano/Mexicano culture. It is the representation of the indigenous in the text that has evoked the most critical response from Chicana/o and non-Chicana/o readers alike.
Primary among these concerns are what are seen as the text's essentializing tendencies, most notably in the reference to ‘the Indian woman’ and the privileging of the pre-Columbian deity Coatlicue, which obscures the plight of present day Native women in the Americas.9 This wariness toward the invocation of ‘Indianness’ and the pre-Columbian pantheon must be contextualized in the contemporary critique of the cultural nationalism of the Chicano Movement, which engineered a romanticized linking between Chicanos and indigenous cultures as part of the process of constructing a Chicano identity. Many of us are engaged in an ongoing interrogation of the singular Chicano cultural identity posited by dominant masculinist and heterosexist discourses of the Chicano Movement and the role indigenismo played in this exclusionary process.10
This seems to me to be the crucial distinction between the project of such Chicano Movement artists as Luis Valdez or Alurista and Anzaldúa's project in Borderlands: whereas the first invoked indigenismo in the construction of an exclusionary, singular Chicano identity, the latter invokes it in the construction of an inclusive, multiple one. The theory of mestiza consciousness depends on an awareness of subject positions—a concept which Diana Fuss maintains represents the essence of social constructionism (29)—working against the solidifying concept of a unitary or essential ‘I’. Fuss suggests that the seeming impasse between ‘essentialism’ and ‘social constructionism’ is actually a false dichotomy, and she calls attention to the ways they are deeply and inextricably co-implicated (xii). Perhaps more productive (and more interesting) than firing off the label ‘essentialist’ as a ‘term of infallible critique’ is to ask what motivates the deployment of essentialism (xi), which carries in itself the potential for both progressive and reactionary uses. In her discussion of subaltern studies, Gayatri Spivak speaks of the ‘Strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest’ (205), an analysis that would focus ‘essentialist’ moves in Borderlands in terms of ‘who’, ‘how’, and ‘where’: the lack of privilege of the writing subject, the specific deployment of essentialism and ‘where its effects are concentrated’ (Fuss 20).
On more than one occasion in the text, Anzaldúa,11 who as a Chicana lesbian of working-class origins enjoys no privilege in the categories of race, culture, gender, class, or sexuality, explicitly articulates her project: ‘belonging’ nowhere, since some aspect of her multiple identity always prohibits her from feeling completely ‘at home’ in any one of the many communities in which she holds membership, she will create her own ‘home’ through writing.
I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, … to fashion my own gods out of my entrails. And if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture.
Mestiza consciousness is not a given but must be produced, or ‘built’ (‘lumber’, ‘bricks and mortar’, ‘architecture’). It is spatialized (‘A piece of ground to stand on’, 23), racialized (‘mestiza’), and presented as a new mythology, a new culture, a nondualistic perception and practice:
the future depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness.
In Borderlands, this new consciousness is created through writing; Anzaldúa's project is one of discursive self-formation. Through writing she constructs a consciousness of difference, not in adversary relation to the Same but as what Alarcón calls the ‘site of multiple voicings’ (‘Theoretical’ 365) or what Trinh calls ‘critical difference from myself’ (Woman 89). The evocation of essentialism in the text is in the service of a constructionist project, the production of a border or mestiza consciousness that gives voice and substance to subjects rendered mute and invisible by hegemonic practices and discourses, and is understood as the necessary prelude to political change (87).
Borderlands' emphasis on the elaboration of a consciousness that emerges from an awareness of multiple subjectivity not only contributes to the development of a new paradigm for theorizing difference but also addresses aspects of identity formation for which theories of subjectivity alone are unable to account. Only theories of consciousness, such as Alzaldúa's or Sandoval's, can elucidate what Richard Johnson calls ‘structural shifts or major re-arrangements of a sense of self, especially in adult life’ (68). In his article ‘What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?’, Johnson, who followed Hall as director of the CCCS, distinguishes between subjectivity and consciousness:
Subjectivity includes the possibility … that some elements or impulses are subjectively active … without being consciously known. … It focuses on the ‘who I am’ or, as important, the ‘who we are’ of culture. … Consciousness embraces the notion of a consciousness of self and an active mental and moral self-production.
Anzaldúa's construction of mestiza consciousness helps us begin to explain what Johnson calls the
subjective aspects of struggle … [that] moment in subjective flux when social subjects … produce accounts of who they are, as conscious political agents, that is, constitute themselves, politically. … subjects are contradictory, ‘in process’, fragmented, produced. But human beings and social movements also strive to produce some coherence and continuity, and through this, exercise some control over feelings, conditions and destinies.
One axis for the enactment of mestiza consciousness in Anzaldúa's text is the use of personal histories and private memories that necessarily entail a context of political struggle.12 Another privileged site for the construction of border consciousness is Coatlicue, Lady of the Serpent Skirt, a pre-Columbian deity similar to India's Kali in her nondualistic fusion of opposites—both destruction and creation, male and female, light and dark. The text's emphasis on Coatlicue has sparked the criticism that Anzaldúa compresses and distorts Mexican history. While Mexicanists and historians may have good reason to be disgruntled at Anzaldúa's free handling of pre-Columbian history, it appears to me that the text's investment is less in historical accuracy than in the imaginative appropriation and redefinition of Coatlicue in the service of creating a new mythos, textually defined as ‘a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave’ (80).
In her article ‘Chicana Feminism: In the Tracks of the Native Woman’, Alarcón stresses a two-pronged process in Chicana writers' treatment of the Indian woman: invocation and recodification (252). Chicana writers reappropriate the Native woman on their own feminist terms because of the multiple ways the Chicana body has been racialized in discourses on both sides of the border (251). Their purpose is not to ‘recover a lost “utopia” nor the “true” essence of our being’, but rather to bring into focus, by invoking ‘the maligned and abused indigenous woman’, ‘the cultural and psychic dismemberment that is linked to imperialist racist and sexist practices’ (251). Alarcón cites Anzaldúa's ‘Coatlicue state’, the continuous effort of consciousness to ‘make sense’ of it all, as an example of this invocation and recodification of the Native woman in the exploration of racial and sexual experience (251). For me, criticisms of essentialism or elitism in Anzaldúa's use of Coatlicue are shortsighted in light of her function in Anzaldúa's project of pluralizing the unitary subject and dealing with difference in a nonhierarchical fashion (Borderlands 46).
Yet another area of contention is that Borderlands offers a spectacle of the painful splits that constitute Chicanas' multiple positioning for the voyeuristic delectation of European American readers. In the foreword to the second edition of Bridge, Anzaldúa herself seems to be aware of the backfiring potential of feeding non-Chicana readers' perception that being a person of color is an exclusively negative experience: ‘Perhaps like me you are tired of suffering and talking about suffering. … Like me you may be tired of making a tragedy of our lives. … [L]et's abandon this auto-cannibalism: rage, sadness, fear’ (iv; emphasis in original).13 Other artists who use the border as a sign of multiplicity have been criticized for the opposite, for an excessive or inappropriate celebratoriness. Some artists and writers in Tijuana question what they see as the ‘euphemized vision’ of the contradictions and uprootedness of the border in the work of Guillermo Gómez Pena and others in the Border Arts Workshop and their bilingual publication La Línea Quebrada/The Broken Line (García Canclini). These other cultural workers on the border reject what they see as the celebration of migrations often caused by poverty in the place of origin, a poverty repeated in the new destination.
It seems to me that different readings of Anzaldúa's text, for different reasons, could emphasize either the positivity or negativity of ‘living in the Borderlands’. What strikes me is the emphasis she places on the work involved in transforming the pain and isolation of ‘in-between-ness’ into an empowering experience through the construction of mestiza consciousness in writing.14 Anzaldúa does describe the paralyzing tensions of her multiple positionings:
Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can't respond, her face caught between los intersticios, the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits.
But she also figures the ‘Coatlicue state’, the effort to ‘make sense’ of contradictory experience, in the language of undocumented border crossings: ‘to cross over, to make a hole in the fence and walk across, to cross the river … kicking a hole out of the old boundaries of the self and slipping under and over’ (49). While she turns the pain of living in the psychic and material borderlands into a strength, she never loses sight of the concrete processes of displacement.
Borderlands is marked by such contradictory movements: the pain and strength of living in the borderlands, a preoccupation with the ‘deep … underlying structure’ and the affirmation that ‘the bones often do not exist prior to the flesh’ (66), la facultad as both a dormant ‘sixth sense’ and a ‘survival tactic’ developed by the marginalized (38-9). Since, as Mohanty points out, the ‘uprooting of dualistic thinking … is fundamentally based on knowledges which are often contradictory’ (37), mestiza consciousness involves ‘negotiating these knowledges, not just taking a simple counterstance’ (Mohanty 36).15 Adopting the ‘new mestiza’ subject position requires
developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. … Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. … That third element is a new consciousness … and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm.
(79-80; my emphasis)
This articulation of Anzaldúa's project challenges the Western philosophical tradition based on binary oppositions and its own textual workings, given the tension between mestiza consciousness as an activity or process of the non-unitary subject and the crystallized production of the ‘name’ mestiza consciousness in Borderlands. ‘Naming’, ‘the active tense of identity’ (Lippard 19), both extends the possibilities of ‘crossings and mixings’ and ‘inevitably sets up boundaries’ (Lippard 245). For Trinh, ‘moments when things take on a proper name can only be positional, hence transitional’ (Moon 2), but ‘access to proper names as moments of transition … requires that “the imagination also [be] a political weapon.”16 For, there is no space really untouched by the vicissitudes of history, and emancipatory projects never begin nor end properly’ (Moon 7-8). Neither writer nor critic can inhabit a pure place of resistance or contestation (Kondo).17 Although neither reader nor writer, like Trinh's ‘impure subject’ (Moon 104) or the ‘new mestiza’, can ever ‘merely point at the sources of repression from a safe articulatory position’ (Moon 93), mestiza consciousness provides a model for knowing that the ‘only constant is the emphasis on the irrestible to-and-fro movement across (sexual and political) boundaries’ (Moon 105).
The first six essays of the book inscribe a serpentine movement through different kinds of mestizaje that produce a third thing that is neither this nor that but something else: the blending of Spanish, Indian, and African to produce the mestiza, of Spanish and English to produce Chicano language, of male and female to produce the queer, of mind and body to produce the animal soul, the writing that ‘makes face’. The final essay, ‘La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a New Consciousness’, reveals this serpentine movement that structures both the text itself and mestiza consciousness.
Borderlands juxtaposes essays and poetry, political theory and cultural practice, not separating one from the other but producing a fusion of the two, a ‘theory in the flesh’. The writing of both Anzaldúa and, in Loving in the War Years, Moraga gives theory a new ‘face’. They struggle to make sense of what it means to be working-class Chicana lesbians in essays that are collages of dreams, journal entries, poems, and autobiographical reflection. King characterizes this kind of writing as ‘mixed genres emerging from and theorizing mixed complex identities’ (88). As Trinh points out, in this kind of writing,
the borderline between the theoretical and the non-theoretical is blurred and questioned, so that theory and poetry necessarily mesh, both determined by an awareness of the sign and the destabilization of the meaning and writing subject.
The Vietnamese writer's reflections on writing as a ‘gendered’ kind of theory also describe Anzaldúa's and Moraga's texts:
From jagged transitions between the analytical and the poetical to the disruptive, always shifting fluidity of a headless and bottomless storytelling, what is exposed in [these texts] is the inscription and de-scription of a non-unitary female subject of color through her engagement, therefore also disengagement with master discourses.
Anzaldúa herself characterizes Borderlands' ‘mosaic’ or ‘weaving pattern’ as writing that threatens to ‘spill over the boundaries’, that offers a ‘hybridization of metaphor … full of variations and seeming contradictions’, that refuses the neat dichotomy of ‘deep structure’ and ‘smooth surfaces’ in its ‘central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance’ (66).
In the first essay, entitled ‘Homeland’, Anzaldúa addresses the history of the border between the United States and Mexico. ‘Homeland’ establishes the originary presence of the Indians on the land (‘This land was Mexican once, / was Indian always / and is. / And will be again,’ 3), and introduces the notion of mestizaje in racial terms—the product of the sexual union of Spaniard and Indian. This essay traces the successive waves of conquest and domination of the land and its peoples by Spain, Mexico, and the United States, including the systematic lynching of Mexicans by Anglo settlers, and ends with the contemporary situation of the undocumented worker. Anzaldúa refers to the border as a ‘1,950 mile-long open wound / dividing a pueblo, a culture, / running down the length of my body, / staking rods in my flesh, / splits me splits me’ (2). This initial image figures the border as the writing subject's own body, exemplifying Anzaldúa's embodied theory and subjectivity.
After having established the border and racial and cultural mestizaje as ‘homeland’, Anzaldúa problematizes the concept of ‘home’ in the second essay, ‘Movimientos de rebeldía y las culturas que traicionan’ (‘Movements of Rebellion and Cultures That Betray’). Paradoxically, she must leave home to find home (16). In this essay, she records her rebellion against her culture's betrayal of women. She demands an accounting from all three cultures (white, Mexican, and Indian) of what has been oppressed in each. In their analysis of Pratt's personal history as white, Southern, Christian, and lesbian, Biddy Martin and Mohanty focus on a similar tension between ‘being home’ and ‘not being home’:
‘Being home’ refers to the place where one lives within familiar, safe, protected boundaries; ‘not being home’ is a matter of realizing that home was an illusion of coherence and safety based on the exclusion of specific histories of oppression and resistance, the repression of differences even within oneself.
In Anzaldúa's case, ‘being home’ depends on the exclusion of women and specifically the dark-skinned Indian self she had to repress to remain within the safe boundaries of ‘home’. It is in this second essay that Anzaldúa constructs lesbian identity as that which keeps her from ‘being home’: ‘Being lesbian and raised Catholic, indoctrinated as straight, I made the choice to be queer. … It is a way of balancing, of mitigating duality’ (19). In a textual move privileging lesbianism often overlooked in the critical reception of the text, Anzaldúa makes ‘being queer’, like the Coatlicue state, signify a ‘path to something else’. Identifying with the woman in the town that people gossiped about as being half male and half female, Anzaldúa rewrites lesbian identity as ‘neither/nor,’ introducing, with this move, a new notion of mestizaje that produces the queer as a third gender.18
In this second essay, Anzaldúa recounts a student's mistaken conception that homophobia meant fear of going home. Anzaldúa affirms this semantic slippage as an eloquent articulation of her predicament as a Chicana lesbian. Again, the parallel with Pratt's text, as analyzed by Martin and Mohanty, is striking:
Her lesbianism is what she experiences most immediately as the limitation imposed on her by the family, culture, race, and class that afforded her both privilege and comfort, at a price. Learning at what price privilege, comfort, home, and secure notions of self are purchased, the price to herself and ultimately to others is what makes lesbianism a political motivation as well as a personal experience.
Although Anzaldúa's consciousness is not enacted in relation to an identity of class and skin privilege, her lesbianism, like Pratt's, is neither centered nor essentialized, but represents ‘that which makes “home” impossible, which makes her self non-identical’ (202).
For the Chicana lesbian, both her Indianness (as mestiza) and her sexual identity form part of the ‘unacceptable aspect of the self’ that is repressed to avoid rejection by ‘mother/culture/race’ (20). Anzaldúa calls this multifaceted internalized oppression the ‘Shadow-Beast’, which not only must be confronted but empowered: ‘How does one put feathers on this particular serpent?’ (20). The serpentine imagery describing the Shadow-Beast (‘her lidless serpent eyes … fangs bared and hissing’) links it with the representation of the Coatlicue state, embracing both positive and negative poles.19
It is at this moment in the text, when she is confronted with her paradoxical belonging and not belonging, her ‘difference’—both externally and internally imposed as Indian, female, and queer—that Anzaldúa formulates her project as the self-writing subject referred to above.
In the next two essays, ‘Entering into the Serpent’ and ‘La herencia de Coatlicue/The Coatlicue State’, Anzaldúa uses the serpentine imagery she associates with Coatlicue in all her contradictory manifestations to describe the nondualistic movement necessary to keep from being caught in the multiple borders that shape her subjectivity. In these essays, she draws on pre-Columbian culture to refigure the opposition of mind and body as the ‘animal soul’ (26). These essays also develop two crucial components of mestiza consciousness: la facultad and the Coatlicue state. In her discussion of ‘el mundo zurdo’ (the left-handed world) in Bridge, Anzaldúa privileges the disenfranchised as spearheading movements for visionary social change. Here it is the ‘females, the homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned, the outcast, the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign’ who are ‘more apt to develop’ la facultad, defined as ‘an instant “sensing”, a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning’ (38). While on one level la facultad is a kind of survival skill honed by the nonprivileged, it is also linked to the Coatlicue state and mestiza consciousness as facilitating a re-grounding of consciousness, or ‘shift in perception’ (39).
Coatlicue, identified with ‘the underground aspects of the psyche’ (46) and the contradictory fusion of opposites (47), also represents the activity of producing consciousness. Internalized oppression causes the self to perceive its differences as monstrous: ‘the secret sin I tried to conceal—‘la seña, the mark of the Beast’ (42). The mark of the Beast, earlier associated with internalized racism and homophobia, is here linked with physical abnormality20 and multiplicity: ‘She has this fear/that she has no names/that she has many names’ (43).21 The immobility caused by the perception of the monstrosity of difference is shattered by the process of ‘seeing’ or ‘making connections’: ‘My resistance, my refusal to know some truth about myself brings on that paralysis, depression—brings on the Coatlicue state’ (48). Whether the blockage is the result of complacency or paralysis, the Coatlicue state triggers the ‘crossing’, the ‘rupture in our everyday world’ necessary for the construction of the ‘third perspective’ (46), the mestiza consciousness.
The next two sections, ‘How to Tame a Wild Tongue’ and ‘Tlilli Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink’, deal with language and writing, the tools for the discursive production of mestiza consciousness. In ‘How to Tame a Wild Tongue’, Anzaldúa records both her refusal to remain silent (the wild tongue cannot be tamed, only cut out) and the ways in which her language is not ‘appropriate’ according to dominant norms (54). Like Trinh's ‘inappropriate/d other’ (‘She’), Anzaldúa is both inappropriate according to the dominant norm and ‘inappropriated’ by it. She writes of the ‘linguistic terrorism’ experienced by Chicanos whose language inhabits the border between Mexico and the United States. The tradition of silence has been imposed not just by the dominant English speaking culture (punished for speaking Spanish at school, criticized by Mexican relatives for speaking English with an accent) but also by ‘standard’ Spanish speakers of Spain and Latin America.
These two essays confect yet another kind of mestizaje informing the border consciousness: linguistic mestizaje, the language of the border that trangresses the boundaries between Spanish and English, high and low decorum, insider and outsider speech. Anzaldúa claims her language as another kind of homeland (55) and as part of the serpentine movement that mediates the binary split to construct the third element.
In ‘The Path of the Red and Black Ink’, writing for Anzaldúa is not so much an analytical activity as a shamanistic process of transformation (66). Anzaldúa uses the nahual notion of writing as creating face, heart, and soul to elaborate the idea that it is only through the body that the soul can be transformed. Trinh makes the distinction between writing yourself, i.e., writing the body, and writing about yourself. The second reinscribes the Priest/God standpoint of the all-knowing subject; ‘the first refers to a scriptive act—the emergence of a writing self’ (Woman 28). Although the two overlap in Borderlands, it is the first that Anzaldúa describes as crucial to her new mythology and to her project of rupturing the dualism opposing body and soul, writing and the body.
Here, Anzaldúa contextualizes the Coatlicue state in the activity of writing: ‘Blocks (Coatlicue states) are related to my cultural identity. … The stress of living with cultural ambiguity both compels me to write and blocks me’ (74). To the signifiers of ‘mestiza’ and ‘queer’ as border crossers Anzaldúa adds that of ‘writer’: ‘Being a writer feels very much like being a Chicana, or being queer’ (72). All, through ‘shifts’—cultural, racial, gender, and linguistic shifts—‘reprogram consciousness’, the writer ‘through words, images, and body sensations’ (70).
The final essay constructs the ‘new mestiza’ as the point of confluence of conflicting subject positions:
This assembly is not one where severed or separated pieces merely come together. Nor is it a balancing of opposing powers. In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts.
The cultural practice that proceeds from and in turn constitutes the new mestiza shows ‘in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended’ (80). In the preface to the book, Anzaldúa refers to border or mestiza consciousness as an ‘alien’ element that nevertheless constitutes a new home: ‘Living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an “alien” element. … No, not comfortable, but home’ (vii). With this textual gesture, she expropriates the term ‘alien’ from the rhetorical mythology of the border, used to demonize undocumented workers. Other examples of images in Anzaldúa's writing that embody mestiza consciousness are the female subject—part fish, part woman—produced through the transgression of the body's borders in the poem ‘Letting Go’; the mestiza survivors of the new age whose newly evolved double eyelids give them the power to ‘look at the sun with naked eyes’ in ‘Don't Give Up, Chicanita’; and the interspecies lesbian sex between the alien and the human subject in ‘Interface’.
The cultural practice of the new mestiza is also a political practice made possible by the achievement of awareness and acceptance of the plural self (87). In its emphasis on the inner struggle, this essay provokes thought on the relationship between individual transformation and social change (87). As Hall suggests, the new conception of the non-unitary self, or mestiza consciousness, allows for a politics of articulation, not of essential unity or correspondence, but of ‘unities-in-difference’. In this spirit, Anzaldúa proposes coalitions with men, particularly Mexican/Chicano men, who are willing to become anti-sexist—to unlearn the Virgin/Malinche duality and to put Coatlicue back in Guadalupe—and with white people of both sexes who are willing to become anti-racist—to learn all peoples’ histories of oppression and resistance.
This last essay ends with ‘el retorno’ (the return), bringing the reader back to where Part One began: on the border, in the homeland. But the image describing the river that marks the border as a ‘curving, twisting serpent’ (89) suggests that there is no return without transformation. Only after the writing/mestiza/queer subject has created a new ‘home’ through discursive self-production, can she return to the land that awakens all the historical and cultural memories inscribed on her senses: ‘This land was Mexican once / was Indian always / and is. / And will be again’ (91).
The six sections of poems that follow the essays map out a movement similar to that of Part One. Space limitations do not permit a detailed analysis of these parallels, but further study could show how Part Two replicates the serpentine path of the essays, both establishing the border as ‘home’ and unsettling this stability through differences of gender and sexuality. Like the essays, the poems also explore writing as the medium for the eruption of the unknown allowing new consciousness to be formed. The title of the last section of poems is ‘El retorno’ (return). As in the final essay, which ends with the return to a present filled with the past and pointing to a future political project, these poems presage the arrival of ‘the left-handed world’ (‘Arriba mi gente’) and envision a future belonging to cultural, racial, and gender mestizos (194, 203).
It is my hope that the kind of contextualized readings I propose of both Parts One and Two might alleviate problematic areas in the reception of Borderlands that have to do with reading out of context, either deracinating the text from its various communal traditions or seizing on textual moments without taking the whole into account. A contextualized reading of both Parts One and Two locates mestiza consciousness and the indigenous, particularly Coatlicue, within a textual movement that replicates the movement of border consciousness itself. This process, constantly ‘breaking down the unitary aspect’ of each previous textual moment, leaves no home but the discursive production of consciousness itself, a consciousness linked with political activity.
See Sonia Saldívar-Hull for an analysis of the text's grounding in history.
The term ‘differential’ appears in her recent article in Genders.
Is it stylistic or conceptual restriction that leads the editors of Nationalisms and Sexualities to write: ‘Elaborated over the past twenty years in socialist-feminist, psychoanalytic and deconstructive thought and in the writings of women of color, this insight …’ (Parker et al., Introduction 4)?
Trinh T. Minh-ha calls on the reader to ‘assert her difference (not individualizing her perception) but setting into relief the type of individualization that links her (whether centrally or marginally) as an individual to the systems of dominant values’ (Moon 113).
See the interview with Cornel West in Universal Abandon? (Ross, ed.).
This new conception of politics ‘requires us to begin, not only to speak the language of dispersal, but also the language of, as it were, contingent closures of articulation’ (45). Hall discusses his use of the theory of ‘articulation’, as developed by Ernesto Laclau in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, in the interview with Lawrence Grossberg (‘On Postmodernism and Articulation’).
See also Mohanty on Anzaldúa's mestiza consciousness ‘Thus, unlike a Western, postmodernist notion of agency and consciousness which often announces the splintering of the subject, and privileges multiplicity in the abstract, this is a notion of agency born of history and geography. It is a theorization of the materiality and politics of the everyday struggles of Chicanas’ (37).
Katie King uses these terms to counteract the reductive notion of simultaneous oppressions or occupation of the subject positions, in favor of a model of ‘overlapping necessities’ (86).
See, for example, Rosaura Sánchez's critique.
See, for example, Fregoso and Chabram's introduction to Cultural Studies.
I use both ‘Anzaldúa’ and ‘the writing subject’ to refer to the mediated ‘I’ of the text.
See Mohanty on the relationship among memory, writing, and the production of consciousness and political resistance (32-5); Johnson for a discussion of the importance of personal histories and private memories in discursive self-production (69); and Fregoso's work—a conference presentation and an essay—on Chicano film for the role of ‘counter-memory’ in the formation of a political or cultural identity.
For Spelman, the denial of the positive aspects of racial identities is linked to seeing racism as a product of sexism (124).
It is in the context of writing (in ‘Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink’ from Borderlands) that Anzaldúa articulates (in Hall's dual sense) the passage from negativity to positivity quoted above: ‘When I write it feels like I'm carving bone. It feels like I'm creating my own face, my own heart—a Nahuatl concept. … It is this learning to live with la Coatlicue that transforms living in the Borderlands from a nightmare into a numinous experience. It is always a path/state to something else’ (73).
For the repudiation of the counterstance, see Borderlands, 78.
The quote within the quote is from Elizam Escobar.
For Trinh, there can be no essential inside (Moon 75), never a pure elsewhere (104).
De Lauretis elaborates a theory of the ‘third gender’ in ‘Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation’.
Earlier in the essay, Anzaldúa defines the Shadow-Beast as the rebel in her that ‘refuses to take orders … that hates constraints of any kind’ (16).
For Ana Castillo, ‘Anzaldúa's spiritual affinity for Coatlicue serves as a resonant reflection of this particular writer's desire for a disembodiment that would free her of tremendous physical and emotional anguish’ (172).
See Alarcón for an analysis of this passage (‘Chicana Feminism’ 249-50).
Alarcón, Norma. ‘Chicana Feminism: In the Tracks of the Native Woman’. Cultural Studies 4.3 (1990): 248-55.
———. ‘The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism’. Anzaldúa, Making Face 356-69.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
———, ed. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990.
Calderón, Héctor, and José David Saldívar, eds. Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Carby, Hazel. ‘The Politics of Difference’. Ms. (Sept.-Oct. 1990): 84-5.
Castillo, Ana. ‘Massacre of the Dreamer: Reflection on Mexican-Indian Women in the U.S.: 500 Years after the Conquest’. Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Ed. Philomena Mariani. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991, 161-76.
Chabram-Dernersesian, Angie. “‘I Throw Punches for My Race but I Don't Want to Be a Man’ Writing Us: Chica-nos (Girl/Us)/Chicanas into the Movement Script”. Grossberg et al. 81-95.
Childers, Mary, and Bell Hooks. ‘A Conversation about Race and Class’. Hirsch and Fox-Keller 60-81.
de Lauretis, Teresa. ‘Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation’. Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990, 17-39.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda. ‘Re-membering the Border through Chicano Cinema’. Conference on ‘Chicano Cultural Studies: New Critical Directions’. 25-26 May 1990. Santa Barbara: University of California, 1990.
———. ‘Zoot Suit (1981): The “Return to the Beginning”’. Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas. Ed. Manuel Alvarado, John King, and Ana M. Lopez. London: British Film Institute, 1993, 269-78.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda, and Angie Chabram, eds. ‘Chicano/a Cultural Representations: Reframing Alternative Critical Discourses’. Cultural Studies 4.3 (1990): 203-12.
Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Garber, Marjorie. ‘The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism’. Parker et al. 121-46.
García Canclini, Nestor. Culturas híbridas. Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1989.
Gordon, Linda. ‘On Difference’. Genders 10 (Spring 1991): 91-111.
Grossberg, Lawrence. ‘On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall’. Journal of Communication Inquiry 10.2 (1986): 45-60.
Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Hall, Stuart. ‘Minimal Selves’. Identity. Ed. Lisa Appignanesi. London: ICA Document 6, 1987, 44-6.
Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox-Keller, eds. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Hooks, Bell, et al. Discussion of Stuart Hall's ‘Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies’. Grossberg et al. 286-94.
Johnson, Richard. ‘What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?’ Social Text 16 (Winter 1986/87): 38-80.
Julien, Isaac, and Kobena Mercer. ‘Introduction: De Margin and De Centre’. Screen 29.4 (1988): 28-40.
Kaplan, Caren. ‘Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse’. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Ed. Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990, 357-68.
King, Katie. ‘Producing Sex, Theory, and Culture: Gay/Straight Remappings in Contemporary Feminism’. Hirsch and Fox-Keller 82-101.
Kondo, Dorinne. ‘M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity’. Cultural Critique 16 (1990): 5-29.
Laclau, Ernesto. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: New Left, 1977.
Lippard, Lucy R. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
Lorde, Audre. ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House’. Moraga and Anzaldúa 98-101.
Mani, Lata. ‘Cultural Theory, Colonial Texts: Reading Eyewitness Accounts of Widow Burning’. Grossberg et al. 392-405.
Martin, Biddy, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. ‘Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do with It?’ Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986, 191-212.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ‘Introduction: Cartographies of Struggle’. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Ed. Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991, 1-47.
Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years. Lo que nunca paso por sus labios. Boston: South End, 1983.
Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown: Persephone, 1981. 2nd edn, New York: Kitchen Table, 1983.
Parker, Andrew, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger. Introduction. Parker et al., Nationalisms and Sexualities 1-18.
Parker, Andrew, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, eds. Nationalisms and Sexualities. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Ross, Andrew, ed. Universal Abandon?: The Politics of Postmodernism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. ‘Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics’. Calderón and Saldívar 203-20.
Sánchez, Rosaura. ‘The Politics of Representation in Chicano Literature’. Conference on ‘Chicano Cultural Studies: New Critical Directions’. 25-26 May 1990. Santa Barbara: University of California, 1990.
Sandoval, Chela. ‘Feminism and Racism: A Report on the 1981 National Women's Studies Association Conference’. Anzaldúa, Making Face 55-71.
———. ‘U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World’. Genders 10 (Spring 1991): 1-24.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
Spivak, Gayatri. ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. Introduction to special issue. ‘She, the Inappropriate/d Other’. Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 1986-87): 3-10.
———. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991.
———. Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Uttal, Lynne. ‘Inclusion without Influence: The Continuing Tokenism of Women of Color’. Anzaldúa, Making Face 42-5.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6068
SOURCE: Reuman, Ann E. “‘Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed’: Gloria Anzaldúa's (R)evolution of Voice.” In Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women's Writing as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgari, pp. 305-19. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
[In the following essay, Reuman asserts that Anzaldúa utilizes her voice to protest injustices against women and people of color and ranks the author as a bold and valuable figure in the modern literary world.]
But it was the glint of steel at her throat that cut through to her voice. She would not be silent and still. She would live, arrogantly.
—Lorna Dee Cervantes, Emplumada
As it is for the Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes in the epigraph above, so it is for her contemporary Gloria Anzaldúa, that the glint of steel at her throat does not cut her voice, but cuts through to her voice. Living on the border between Texas and Mexico, Anzaldúa finds herself in a land annexed by violent conquest, where the prominent features are hatred, anger, and exploitation.1 As a twentieth-century Chicana tejana feminist poet and fiction writer, she realizes that little has changed since the middle of the nineteenth century when Mexican Americans, particularly women, had little voice. Alienated from both the Mexican and the American cultures, which find no room for lesbian, working-class writers of color, Anzaldúa acknowledges in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) that “this is her home / this thin edge of / barbwire,” and painfully recognizes that the dividing line is a wound that “splits me splits me” (2). Significantly, though, Anzaldúa does not let the wound destroy her. Rather, through her writing she heals the wounds, locating the points of pain, re-membering the discarded fragments of herself, and creating from the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits a new, affirmative, feminist landscape (20).
Anzaldúa is, as she writes in her preface to Borderlands/La Frontera, “a border woman,” one who lives at the juncture of cultures and struggles to keep intact her shifting and multiple identities. Coeditor with prominent Chicana feminist Cherríe Moraga of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), published author of poetry and prose, university instructor of Chicano studies, feminist studies, and creative writing, and political activist, Gloria Anzaldúa is an important voice in the literary world today. She understands the power of words and of collective voice and urges validation of a new mestiza language and way of life. In reappropriating the marginalized, she has found strength in her place of contradictions, has organized with other Third World feminists to resist divisive oppressions, and urges self-reconstruction and cultural synergy based on dialogic polyvocality, transformative crossings, and affirmative indeterminacy.
Retelling the story of the Alamo from the Mexican point of view, Anzaldúa exposes the violence enacted by white supremacists against Mexican citizens cut off from their country by the overnight erection of the border fence in 1848, and she tells the story of a people appropriated along with the land: “The Gringo, locked into the fiction of white superiority, seized complete political power, stripping Indians and Mexicans of their land while their feet were still rooted in it. Con el destierro y el exilo fuimos desuñados, destroncados, destripados—we were jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from our identity and our history” (7-8). The annexation of Chicanas that Anzaldúa addresses in her writings, however, is not just geographical and historical: it is cultural; it is literary; and it is personal. As a poor Mexican-American, a woman, a lesbian, and a writer, Anzaldúa faces intense and unrelenting threats of violence. If she does not renounce herself in favor of the male, she is considered selfish. If she does not marry and have children, she is a failure as a woman. If she rebels, she is a mujer mala. If she admits sensing the spiritual in the body, she is dismissed as “pagan,” “superstitious,” “irrational,” or “mad.” If she speaks bilingually or with a Chicana accent rather than keeping her English and Spanish separate and proper or untainted, she is ignored or invalidated. If she speaks of her difference, she is gagged, caged, and bound. If she questions the dominant paradigms, she is beaten or maligned. And if she names the violences done her, she can expect her tongue to be torn out by being “edited” or not published. The risks of being a woman (particularly a woman of color) are little different from those faced for speaking against violences done one as a woman: being battered, lynched, raped, sterilized, sold into prostitution. Individual annihilation, if not cultural genocide, threatens any of the marginalized if she presumes to challenge or defy white, patriarchal control.
Anzaldúa makes the brutal violence against women, workers, and people of color explicit in “We Call Them Greasers,” a poem written from the point of view of a white man raping the Mexican wife of a share-cropper. Linking women to the land, both of which to his mind are made for seminal penetration and his exploitation, the rapist in this poem “plow[s]” into the woman, unmoved by her “whimpering” and “flailing.” When he senses the woman's husband watching the rape and hears him “keening like a wild animal,” he caps violence with racist disgust for the woman he has victimized:
in that instant I felt such contempt for her round face and beady black eyes like an Indian's. Afterwards I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing, didn't want to waste a bullet on her.
In “A Sea of Cabbages,” Anzaldúa shows through the image of a landowner “rooting” in a sea of female field workers that this is not an isolated incident but a rape that marks a history of violence. His inheritance a “thick stained hand / rooting in the earth,” the man in this poem “tears” the cabbages from their nests, and “rips” the sexualized outer leaves until he reaches the more tender leaves at the core. Significantly, though, Anzaldúa subtly subverts male power in this poem, writing at the heart of it that, although this violence against women (and perhaps, more metaphorically, this violence against women of color who write, and write radically) happens “century after century,” it is the man, not the women, who here is “flailing” and unleafed. In the last two stanzas, it is his mouth from which spume froths as the earth slams his face, his eyes that congeal in the baking sun, and his “broken shards” that are swept up by the wind; for as Anzaldúa insists, “He cannot escape his own snare.”
In “Holy Relics,” another poem in the collection, Anzaldúa extends her protest, and writes not just of the brutal dismemberment of women by patriarchal society as shown in the sanctified violence of “the good Father,” but also of the accountability of women who acquiesce in such rituals of violation. Tellingly, Anzaldúa locates her poem in a feminized space identified by muteness, womblike enclosure, and experience outside patriarchal language: a town situated in a “silent landscape,” in a “bricked-up place in the wall” from which “issued a sound to which they could give no name.” Here, the “good father Gracian,” in secret, by the light of torches held by cloistered nuns, exhumes the holy relics of Saint Teresa, entombed, significantly enough, nine months. The coffin “pulled” from the cavern, the lid “broken,” the nuns scrape the earth clinging to the woman's skin, look their fill, then swaddle her in clean linen. Birthed into violence violently, women in patriarchal societies, Anzaldúa suggests, are reified and abused, made object and spectacle, open prey to religious gazers and collectors. Worship and dismemberment are synonymous: the Father approaches the saint, lifts her hand as if to kiss it, and instead with a knife severs her wrist from her arm. Then, as if embracing a gruesome newborn, the inevitable offspring of such violent appropriation, he hugs her cleaved hand to his body. Two years later, another priest disinters the saint to claim her body for the town of Avila, cuts off her truncated arm and flings it to the nuns of Alba “as one would a bone to a dog,” and gallops off through the streets with the corpse of the saint. Though the woman's mouth is tightly shut and cannot be opened and her face is a little darker this time (“because the veil [of silence?] became stuck to it”), and though of course she is missing an arm, the rest of her body is intact. Returned to her grave by Pope's decree (prompted by assumption of ownership rather than by respect for her remains), she is again exhumed, this time surrounded by a crowd coveting her body, and pieces of her flesh are pinched off by ardent fingers: the priest snaps off two fingers from her remaining hand, another severs her right foot from her ankle, a third plucks three ribs from her breast, another gouges out an eye, and the rest auction off the scraps of her bones. Three centuries later, prying at the edges of the wound where her heart had been ripped out—the edges charred “as though by a burning iron,”—physicians examine “the remains of a woman.”
At issue, quite literally here, is women's integrity, the constant struggle particularly of women of color to keep their bodies, their selves, intact against the ravages of the privileged. Power, Anzaldúa avers, lies in passing on what we have learned, in refusing what feminist poet and essayist Audre Lorde calls “historical amnesia” and in demanding accountability for the violences done women.2 Personal and societal healing and survival depend on re-membering: facing the “residues of trauma” (70), naming the violences against women of color, and acting for change.
Anzaldúa knows the silencing forces surrounding her. “Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing?” she asks in her essay “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers.” She writes: “The voice recurs in me: Who am I, a poor Chicanita from the sticks, to think I could write? How dare I even considered becoming a writer as I stooped over the tomato fields bending, bending under the hot sun, hands broadened and calloused, not fit to hold the quill, numbed into an animal stupor by the heat.”3 And even if she finds the strength to legitimize her writing, who hears her? As Anzaldúa also notes: “Unlikely to be friends of people in high literary places, the beginning woman of color is invisible both in the white male mainstream world and in the white women's feminist world, though in the latter this is gradually changing. The lesbian of color is not only invisible, she doesn't even exist. Our speech, too, is inaudible. We speak in tongues like the outcast and the insane.”4 Yet if she is heard, she faces the threat of violent silencing: by invalidation of her voice as “too angry,” “too harsh,” or “too strident” (read “too political”); by “invitations” to blanch representations of her culture, her language, and her sexuality; or by figurative-literal mutilation. The societal expectations and implicit threat for transgression are clear: “The white man speaks: Perhaps if you scrape the dark off of your face. Maybe if you bleach your bones. Stop speaking in tongues, stop writing left-handed. Don't cultivate your colored skins nor tongues of fire if you want to make it in a right-handed world.”5
In the section of Borderlands/La Frontera entitled “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldúa describes a literal and forceful invasion of female space that speaks as much about patriarchal numbing of the bilingual as of the female voice: “‘We're going to have to control your tongue,’” the dentist says as he cleans out her roots and caps her teeth; “‘I've never seen anything as strong or as stubborn.’ And I think, how do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you make it lie down?” (53) Equally destructive for Anzaldúa were the warnings of her mother to eradicate what Morrison in The Bluest Eye calls “funkiness”; to stay out of the sun lest her skin darken, to wrap her budding breasts in tight cotton girdles lest she betray her sexuality, to clip her accent.6 As Anzaldúa writes about her parents in her poem “Cihuatlyotl, Woman Alone”: “as I grew you hacked away / at the pieces of me that were different.” Yet even more insidious than her parents' pressure to assimilate is Anzaldúa's own excision of her darker selves, which she represents variously as an animal, an intruder, a “dark shining thing.” And when it is not a part of herself that she alienates or denies, it is a part “lovingly” put to death, as in her poem “Cervicide” (a title that conjures images of the uterus as much as of a deer) where the penalty for being caught in possession of a deer (symbolic of women's Self, Anzaldúa notes) prompts Prieta (“the dark-skinned one”) to crush the skull of her beloved pet before the game warden does. “It is our custom,” she writes in “The Cannibal's Cancion,” another poem in the collection, “to consume / the person we love.” Every motion to speak battles heavy cultural encouragement to kill off the female, the sexual, the bilingual, the nonwhite, the non-Anglo parts of herself; to split body and spirit; to hold her tongue or lose it.
Crucially, though, Anzaldúa resists injunctions to silence herself. Though “annexed,” she is not conquered: “Wild tongues can't be tamed, they can only be cut out” (54). Rather than bury her rage in static and impotent bitterness or internalized contempt, she transforms it into poetry. Rather than transfer blame onto her mother for being embedded in the same oppressive society Anzaldúa resists, she takes responsibility for her own complicitous rejection of socially unapproved parts of herself and learns to mother herself.7 Audre Lorde sees this self-mothering as the power of the erotic, an “assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered,” a springboard for change: “Mothering. Claiming some power over who we choose to be and knowing that such power is relative within the realities of our lives. Yet knowing that only through the use of that power can we effectively change those realities. Mothering means the laying to rest of what is weak, timid, and damaged—without despisal—the protection and support of what is useful for survival and change, and our joint explorations of the difference.”8 It is finding “the yes within ourselves.”9 In This Bridge Called My Back, Anzaldúa says: “I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself.”10 And a “protean being” (41), Anzaldúa makes herself into the many things she is. In her poem “Cihuatlyotl, Woman Alone,” she writes:
Raza. I don't need to flail against you. Raza india mexicana norteamericana, there's no- thing more you can chop off or graft on me that will change my soul. I remain who I am, multiple and one of the herd, yet not of it. I walk on the ground of my own being browned and hardened by the ages. I am fully formed carved by the hands of the ancients, drenched with the stench of today's headlines. But my own hands whittle the final work me.
For Anzaldúa as for feminist theorist bell hooks, speech is not just an expression of creative power; it is, hooks writes in Talking Back, “an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless.”11 Refusing to be discarded as the remains of a woman, Anzaldúa collects the bits and pieces of writing—parts of herself—strewn across her room (“my fragments on the floor”), and confronts her demons.12 Fearful yet fascinated by the “wild animal kicking at its iron cage,” she recognizes herself: “It had been my footsteps I'd heard” (167-69). She writes: “It was then I saw the numinous thing / it was black and it had my name / it spoke to me and I spoke to it” (172). It took her forty years, she reports in the section of her book entitled “Entering into the Serpent,” to “acknowledge that I have a body, that I am a body and to assimilate the animal body, the animal soul” (26). Wrestling her own denials as well as cultural pressures to conform, she finally (though not without constant grappling) accepts and integrates “that dark shining thing” and the serpent-sexuality that are parts of herself; and she sees the vital importance of this naming and reclamation: “I know it's come down to this: / vida o muerte, life or death” (172). Anzaldúa chooses life. And she recognizes that this choice necessitates coming to terms with her anger.
In Sister Outsider, Lorde writes that “women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.”13 In the poem “El sonavabitche,” Anzaldúa expresses the rage that has choked her for years:
brown faces bent backs like prehistoric boulders in a field so common a sight no one notices blood rushes to my face twelve years I'd sat on the memory the anger scorching me my throat so tight I can barely get the words out.
Anzaldúa does get the words out, and she uses that speech to fight further colonization of her voice. It is a struggle, she realizes, that reaches beyond a merely personal need. “Waging war is my cosmic duty,” she writes in Borderlands/La Frontera (31). She will no longer veil the Chicana in her, nor will she repress her sexuality, or write conventional narratives, or append glossaries to her work. She will not stand quietly by as “pseudo-liberal[s] … who suffer from the white woman's burden” attempt to talk for her: “This act is a rape of our tongue and our acquiescence is a complicity to that rape. We women of color have to stop being modern medusas—throats cut, silenced into a mere hissing.”14 She will speak; she will speak for herself; and she will speak in her own language: “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate … and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent's tongue—my woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence” (59). And her affirmation extends the invitation-imperative to other women of color to write, and to write radically: “Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don't let the pen banish you from yourself. Don't let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don't let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper.”15
Yet even as she claims that as poets-writers, “we wield a pen as a tool, a weapon, a means of survival,” Anzaldúa acknowledges the self-doubts, fears, and pain inherent in such writing.16 “Escribo con la tinta de mi sangre. I write in red. Ink. Intimately knowing the smooth touch of paper, its speechlessness before I spill myself on the insides of trees. Daily, I battle the silence and the red. Daily, I take my throat in my hands and squeeze until the cries pour out, my larynx and soul sore from the constant struggle” (71-72). The power of writing, she insists, resides in transforming such pain: “Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple or quadruple oppression. Yet in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is feared.”17 Evolution of her voice from throttled murmurings to defiant cries and articulate self-affirmation begins with each piece of writing, each effort to transmute pain into power, each woman's battle against silence: “The revolution begins at home.”18
That the war against silencing is also a process toward healing is clear in Anzaldúa's writing. In fact, it is such “talking back” that bell hooks places at the core of self-recovery: “Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible.”19 It is her calling, Anzaldúa says, to “traffic in images” (70), a calling that transmutes anger and pain into a “numinous experience” (73). Yet this transformation, she insists, is not simple, quick, or miraculous: it is, rather, deliberate, physical, and wrenching. She states: “When I don't write the images down … I get physically ill … Because some of the images are residues of trauma which I then have to reconstruct, I sometimes get sick when I do write. … But in reconstructing the traumas behind the images, I make ‘sense’ of them, and once they have ‘meaning’ they are changed, transformed. It is then that writing heals me” (70). Like defanging a cactus, living in a borderland and writing about the experience takes patience and the ability to endure intense pain: “Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create. It is like a cactus needle embedded in the flesh. It worries itself deeper and deeper, and I keep aggravating it by poking at it. When it begins to fester I have to do something to put an end to the aggravation and to figure out why I have it. I get deep down into the place where it's rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument—the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. Then out it comes. No more discomfort, no more ambivalence. Until another needle pierces the skin. That's what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be” (73). “Making the pain worse before it can get better,” Anzaldúa presses herself to get beneath the surface, to dig out poisonous barbs embedded in her flesh.
In “Cultures,” Anzaldúa locates the beginnings of such healing in discovering her buried culture. Directed, significantly enough, by her mother to turn the soil below the clothesline for a garden, the speaker in this poem picks at the “hard brown earth” with an axe, “disinter[s]” a tin can, and “unmould[s]” a shell from a “lost” ocean, the bones of an “unknown” animal. Her sweat dripping on “the swelling mounds,” she uncovers the remnants of a distinctly female culture, bred in a modern, seemingly sterile junk heap, nettled and variegated, but nevertheless alive. She rakes up “rubber-nippled” baby bottles, cans of Spam with “twisted umbilicals”; she “overturn[s] the cultures / spawning in Coke bottles / murky and motleyed.” Significantly, her tilling of the mother-soil is done independently, without the help of any man. In her autobiographical essay “La Prieta” she makes this explicit:
Nobody's going to save you .....There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.(20)
Yet while there is no princely rescue, there is a feminist redemption. The effort to remember, as hooks asserts, is “expressive of the need to create spaces where one is able to redeem and reclaim the past, legacies of pain, suffering, and triumph in ways that transform present reality.”21 Out of the discarded, the marginalized, and the dispossessed, Anzaldúa creates a new landscape, a synergy of cultures; a place, as hooks phrases it, “where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference.”22 In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa names this enlightened way of seeing a “new mestiza consciousness”: “At the confluence of two or more genetic streams, with chromosomes constantly “crossing over,” this mixture of races, rather than resulting in an inferior being, provides hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool. From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making—a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer. It is a consciousness of the Borderlands” (77).
The mestiza of which Anzaldúa speaks is both literal and figurative: it is the borderland between Mexico and the United States, a land cast aside by patriarchal governments as a part of neither country, a wasteland, even as both cultures strive to master with rules and laws those whom they have alienated; and it is a space reclaimed by the Chicana and recreated as the intersection of several heritages, a female space of confluence and power. In Anzaldúa's reenvisionment of this borderland, the mestiza is a space for a new and richer race, a mixed race made stronger by its crossings over. “If going home is denied me,” Anzaldúa continues, “then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks or mortar and my own feminist architecture” (77).
It is in this new space that Anzaldúa locates her lesbianism, her most pronounced resistance to colonization. By her own choice, she is “two in one body,” an “entry into both worlds” (19), a crosser of unnatural boundaries. “For the lesbian of color,” Anzaldúa writes, “the ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual behavior. She goes against two moral prohibitions: sexuality and homosexuality. … The choice to be queer … is a path of knowledge—one of knowing (and of learning) the history of oppression of our raza. It is a way of balancing, of mitigating duality” (19). Perhaps most importantly, it is understanding her oppression as a lesbian that helps her to reconnect with her mother. Cherríe Moraga's words in “La Güera” seem to share meaning for Anzaldúa, her coeditor of This Bridge Called My Back. Moraga writes: “It wasn't until I acknowledged and confronted my own lesbianism in the flesh, that my heartfelt identification with and empathy for my mother's oppression—due to being poor, uneducated, and Chicana—was realized. My lesbianism is the avenue through which I have learned the most about silence and oppression.”23 It does not seem accidental that both lesbianism and the Mother become Anzaldúa's symbols of the new mestiza, “the coming together of opposite qualities within” (19).
More than mere resistance to patriarchal society, then, Anzaldúa envisions movement toward a new world of female possibility where personal and political healing begins with retrieval of her cultural myths as they were before the Conquest. It is a vision of return to the mother: one who is a balance of many differences, a crossroads, a bridge. She writes in “La conciencia de la mestiza”: “As long as woman is put down, the Indian and the Black in all of us is put down. The struggle of the mestiza is above all a feminist one. As long as los hombres think they have to chingar mujeres and each other to be men, as long as men are taught that they are superior and therefore culturally favored over la mujer, as long as to be a vieja is a thing of derision, there can be no real healing of our psyches. We're halfway there—we have such love of the Mother, the good mother. The first step is to unlearn the puta/virgen dichotomy and to see Coatlapopeuh-Coatlicue in the Mother, Guadalupe” (84).
In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa reconnects upperworld (light) Tonantsi with the underworld (dark) and sexualized Coatlicue-Tlazolteotl-Cihuacoatl from whom she had been split by the Spaniards and their Church after the Conquest, and retrieves Guadalupe, by Indian name Coatlalopeuh, who traces back to, or is an aspect of, earlier Meso-american fertility and Earth goddesses. That is, she resexes the virginized Guadalupe. The “synthesis of the old world and the new,” Guadalupe “mediates between the Spanish and the Indian cultures … and between Chicanos and the white world. She mediates between humans and the divine, between this reality and the reality of spirit entities.” Indeed, she is “the symbol of ethnic identity and of the tolerance for ambiguity that … people of mixed race … by necessity possess” (30). Importantly, though, Guadalupe is one of three mediators for Anzaldúa's people. She is joined by two other women of Aztec origin, La Chingada and La Llorona. History traditionally names the former La Malinche, cast off as the traitor woman who aided Cortés in his conquest of her people and condemned (by the culture that forced her into slavery and concubinage) as whore or mother of a bastard race of mestizos, a symbol of deviance and infection.24 Anzaldúa, however, redefines her as La Chingada, “the raped mother whom we have abandoned” (30). Similarly, Anzaldúa alters the negative representations of La Llorona as a woman who transgressed her proper roles as mother, wife, and patriot.25 Anzaldúa claims her as “the mother who seeks her children” (30), who laments her lost Chicanos-mexicanos (38).
Through these three women, “Our Mothers” (31), Anzaldúa rejoins long obscured parts of herself; and this reconnection allows her to be many things at once:
You say my name is ambivalence? Think of me as Shiva, a many-armed and legged body with one foot on brown soil, one on white, one in straight society, one in the gay world, the man's world, the women's, one limb in the literary world, another in the working class, the socialist, and the occult worlds. A sort of spider woman hanging by one thin strand of web.
Who me confused? Ambivalent? Not so. Only your labels split me.26
Anzaldúa resists attempts to label her what literary critic Mary Dearborn in Pocahontas's Daughters refers to as a cultural schizophrenic, and claims a new literature, more Indian in its roots than English.27 Native American critic and novelist Paula Gunn Allen speaks of such literature in The Sacred Hoop: persons reared in traditional American Indian societies, she says, “do not organize perceptions or external events in terms of dualities or priorities. This egalitarianism is reflected in the structure of American Indian literature, which does not rely on conflict, crisis, and resolution for organization, nor does its merit depend on the parentage, education, or connections of the author. Rather, its significance is determined by its relation to creative empowerment, its reflection of tribal understandings, and its relation to the unitary nature of reality.”28
For Anzaldúa, reconnection with her history is crucial to her healing, for, as she says, “by taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal” (86). And such reconnection is at the core of her power. “I write the myths in me, the myths I am, the myths I want to become” (71). Grounding a new culture in the remains of the past, she creates a stronger species with “skin tone between black and bronze” who, survivors of a Fire Age, are “alive m'ijita, very much alive”:
Yes, in a few years or centuries la Raza will rise up, tongue intact carrying the best of all the cultures. That sleeping serpent, rebellion-(r)evolution, will spring up. Like old skin will fall the slave ways of obedience, acceptance, silence. Like serpent lightning we'll move, little woman. You'll see.
In finding her mouth, her “motherlode” (53), Anzaldúa makes of herself a bridge, huge and powerful, that spans abysses.29
The landscape of myth and “reality,” of light and dark, of the many-legged spider woman, is not just abstraction: it is a borderland for each of us to live in, and a new literary terrain. This new mestiza speaks, for instance, for rediscovery and validation of writing based on difference. Protesting a patriarchal, exploitative history of literature that elevates “art for art's sake,” “purity” of form, academic distancing, elitism, and individualism, Anzaldúa rejects that “sacred bull” and validates in its stead social art, mixed genres, multilingualism, writing that is simple, direct, immediate, and inclusive.30 Writing, for her, is an enactment, a “performance,” a “who” as much as a “what.” Like the totem pole, it is an art form that merges the sacred and the secular, the artistic and the functional, art and everyday life (66). It is communal, inclusive, accessible to the common person, meant to be shared. It insists on going public. For, as literary critic Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests in Woman, Native, Other, “publication means the breaking of a first seal, the end of a ‘no admitted’ status, the end of a soliloquy confined to the private sphere.”31 Such writing, Anzaldúa asserts, celebrates open vistas; it finds its own voice, it speaks confidently, it encourages interchange, and it sees beyond itself. It is not a conquered thing.
In this new mestiza, Anzaldúa validates her voice as a first-generation writer and lesbian of color, saying that she will not be ashamed of her difference, she will not be invisible, she will not be inaudible, she will not speak in one tongue. She will speak as a woman and as a lesbian. She will write bilingually, speak with an accent. She will reflect her color loud and clear. And she will talk back: “I am possessed by a vision: that we Chicanas and Chicanos have taken back or uncovered our true faces, our dignity and self-respect. It's a validation vision” (87).
With this vision, Anzaldúa replaces barriers with bridges, urges a “crossing over,” and opens up a new world of possibility for women of color who want to speak: “It was only when I looked / at the edges of things,” she writes in her poem “Interface,” that “where before there'd only been empty space / I sensed layers and layers.” The cost of speech is clear; yet greater is the cost of silence. The personal, Anzaldúa recognizes with Lorde, is political: “I change myself, I change the world” (70).32 The hope in Anzaldúa's catalytic writing is that other women of color will discover in it their own courage to heal, that they will dare to speak, and that others will listen. In the words of bell hooks: “The struggle to end domination, the individual struggle to resist colonization, to move from object to subject, is expressed in the effort to establish the liberatory voice—that way of speaking that is no longer determined by one's status as object—as oppressed being. That way of speaking is characterized by opposition, by resistance. It demands that paradigms shift—that we learn to talk—to listen—to hear in a new way.”33
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters-Aunt Lute, 1987), preface. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Anzaldúa's writing are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in this text.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 117.
In Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back, 166.
Anzaldúa's rejection of socially unapproved parts of herself calls to mind Cherríe Moraga's story “La Güera” in which, in reference to having disowned her language, Moraga writes that she “cut off the hands” of her gesticulating mother and aunts in her poems. Moraga and Anzaldúa, Bridge, 31.
Lorde, Sister Outsider, 173-74.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 169.
Bell hooks, Talking Back, 8.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 171.
Lorde, Sister Outsider, 124.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 206.
Hooks, Talking Back, 9.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 200.
Bell hooks, Yearning, 147.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 28-29.
Alfredo Mirandé and Evangelina Enríquez, La Chicana, 24.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 205.
Mary V. Dearborn, Pocahontas's Daughters, 20.
Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop, 59.
Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., Bridge, 209.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other, 8.
See also, Lorde, Sister Outsider, 11.
Hooks, Talking Back, 15.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8233
SOURCE: Embry, Marcus. “Cholo Angels in Guadalajara: The Politics and Poetics of Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.” Women & Performance 8, no. 2 (1996): 87-108.
[In the following essay, Embry explores issues of Chicana cultural and sexual identity in Borderlands/La Frontera.]
BORDERLANDS IN THE ACADEMY
When introducing an upper-level undergraduate course in Chicana/o or Latina/o Studies, there is a high probability that Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera will be among the texts to which many students have already been exposed. Despite the book's popularity and use in a variety of courses, Borderlands/La Frontera has a relatively brief critical biography, and among the critical examinations, there are only a handful of close textual analyses. Lately, other facets and terms of Latinidad, once contained in Latin American, Latina/o, and Chicana/o Studies, have been appropriated far afield, in some ways continuing or paralleling the dissemination of Borderlands/La Frontera. But there are dangers in these appropriations, specifically the elision or erasure of the Latina/o experience, in all its variety and difference, that forms Latinidad. In the following close reading of Borderlands/La Frontera, I will examine how Anzaldúa's 1987 text navigates the problems caused by contemporary appropriations of Latinidad, and the variety and difference within Latinidad.
As Chicana/o Studies has continued to grow and become increasingly incorporated into general academic discourse, applications of Chicana/o have begun appearing in places far from, to quote a phrase, “The Heart of Aztlán.” I am not referring to Chicana/o criticism or literature written by Chicana/os who do not live in or are not from the Southwest, but instead to appropriations of Chicanismo to explain or signify ideas about race and identity that are not necessarily related to Chicana/os, if we take Chicana/o to at least signify some sort of descendance from or kinship relationship to Mexico. Perhaps one of the outer edges of this usage is in an article by Jean-Luc Nancy, in which he argues that
[e]verything, everyone—male, female—who alters me, subjects me to mestizaje. This has nothing to do with mixed blood or mixed cultures. Even the process of “mixing” in general, long celebrated by a certain theoretical literary and artistic tradition—even this kind of “mixing” must remain suspect: it should not be turned into a new substance, a new identity.
A mestizo is someone who is on the border, on the very border of meaning. And we are all out there, exposed.
(Nancy 1994, 121)
Although Nancy's purpose is to examine the concept of mestizaje,1 he begins with the sentence, “You are called Chicanos” (Nancy 1994, 113). And he explicitly describes many of the racist and oppressive conditions that intersect Chicana/o identity and the geopolitical boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. Ultimately, however, he separates mestizaje from Chicana/o, and ends by arguing against an essential meaning of mestizaje by expanding it to include all people whose identities are combinations of language and ethno-graphing. But as Norma Alarcón points out,
[t]he historical discussion of “mixed blood” in the Americas including its juridical normalizations, further problematizes Nancy's prohibition since it might silence the legal history of the racialization of the pre-Columbian subject, that of postslavery African Americans, and of others such as Chicanos.
(Alarcón 1994, 130)
Recent events, such as the passage of Proposition 187 in California in 1994, should emphatically remind us of the necessity to bear in mind that the word “Chicano” and its associations with mestizaje constantly recall geopolitical borders and the people who live and die there. Given the prevalence of anti-essentialism, and the ever-expanding concept of Chicana/o identity as complex and anything but “transparent” (Chabram 1990, 207), we have arrived at a question of form, of poetics, of how to articulate identity within a paradox that Alarcón describes as “the politics of ‘identity’ on the one hand and the cultural politics of ‘difference’ on the other” (Alarcón 1994, 125).
This paradox is central in the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, not only in Borderlands/La Frontera, but in interviews and publications that have followed. Nevertheless, Borderlands/La Frontera itself is constantly invoked in references to alternative discursive or critical methods, and is widely disseminated in the classrooms of post-secondary education. From Cherríe Moraga's 1989 review of Borderlands/La Frontera through Carl Gutiérrez-Jones's recent publication examining Chicano culture and legal discourse, Anzaldúa's narrative style is invoked as “some of the most innovative Chicana feminist work to date” (Gutiérrez-Jones 1995, 118). In her previously cited article, Alarcón states the most prevalent criticism of Borderlands/La Frontera: Anzaldúa is guilty of essentializing race, mestizaje (Alarcón 1994, 129). Alarcón further points out that “the charges against Anzaldúa are made at conferences, or muttered in classrooms and academic hallways” (Alarcón 1994, 129). Another accusation leveled at the text is that it is full of “New Age”-type passages, although these charges are the quietest and most pernicious, because they directly contradict the idiosyncracies of the text that have been so widely celebrated.
In a 1991 interview with AnaLouise Keating, Gloria Anzaldúa suggests that she has heard these objections: speaking of her own sense of spirituality, Anzaldúa refers to the popularity of spiritualism in California, and labels it a “pseudo-spiritual New Age awareness.” She adds that
right now in the academy with high theorists, it's very incorrect to talk about that part [the spiritual part of one's personality] because they're afraid that that part is something innate and therefore they'll be labeled essentialists. Because the women who talk about spirituality a lot of times will talk about la diosa, the goddess, and how women are innately nurturing, and how they're peaceful. But they're not. It's all learned. … So they equate that kind of essentialism with spirituality, and I don't. And maybe in the past there is that in my writing. …
(Keating 1993a, 114)
In a recent article, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano succinctly addresses the issue of essentializations of mestizaje in Borderlands/La Frontera. Importantly, Yarbro-Bejarano intends her article to address Anzaldúa's text as both a contribution to “paradigmatic shifts in theorizing difference,” and also as a point of contention between “the enthusiastic embrace of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by many white feminists and area scholars and, on the other hand, the critiques voiced by some critics, particularly Chicana/o academicians” (Yarbro-Bejarano 1994, 7). In this effort, Yarbro-Bejarano addresses both the text's wide dissemination, and also the critical mutterings that, for the most part, have been endured at conferences and in hallways, but not so often published. Yarbro-Bejarano's method of addressing charges of an essentialized native American identity in the text is a remarkable analysis of Anzaldúa's appropriation and resignification of the pre-Columbian deity Coatlicue. In many ways, Yarbro-Bejarano's analysis is a culmination of past efforts such as the analyses of Maria Lugones and AnaLouise Keating (Lugones 1992; Keating 1993b). Lugones examines Borderlands/La Frontera from an admittedly personal perspective, and finds “borderdwelling friendship in it” (Lugones 1992, 31). But it is this tendency (although not Lugones's specifically) to universalize Anzaldúa's “mestiza or border consciousness” that Yarbro-Bejarano warns is the first step in eliding the specificities of personal experience and place within which Anzaldúa so carefully locates her text. Keating's analysis of the appropriation and resignification of Coatlicue is also remarkable, but Keating addresses Anzaldúa's sexuality only as a last comment, as one part of the text's queerness. As Yarbro-Bejarano points out, “[i]n a textual move privileging lesbianism often overlooked in the critical reception of the text, Anzaldúa makes ‘being queer,’ like the Coatlicue state, signify a ‘path to something else’” (Yarbro-Bejarano 1994, 19).
In the following close reading, I will contribute to the critical move that Yarbro-Bejarano makes, rereading Anzaldúa's remarkable appropriation and resignification of symbols and symbolic orders while recognizing the specificities of racial, gendered, and sexual identities that Anzaldúa weaves through the text. But I will continue the analysis to account for the ever-growing recognition of difference within Chicana/o and Latina/o identity, difference that leads Anzaldúa to suspect that “unity is another Anglo invention like their one sole god and the myth of the monopole” (Anzaldúa 1990, 146).2 In the interview with Keating, Anzaldúa not only illustrates the legion of differences that preclude Latina/o unity, but adds that
if you take the Chicanos there's differences between the California ones, the ones in Arizona, in New Mexico, in Texas, in the Midwest. Yes, we have a lot of common stuff, but it's a big imposition, a big burden, to put on an ethnic group that they should get their shit together and unite.
(Keating 1993a, 110)
In essence, this recognition of the differences within Chicanisma/o sums up Alarcón's paradox, the difficulty of the politics of identity within the cultural politics of difference.
Anzaldúa describes her own personality as a resisting one, as a strong sense of “It's not fair and I'm going to fight against it because it's not fair” (Keating 1993a, 122). For Anzaldúa, the location of the unfairness is not important: “It wasn't fair the way my culture treated girls. It wasn't fair the way the white culture treats ethnic groups” (Keating 1993a, 122). Like many Chicana critics, Anzaldúa writes against the transparency of the Chicano identity that was established through the political and academic struggles of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties. This transparency, this universalization or unity, grew from a cultural politics that first necessitated a presence and voice to establish “difference.” A great deal of these cultural politics were grounded in assertions of shared cultural difference, perhaps the most available of which was the religious difference between the predominant Catholicism of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Chicanos, and the predominant Protestantism of Anglos (or myth thereof). This conflation of Catholicism and Chicanos itself became a part of Chicano catholicism, literally from the Greek katholikos, the universal, general identity of Chicanos.
CHOLO ANGELS: RESIGNIFYING CATHOLICISM
I will explore how Borderlands/La Frontera navigates Alarcón's paradox through a queer performance, a performativity that retains the specificity of Anzaldúa's many identities, while simultaneously reappropriating and resignifying religious and mythological symbols in a manner that opens the catholicism of Chicana/o identity to include non-Catholic Chicana/os. I want to focus on a specific passage: “Guadalupe unites people of different races, religions, languages: Chicano protestants, American Indians, and whites” (Andzaldúa, 1987, 30).3 Though coming into focus in Latina/o and Chicana/o studies only recently (and then, only slightly), there have been several examinations of non-Catholic members of both communities. Brackenridge and García-Treto have explored the history of Chicana/o participation in the Presbyterian Church, and Justo L. Gonzalez recently edited a collection of articles examining the history of Chicana/o United Methodism (Brackenridge and García-Treto 1974; Gonzalez 1991). More importantly, in 1993, the Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (Association for Hispanic Theological Education) held a conference on “Latino/Hispanic Protestantism,” the papers of which were published under the title, Hidden Stories: Unveiling the History of the Latino Church (Rodriguez-Diaz and Cortes-Fuentes 1994). In 1987, Andrés Guerrero attempted to reconcile his own construction of Guadalupe as “the essence of being Mexican” (Guerrero 1993, 96), with the Protestantism of some of the Chicano activists he interviewed for his book, particularly Reies Lopez Tijerina, who was an evangelical Pentecostal minister, and Ruben Armendariz and Tomás Atencio, both Presbyterians from Texas and New Mexico. Guerrero asked the Protestants about Guadalupe's signification for them as non-Catholics, and the result was that Atencio and Armendariz “developed the concept of Guadalupe as a symbol of identity more powerfully than did the Catholics” (Guerrero 1993, 107). In other words, they read into the symbol of Guadalupe the political, cultural, and historical signification, or catholicism, that Guerrero had already overdetermined by the construction of the question they were answering. However, in order to reconcile the essentialism of Guadalupe as symbol of identity and protest with their non-Catholicism, they explained that Guadalupe was not a religious symbol in that she did not necessarily represent “the Mother of God” and all the attendant Catholic dogma. Although perhaps unintentionally, Guerrero touches on a process whereby religious symbols are appropriated as part of a cultural politics of difference; within the community in which they are deployed, their signification changes as part of the process of identity politics.
This appropriation and resignification is not confined to the U.S. side of the border. In A la brava, ése (1988), Mexican sociologist José Manuel Valenzuela Arce focuses on the appropriation of punk and Cholo identities by young Mexicans not only in border cities, but in the largest central Mexican cities as well. Valenzuela Arce documents specific communities within Mexican cities which find expression in symbolic orders or representations that are neither autochthonous nor indigenous to Mexico. Punk identity is a Euro-U.S. phenomenon, while Cholo identity is specific to the U.S. (estadunidense), coming from the barrios of East Los Angeles and the history of the Pachucos and Zoot Suiters. Yet, Cholo identity is full of Catholic iconography and images, including the Virgen de Guadalupe surrounded by little angels wearing pendleton shirts buttoned at the neck, long baggy trousers, and bandannas—the exact same images evident in movies about Cholo barrios in East Los Angeles, such as American Me. Valenzuela Arce argues that the Catholicism of Mexicanidad (“Mexicanness”) managed to jump across the border with Mexican Americans in the 1940s, who became the Pachucos and Zoot Suiters. Amazingly, this identity—replete with its Catholic imagery—has now managed to jump back across the national border and become an identity claimed by inner-city Mexican youths, most of whom have only seen U.S. Cholos in movies and magazines. For the Cholos, Catholicism is appropriated and changed as a cultural signifier, a sign on the same level as lowrider cars and the clothing of the Zoot Suiters. In interviews with the Mexican youths, Valenzuela Arce illustrates that the Cholo Catholic symbols represent religion, specifically Catholicism, and yet their manner of appropriation is the same as the other symbols of Cholismo. While in the U.S., paintings of the Virgen and angels symbolize cultural and ethnic difference from an Anglo-Protestant hegemony, in Mexico these symbols mark class and cultural difference, but not one based on an opposition between Catholicism and Protestantism. Instead, the Cholito angels signify an identity of difference that crosses over the U.S./Mexican geopolitical border.
In contemporary Mexican cultural criticism, the geopolitical border is central. Jorge Bustamante describes it thus:
The geographical neighborliness of Mexico and the U.S. has produced a phenomenon of human relations in which one can understand a combination of social interactions between individuals of different nationalities, levels of economic development, cultural traditions and values, and different degrees of power, in spite of how these countries have attained a minimum of accord about how to mutually satisfy their respective needs with reciprocal actions and interactions.
(Bustamante 1992, 117)4
The border is a site of understanding. Moreover, the border is a site of cultural construction. In 1992, José Carlos Lozano Rendón formulated the problem differently:
The imminence of a free trade agreement between Mexico and the U.S. has aroused a preoccupation among certain sectors about the possible loss of cultural identity among the Mexican public. This preoccupation, expressed for a long time in references to the northern borders of the country, is based in a belief that the greater the contact and links with the U.S., the greater the deterioration of the values and attitudes which form the sense of belonging and loyalty to Mexican culture.
(Lozano Rendón 1992, 51)5
The Cholo angels, then, become a sign that marks an oppositional identity synechdochically, by representing the historical construction of Chicanismo in the U.S., as well as metaphorically, by representing new cultural identities within Mexican cities that are a result of the continuing cultural commerce across the national border. The religious symbol thus displays a certain carrying weight, an ability to function in a variety of representational formations.
With the image of the Cholo angel in the background, we can begin to perceive Anzaldúa's resignification of religious symbols through her sense of her identity as Catholic. She associates her family not with Roman Catholicism, but with “a folk Catholicism with many pagan elements” (27). In a passage similar to Guerrero's, Anzaldúa defines Guadalupe as “the single most potent religious, political and cultural image of the Chicano/mexicano” (30). At first glance, Anzaldúa seems to be appealing to an essential Catholicism as part of her Chicana identity. She begins her last chapter, “Towards a New Consciousness,” by citing José Vasconcelos's formulation of “una raza mestiza, la raza cosmica” (77; “a mestizo race, the cosmic race”), one of the Ur-texts in the search for Mexicanidad that eventually culminated in Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude. Like Paz, Anzaldúa's Catholicism is synthetic, a syncretic mixture of the symbols of Spanish Catholicism and native American religious practices—hence the folk nature of Chicana/o Catholicism and the pagan elements that differentiate it from Roman Catholicism. This is a matter of the Mexican soul: “[d]eep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul. …” (62). Unlike Paz, however, Anzaldúa doesn't speak of identity in terms of Christian souls, but rather spirits. “No matter to what use my people put the supranatural world, it is evident to me now that the spirit world, whose existence the whites are so adamant in denying, does in fact exist” (38).
Anzaldúa's use of the word “spirits” highlights the difference between her use of Catholicism and the Catholicism with which Paz constructs his labyrinth. Anzaldúa's analysis of Chicana identity and its Catholicism concerns not a sense of an essentialized Mexican identity that is Other to the U.S., but a sense of Chicana identity that is grounded in a native American heritage. Quoting Jack Forbes and Eric Wolf, she begins Borderlands/La Frontera with the words, “The Aztecas del norte … compose the largest single tribe or nation of Anishinabeg (Indians) found in the United States today. … Some call themselves Chicanos and see themselves as people whose true homeland is Aztlán [the U.S. Southwest]” (1).6 The final words of the prose section of the book echo the opening:
This land was Mexican once was Indian always and is. And will be again.
Anzaldúa's subjectivity, her Chicana/mestiza identity, is not only Chicana, but native American as well.
In this regard, García Canclini's objections to Paz's classless Mexican essentialism are resonant with Anzaldúa's use of Catholicism:
In his [Paz's] interpretations of culture, history and politics, he is principally interested in the elites and their ideas. Occasionally, he mentions social movements, technological changes, material vicissitudes of capitalism and society, but he never systematically examines even one of these processes.
(García Canclini 1989, 96-97)7
Anzaldúa, however, specifically examines social movements and the material vicissitudes of capitalism and society. Anzaldúa reads Catholicism as a politics based on not only the history of Chicana/o/Anglo relations, but the history of pre-Columbian native American relations as well. Anzaldúa combines Catholic and Protestant religions as Western religions that together prohibit the sense of spirit and soul in which she grounds her Chicana identity (37). Interestingly, Anzaldúa combines Paz's sense of “Puritan” denial of the body—“white rationality” deems the existence of the “Other World” as paganism (36)—with a critique of how Catholicism was used as a tool of oppression by the Spaniards against native Americans. Furthermore, Anzaldúa explores the manner in which Catholicism oppresses her gender and sexuality.
QUEERING SPIRITUALITY: RELIGIOUS SYMBOL AS SOCIAL MEMORY
Anzaldúa's intervention in the field of Chicana/o identity is from the perspective of both woman and queer. In the first chapter, she outlines the boundaries of Aztlán, beginning with a description of the U.S./Mexican border as an “open wound” where “the Third World scrapes against the first and bleeds” (3). She tells the story of the peopling of the Americas, beginning with the Athapaskans crossing the Bering Straits, through the Aztec conquest of the central Mexican plateau, the Spanish conquest, the conflict over Texas, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the dispossession and exploitation of the Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest, and the devaluation of the peso. The chapter moves to a description of the Border Patrol and the exploited life that awaits undocumented workers who are not caught. Finally, the chapter concludes with a contextualization of these histories and conditions as they affect women: “the Mexican woman is especially at risk,” often raped or sold into prostitution by coyotes, taken advantage of by U.S. employers; “like all women, she is prey to a sense of physical helplessness” (12).
Anzaldúa then describes her own sense of rebellion in chapter two. Calling her rebelliousness the “Shadow-Beast” within her, Anzaldúa argues that “culture forms our beliefs” and that “culture is made by those in power—men” (16). This is reinforced by the Church, which insists that women are subservient to men (17). Associating the supernatural with undivine “animal” impulses (such as sexuality, the unconscious, the unknown, the alien) and also the divine (the superhuman and “the god in us”), Anzaldúa argues that “culture and religion seek to protect us from these two forces” (17). And yet, “Woman is the stranger, the other. She is man's recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast” (17). Even within the history and context of victimization and exploitation which grounds Chicana identity within a people made up of both genders, it is culture and religion, the male and the Church, that construct woman in a manner that once again victimizes and exploits her.
Further, Anzaldúa's queer identity focuses her rebellion. Writing of the three roles available to a woman of her culture (nun, prostitute, mother), Anzaldúa describes a fourth choice, “entering the world by way of education and career and becoming self-autonomous persons” (17). This option is informed by her queer identity: “‘Y cuándo te casas, Gloria? Se te va a pasar el tren.’ Y yo les digo, ‘Pos si me caso, no va ser con un hombre.’ Se quedan calladitas” (17; “‘And when will you marry, Gloria? The train is going to pass you by.’ And I say to them, ‘Well, if I marry, it won't be to a man.’ They are left speechless.”). She argues that although selfishness and ambition are read differently in Chicana/o and Anglo cultures, deviance is tolerated by neither, nor by many native American cultures. Thus, the queer is the Shadow-Beast in all cultures. Yet for Anzaldúa, queer identity is both male and female: “I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female. I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within” (19). Queer identity is the site of rebellion:
For the lesbian of color, the ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual behavior. … It's an interesting path, one that continually slips in and out of the white, the Catholic, the Mexican, the indigenous, the instincts. … It is a way of balancing, of mitigating duality.
This formulation of queer identity is central to Borderlands/La Frontera: in this sense of queerness exists the basis of Anzaldúa's analyses of religion as politics, the oppression of Chicana/o culture, and the poetics of signification that the book performs.
Anzaldúa's discussion of a male-female queer identity in the context of the history and peoples of the Southwest recalls Ramón Gutiérrez's important—and highly contested—1991 history of New Mexico, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away. Gutiérrez's analysis of sexual politics in Pueblo communities during the colonial period leads him to conclude: “[a]mong the Pueblo Indians sexual intercourse was a metaphor for politics. Coitus was the symbol of cosmic harmony created through the union of opposites (male-female, sky-earth, rainseeds)” (Gutiérrez 1991, 71).8 Likewise, her notion resonates with the half-men/half-women that Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca saw on his journey through 16th century North America: “[i]n the time I was among these people, I witnessed a diabolical practice: a man living with a eunuch. Eunuchs go partly dressed, like women, and perform women's duties” (Cabeza de Vaca 1961, 100). Gutiérrez argues that the function of these half-men/half-women was political: they served as sexual partners for unmarried males and thus precluded arguments between men over women. This analytical maneuver in a study of colonial American history accounts for both the severe criticism of Gutiérrez's historical accuracy, and also the celebration of the text as an intervention in a subdiscipline of history that only now is receiving analysis from the perspective of sexuality.9 Beyond the other controversy his text has generated, I find Gutiérrez's formulation problematic at best, not because male-male sexual activity is read as a political act within communities, but because, once again, women become the site of commerce, the object through which and about which political relationships are negotiated.
By contrast, Anzaldúa's analysis of the gendered politics of religious systems engages the complex historical cultural interactions of native American peoples prior to the arrival of Catholics and Spaniards. Analyzing the Mexican national symbol of the eagle holding a snake in its beak while perched on a cactus, Anzaldúa equates the eagle with the sun, the father, and the snake with the earth, the mother; the “symbolic sacrifice of the serpent to the “higher” masculine powers indicates that the patriarchal order had already vanquished the feminine and matriarchal order in pre-Columbian America” (5). Tracing a history of the Toltec, Chichimec, Mexitin, Azteca-Mexica, and Aztec peoples, she claims that before the Aztecs, “the principle of balanced opposition between the sexes existed” (31), and that “[m]atrilineal descent characterized the Toltecs and perhaps early Aztec society” (33). She argues that “Coatlicue, Lady of the Serpent Skirt, contained and balanced the dualities of male and female, light and dark, life and death” (32). As different groups gained control of the religious systems, the roles of the gods were reinterpreted as both a result of cultural mixing, and also as a basis of social organization and control. Finally, though, “[t]he Aztec ruler, Itzcoatl, destroyed all the painted documents (books called codices) and (re)wrote a mythology that validated the wars of conquest and thus continued the shift from a tribe based on clans to one based on classes” (32).
In this passage, Anzaldúa improves on Gutiérrez's analysis on the role of sexuality in native American political structures by not only addressing the gendered politics and relationships of the various peoples, but also by presenting pre-Columbian peoples as dynamic and changing, rather than as a static community with whom the Spaniards interacted. By introducing the idea of class structures, Anzaldúa rereads the split between opposing dualities as one of class conflict as well, so that by 1492, the Aztec “nobility kept the tribute, the commoner got nothing” and the society was divided by class antagonism (34). The Tlaxcalans who assisted Cortés in capturing Mexico City were one of the many conquered tribes “who hated the Aztecs because of the rape of their women and the heavy taxes levied on them” (34). And thus, “the Aztec nation fell not because Malinali (la Chingada) interpreted for and slept with Cortés, but because the ruling elite had subverted the solidarity between men and women and between noble and commoner” (34). This rereading of the conquest not only rewrites the role of Malinali, La Malinche, but provides the link between class oppression and its articulation and development through symbolic orders which, in turn, re-articulated the political relationships of gender.
From this perspective, Anzaldúa understands the politics of Catholicism as a result of Spanish appropriation of an already-existing Aztecan patriarchal symbolic order. After the Azteca-Mexica culture had demonized and subverted the female deities, the Spaniards appropriated this structure by “making la Virgen de Guadalupe/Virgen María into chaste virgins and Tlazolteotl/Coatlicue/la Chingada into putas [whores]” (28). After the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared on December 9, 1531 to Juan Diego, she gradually became the symbol of Mexico and Latino Catholicism: “la Virgen de Guadalupe began to eclipse all the other male and female religious figures in Mexico, Central America and parts of the U.S. Southwest” (29).
Anzaldúa recovers the gendered politics that link her identities of Chicana/Indian/woman/queer by linking the names, and by resignifying the symbols, of her identity, oppression, and resistance across boundaries of history and religion/mythology. “La Virgen de Guadalupe's Indian name is Coatlalopeuh. She is the central deity connecting us to our Indian ancestry” (27). And in this way, she “is the symbol of the mestizo true to his or her Indian values” (30).
So, don't give me your tenets and your laws. Don't give me your lukewarm gods. What I want is an accounting with all three cultures—white, Mexican, Indian. I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails.
Here, then, is Anzaldúa's sense of spirit and soul, rooted both in a subtle understanding of the politics of both religious symbolism and pre- and post-Columbian American cultural collisions, and rooted in her many subjectivities, and her sense of rebellion. Anzaldúa understands the histories and deployments of religions and gods, and the politics they represent. From this knowledge, she fashions her own gods, constructs her own representation of politics through religious symbol. And the god she fashions, the symbol she chooses, is Coatlicue, the serpent.
THE POETICS OF COATLICUE
Coatlicue is for Anzaldúa both an identity and a poetics. Borderlands/La Frontera is a remarkable work in that it is simultaneously a collection of poetry, a history, an autobiography, a memoir, and a theoretical examination and construction of an identity politics. The manner in which all these elements combine and dialogue with each other allows Anzaldúa to address the Borderlands both in terms of personal identity, and political identity as well. Just as the text examines the social constructions of personal identities, it also interrogates the constructions of a social identity, the Chicana/o, and the aesthetics of representing this construction. In other words, Anzaldúa constructs her identity through the symbol of Coatlicue at the same time that Coatlicue constructs the text itself.
In an article entitled “Writing in the Borderlands,” Diane P. Freedman argues that Anzaldúa (and Susan Griffin) “employ the central trope of border-crossing as both theme and compositional mode” (Freedman 1992, 211). Freedman identifies one of the central features of Anzaldúa's text, namely to complicate identity and write from loci of enunciation that can be labeled woman/lesbian/Chicana, and emphasizes the writer within these various identities. Freedman argues that Anzaldúa writes from a personal perspective of having grown up in the Lower Valley of Texas, but ultimately argues that “[b]orders can thus evoke a cozy, domestic scene. Think of cloth borders appearing at the loom, in quilts” (Freedman 1992, 215). She quotes a similar passage in Borderlands/La Frontera which reads, in part, “in looking at this book that I'm almost finished writing, I see a mosaic pattern (Aztec like) emerging …” (66). Anzaldúa's words “Aztec like” escape her analysis, and she likewise ignores Anzaldúa's passages (indeed an entire chapter) dealing with the red and black ink of Nahual codices. This omission is very telling; despite Freedman's intention to find connections between the personal history and specificity of the author and the text, she misses the connection Anzaldúa makes between this weaving function that grounds the logic of the text, and the weavings of Chicana identity that are directly bound to things “Aztec like.” In other words, Freedman misses the point that for Anzaldúa, the reciprocal relationships between her identity constructions and textual constructions are channelled through Anzaldúa's sense of native American identity, her sense of the spirit world, and her reclamation of the symbolic orders of spirits to represent the historical specificity of her Chicana and native American identities as they intersect with her sexual and gender identities.
The personal narratives contained in chapter three, entitled “Entering into the Serpent,” detail Anzaldúa's Coatlicue identity and her constant interactions with snakes. In the beginning of in the first section, entitled “Ella tiene su tomo,” Anzaldúa describes an episode from her childhood in which she is bitten by a rattlesnake; her mother kills the snake by hacking it into pieces; Anzaldúa buries the pieces, and then spends the nights watching the rattle (which she evidently saved) in the moonlight, dreaming and imagining that she is transforming into a snake.
Always when they [snakes] cross my path, fear and elation flood my body. I know things older than Freud, older than gender … Like the ancient Olmecs, I know Earth is a coiled Serpent. Forty years it's taken me to enter into the Serpent, to acknowledge that I have a body, that I am a body and to assimilate the animal body, the animal soul.
Here Anzaldúa begins to present her personal construction of her Shadow-Beast, as her personal narrative merges with symbols of gods and religions, and rebellions against them. The combination of Freud with Olmecs, of psychoanalysis with a native American cosmology, illustrates Anzaldúa's sense that religion is an epistemology rather than an eschatology, and that the pagan symbols of serpents and animal bodies and souls, tonos, are directly related to bodily emotion and desire—fear and elation flooding her body—the site of her construction, oppression, and resistance. Thus, as her personal narratives in chapter three focus on more “mystical” episodes from her childhood, stories of brujas and snakes in South Texas and the development of Facultad (sixth sense), they merge with her earlier passages on cultural and religious construction of women and queerness as the Shadow-Beast. Coatlicue, the god she fashions to represent herself, becomes both a mental and a physical state, and the subject of chapter four, “The Coatlicue State.”
When Anzaldúa writes of her queer identity in chapter two, she describes the fear of being outed, the fear that “the Shadow-Beast will break out of its cage” (20). The mirror is a site of fear, because the serpent stares back at the viewer, and drags her underground. There seems no way to change the nature of the serpent, to “put feathers on this particular serpent” (20). And yet, some have looked at the face of the serpent and “uncovered the lie” (20). Clearly, by recovering the symbol of the snake and its association with evil and darkness through a patriarchal order and oppression, Anzaldúa does find a way to put feathers on the serpent, to reunite the opposing elements (male/female, earth/sky, day/night) within the single image of the Serpent.
In chapter four, after describing how her mother covered all the mirrors in the house after her father's death, Anzaldúa writes that the mirror served as a door through which the soul can pass to the other side, and her mother did not want the children to follow their father into the place of dead souls. At the same time, Anzaldúa theorizes the mirror in terms of seeing, of the gaze, and the manner in which the gaze constructs the viewer's perceptions of herself in ways that “freeze us,” creating definitions or making permanent the significations that are present in the gaze. Further, Anzaldúa recognizes the centrality of sight in this relationship of the mirror, and thus perception is central to the process, so that in the gaze there is a source of knowledge, of “seeing through.” In the mirror, she sees “Gloria, the everyday face; Prieta and Prietita, my childhood faces; Gaudi, the face my mother and sister and brothers know. And there in the black, obsidian mirror of the Nahuas is yet another face, a stranger's face” (44). She sees the different constructions of her identity, represented by her many names. Here Anzaldúa's eyes and nose, the mark of her indigenous blood, seem to dominate her reflection—in a manner strikingly similar to Richard Rodriguez's discussion, in his controversial autobiography, Hunger of Memory, of confronting his facial features in the mirror (Rodriguez 1988, 124-25). Unlike Rodriguez, however, for Anzaldúa these aspects do not create an anxiety that is articulated through a discourse in the voice of the patriarch; rather these allow her to reclaim the political orders from the pre-Columbian peoples whose blood she shares. Thus she sees another face in the obsidian mirror of the “Mexican Indians” from “ancient times” (42). All these faces constitute gazes from different angles, and link her bodily reflection to her social reality: a socially constructed representation with multiple characters—Chicana, indigenous, woman, and queer.
By linking bodily and social representation and specificity, Anzaldúa demonstrates a way of seeing that is Coatlicue: “we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes” (78-79). This, finally, is the aesthetic of Borderlands/La Frontera:
She puts history through a sieve, winnows out the lies, looks at the forces that we as a race, as women, have been a part of. … This step is a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions. She communicates that rupture, documents the struggle. She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths. She adopts new perspectives toward the darkskinned, women, and queers.
Anzaldúa writes Borderlands/La Frontera in the red ink and black ink with which the ancient Aztecs wrote their codices, and whose different colors symbolize writing and wisdom, two forces that can be united in representation (69). Anzaldúa looks at her hand writing, and she sees feathers growing from it (from the hand of a serpent body), and thus, she writes in both the black ink of words, and the red ink of her blood, her body, the representations and constructions of her subjectivity (71). And through this aesthetic, in this way of seeing, Anzaldúa appropriates, reinterprets, and resignifies the symbols and symbolic orders that represent the constructions of her various identities.
Throughout her remarkable analysis of historical and social constructions of gender and sexuality and their codification in religious symbols, Anzaldúa never slips into a discourse that is removed from her Chicana identity. And in fact, explaining why she left home in order to obtain an education and thus choose the fourth option of what a woman can become, she writes that “Not me sold out my people but they me” (21). She details Chicano oppression of Chicanas, and straight oppression of queers within Chicana/o culture. But despite the differences within the identity of Chicana/o, the history of both her family and the history of the Lower Valley in Texas illustrate the necessity to resist arguing that Chicana/o identity can be erased as a basis for political identity and action. In this way, Anzaldúa navigates between cultural politics of difference and the politics of identity.
Anzaldúa's navigation depends on her appropriation and use of Coatlicue to signify both the historical construction of Chicana, native American, sexual, and gendered identity, and also a poetics of iteration. To restate the quotation with which we began:
To Mexicans on both sides of the border, Guadalupe is the symbol of our rebellion against the rich, upper and middleclass; against their subjugation of the poor and the indio.
Guadalupe unites people of different races, religions, languages: Chicano protestants, American Indians, and whites.
Guadalupe unites Mexicans on both sides of the border by signifying their class rebellion, but Guadalupe also unites a variety of people who are not necessarily participating in the class rebellion, and some of whom are not Mexican. Just as the Cholo angels and Guadalupe signify an identity politics and/or a cultural politics of difference in Mexican and U.S. cities, Anzaldúa's resignified Guadalupe unites these various people through symbolizing both the constructions of their identities, and also the manner in which one can rebel against and resist such constructions. Additionally, Anzaldúa's Guadalupe provides the hermeneutic necessary to address identity politics without eliding or erasing politics of difference, while at the same time addressing politics of difference without essentializing difference into a catholic identity that precludes identity politics. Anzaldúa's Guadalupe is Coatlicue, the symbol of the new mestiza whose political status has been recovered through an examination of the history and politics of her religious signifiers. To be sure, Chicana/o protestants participate in Protestantism's rejection of “mediation” and the symbols of Catholicism. But when the symbol of Latin American and Chicana/o Catholicism represents Chicana/o protestants, it does so as a signifier of their construction as an identity of difference, of the meaning of Chicana/o identity, a construction in which all Chicana/os are assumed to be C/catholic.
Mestizo literally means of mixed blood; mestizaje refers to the state of being of mixed blood. In Latino/a studies, mestizaje refers to the mixing of Spanish and Indian blood that theoretically (and ideologically) produced the Mexican people, and by extension, the Mexican and Mexican-American people who live in what is now the U.S. Nancy, of course, is arguing for a substantially altered concept of mixing and blood, and their metaphorical and metonymical significations.
My close reading will address only the first section of Borderlands/La Frontera, in other words, the prose or narrative section. For a detailed analysis of the second section, the poetry, see Sonia Saldívar-Hull 1991.
Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera will hereafter be cited by parenthetical page reference only.
My translation. “La vencidad geográfica entre México y Estados Unidos ha producido un fenómeno de relaciones humanas que se pueden entender como un conjunto de interacciones sociales entre individuos de diferentes nacionalidades, niveles de desarrollo económico, tradiciones y valores culturales y de diferente grado de poser, a pesar de lo cual estos países han logrado un mínimo de acuerdo como para satisfacer mutuamente sus respectivas necesidades con acciones e interacciones recíprocas” (Bustamante 1992, 117).
My translation. “La inminencia de un acuerdo de libre comercio entre México y Estados Unidos ha hecho surgir en algunos sectores preocupación por una posible pérdida de identidad cultural en la población mexicana. Esta preocupación, externada desde hace mucho teimpo en referencia a la fontera norte del país, se basa en la creencia de que a mayor contacto y vinculación con Estados Unidos, mayor deterioro en los valores y actitudes que conforman el sentido de pertenencia y lealtad a la cultura mexicana” (Lozano Rendón 1992, 51).
Anzaldúa's endnote reads: Jack D. Forbes, Aztecas del Norte: The Chicanos of Aztlán. (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, Premier Books, 1973), 13, 183; Eric R. Wolf, Sons of Shaking Earth (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1959), 32. The quotation marks, parentheses, and brackets are Anzaldúa's.
My translation. “También porque en sus [Paz] interpretaciones de la cultura, la historia y la política le interesan principalmente las élites y las ideas. En ocasiones, menciona movimientos sociales, cambios tecnológicos, las peripecias materiales del capitalismo y el socialismo, pero nunca examina sistemáticamente uno sólo de esos procesos” (García Canclini 1989, 96-97).
Gutiérrez and his book are a fascinating study in themselves of the politics and discourses that attend the introduction of queer discourse into “virgin” fields. Gutiérrez won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1983, when he was 32, and before he had published any booklength manuscript. For a suggestion of the intense personal feeling that this provoked among Gutiérrez's academic colleagues, see Tomás Almaguer's comments in Liz McMillen's 1992 article. An example of the celebration that attended Gutiérrez's sexuality-based intervention in colonial history of the Americas is in Roberto M. Salmón's 1992 review. Ted Jojola (1993) and Ralph H. Vigil (1994) exemplify the devastating criticisms of Gutiérrez's motives and historical inaccuracies. Lastly, Susan A. Miller (1993) suggests that the historical and citational inaccuracies of the text can not only be faulted to Gutiérrez, but also to Stanford University Press's haste to print the manuscript.
The historical inaccuracies of Gutiérrez's text and the criticism that has focused on it are in some ways similar to the often heard criticisms of Anzaldúa's sometimes startling interpretations of pre-Columbian history. Yarbro-Bejarano responds to this criticism of Anzaldúa by arguing that her text is not purporting to be a history, but rather a hermeneutic in which symbols are appropriated and resignified. The differences between symbols that are religious, mythic, and historical is certainly another borderland in contention, as is the maneuver involved in eliding ideologies of sexuality on the basis of “historical accuracy.” References to other historians who address sexuality in colonial history of the Americas can be found in Susan Kellogg (1992).
Alarcón, Norma. 1994. “Conjugating Subjects: The Heteroglossia of Essence and Resistance.” In An Other Tongue Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. Ed. Alfred Arteaga, 125-138. Durham: Duke University Press.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1990. “En rapport, In Opposition: Cobrando cuentas a las nuestras.” In Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa, 142-148. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
———. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Brackenridge, R. Douglas and Francisco O. García-Treto. 1974. Iglesia Presbiteriana: a History of Presbyterians and Mexican Americans in the Southwest. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Bustamante, Jorge A. 1992. “Frontera México-Estados Unidos. Reflexiones Para un Marco Teórico.” In Decadencia y auge de las identidades (Cultura nacional, identidad cultural y modernización). Coordinador José Manuel Valenzuela Arce, 91-118. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nuñez. 1961. Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. Trans. Cyclone Covey. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Chabram, Angie C. and Rosa Linda Fregoso. 1990. “Chicana/o cultural representations: reframing alternative critical discourses.” Cultural Studies 4 (October):203-212.
Freedman, Diane P. 1992. “Writing in the Borderlands: The Poetic Prose of Gloria Anzaldúa and Susan Griffin.” In Constructing and Reconstructing Gender: The Links among Communication, Language, and Gender. Ed. Linda A. M. Perry, Lynn H. Turner, and Helen M. Sterk, 211-217. Albany: State University of New York Press.
García Canclini, Néstor. 1989. Culturas Híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad. Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Grijalbo, S.A. de C.V.
Gonzalez, Justo L. 1991. Each in Our Own Tongue: A History of Hispanic United Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Guerrero, Andrés G. 1993. A Chicano Theology. New York: Orbis Books.
Gutiérrez, Ramón. 1991. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sex, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gutiérrez-Jones, Carl. 1995. Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture and Legal Discourse. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jojola, Ted, ed. 1993. “Commentaries: When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sex, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846, by Ramón A. Gutiérrez.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17:141-177.
Keating, AnaLouise. 1993a. “Writing, Politics, and las Lesberadas: Platicando con Gloria Anzaldúa.” Frontiers 14:105-130.
———. 1993b. “Myth Smashers, Myth Makers: (Re)Visionary Techniques in the Works of Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde.” In Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color. Ed. Emmanuel Nelson, 73-95. New York: Hawthorn Park Press.
Kellogg, Susan. 1992. Review of When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846, by Ramón A. Gutiérrez. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 72:429.
Lozano Rendón, José Carlos. 1992. “Identidad nacional en la Frontera Norte.” In Historia y Cultura COLEF I Vol. VI: 51-75. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Lugones, Maria. 1992. “On Borderlands/La Frontera: An Interpretive Essay” Hypatia 7 (Fall):31-37.
McMillen, Liz. 1992. “Hot Young Author and a Fresh Slant on U.S. History Add Up to Much-Honored Book on American Southwest.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2, 1992:A8.
Miller, Susan A. 1993. Untitled essay in “Commentaries: When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sex, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846, by Ramón A. Gutiérrez.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17:162-163.
Moraga, Cherríe. 1989. “Algo secretamente amado.” Third Woman: The Sexuality of Latinas 4:151-156.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1994. “Cut Throat Sun.” In An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. Ed. Alfred Arteaga, 113-123. Durham: Duke University Press.
Rodriguez, Richard. 1988. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam.
Rodriguez-Diaz, Daniel R. and David Cortes-Fuentes, eds. 1994. Hidden Stories: Unveiling the History of the Latino Church. Decatur, GA: Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana.
Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. 1991. “Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics.” In Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Hector Calderón and José David Saldívar, 203-220. Durham: Duke University Press.
Salmón, Roberto M. 1992. Review of When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sex, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846, by Ramón A. Gutiérrez. The Journal of American History 78 (March):1410.
Valenzuela Arce, José Manuel. 1988. A la brava, ése. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Vigil, Ralph H. 1994. “Inequality and Ideology in “Borderlands Historiography.” Latin American Research Review 29:155-171.
Weston, Steve, and Ostrander, Paul, eds. 1989. Our Hispanic Ministry: Essays on Emerging Latin American Membership in the Episcopal Church. New York: Herbert Arrunategui.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. 1994. “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: Cultural Studies, ‘Difference,’ and the Non-Unitary Subject.” Cultural Critique 28 (Fall): 5-28.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8446
SOURCE: Fowlkes, Diane L. “Moving from Feminist Identity Politics to Coalition Politics through a Feminist Materialist Standpoint of Intersubjectivity in Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” Hypatia 12, no. 2 (spring 1997): 105-24.
[In the following essay, Fowlkes maintains that Borderlands/La Frontera “develops and presents a form of subjectivity and the needed standpoint that prepare the ground for using feminist identity politics to build feminist coalitions.”]
When the Combahee River Collective proclaimed its new practice of feminist identity politics (1978), it was acting as part of a grassroots movement that would become a new wave of feminist theorizing.1 Its Statement was included in the next collection of writings that represented the flowering of identity politics, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981, 1983).2 The initiation of feminist identity politics by radical women of color involved two moves, both of which had profound philosophical and political implications. The Combahee River Collective members exemplified the first move when they declared their own group identity as Black lesbian feminists, in order to become visible and to gain attention in what too many others perceived as (heterosexual) Black (men's) and (white, heterosexual) women's liberation struggles. Similarly, the Bridge [This Bridge Called My Back] writers identified themselves as radical women of color and as feminists different from other (white, heterosexual) feminist women. That is, by socially reconstructing their own identities, these variously self-identifying groups of radical lesbian feminists of color removed the implicit parentheses from others' identities and challenged those others to examine the intersection of multiple simultaneous markers of oppression and privilege.
In deploying their own multiply-defined identities, radical women of color also launched a challenge to the singular subject of traditional philosophy and liberal feminism.3 Singular subjectivity has since been further demystified and shown to represent not its proclaimed universal standpoint, but rather Anglo-Eurocentric masculinist and feminist standpoints (e.g., Harding 1986; Spelman 1988). Thus, the first political move taken by the Combahee River Collective and other radical lesbian feminists of color had significant implications for the demise of philosophical notions of singular subjectivity.
The second move was that the Combahee River Collective members declared a desire to engage on their own terms with Black men and white women in what they believed should be linked struggles against racism and white skin privilege, along with heterosexism, male privilege, and capitalist class structure. By socially reconstructing their oppressions as simultaneous and related to others' simultaneous oppressions and privileges, they showed the necessity of working in coalition against complex systems of oppression and privilege, or what I have elsewhere derived from their Statement as “complex domination” (Fowlkes 1992). Similarly, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) challenged Chicanos and Anglo women to render accountings of their complicities in complex domination; and earlier, Cherríe Moraga, in her foreword to the second edition of Bridge, arrived at the point of believing that had the collection “been conceived of in 1983, as opposed to 1979, it would speak much more directly now to the relations between women and men of color, both gay and heterosexual” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983, i). Whether engaging in identity politics between and among women or between and among women and men, radical lesbian feminists of color were laying the necessary political groundwork for creating coalitions to challenge structures of complex domination.
In desiring to engage with those perceiving themselves to be marked and struggling to overcome unidimensional oppressions (sexism or racism or heterosexism), the Combahee River Collective and the Bridge writers also launched a challenge to move from what Seyla Benhabib has characterized as collective singular subjectivity to a standpoint of intersubjectivity (Benhabib 1986). When I first found Benhabib's claim referenced in Mary Hawkesworth's critique of feminist standpoint epistemology (1990, 140-42), that claim seemed to solve a problem I and others were having with how to accommodate individuality within collectivity.4 The problem had become for me, as for the radical lesbian feminists of color I have cited, that collective singular subjectivity requires a group single-mindedly to organize itself around one dimension of identity in order to act. Such organizing requires members of the group who also identify on other dimensions to defer action against the other forms of oppression they experience. They are, in effect, forced by such a strategy to choose which oppression is “worse” than another, a situation likely to lead to resentment and to what Audre Lorde has called “horizontal hostility”; that is, hostility toward one another among variously defined oppressed groups (1984, 47-48).
The Combahee River Collective and Bridge writers refused to make such “forced” choices. A solution to the problem of collective singular subjectivity seemed to lie instead in taking a standpoint of intersubjectivity, which provides a perspective from which people can recognize themselves and others as differently and complexly identified. From such a standpoint, it is possible for people to recognize that by definition, they cannot effectively organize according to a single dimension and they therefore need to build coalitions because of complex systems of oppression and privilege. This means that the fight against complex domination becomes a more complex fight, requiring struggles of recognition and against oppression not only with the larger society, but also with others still defining their respective struggles unidimensionally. For these reasons, Bernice Johnson Reagon (1983) warns feminists not to use identity politics as a retreat into an allegedly comfortable “home” of “women's community,” but rather as a basis for engaging in the risky “street politics” of coalition building, which can be understood as a complex struggle in the face of and against complex domination.
Gloria Anzaldúa (1990a, 223-24) elaborates four ways to think about coalition building, each of which suggests a calculus for deciding strategically whether and how to approach engaging with others in coalitions. First is to “bridge,” which “means being a mediator between yourself and your community and white people” (223). In this scenario, the “bridger” can get “used” by those with whom she is trying to bridge. Hence the title, This Bridge Called My Back, and the conversation reported between Cherríe Moraga and Barbara Smith as publication was being negotiated with Persephone Press: “Barbara says last night: ‘A bridge gets walked over.’ Yes, over and over and over again” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981, xv). Second is to “drawbridge,” in which the bridger chooses whether to engage physically with white people—to “be down,” engaged with them and probably used; or to withdraw—to “be up,” disengaged from white people, usually temporarily, “in order to regroup, recharge our energies, and nourish ourselves before wading back into the frontlines” (Anzaldúa 1990a, 223).
Third is to “island,” to withdraw totally with “no causeways, no bridges, maybe no ferries, either, between you and whites. … Yet being an island cannot be a way of life—there are no life-long islands because no one is totally self-sufficient” (223). Fourth is Anzaldúa's choice for now, something more earthbound than “man-made”: to “sandbar.” The kind of sandbar that connects an island to the mainland is sometimes submerged, sometimes visible, depending on the tide's being in or out; but the significance of sandbar is that it “means getting a breather from being a perpetual bridge without having to withdraw completely” (224). Anzaldúa ends this part of her analysis by challenging women of color and white women to choose the kind or kinds of coalition work in which to engage, keeping in mind that such work is a process and may involve moving from one form to another depending on each activist's needs.
Anzaldúa then suggests some ground rules for making these choices (1990a, 224-27). First is to remember “that coalition work attempts to balance power relations and undermine and subvert the system of domination-subordination that affects even our most unconscious thoughts” (224-25, emphasis in original). Second is a set of related points, that the assumptions of common ground, singular sisterhood, and need for unity are false. Indeed, “you may have to accept that there may be no solutions, resolutions or even agreement ever. The terms solution, resolution, and progressing and moving forward are Western dominant cultural concepts” (227, emphasis in original). Third appears to be the set of moves that constitute feminist identity politics and that foreclose the probability of “whitewomen['s] marginaliz[ing] and strip[ping] us of our individuality” (225, emphasis in original). “All parties involved in coalitions need to recognize the necessity that women-of-color and lesbians define the terms of engagement: that we be listened to, that we articulate who we are, where we have come from (racial past), how we understand oppression to work, how we think we can get out from under, and what strategies we can use in accomplishing the particular tasks we have chosen to perform” (225).
Thus, feminist identity politics and feminist coalition politics set out to destabilize the philosophy of the subject and the standpoint of collective singularity and, through destabilization, require another form of subjectivity and another standpoint from which to act. It is my contention in this article that Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) develops and presents a form of subjectivity and the needed standpoint that prepare the ground for using feminist identity politics to build feminist coalitions. Anzaldúa's political moves place her in a struggle not only against complex systems of colonial oppression and privilege but also against traditional philosophy and any form of feminist politics premised on sisterhood. Anzaldúa's tool of struggle, which I call complex identity narration, recounts how she developed a flexible, complexly defined subjectivity—lesbian feminist mestiza—in effect becoming what might be called an “intersubject,” positioned to build coalitions as she chooses, with others “different” from her. I understand complex identity narration to be a means through which activist theorists articulate, in a way of accounting called for by María Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman (1983), how and why their lived experiences of identity formation are necessarily complex.
Note both that the identity in formation is complex, not singular, and that the analysis of how and why this is so is also complex, involving an interlacing of autobiographical narrative with historical, political, philosophical, cultural, linguistic, spiritual, and psychological analysis and synthesis. Complex identity narration in and of itself is a way socially to construct intersubjectivity through speaking and writing to others who listen and, it is hoped, respond. As Anzaldúa and others use it (e.g., Cliff 1980; Lorde 1980, 1982, 1984; Pratt 1984; Rich 1986), complex identity narration entails a feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity, which those of us who engage in feminist identity politics need to recognize if “we” are to move toward building effective coalitions.5 I will show how and why this is so by figuratively entering into conversation with Gloria Anzaldúa and others on whom I have relied to reach my understandings.
HOW ISSUES OF POWER AND KNOWING POINT TO A NEED FOR A FEMINIST MATERIALIST STANDPOINT OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY
I must first address a problematic aspect of my reading of Anzaldúa's complex identity narrative as a way to articulate what I believe to be her, my, and some others' epistemological and political purposes. This problem is more generally associated with the relationship between knowledge and politics as they emerge in the context of oppressive structures of power and privilege (see Christian 1988; Gwin 1988; hooks 1989; Anzaldúa 1990b; duCille 1994). If we accept the premise that such a relationship shapes the ways we know and theorize and act, then as a white/Anglo, heterosexual, middle-class, feminist woman, I can and must consider how my own social location might derail my responding-by-writing about complex identity narratives of lesbian feminists of color; that is, my reading across differences of unjust privilege and oppression that have been variously inscribed into the racial, sexual, and class identities of us all. I must also consider what can make it possible for me to enter into conversation with those both socially constructed and oppositionally self-identified as different from me.
I feel invited to explore these issues in a direct and open fashion with writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa because they use the political theorizing tool of complex identity narration. Without discussions of their own complex social locations by Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Hartsock, whose more abstract philosophical works I will also respond to in this conversation, I cannot be as clear as I would like about the implications of my including and responding to their ideas. What I do know is that, for me, Hartsock's construction of a feminist materialist standpoint, Benhabib's critique of collective singular subjectivity and call for a standpoint of intersubjectivity, and Anzaldúa's complex identity narration resonate strongly with one another. What I want to do, in a spirit of conversation with these action-oriented theorists, along lines suggested not only by Lugones and Spelman (1983) but also by Linda Martín Alcoff (1991-92) and Lugones (1987), is to articulate these resonances and to do so in relation to the connection between feminist identity politics and coalition politics.
As someone who wants to be part of efforts to dismantle historical systems of oppression and privilege and to empower oppressed peoples, including myself, I can begin by acknowledging that I cannot and should not try to “speak for” those whose works I read, because any attempt on my part to do so would reinforce the privileges of race and class and sexual identity in which I participate (compare Alcoff 1991-92). Following Alcoff, however, I can attempt to “speak with and to” these authors, thereby recognizing their engagement in intersubjectivity through claiming my own engagement in intersubjectivity in relation to theirs—including any oppression I face and the ways my privileges connect with their oppressions—and thereby affirming the standpoint of intersubjectivity that I understand them to presume. As Alcoff (1991-92, 22-23, drawing on Spivak 1988) suggests, speaking with and to those in different social locations challenges the very structures of “imperialist modes of discourse,” including the structuring of singular or collective singular subjectivity, entailed by speaking for oppressed peoples. It is these structures that must be transformed from structures that confer the power to dominate, including the power to “speak for,” into structures that liberate and that make it possible for those who are unjustly privileged to “speak with and to” those who are unjustly oppressed, with each one speaking and responding on her own terms out of her own material historicity, but also recognizing the interdependence of all the intersubjects.
Speaking with and to others across historically and socially constructed barriers enters into the spirit of what Lugones (1987) has called playful “world”-travelling. Speaking with and to entails travelling to the “worlds” of those different from the traveller, either literally or figuratively, through conversing or reading, as “a way of identifying with them [in order to] understand what it is to be them and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes. Only when we have travelled to each other's ‘worlds’ are we fully subjects to each other” (Lugones 1987, 17, emphasis in original). And to travel playfully, lovingly, entails having approached another with an attitude that is open “to surprise, … open to self-construction, … [open to the absence of] rules that are to us sacred” (Lugones 1987, 16, emphasis in original). In a word, creative. Being “fully subjects to each other” may also mean being vulnerable as we risk sometimes being wrong in our perceptions of others and sometimes being wrongly perceived by others.
TOWARD A FEMINIST MATERIALIST STANDPOINT OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY THROUGH HARTSOCK, BENHABIB, AND ANZALDúA
Speaking with and to “different others,” in the face of historically and socially constructed differences of power and privilege, creatively opens a space in which to restructure discourse according to a communicative model of knowledge formation and action called for by Benhabib (1986). My reading of Anzaldúa's complex identity narrative suggests some of the moves that Anzaldúa contributes to this restructuring. These moves can be understood first as challenges to dominant models of knowledge formation through singular subjectivity, especially the Cartesian and positivist scientific models, which I will summarize briefly. These moves can be understood second as amendments to feminist materialist standpoint epistemology as developed and presented by Nancy Hartsock (1983), which I will summarize briefly and critique, first through Benhabib and then through Anzaldúa.
Opening this space requires, first, that we speak with and to (or against, if they will not enter into good-faith conversation) the self-proclaimed progenitors of epistemology, by challenging what Lugones would call the “sacred rules” of the Cartesian model that has undergirded Enlightenment thought and action down through twentieth-century positivist science. These “sacred rules” concerning ontological and epistemological assumptions, and the scientific research methods entailed by those assumptions, have been summarized succinctly by Alison Jaggar and Susan Bordo. According to these rules, the nature of being is understood to be dual, “sharply separat[ing] the universal from the particular, culture from nature, mind from body, and reason from emotion” (Jaggar and Bordo 1989, 3). The nature of what is to be known, reality, is understood to be essentially and materially out there, independent of human observers and knowers of reality. Because of the independence of reality from those who seek to know it, objective—that is, unbiased—universal knowledge of reality is believed to be possible. The knowers of this reality are understood as independent, individual subjects, not as socially constituted beings, and their differences (e.g., racial, sexual, economic) are understood as purely situational barriers that can be overcome in the process of developing objective knowledge. With regard to methods of knowing, debates ensue about the relative validity of deductive versus inductive methods. In either case, knowledge of reality can be gained through correct methodology.
Opening the space in which to restructure discourse requires, second, that we recognize alternative ways of characterizing and knowing reality. A rich tradition of critique has marched in oppositional tandem with the Cartesian-Enlightenment model, but among contemporary works of particular significance for the feminist critique of epistemology (e.g., Harding and Hintikka 1983; Harding 1986, 1991; hooks 1984; Anzaldúa 1990b; Jaggar and Bordo 1989; Alcoff and Potter 1993), the work of Nancy Hartsock (1983) has been especially suggestive for me.
Hartsock contrasts the dualism of Descartes with the dialectical metatheory of Marx. She proposes an emendation of the latter as the basis for what she calls a feminist materialist standpoint by developing an analysis of gender, in place of class, as a structuring device. Hartsock argues that whereas Marx's analysis of exchange tracks dualist dichotomies (“a series of opposed and hierarchical dualities—mind/body, ideal/material, social/natural, self/other … replicating the devaluation of use relative to exchange”), Marx's analysis of unalienated production assumes “the dialectical and interactive unity (distinction within a unity) of human and natural worlds, mind and body, ideal and material, and the cooperation of self and other (community)” (Hartsock 1983, 287). Hartsock proposes to build on these latter assumptions of Marx, from which it follows epistemologically that knowers and the reality to be known are understood to be in dialectical relation to one another; reality “itself consists of ‘sensuous human activity, practice’” (Hartsock 1983, 285).
Reality, in other words, is understood as not out there, self-contained, but as all-encompassing; knowers and known are part and parcel of it. Both reality and individuals are believed to be historically and socially constructed. To the extent that humans in society have structured reality hierarchically and dichotomously, furthermore, whether consciously and intentionally or not, the resulting material conditions place humans in oppositional social locations. In contrast to the Cartesian view of an independent reality accessible to rational individuals, unhampered by “situational” factors associated with race, gender, or class, Hartsock maintains, with Marx, that no objective knowledge can be reached through the neutrality of the scientific method, and that correct knowledge can be developed only from the perspective of the oppressed class, in the course of struggling to overcome the dominating class or to transform the class structure itself. Knowers must take the position, or standpoint, of the oppressed in order “to go beneath bourgeois [or patriarchal or white supremacist] ideology … to see beneath the surface of the social relations in which all are forced to participate” (Hartsock 1983, 284, 285). The development of knowledge, therefore, entails not simply neutral observation and analysis but both critique of ideology and political struggle from engaged positions.
As these brief descriptions show, Hartsock's feminist materialist standpoint epistemology challenges Cartesian epistemology's claims of duality, objectivity, neutrality, and universality. The former, by contrast, requires the combined use of reason and engagement in the political struggle to attain knowledge through critique and transformative action. But feminist materialist and Cartesian-Enlightenment approaches to epistemology can bear a crucial similarity, which can foreclose the liberatory potential of the former approach. That similarity lies in the form of subjectivity deployed by the knower and doer. If we simply replace the universal singular subject of Cartesian knowledge with the plural subjects of the singular class “women” who are struggling to establish a feminist materialist standpoint, we reduce the potential multiplicity of emerging subjects to singular subjectivity, or to what Benhabib (1986, 66) calls the contradictory “collective singular” of a particular oppressed “class” (and, I would add, be it “workers” or “women” or “lesbians” or “Blacks”). Whereas Marx assumed that oppression worked unidimensionally to create dichotomous classes in conflict, and whereas Hartsock chose to model her development of a feminist materialist standpoint on Marx's metatheory by using gender rather than class as the device that structures oppression, the Combahee River Collective and the Bridge writers were already claiming that oppression and privilege work through various problematic, interclass combinations of oppressed or privileged gender, sexuality, race, and economic class.
Benhabib traces the source of the contradiction of collective singularity to a conflict between Marx's implicit reliance on what she calls “the philosophy of the subject,” which is also the foundation of Cartesian epistemology, and his sometimes explicit reliance on “the perspective of sensuous finitude,” which underlies his call for a radical transformation of society (1986, 55-67). By implication, Benhabib's analysis of this contradiction can provide a solution for a problem that Hartsock acknowledged (1983, 290) but did not attempt to solve at the time. Hartsock chose to emphasize the commonalities rather than the differences among women, so that she could concentrate on analyzing gender as the structuring device for a feminist materialist standpoint (of subjectivity). That is, by using Marxist metatheory, she correctly used his explicit focus on the perspective of sensuous finitude, but her focus on gender alone prevented her from following through to the feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity, which the Combahee River Collective and the Bridge writers were beginning to theorize, and which Benhabib later showed to be entailed in the perspective of sensuous finitude. What Hartsock apparently did not take into account was Marx's own unexamined reliance on what Benhabib has since unpacked and shown to be the philosophy of the subject. For followers of Marx, including Hartsock, therefore, reliance on the philosophy of the subject at the epistemological level produces the paradoxical problem of how to accommodate historically and materially based differences of identity and perspective within a “class” when seeking universality at the level of knowledge or unity at the level of collective political action. The epistemic subject ends by requiring a totalizing political unity of perspective and a plan of action that overrides the individuality of diverse members of the particular collective.
It is precisely these rules that Anzaldúa (1990a) warned about, and demanded that we break, in her discussion of coalitional political work. Breaking these rules opens a space in which complex identity narrators can deploy historically specific forms of intersubject for coalition building, which is necessary because universality and unity are untenable from the perspective of sensuous finitude.6 Breaking these rules by placing conscious reliance on Marx's “perspective of sensuous finitude” could support the political creation of a space for speaking with and to one another in the pursuit of avowedly partial (in the sense of nonuniversal, historically specific) knowledge and of collective (in the sense of coalitional) political action. It could achieve that support by replacing a standpoint of singular or collective singular subjectivity with a standpoint of intersubjectivity. As Benhabib says, in summarizing a basic premise of the perspective of sensuous finitude, “the human relation to nature and externality is at the same time a social relation among humans” (1986, 58-59, drawing on Heller 1976). In communication among sensuous finite beings, “the mode of relating to objects and to humans as objects is not merely one of appropriation. It ranges from sensation and perception to desire and to love. Subjectively, the individual experiences his/her finitude as drives, needs, feelings, and passions. These affective experiences are fundamentally other-directed” (1986, 58). Most significantly, “they place the individual not only in a state of thrownness into the world, but also in a state of fundamental awareness of his/her finitude and plurality. The experience of sensuous finitude is the awareness of radical insufficiency” (1986, 58).
Given the perspective of sensuous finitude based on the experience of radical insufficiency of the “individual subject,” and the standpoint of intersubjectivity that such a perspective entails, opening a space in which to restructure discourse requires that each person in a group and each group itself, however such persons or groups identify themselves, acknowledge the partiality of any one person's or group's perspective and the concomitant need for strategic reasons to hold different and complex identities as intersubjects in mutually respectful tension (compare Hawkesworth 1990, 140-42). At bottom, a standpoint of intersubjectivity requires that we claim the universal need for human dignity and, at the same time, let go of the illusion that universal knowledge, and subjectivity, and a unified plan of action are possible or necessary. A standpoint of intersubjectivity would allow us—indeed require us—to recognize instead the legitimacy of partial knowledge, and the long-term effectiveness of coalition politics as coordinated, or perhaps more often uncoordinated, multiple plans of action. Thus, a standpoint of intersubjectivity would support the approach to, and the calculus for, choice in coalition building elaborated by Anzaldúa (1990a).
To resolve the contradiction of collective singularity and to open a space for coalition building through communicative action, we should reject the line of thought in Hartsock's feminist materialist standpoint that emerges from the implicit philosophy of the subject in Marxist metatheory and leads to yet another privileged totalizing perspective—the collective singularity of the oppressed gender in place of the collective singularity of the oppressed economic class. Instead, we should focus, as Anzaldúa does, and as Hartsock ultimately did, on sensuous practice, with its implicit assumption of sensuous finitude on behalf of the “subjects” involved. As both Anzaldúa and Benhabib show, the perspective of sensuous finitude entails a standpoint of intersubjectivity. This recognition may enable us to continue more effectively the struggle for a feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity, because the perspective of sensuous finitude and the standpoint of intersubjectivity provide grounds for speaking with and to others, while staying mindful that no one position is privileged in being able to provide full knowledge of reality, however constructed.
The emphasis on feminist materialism also keeps us mindful that intersubjectivity can be constructed by persons from historical, complexly defined positions in relation to others. Intersubjectivity, however, will have to be achieved, if at all, through Lugones's playful “world”-travelling and, as the Combahee River Collective and Anzaldúa contend, through political struggle directed at transforming not one or another single power structure but simultaneous, interlocking structures of oppression and privilege. The struggles to achieve intersubjectivity among feminists and the struggles to challenge the structures of complex domination must be mutually supportive.
AN EXAMINATION OF GLORIA ANZALDúA'S MESTIZA FORM OF FEMINIST MATERIALIST INTERSUBJECTIVITY
Gloria Anzaldúa's complex identity narrative of lived experience from the perspective of sensuous finitude gives literal as well as figurative flesh and blood to a feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity. In her narrative (1987), Anzaldúa describes several historically and hierarchically imposed geopolitical and cultural borders, which resemble Cartesian categories in that they require a person to be one place or another, to be one thing or another, exclusively: in the United States or in Mexico; citizen or alien; man or woman; virgin, wife, or whore; “normal” or “deviant” sexual being; “rational” thinker or “nonrational” practitioner of magic; speaker of Standard English or of some (inferior) “dialect.” Anzaldúa can remain trapped within these categories or borders: “Petrified, she can't respond, her face caught between los intersticios, the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits” (Anzaldúa 1987, 20). Or she can refuse to choose, claiming instead the radical insufficiencies of any of these identities, and begin to push out, begin to reconstruct herself as an intersubject.
As an intersubject, reconstructing herself as mestiza from the various parts others have tried to steal from her by splitting them away and surrounding them with impassable borders, she demonstrates her feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity by demanding an accounting from those who have oppressed her. To do this, she draws on her knowledge of her resistant Indian foremothers.
My Chicana identity is grounded in the Indian woman's history of resistance. … I feel perfectly free to rebel and to rail against my culture. … Though I'll defend my race and culture when they are attacked by non-mexicanos. … But I will not glorify those aspects of my culture which have injured me and which have injured me in the name of protecting me. … What I want is an accounting with all three cultures—white, Mexican, Indian. … And if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture.
(Anzaldúa 1987, 21-22)
It is as if Anzaldúa sets up not only a conversation within herself—among the different parts of herself that result from the various marks of exclusion by her oppressors—but also a conversation with her various oppressors. She will critique her culture from within, but she will defend her culture from attacks by outsiders; she will, moreover, demand that they account to her for the ways they have harmed her and her people. Anzaldúa shows how to act as the intersubject engaging a standpoint of intersubjectivity. She shows how, furthermore, by practicing what the Combahee River Collective also called for: political struggle to transform simultaneous interlocking structures of oppression and privilege. Thus, from the confluence of simultaneous oppressive borders, from lesbian identity and Indian women's history of resistance, Anzaldúa constructs epistemological grounding. By beginning and ending her prose text with a poetic refrain, she invokes Indian, particularly Indian women's, continuity.
This land was Mexican once was Indian always and is. And will be again.
(1987, 3, 91)
Now prepared to move “underground,” she will connect with her spiritual roots in the ancient serpent goddess Coatlicue and begin to build a new mestiza culture that takes up her Indian culture.
Anzaldúa's response resembles Hartsock's feminist materialist standpoint epistemology in that, having developed a historical analysis of how conflicting geopolitical and cultural forces have created multiple, simultaneous borderlands that she and women like her must navigate, she then moves underground to reconstruct tools bequeathed to her by the ancient serpent goddess. She uses what she calls la facultad to see beneath the surface of things, in effect to critique ideological mystification of her and others' mestiza powers. Anzaldúa's response, however, transforms Hartsock's feminist materialist standpoint in that la facultad does not come from engaging the standpoint of the oppressed class and using only analytic reason, along with political struggle, to fulfill the vision of the oppressed class. Instead, la facultad comes from a spiritual-bodily connection with an ancient, socially constructed symbol, the serpent goddess, long repressed by emergent patriarchal and colonial power structures. What Anzaldúa finds “underneath,” using la facultad, are spiritual and bodily aspects of sexuality that her historical analysis showed her had been split off from reason and action and culturally repressed. Thus her feminist materialist analysis brings her to reconstruct complex sexual and then psychic awakening, and finally leads to a lesbian, feminist, mestiza voice.
By using embodied and inspirited voice through complex-identity narration, she makes an epistemological “crossing”—a break—from demanding either a Cartesian singular subjective rendition of reality or a Marxist feminist collective singular subjective rendition of reality. She begins to create herself as intersubject in a space and a place in the interstices of multiple and simultaneous conflicting power structures in which to carry on conversations, with herself and with others, and to strategize. For tough starters, she wants the conversations to go on among those she calls the “pounced on,” recognizing that even some of the “pounced on” may also have pounced on others (1987, 38). She wants us each to give an accounting of our responsibilities in contributing to what is oppressive and privileging, each to tell our stories of consciousness raising, all speaking and listening to one another, all recognizing that no one of us, not even all of us together, can have full knowledge of “the problem” or “the solution.” Conversing in such a way would be tantamount to engaging a feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity.
Such an engagement for others having lived histories different from Anzaldúa's would also be analogous to, not the same as, Anzaldúa's and those similar to her manifesting a new mestiza consciousness. Many feminist women of African descent, for example, have claimed what Alice Walker calls “womanist” consciousness (1983, xi-xii), while others have begun to articulate an Afrocentric feminist standpoint (Collins 1990, 201-20). What analogous constructs of intersubject might be created by feminist women of Asian descent, of Anglo descent? Such an engagement could show a way that feminist identity politics, in the form of complex identity narration, might produce some of the tools for constructing other forms of historically specific feminist materialist intersubject needed for building coalitions among the many “pounced on.”
Among those tools would be some that, though different in content from, are similar in form to the epistemological devices that Anzaldúa develops for constructing mestiza identity and consciousness. These devices include, as already variously noted: historical groundedness in the “homeland” Aztlán, despite the imposition by the United States of the border between the United States and Mexico, and including groundedness in the ancient serpent goddess religion of her ancestors, the Olmecs; la facultad, despite the devaluing of Indian spirit and body by the European Anglo invaders; simultaneity of cultures and voices in her mestiza origins; and mingling of imposed differences as her method of intersubjectification.
Among these tools, simultaneity and mingling seem especially useful as epistemological devices for the politics of coalition building. Recognition of simultaneity of the conditions of oppression and privilege, together with mingling of imposed differences or “borders,” can be used to construct intersubjectivity in ways that make persons available for answering the political calls of the Combahee River Collective, the Bridge writers, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Audre Lorde, and Anzaldúa herself to link struggles with “different others.” Mingling as a form of “playful ‘world’-travelling” prepares one to venture from “home” out into the streets for the purpose of engaging in coalition politics with the many “different others” constituted by the simultaneity of oppressions and privileges under complex domination.
Anzaldúa demonstrates the usefulness of recognizing simultaneity of many borders and then consciously mingling their effects, rather than allowing them to render her divided within herself and thus immobile. Note that by mingling, she does not dissolve differences so that they become invisible. She uses the terms “walking” and “crossroads” to indicate her various responses to several paths she might take, languages she might speak or write, “crossings” she might make in the reconstruction of her consciousness as mestiza lesbian. She says that borders create a necessity to struggle because they impose contradictory requirements. In other words, if one understands oneself as existing on one side of a border, in one category, one cannot, according to that system of thinking, simultaneously exist on the other side of the border, in the other category. But if one rejects this rigid, categorical way of thinking and instead uses simultaneity and mingling to create mestiza or other forms of intersubjective consciousness, one can learn the coping mechanism of “tolerance for ambiguity,” which Anzaldúa likens to a snake's flexible way of propelling itself. Because she understands herself as existing where many borders meet or cross simultaneously, she partakes in them all.
Because I, a mestiza, continually walk out of one culture and into another, because I am in all cultures at the same time, …
Anzaldúa also recognizes, however, the necessity of moving beyond the “perplexity” and “psychic restlessness” of the borderlands. Something ineffable from the connection with the serpent goddess Coatlicue enables her to do what is necessary at the crossroads to take charge, to create something new out of the contradictions. This ineffable something, which she calls her mestiza consciousness, makes the synthesis that becomes more than a sum of parts. Thus, at the same time that Anzaldúa understands herself to live at a place where many paths meet, many kinds of borders cross, paradoxically, through mestiza consciousness, she is able to dispel borders. Through a change of consciousness, she gains an understanding that many kinds of borders, though singly meant to categorize, differently valorize, exclude or include, all crossing through her and those similar to and different from her, become “a crossroads,” intersecting, opening, continuing paths to survival and beyond. She ends her poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” with these words:
To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras (without borders) be a crossroads.
(1987, 195, translation given in a note in the original)
One must live as an intersubject seeking other intersubjects. Echoing Bernice Johnson Reagon's claim that in order to survive, we need to engage in coalition politics, Anzaldúa claims that in order to survive, we need consciously to understand how the divisions imposed on us all to separate us from one another and even from ourselves can also be seen as a system of gates that we can open and use as connectors, as “feminist architecture.”
Throughout her narrative, the concept of mingling seems to describe the principle she uses to dispel simultaneously intersecting borders, to become “a crossroads.” Like the Combahee River Collective, she rejects either/or choices that would have the unintended consequence of further reinforcing the oppressive dichotomies. In claiming her lesbian identity, she speaks of being “two in one body, both male and female, … the coming together of opposite qualities within” (Anzaldúa 1987, 19). In claiming her mestiza identity, she grounds herself in complex transformations of blood, spirituality, and language. She recounts the history of transformations of racial groups through minglings of Indian, Spanish, and Anglo blood. She then “re-members” her return to Coatlicue back down through the various patriarchal transformations of Anglo, Spanish, and Indian belief systems. She ends with a reclamation of her preferred languages through the mingling of words and rules of grammar from different cultures; again Anglo, Spanish, and Indian.
Always, Anzaldúa returns to her most basic root of identity in her Indian woman's heritage of resistance, and this serves as a lesson for all: one purpose of feminist identity politics should be to seek out the history of any of our forebears who resisted the forces of oppression of many through the privileging of some (compare Rich 1979). Anzaldúa understands the Indian race as despised by Anglo, Spanish, and Mexican alike, even though Mexicans, by her definition, carry Indian blood. This gives her all the more reason to reconstruct, through combining other despised elements in her identity as Indian mestiza lesbian feminist by “re-membering” the feminist spiritual with the feminist material, the sexual and psychic with the vocal and political. Herein lies another purpose of feminist identity politics: to valorize and combine any and all of the categories that some use to mark others to oppress or privilege them. Finally, the purpose of feminist identity politics should be, having constructed any historically specific form of intersubject in resistance to oppressive “otherness,” to reposition ourselves as sensuous intersubjects, ready to engage a standpoint of intersubjectivity, through which we can talk to and act with one another, rejecting the epistemological systems that require unitary or collective singular answers and crafting instead more complex but flexible coalitions.
WHY FEMINIST IDENTITY POLITICS SHOULD RESULT IN COALITION POLITICS
But why should anyone follow Anzaldúa's path? Why should anyone engage in such difficult and sometimes personally threatening work? María Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman (1983) suggest reasons of morality, love, and friendship. Anzaldúa herself reviews several possible reasons, including those three, along with the desire for atonement and recognition (1990a, 227-29). Seyla Benhabib's work suggests the possibility of ethical reasons for engaging in identity politics for the purpose of coalition building. Her call for the epistemological break that leads to a standpoint of intersubjectivity emerges from her overall concern with reintegrating philosophy, politics, and ethics in the practice of critical theory.
If complex identity narratives such as Anzaldúa's show us how to reunite philosophy and political engagement in a feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity, their use also entails the third leg of critical theory, ethics. Feminist identity politics has an ethical component that gives reason for speaking with and to others, on the way to engaging with them in coalition politics. Through complex identity narration, writers tell life stories of grappling with and resisting the oppressions or privileges they have experienced because of sexism and heterosexism, racism and class. Donna Haraway suggests yet another reason for engaging in this difficult work when she refers to such writing as “cyborg writing,” which she says “is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other” (1991, 175).
The logic of writing and publishing for an audience as a means of survival suggests a number of possible presumptions about ethical obligations among such writers and members of their audiences. If these presumptions are followed to their conclusion, coalition politics should, in turn, follow them. In such writing, narrators of complex identity may presume that others similar to and different from them both need and want to hear what it has taken for them to construct their own forms of intersubject, in the context of interlocking oppressions and privileges. The writers may presume that once these similar and different others become conscious of how radically insufficient they are as “individuals” and of how they are thus similarly and differently threatened, they will feel a need and a desire to join the struggle for survival of them all. Such writers also may presume that once the different and similar others become conscious of how their differences and similarities implicate them in oppressing both the writers and themselves, the others will feel a need and a desire to join the struggle to change structures that oppress some in part by privileging others in part.
Thus, if others both similar to and different from the writers respond through reading these complex identity narratives, through speaking with and to these narrators, and through joining in strategically chosen political actions, then together these writers/narrators and readers/responders can build the coalitions we choose to build. Such coalitions will no longer be understood as coordination among many collective singular groups, but coordination in a network of variously and complexly identified intersubjects, who have persevered in the struggle to achieve a feminist materialist standpoint of intersubjectivity because they are mutually convinced of the need to challenge together the structures of complex domination.
After its initial publication in Eisenstein (1978), the Combahee River Collective Statement was reprinted in several other collections, including those edited by Moraga and Anzaldúa (1981, 1983); Hull, Scott, and Smith (1982); Smith (1983); and Guy-Sheftall (1995).
I will refer to this collection henceforth as Bridge. As indicated in a note on the page facing the foreword to the second edition,
When Persephone Press, Inc., a white women's press of Watertown, Massachusetts and the original publishers of Bridge, ceased operation in the Spring of 1983, this book had already gone out of print. After many months of negotiations, the co-editors were finally able to retrieve control of their book, whereupon Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press of New York agreed to re-publish it.
The following, then, is the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back, conceived of and produced entirely by women of color.
An excellent definition and discussion of liberal feminism is Jaggar (1983).
I first found this problem identified by Eisenstein, who pinpointed the contradiction between liberal individualism based on atomistic self-sufficiency and the need of women for a “theory of individualism [that] must recognize the individual character of our social nature and the social nature of our individuality” (Eisenstein 1981, 190-92). Anzaldúa identified a similar problem for women of color when their individuality is overlooked: “Because people-of-color are treated generically by the dominant culture—their seeing and treating us as parts of a whole, rather than just as individuals—this forces us to experience ourselves collectively” (Anzaldúa 1990a, 220).
I am aware of the political issues surrounding the words “we” and “I.” At a very profound level, identification of “I” as subject can be understood as an illusion, and “we” is something to be achieved through the process of struggle toward intersubjectification. Thanks to María Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman (1983) for their careful and detailed analysis “in unison” of the problems white women and women of color need to attend to in speaking with, instead of for, others. Throughout this article, the reader should imagine quotation marks around every use of I, me, my, they, we, and us, in order to highlight the problematic relationship between language and intersubjectivity.
Thanks to an anonymous referee for asking for clarification on the question, How can we build a feminist coalitional theory around mestiza subjectivity without losing the historical specificity? I will follow through, in my later discussion of Anzaldúa's development of her historically specific form of intersubject, mestiza, on maintaining the historical specificity of any form of intersubject constructed through complex identity narration.
I am deeply grateful to Linda A. Bell for her comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of my work. I also appreciate the constructive comments of the anonymous referees for Hypatia.
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Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7541
SOURCE: Barnard, Ian. “Gloria Anzaldúa's Queer Mestisaje.” MELUS 22, no. 1 (spring 1997): 35-53.
[In the following essay, Barnard examines Anzaldúa's utilization of queer theory in Borderlands/La Frontera.]
In the 1992 “queer issue” of The Village Voice, Dennis Cooper quotes Johnny Noxzema and Rex Boy characterizing the Canadian publication BIMBOX, which Noxzema and Rex Boy edited:
You are entering a gay and lesbian-free zone. … Effective immediately, BIMBOX is at war against lesbians and gays. A war in which modern queer boys and queer girls are united against the prehistoric thinking and demented self-serving politics of the above-mentioned scum. BIMBOX hereby renounces its past use of the term lesbian and/or gay in a positive manner. This is a civil war against the ultimate evil, and consequently we must identify us and them in no uncertain terms. … So, dear lesbian womon or gay man to whom perhaps BIMBOX has been inappropriately posted … prepare to pay dearly for the way you and your kind have fucked things up.
Readers unfamiliar with recent debacles within lesbian and gay political circles might be forgiven for at first assuming this to be a particularly scurrilous instance of violent homophobia. But, of course, the BIMBOX editors are themselves gay, and anti-homophobic activists, and theirs is actually a fairly typical articulation of what has by now become a relatively familiar opposition in political and cultural realms between lesbian and gay activists and queer militants and, in academia, between lesbian and gay studies and queer theory.
The queer sensibility and aesthetic embodied in BIMBOX has been articulated and flaunted in the queer 'zines of the 1980s and 1990s—“alternative” lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender periodicals, often relatively cheaply produced and locally distributed, and usually espousing and embodying a militantly non-assimilationist ideology.1BIMBOX suggests its contempt for the orthodox procedures of publication and distribution employed around much lesbian and gay writing that has attained corporate legitimacy by advertising itself as “free to those who deserve it” (qtd. in Holy Titclamps Zine Explosion 3). The titles alone of some of the other 'zines suggest their oppositional relationship not only to mainstream straight publishing and politics, but also to mainstream lesbian and gay publishing and politics: Pansy Beat, Not Your Bitch, The nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy-head, fever, so you can rest zine. One of the lesbian 'zines calls itself Up Our Butts, a particularly rich title for readers who have followed the feminist sex wars between the journals Off Our Backs and On Our Backs, and the lawsuit between the two (see Brownworth)! To clarify its distance from the categories “lesbian” and “gay,” the Minneapolis 'zine Holy Titclamps comes stamped with the instructions “file under ‘queer’” on its cover—presumably for the benefit of perplexed bookstore clerks! Destabilizations of lesbian and gay identity abound in the 'zines. QT promises an article on “the faggot who thought she was a lesbian.” The contents of Scab #2 are described in a blurb for the 'zine as “Bitch Nation, anti-William Burroughs stuff, pro-gaybashing with map of gay areas, anti-SPEW convention article” (Holy Titclamps 9).2
The prevalence of sexism, racism, and classism in official lesbian and gay culture and politics, as much as in the hegemonic heterosexual establishment, is a frequent subject of the 'zines. In the September/October 1992 issue of the 'zine Infected Faggot Perspectives, Christian Salvador, described as “a short, left-handed, 18 year old, Pilipino, cross-dressing, pimpleless whore who's been entertaining the idea of water-sports; part-time queer activist” writes:
Early this last year I was introduced to west Hollywood—What is it?! It's two blocks of 21 and over white fags who don't even notice the existence of women standing two inches from them, much less a little thing like me. … Well, West Hollywood don't look like where and how I'd like to celebrate my queerness.
One of the most striking characteristics of the 'zines—and this is, perhaps, what sets them most apart from glossier, more mainstream lesbian and gay publications—is their difference from each other, their appeal to and identification with a very specialized readership within “the lesbian and gay community”—indeed, their contestation of the very idea that there is such an entity as a unified and unitary “lesbian and gay community,” a totalization that has been repeatedly questioned for a over a decade by white lesbians and queer people of color of all genders. The 'zine Swish, for instance, deals exclusively with gay (primarily white) punk rockers, while Thing focuses on gay African American drag queens. There is no pretense that there is “something for everyone” here, no delusion that this is for or about “most people” or “everyone” (claims made by most of the mainstream publications, despite the fact that they are just as exclusive and limited as any of the 'zines are). As each 'zine irreversibly invokes a queer specificity, so the ‘zines’ multiple voices illustrate that “queer” is not one thing. They smash the myth of “the gay community.”
The opposition between “queer” and “lesbian/gay,” as created and articulated in the 'zines, as well as in recent political debate and theoretical work, turns on several significantly divergent conceptions of history, identity, and political action. Since the genders of queers are unspecified, and their sexualities only vaguely defined, “queer” does not rely on the homosexual/heterosexual and male/female binarisms that inform lesbianness and gayness, as these subject positions are gendered and opposed to heterosexuality; since queer politics explicitly speaks to, for, and from bisexuality, transsexuality, and, in many cases, heterosexuality and other sexualities and identities, as well as lesbian and gay sexualities, its focus is on the construction and politicization of (sexual) identities, rather than on their fixity or essential inevitability. This political agenda is suggested in the queer's process of self-naming, signifying the embrace and reclamation of a term, traditionally, of derision. The insistence on the word “queer” is an insistence on difference (the word “queer” itself means odd), as opposed to a liberal humanist rhetoric of assimilation that posits lesbians and gay men as essentially the same as everyone else in order to demand “equal rights.” Because queerness is so unstable, and because it foregrounds difference rather than commonality, a queer politics, ideally, would also emphasize its own multiple and fragmented nature (i.e., the difference within itself). It would thus, in the spirit of the 'zines, avoid the misguided quest for fixed, transhistorical, and cross-cultural lesbian and gay identities that has characterized much political rhetoric and academic work conducted under the auspices of “lesbian and gay politics” or “lesbian and gay studies.”
The “queer” in queer theory, queer politics, and queer identity, also has the potential to undermine what Foucault referred to as the monarchy of sex (see “End”) by pluralizing, dispersing, interrogating, opposing, and fragmenting a politics that is organized solely around sexuality as identity. Because queerness is so slippery to define, often connotes a politicization of identity, and does not depend on a binary opposite for its signifying power (the other of “queer”—the “nonqueer”?—whatever it may be, is no more easily contained than “queer” is), it can problematize the kind of single issue activism that has caused further undelineated lesbian and gay articulations to imbue the categories “lesbian” and “gay” with a default whiteness, middle-classness, and USness.
In her article, “To(o) Queer the Writer—Loca, escritora y chicana,” Gloria Anzaldúa contrasts the symbolizing power of the words “lesbian” and “queer”:
“lesbian” is a cerebral word, white and middle class, representing an English-only dominant culture, derived from the Greek word lesbos. I think of lesbians as predominantly white and middle class women and a segment of women of color who acquired the term through osmosis much the same as Chicanas and Latinas assimilated the word “Hispanic.” When a “lesbian” names me the same as her she subsumes me under her category. I am of her group but not as an equal part, not as a whole person—my color erased, my class ignored. Soy una puta mala, a phrase coined by Ariban, a tejana tortillera. … Unlike the word “queer,” “lesbian” came late into some of our lives.
Although she expresses reservations about the word “queer,” too, particularly in its embodiment in a white queer theory that seeks to unify queers or appropriate queers of color, Anzaldúa argues that the historically non-genteel connotations of “queer” give more room to maneuver its definitionary parameters.
In the remainder of this essay I explore the uses that Anzaldúa puts queerness to, primarily in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, published in 1987, before “queer” gained its current academic chicness, yet presaging many of the concerns of queer theory (though Anzaldúa seldom gets credit when queer theory's lineage is traced or practitioners delineated). Whereas what are by now ritual analogies between homophobia and racism interchange whiteness and gayness so that queers of color disappear and gayness bolsters white supremacy across imperial divides, the kinds of racial and sexual exchanges effected by Anzaldúa centralize queers of color by interpellating queerness from coloredness in a context that explicitly politicizes queerness as an anti-imperialist and anti-racist (anti-)identity. This is not to say that Anzaldúa uncritically posits a utopic ethnic or racial identity as a counterpoint to whiteness and gayness—she is as impatient with Mexican and Chicano nationalism as she is critical of white arrogance and skeptical of identitarianism itself—but that her oscillation between discourses of race and sexuality models a politicized, empowering, and non-idealistic elaboration of queer race. Anzaldúa's text is multitopical; in this essay I primarily examine her uses of queerness in it. By focusing on the anti-racist critique of the articulation of a homogenous “lesbian and gay community,” I hope to show how the work of Anzaldúa develops the kinds of arguments suggested in the 'zines, both in her exemplarization of a colored queer identity and in her fracturing of all kinds of communities.
In her article “Inverts and Hybrids: Lesbian Rewritings of Sexual and Racial Identities” in the anthology The Lesbian Postmodern, Judith Raiskin argues that Anzaldúa reworks nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific and sexological discourses bolstering teleologies of racial decadence with reference to categories of sexual perversion, and vice versa, by constructing mestiza and queer subjectivities as privileged consciousnesses. I want to extend the implications of Raiskin's analysis by suggesting that what Anzaldúa's work achieves is not merely an inversion of hierarchies (from queer/mestiza = degenerate to queer/mestiza = transcendent), but also a reconceptualization of the relationship of the categories to each other and of the ways in which meaning is assigned to and between categorizations.
Anzaldúa begins the Preface to Borderlands/La Frontera by initiating a complex relationality between the physical and the psychical, the historical and the metaphysical, the context-specific and the universal, that will inform the entire book in various transformations, substitutions, and displacements of the “original” relation, itself a homologization of abstractions and concretizations of different registers and media:
The actual physical borderland that I'm dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.
Anzaldúa's opening two sentences establish a contrast enforced in the formal division of labor between their symmetry: the first invokes the specific, the historical, the political, and the material (the Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border); the second gestures toward the “universal,” although its inclusion of “sexual borderlands” also suggests more explicitly the kinds of sensual confrontations evoked by the first sentence. The final sentence of the paragraph further unsettles the binary, elaborating the framing imputation that each meaning of the borderland is to be seen as standing for all its other meanings: if the universal and the historically specific inform each other to such a degree that the one cannot mean without the other, then each has been indelibly inf(l)ected to the extent that it immediately brings the other to mind and, as such, has undergone a transformation of its own (particular) meaning. The beginning of the third sentence, “In fact, the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other,” retrieves the geography of the first sentence to emphasize it in the second: the psychological, sexual, and spiritual borderlands that are not particular to the Southwest are yet as physically present as is the geographic border between Mexico and the United States. Here Anzaldúa's text invites us to break down the borders between the physical and the abstract, to see the latter informed and contextualized by the former.
I have discussed this opening paragraph of Borderlands/La Frontera in some detail because of the pattern it establishes for the book as a whole, and, specifically, because of the model it implies for thinking about racial identity, sexual identity, and racialized queerness. By inviting us to transpose our knowledges and understandings in one realm to another apparently unconnected and alien one of a very different order, Anzaldúa displaces and defers any final or single meaning from a particular identification, and, indeed, from identity itself and imbues each identifying moment with particular new meanings as a result of the transpositions.
In the last paragraph of the book's preface, Anzaldúa discusses the language “code switching” in the text and the position of “Chicano Spanish” as a language “not approved by any society” (as she later explains, it is reviled both by Spanish speaking purists and racist English speaking monolinguals). She concludes,
[W]e Chicanos no longer feel that we need to beg entrance, that we need always to make the first overture—to translate to Anglos, Mexicans and Latinos, apology blurting out of our mouths with every step. Today we ask to be met halfway. This book is our invitation to you—from the new mestizas.
I am particularly interested in Anzaldúa's use of gendering and racing pronouns and noun endings in this sentence, again because her strategy here is paradigmatic of a process of (anti-) identity formation/dissolution and a series of transferences and switches that pattern the entire text, but that Anzaldúa never explicitly discusses when she does mention code switchings and cross-identifications. In the sentence cited above, the enclosing “Chicanos” and “mestizas” appear to be synonymous in their identification of the “our” and the “we” that makes “you” of Anglos, Mexicans, and Latinos (in itself an uneasy opposition that fractures the conventionalized white/nonwhite duality). But there is also a teleological transformation in the course of the sentence, as the generic masculine (the conventionalized universal) “Chicanos” becomes what is to be an unconventional universal in the text that follows, the feminine “mestizas,” paralleling the shift from upper case nationalism to lower case hybridity/bastardization. Not only, as we shall see, does Anzaldúa's mestiza reflect the anti-identitarian, anti-nationalistic potential of the Queer Nation, but as “queer” comes to stand for “mestiza” in the text, so the metamorphosis into the mestiza also traces the transformation/(re)definition of the queer and marks the paradoxical nature of the writing-into-being of both identities and trans-substantiations (as the moniker “Queer Nation” itself points to the paradox of an anti-categorical nationalism3).
The feminist politics of Anzaldúa's project shapes her transgender identifications and appropriations. Anzaldúa's development of a female universal might be explained with reference to Wittig and Zeig's perverse feminization of classical heroes in Lesbian Peoples: Materials for a Dictionary or Wittig's elaboration of conflict and fragmentation within a female universality in The Lesbian Body. Lesbian Peoples does not carry an entry for “man,” and the entry for “woman” notes, “Obsolete since the beginning of the Glorious Age” (165). Using Lesbian Peoples to gloss The Lesbian Body, we might say that Wittig's universal woman, then, is not so much a separatist being as a transformed separatist; men are not dead, but have been incorporated into the generic she in a reversal of the myth of the gender-neutral he—a reversal both in the sense of a change in political value and in the usurpation of/in gender hierarchies.
In Anzaldúa's book the new universal is further specified by race, but, characteristically of this text, the racialization works not merely to emphasize a binary (racial, ethnic, and linguistic difference is called on to distinguish mestizas and Chicanos from Anglos, Mexicans, and Latinos, rather than to distinguish mestizas from Chicanos), but to multiply its terms and poles. In one of the poems in the latter part of her book, Anzaldúa writes of her role of dragging integrity out of those who engage with her. Her narrator describes how she is repeatedly chosen to “pick at the masks” of “Colored, poor white, latent queer / passing for white” (171). The process of substitution here not only suggests a continuity between “colored,” “poor white,” and “latent queer,” but also makes “poor white” and “latent queer” as much the subject of “passing for white” as “colored” is. How does a latent queer or poor white pass for white? How does one even begin to discover/construct a meaning out of this possibility? Other than simply finding experiences of class, race, and sexuality to be analogous, or seeing all the terms of identity here as highly metaphorical (readings which I am not inclined to follow, and which I do not believe would be amenable to Anzaldúa, either, as will become apparent later), one has to think of these terms as carrying enlarged meanings: class is raced and sexualized; sexuality must carry racial content, as race implies sexuality; and so on.
The “new language—the language of the Borderlands” that Anzaldúa invokes in her preface, refers, then, to more than the English/Spanish linguistic border, or even the boundaries between various Spanish and English languages, dialects, and registers; it also describes a new way of (un)gendering language, and of thinking through the meanings of race, gender, and sexuality. In the section of Borderlands/La Frontera entitled “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldúa quotes Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz: “My fingers / move sly against your palm / Like women everywhere we speak in code” (59). This quotation is surrounded by Anzaldúa's discussion of the ways in which Chicano (Anzaldúa uses the masculine ending) culture and speech have historically been punished, marginalized, and misnamed. The insertion of the lines from Kaye/Kantrowitz acts as an intervention into one-dimensional political history by suggesting additional meanings of “women” and “code” here, not only by paralleling lesbian invisibility with Chicana and Chicano marginalization, but also by deploying race and gender metonymically to stand for one another, so that transcategorical intertextuality and interpretation becomes itself an extension of the queer's penchant for cross-identifying and eluding identity. In his Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, Alexander Doty suggests that the exemplary queer identification is cross-identification (a gay man making a lesbian identification, a straight man making a gay male identification, etc.). Anzaldúa's queer methodology constructs cross-identifications between race and gender and, as we shall see, between race and sexuality. She uses queerness to make queer identifications, to make identification queer, and to queer identity.
Anzaldúa draws a parallel between queers and mestizas in making the provocative claim that all marginalized peoples are mestizas (Lectures), and in her discussion of what she calls “a mestiza consciousness” (Borderlands 80). She says that as mestizas cross all kinds of borders, so queers exists in every culture and yet are also outcasts in each one. Anzaldúa thus formulates a politicized queer identity, using “queer” to denote oppositionality (in striking contrast to the proposition, encouraged by many mainstream activist groups, that lesbians and gay men are “just like everyone else”) and to establish analogies with other marginal identities when she writes of the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico, between and within cultures, between genders, genres, languages, and within the self,
The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.”
Anzaldúa disperses the category “queer” so that it resists the kind of appropriations that white lesbians and gay men might want to make in order to conform Anzaldúa to their own fixed lesbian and gay (and even queer) preconceptions. Anzaldúa's queerness also returns to the radical politics of the first lesbian and gay activists in the U.S. and Europe and prefigures contemporary “queer” politics by, for instance, reclaiming the “berdache” tradition of some native American cultures. Rather than assimilating into hegemonic delineations of gender (i.e., dualistic prescriptions of appropriate maleness and femaleness), as is the wont amongst more conservative lesbians and gay men in the U.S., she describes the border inhabitant as “forerunner of a new race, / half and half—both woman and man, neither— / a new gender” (194).
Out of its context, Anzaldúa's metaphorization of mestiza identity could authorize a colonizing appropriation: those white lesbians and gay men, for example, who are already overly eager to claim that, because they suffer from (homophobic) discrimination they “know what it feels like” to be a person of color, might feel encouraged to conflate these very different kinds of oppression and so to avoid having to recognize and confront their own racism and to own their own inevitable imbrication in racist power structures. Anzaldúa might be seen as inviting the renewed erasure of the voices, bodies, and lives of mestizas by, in the name of anti-essentialism and alliance-building, apparently legitimating a following of white lesbians and gay men identifying as mestizas. In Borderlands/La Frontera she makes a similar universalizing claim for “queer”:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.)
Her postulation that she is all races because there is the queer of her in all races would be suspect if made from a white perspective or from within a Western history. However, her metaphoric mestiza speaks clearly from an experience and radical understanding of sexism, racism, and U.S. imperialism. She thus frames the queer's claim as a multi-layered one. Not only does she situate Borderlands/La Frontera within a feminist perspective and Mexican, Mexican-American, and Chicana/Chicano history and suffuse the text with references and allusions to a mestiza/o and (female) Indian cultural heritage, but she also embodies her anti-Eurocentrism in the actual language of her book by extensively using various forms of English and Spanish in it, as well as smatterings of Nahuatl. These features of lived experience and commitments to a contestatory politics cannot be analogized or transferred onto a bland white identity the way that “multi-culturalism” in its popular invocation in the U.S. has erased the materiality of political conflict by skimming culture off the top of the work and lives of people of color.6
The essays that comprise the first half of Borderlands/La Frontera chronicle genocide against Native Americans, the history of U.S. imperialism in Mexico, the lynchings of Mexicans in the U.S., and the development of various institutions of exploitation and racism like the maquiladores on the U.S.-Mexican border. These frames ensure that Anzaldúa's dissolutions of identity and multiplications of signification achieve their effect precisely because they are working from within an already established network of experiential and political affiliations. They, in fact, rely on the very knowledges that they work to undo and, as such, are not synonymous with attacks on these identities emanating from a racist, sexist, or homophobic politics.7 Anzaldúa explains this point of departure in terms of her contestation of hegemonic cultural norms, but it is equally true of her processes of undermining and resignifying identity/identities per se: “I feel perfectly free to rebel and to rail against my culture. I fear no betrayal on my part because, unlike Chicanas and other women of color who grew up white or who have only recently returned to their native cultural roots, I was totally immersed in mine” (21).
The later essays and many of the poems that make up the second half of the volume treat what by convention are more metaphysical concerns (the exploration of a disavowed part of the self), but these concerns come to be indelibly political (as metaphors and as themselves) as they are politically constructed by the histories that contextualize them in the book's opening sections. As Kate Adams points out, Anzaldúa's framing of her poetry in Borderlands/La Frontera is fairly unique: contemporary poetry is almost always published in chap book form or as part of a poetry anthology. The elaborate preface to the poetry (Adams notes that Anzaldúa originally conceived of the book as a ten-page prose preface preceding a volume of poetry, rather than the present 200 pages equally divided between essays and poetry) politicizes the poems in much the same way that the political histories delineated by Anzaldúa foreclose a pluralistic reading of her queers or mestizas or queer(/)mestizas.8
Anzaldúa's contexts thus function in contradictory ways in the book. For while they serve to establish the text's anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics and to ground her formulation of mestiza and queer subjects, they also become the objects of the motif of self-critique and subject-dissolution that shapes the book's structure and thematics. Anzaldúa explains that her “Chicana identity is grounded in the Indian woman's history of resistance” (21): that tradition of resistance is transposable across cultures and identifications, so that, finally and ironically, it is also the grounds for a resistance to the grounds itself, to itself. Anzaldúa refuses to reify any single/singular identity: just as the mestiza will demand the recognition of all her heritages, and the queer will traverse and inhabit all of these heritages, so Anzaldúa will not give into cultural purists or univocal nationalists who want her to “return” to a uncontaminated Mexican past; she insists on her “Americanness” also. She insistently claims the English language, too. She isn't satisfied with any stable identity. Perhaps the most courageous and empowering facet of the book is Anzaldúa's refusal to idealize any mythically good Indian past or Chicano present. She critiques the historical and contemporary sexism and homophobia in the cultures which find their confluence in her body and experience at the same time that she indicts white racism and U.S. imperialism: “But I will not glorify those aspects of my culture which have injured me and which have injured me in the name of protecting me” (22). Yet, rather than lamenting her own homelessness/statelessness/non-identity as a Chicana lesbian who feels excluded from her homophobic and sexist Chicano home and persecuted by the racist culture of her geographical homeland, her text becomes a bitter-sweet celebration of bastardization, of the richness of her border queer-mestiza identity.
As a literary text, Borderlands/La Frontera further shatters any notion of identity as unitary, fixed, stable, or comfortable in its resistance to the categories of genre that inform traditional English courses and the disciplinary demarcations that constitute academic institutions in general. It seems to encompass, for instance, poetry, theory, autobiography, mythology, criticism, narrative, history, and political science, while suggesting the limitations of these delimitations and, ultimately, of delimitation itself. Rather than substituting one identity for another, then, Anzaldúa's text presents a fundamental critique and reformulation of the very notion of identity, albeit—crucially—from a politicized Chicana lesbian perspective.
Anzaldúa's text explodes the categories “America” and “American literature,” too. The extent to which her book challenges English literary canons was illustrated to me by student evaluations of a course on “Modern American Fiction” in which I taught Borderlands/La Frontera. One student, for instance, when asked to comment on the readings that I selected for the course, wrote, “hate [David] Wojnarowicz, did not like reading Anzaldúa because I only speak English, [Robert] Coover was great.” A later question on the evaluation form asked “What was most valuable about this course? What recommendations would you make for improvement? Use the space below for your comments.” The same student responded, “I don't think you should need to understand Spanish to read a book in a Modern American Fiction course.” This student's ethnocentric conception of what constitutes “Modern American Fiction” is a reflection of hegemonic constructions of literary canons in educational institutions and of efforts by conservative political figures to mobilize racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic prejudices in the service of a monolithic “American culture” (with its English only family values). The irony, of course, is that it is these blinkered views that constitute the true “American fiction,” while Anzaldúa's text is a representative analysis par excellence of contemporary U.S. cultures and experiences and, in fact, can be seen as an exemplary instance of U.S. culture. Her new mestiza is the archetypal American. I should also add that one of the Chicana students in the class (although the written evaluations were anonymous, I am assuming that the above response was written by a white student) appeared to be equally offended by Anzaldúa's book, not because it used Spanish, but because of the “poor” Spanish and “bad words” that the student felt Anzaldúa used. The student explained that she had been taught not to “speak like that”; she felt that Anzaldúa's text was disgracing Chicanas and Chicanos.
Finally, Anzaldúa's book eludes hegemonic paradigms of reading and teaching in the academic institutions and disciplines that are now starting to teach and study it. In a 1987 article on “Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English,” Reed Way Dasenbrock argued that what he referred to as “multicultural” writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Rudolfo Anaya used specific rhetorical strategies in their texts to bridge the gaps between their various constituencies of readers. Commenting specifically on the problems that a monolingual reader might have with these texts, as compared to a bilingual-bicultural reader, and the calculated disconcertions that writers feed these monocultural readers, Dasenbrock nevertheless concluded, “No matter where one starts, the difference between the two reading experiences should be eliminated or at least reduced by the books' ends, as the monocultural reader should be that much less monocultural than at the start” (16). I want to reconfigure Dasenbrock's thesis in order to apply it to Anzaldúa's book and to suggest that Borderlands/La Frontera, also published in 1987, actually goes even further in its construction and confounding of a multiple readership. Not only does the text undermine the kind of us/them dichotomy implied in Dasenbrock's analysis by positing an apparently infinite number of identities and constituencies in its possible audience, thus bypassing any impetus to pander to the perplexities of a white readership that is constituted in binary opposition to a readership of color, but it also doesn't seem to move toward resolution, reconciliation, truth, or knowledge for any of those readerships (as neither my white student nor my Chicana student felt that the book spoke sufficiently closely to their own experience).
No matter how many historical contexts any reader knows or studies, complete mastery of this text will always be elusive. As one reads Anzaldúa's book, it becomes apparent that it needs to be understood within specific contexts, but each context in turn suggests others. Because the identities that Anzaldúa elaborates resist stabilization, there is no bottom line context that reveals a final truth. Context is infinite. Borderlands/La Frontera intersects with many histories: Chicana/o history requires an understanding of Mexican/U.S. relations, an understanding that in turn points to Mexican history, a history that, in turn, invites an examination of Latin American history as a whole, and so on; Chicana/o history also intersects with the history of the labor movement in the U.S., and with Chicana feminism, and white feminism; Anzaldúa's queerness is intricated within the struggle for lesbian and gay rights, and with a specifically Chicana/o lesbian and gay history, and so on. And so on.
Anzaldúa's text explicitly demonstrates what poststructuralist theorists have been arguing for three decades: there can be no mastery of a text, there can be no all-knowing teacher. No single reader will be able to “understand” every addressed identity of Borderlands/La Frontera: a heterosexual Chicana might feel excluded from the queer identity elaborated in the text; a white lesbian might feel alienated from the book's mestiza consciousness or its use of Spanish; a Chicana lesbian who does speak Spanish and English might find some of Anzaldúa's specific border colloquialisms unintelligible. Because Anzaldúa deploys so many kinds and registers of Spanish and Spanish-English mixtures in the text, as well as English and Nahuatl, most bilingual readers are frustrated by one or another moment in the book.) Understanding is always partial and fragmented. While it is important for us to do our homework/research, it is also important that as readers we stop feeling frustrated because of our inability to understand everything in the text, and that as teachers we undermine impetuses to present ourselves as all-knowing. We need to emphasize that it's okay not to have access to everything in a text, that, in fact, it is worthwhile for teachers and students to recognize and cultivate and become comfortable with this partiality and fragmentation. This might be the best lesson in identity, politics, and difference that we can teach and learn.
I have already mentioned the contradictory way in which Anzaldúa uses her various heritages to provide a counter-identity to the values of Anglo-America: she deploys these apparently stable identities to critique racism and imperialism, but also destabilizes and deconstructs these enabling grounds of counter-identification as she finds identity itself more and more elusive. She both defends and criticizes “her” culture in a series of gestures that establish the elliptical trajectory of Borderlands/La Frontera. The entire book seems to be at odds with itself as it mourns the loss of a putative wholeness9 and seeks to overcome division, while also recognizing the inevitability of this multivocality and even celebrating fragmentation as the enabling scene of the mestiza consciousness that Anzaldúa advocates. At times the voice in the text seems to long for a unity that implies an essentialist and nostalgic understanding of human subjectivity and history10 and, specifically, to insist on the singularity and homogeneity of “the Mexican way of life” (10) and “the Mexican culture” (48). Yet we are shown equally insistently that “There is no one Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience” (58). The movement from “Mexican” to “Chicano” represents not only an ethnic, historical, and political rupture / evolution, but also a refiguring of the terms of subjectivity: contradiction, hybridization, and transposition to replace continuity and identity.
No sooner has the narrator informed us of her quest to find her “own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on” her than she asserts, “Culture forms our beliefs” (16), as if to deny that any such beliefless “intrinsic” nature exists. She disabuses us of our utopian impulse to retrieve a matriarchal historical originality by pointing to the hegemonic patriarchal ideologies of pre-Columbian America (5), only to locate a foundational gender symmetry in early Aztec society (31, 33). While the Shadow-Beast of her/our fears seems to be an essentialist being who signals our “true” selves that have been repressed, and who might break out of its cage and shatter our masks of conformity (20), in the more explicitly concretized realm of racial power relations, “The only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites” (3-4; emphasis added)—where we might expect an essentialist demarcation, we find that race breaks down in the shifting sands of political affiliation.
Borderlands/La Frontera is enabled precisely by contradictory movements such as these, and I believe we would be missing the originality of Anzaldúa's vision were we to see them as weaknesses in her argument.11 Instead, I read these movements as complementing the kinds of switches, transferals, and dissolutions that I have been elaborating, since they elude the epistemological and political linearity that hypostatizes a final or bottom line identity (either as resistance or as domination) and question our very understandings and articulations of identity and processes of identification. Judith Raiskin and Inderpal Grewal have suggested that Anzaldúa's work combines political commitment with a postmodern critique of identity. Thus the tensions between Anzaldúa's reclamation of a non-sexist pre-Aztec Indian heritage and her critique of the unified subject would testify to her adept negotiations between the insights of poststructuralist theory and the political and epistemological claims of communities devalued by patriarchal values and Western imperialism and racism.
I think we can further understand these and other “inconsistencies” in the book as more than the clash of a politically strategic essentialism with a skepticism of humanist ideologies, because they also invite us to reformulate our understandings of and responses to notions of contradiction and ambiguity. In the section of Borderlands/La Frontera entitled “La herencia de Coatlicue/The Coatlicue State,” Anzaldúa writes that Coatlicue, the Serpent goddess who was divided and disempowered by a male-dominated Azteca-Mexica culture (27),
depicts the contradictory. In her figure, all the symbols important to the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs are integrated. Like Medusa, the Gorgon, she is a symbol of the fusion of opposites: the eagle and the serpent, heaven and the underworld, life and death, mobility and immobility, beauty and horror.
Later she writes of the new mestiza consciousness that is flexible and plural, and that tolerates ambiguity and contradiction (79-80). This ambiguity extends to the very nature and role of the new mestiza herself. While she may resolve ambivalence (79), she does not resolve contradictions. She is not ambivalent about contradiction: her charge is to keep “breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm” (80), but also to heal the splits in our lives, cultures, and languages (80). She is attempting to fragment paradigms and proliferate contradiction, even as she multiplies her own contradictory imbrications in the apparatuses of contradiction—this is what it means to live in the borderlands/la frontera.
I have tried to show how the logic of Borderlands/La Frontera works to dismantle categorizations and derail predictable outcomes, both in the delineation of a new kind of consciousness and in the actual structure and vocabulary of the book. This process functions at all the levels of identity formulated in the text and shapes the articulation of queer race: a politicizing slippage between the marks of race and queerness that racializes queerness and queers race in the body, in the meetings of bodies, and in the theorizations of these bodies and meetings. The demarcations of race and sexuality are ultimately reinvented to such an extent that they are torn from their conventional meanings and reworked into an inextricable, mutually dependent, mutually informing, yet polysignifying cluster of meanings and associations, both intimately material and infinitely metaphorical.
Anzaldúa's text invites us to generate reading strategies that are as synchronically multivalent as are its own structures and embodiments. It articulates a queer mestisaje at the same time that it destabilizes both terms through each other. We, as readers, in turn, have to re-understand the terms through the contexts Anzaldúa sets up, while also absorbing their anti-homophobic and anti-racist originating agendas. Borderlands/La Frontera provides a model for queer theory of how to delineate the pluperfect sexualization of racial identities and racialization of sexual identities without prioritizing either identity or losing the force and particularity of an anti-homophobic or anti-racist critique, but thereby destabilizes the identity of queer theory itself. The book also destabilizes racial categories and, by necessary extension, the discipline of ethnic studies, in its metaphorization of ethnicity in order to suture it to an anti-homophobic imperative. For me this paradoxical dialectic resonates with the words of Johnny Noxzema and Rex Boy with which I began this essay, because it describes their own (and my own) very conflicted imbrication in the politics and theory of identity and diversity, while also suggesting the potential for an empowering and productive deployment of this conflict in our readings and writings of a multi-ethnic and multiply ethnic U.S. culture.
For some brief histories and analyses of the queer 'zine phenomenon, see Freeman and Berlant, Botkin, Freilicher, “'Zines,” Mindich, Fenster, and Viegener. An extensive annotated queer 'zine bibliography appears as Queer Zine Explosion, published about twice a year.
Spew is the name of an annual 'zine “convention.”
See Bérubé and Escoffier.
When quoting from Borderlands/La Frontera, I have followed the text's use of italics.
See also page 84: “Being the supreme crossers of cultures, homosexuals have strong bonds with the queer white, Black, Asian, Native American, Latino, and with the queer in Italy, Australia and the rest of the planet.”
See Gomez-Peña, Dev.
For further discussion of this paradoxical strategy of deconstructing identity from within a politics of identity, in the context of affiliations of gender and sexual orientation, see my “Macho Sluts” and “Queer Fictions.”
For further discussion of the problematic of pluralism in relation to Anzaldúa's text, see Lugones.
For instance, Anzaldúa writes of the Mexico/U.S. border,
1,950 mile-long open wound dividing a pueblo, a culture, running down the length of my body, staking fence rods in my flesh, splits me splits me me raja me raja
For example, Anzaldúa blames Western culture for splitting the brain and reality into two functions (psychic and material) (37).
Annamarie Jagose, for one, criticizes Anzaldúa for contradicting herself in the book (138, 152).
Portions of pages 1-3 of this essay previously appeared in my article “Queer Zines and the Fragmentation of Art Community Identity Politics” in Socialist Review. I thank the Socialist Review editorial collective for permission to reprint that material here. In addition, I thank the following for assisting me with this article: Mónica Szurmuk, Holly Bauer, Juan Corona, Margarita Barceló, Adriana Novoa, Anne Shea, Javier Morillo-Alicea, and Sheryl Gobble.
Adams, Kate. “Northamerican Silences: History, Identity, and Witness in the Poetry of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Leslie Marmon Silko.” Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 130-45.
Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
———. Lectures Ethnic Studies Program. U of California. San Diego, 21-22 May 1990.
———. “To(o) Queer the Writer—Loca, escritora y chicana.” Versions: Writing by Dykes, Queers & Lesbians. Ed. Betsy Warland. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1991. 249-63.
Barnard, Ian. “Queer Fictions: Gay Men With/And/In/Near/Or Lesbian Feminisms?” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 4.4 (1993): 261-74.
———. “Macho Sluts: Genre-Fuck, S/M Fantasy, and the Reconfiguration of Political Action.” Genders 19 (1994): 265-91.
Bérubé, Allan, and Jeffrey Escoffier. “Queer/Nation.” Out/Look 11 (Winter 1991): 12-14.
Botkin, Michael C. “Behind the Zines.” Bay Area Reporter 17 Sept. 1992: 11.
Brownworth, Victoria A. “The Porn Boom.” Lesbian News 18.7 (1993): 42＋.
Cooper, Dennis. “Queercore.” The Village Voice 30 June 1992: 31-33.
Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English.” PMLA 102.1 (Jan. 1987): 10-19.
Dev, Elango. “Cultural Diversity and the Politics of Assimilation.” New Indicator 28: 1, 7.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Fenster, Mark. “Queer Punk Fanzines: Identity, Community, and The Articulation of Homosexuality and Hardcore.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 17.1 (1993): 73-94.
Foucault, Michel. “The End of the Monarchy of Sex.” 1977. Foucault Live: Interviews, 1966-84. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. John Johnston. New York: Semiotext(e), 1989. 137-55.
Freeman, Elizabeth, and Lauren Berlant. “Queer Nationality.” boundary 2 19.1 (Spring 1992): 149-80.
Freilicher, Mel. “Fight the Power: Diseased Pariah News, etc.” Fiction International 22 (1992): 177-85.
Gomez-Peña, Guillermo. “The Multicultural Paradigm: An Open Letter to the National Arts Community.” High Performance Fall 1989: 18-27.
Grewal, Inderpal. “Autobiographic Subjects and Diasporic Locations: Meatless Days and Borderlands.” Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994. 231-54.
Holy Titclamps 9 (Winter 91-92).
Holy Titclamps Zine Explosion 3 (February 1992).
Jagose, Annamarie. “Slash and Suture: The Border's Figuration of Colonialism, Phallocentrism, and Homophobia in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” Lesbian Utopics. New York: Routledge, 1994. 137-57.
Lugones, María. “On Borderlands/La Frontera: An Interpretive Essay.” Hypatia 7.4 (1992): 31-37.
Mindich, Jeremy. “Soap Box Samurai.” Details Aug. 1993: 96-101.
Raiskin, Judith. “Inverts and Hybrids: Lesbian Rewritings of Sexual and Racial Identities.” The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 156-72.
Salvador, Christian. “Queer Generations.” Infected Faggot Perspectives 11 (Sept./Oct. 1992): 8-9.
Viegener, Matias. “Queer Lettres.” American Book Review 14.4 (1992): 3＋.
———. “There's Trouble in That Body: Queer Fanzines, Sexual Identity and Censorship.” Fiction International 22 (1992): 123-36.
Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. 1973. Trans. David Le Vay. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Wittig, Monique, and Sande Zeig. Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary. New York: Avon, 1979.
“'Zines, Queens and Everything in Between: Fear and Loathing in Chicago.” Homoture 3: n.p.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8169
SOURCE: Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. “Mestiza Consciousness and Politics: Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.” In Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature, pp. 59-79. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Saldívar-Hull elucidates Anzaldúa's theory of mestiza consciousness in Borderlands/La Frontera, viewing it as an articulation of “the politics of feminism on the border.”]
Who, me confused? Ambivalent? Not so. Only your labels split me.
—Gloria Anzaldúa, “La Prieta,” in This Bridge Called My Back
In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Gloria Anzaldúa presents an explicit articulation of the politics of feminism on the border. Soon after the publication of this text, “the border” quickly became a fashionable metaphor used by many feminist Chicana/o studies and cultural studies critics and scholars.1 Anzaldúa's theoretical statements illustrate the dialectical position in which feminists on the border “find themselves,” in every sense of the phrase. Her theory of “Mestiza Consciousness” recenters her brand of Chicana feminism in the concrete, material locations of working-class-identified women whose ethnicity and sexuality further dislocate and displace them. The multiple and often contradictory identity issues. … converge in this text's form, language, identity politics, feminist proclamations, class analyses, and historical reconstructions. For Anzaldúa, the multiple issues that informed her radical political awareness finally culminate in what she calls “a new consciousness” for the women who dare examine and question the restrictions placed on them in the borderlands of the United States. In Anzaldúa's political manifesto, a “New Mestiza” can emerge only after she develops an oppositional consciousness.2
THE POLITICS OF MESTIZA CONSCIOUSNESS
Entering into Anzaldúa's borderlands, the unprepared reader can lose herself in what Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano eloquently labels the “serpentine movement” of the text (“Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera,” 17). In my experience teaching this demanding and rich text to both Chicana studies majors and English majors with their varying degrees of knowledge of frontera history and culture, I have found it useful to enter the text at its center, Chapter 7, “La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a New Consciousness.” This final chapter in the prose section of the book deploys a mestiza methodology required to decipher the rest of this fronterista (border feminist) text.3
Anzaldúa grounds this methodology in the history of the Americas, urging that Chicanas turn to the preconquest histories and traditions to recover an indigenous heritage. By the end of the conquest, in 1521, the Spanish imperialist project had not only destroyed all the great temples and sites of indigenous worship, but also erased the memory of an entire civilization. The noted semiotician Walter Mignolo, in his monumental study of language, memory, and space in the pre-Cortesian Americas, The Darker Side of the Renaissance, calls this process the “colonization of memory.” Doris Heyden and Luis Francisco Villaseñor, in The Great Temple and the Aztec Gods (5), further inform us that with the razing of the Templo Mayor, the Great Temple in the center of Tenochtitlán, what we now call Mexico City, much more than art and architecture was demolished by the conquering Spaniards. For the next several centuries, in Mexico as in the Chicana borderlands/frontera, it was not acceptable to claim indigenous heritage. Only recently have archaeological projects been funded by the Mexican government.
Anzaldúa's methodology brings to light (to borrow from Mignolo) strategies for unearthing a razed indigenous history as a process of coming to consciousness as political agents of change. Mestizas can turn to the Templo Major to recover women's place in a satanized past and learn about the centrality of female deities rendered passive with the interruption of Western androcentric ideology. The mestiza/o Aztec legacy idealized by Chicano nationalists focuses only on the blood sacrifices of this military power and further obscures the other indigenous tribal traditions that Aztec hegemony absorbed. Anzaldúa's reclamation of Aztec deities and traditions begins a reformulation of Aztlán from a male nation-state to a feminist site of resistance.
For Anzaldúa, feminism and lesbian politics emerge as the forces that give voice to her political agenda as a “New Mestiza,” which claims much more than an essentialist “mixed blood.” After an analysis of this important chapter where Anzaldúa clearly presents her political ideology, we can return to the first six chapters with a deeper understanding of the history of the borderlands she reconstructs.
The New Mestiza challenges the dualisms that underpin the power structure of the United States. In “Una lucha de fronteras/A Struggle of Borders,” Anzaldúa expresses the multiple consciousness of feminists whose gender politics are lived simultaneously with race, class, and sexual awareness. Her many-faceted identity as a working-class-origin lesbian of color allows her to broaden her analysis to include other internal struggles she experiences. She also pushes Du Bois's theory of double consciousness much further. There are warring ideologies within the border dweller, and Anzaldúa, as a mestiza, asserts that she must
continually walk out of one culture and into another, because I am in all cultures at the same time, alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro, me zumba la cabeza con todo lo contradictorio. Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan simultáneamente.
Gloria Anzaldúa's political, feminist position takes as its primary premise the fact of Chicana history across two cultures, Mexican and American, and in the interstices of two worlds: First and Third. In her analysis of the power system, she ventures into the mechanisms of the way the dominant group enforces its domination. When she asserts that “reaction,” or resistance, is limited by and dependent on what it is reacting against, she is engaging in the political theory based on the works of Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams. What she describes in “Struggle of Borders” is how hegemony and counterhegemony work.
Ultimately, the New Mestiza vision is utopian. As she presents her agenda for a new political awareness, she seems to be willing to accommodate a coalition with the dominant group: “At some point on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory” (78-79). As she continues her critique, however, the utopian moment of possible integration with the dominant culture is fleeting. While at this point of the analysis, Anzaldúa appears to open up the borderlands as a pathological, psychological state of uncertainty and insecurity, she quickly moves to a plan of action that includes the possibility of revolution. With the understanding that Latinas/os will soon be a majority population in the Southwest, she concludes: “The possibilities are endless once we decide to act and not react” (79).
The multiple consciousness that forms feminist mestizaje brings with it a “tolerance for ambiguity.” She notes how mestiza consciousness breaks down dualisms that keep fronteristas from praxis. The border consciousness she ultimately develops produces a new, revolutionary theory of politics. Anzaldúa creates a new culture, a new way of being that will entail a global healing and freedom from violence. Her desire to see with “serpent and eagle eyes” invokes the New Mestiza who claims the heritage of Aztec imagery. The serpent is the female, Coatlicue legacy and the eagle is the masculinist impulse of the dominating Aztec tribe. Anzaldúa proposes an identity that merges the two warring traditions, the female and the male, into a new unity.
In “The Crossroads,” Anzaldúa's mythmaking constructs the image of the cornstalk to denote strength from indigenous ties to the earth. She describes the border dwellers as a dark people whose labors under the sun produce a capacity for new world visions. As a lesbian and a feminist, Anzaldúa also recognizes that the traditional Chicano culture does not claim her, so she considers herself “cultureless.” But rather than lament that condition, she creates alternative myth systems: “I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that has not only produced a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meaning” (81). The image of indigenous women kneading corn at the metate produces the type of dissonance that nurtures New Mestiza revolutionary theory. The power of these political articulations lies in the deployment of feminist language that reclaims for dark women the right to theorize and create new world visions as well as to celebrate the traditions of their foremothers, the indigenous women who endured like the molcajete and metate they used to grind the spices and maize for the survival of the border people. The New Mestiza, for Anzaldúa, has her genesis in the bodies of grandmothers and mothers who literally forced survival from the earth. In poetry form, Anzaldúa credits the women who ensured the survival of borderers:
We are the porous rock in the stone metate squatting on the ground. We are the rolling pin, el maíz y agua, la masa harina. Somos el amasijo. Somos lo molido en el metate. We are the comal sizzling hot, the hot tortilla, the hungry mouth. We are a coarse rock. We are the grinding motion, the mixed potion, somos el molcajete. We are the pestle, the comino, ajo, pimienta, We are the chile colorado, the green shoot that cracks the rock. We will abide.
THE NEW MESTIZA'S AZTLáN: FROM NATION-STATE TO COATLICUE STATE
In “The Mestiza Way” Anzaldúan Chicana theory provides a methodology for a new consciousness based on recovering history and women's place in that erased history: “She puts history through a sieve, winnows out the lies, looks at the forces that we as a race, as women, have been a part of” (82). Along with providing a historical and lyrical document of the nameless women who ensured our survival under the conquest and under occupation, in Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa creates a new story with a revision of patriarchal appropriations of indigenous icons. As the theorist formulates the questions to be asked by the feminist historian, she accomplishes a “conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and traditions” (82), which signals the feminist basis of her theory. The New Mestiza's charge is as a feminist historian whose most important task is to “document the struggle” and “reinterpret history”: by “using new symbols, she shapes new myths” (82). The New Mestiza locates an alternative to la Virgen de Guadalupe: the indigenous mother of all gods, Coatlicue. New Mestizaje legitimizes a new language, Chicano Spanish. The New Mestiza also embraces a new consciousness about resistance strategies. Ultimately, Anzaldúa ends her outline for new political consciousness with a return to feminism: “The struggle of the mestiza is above all a feminist one” (84). Though the text often has been dismissed as indulging in a quest for lost origins or criticized for appropriating an indigenous heritage that does not belong to Chicanas, I propose that even in its most mystical, spiritual moments, the text circles back to a political consciousness with a specific political agenda that identifies not with the patriarchal nation-state Aztlán but with the feminist state, Coatlicue.
Again, her understanding of history is what prevents Anzaldúa's escape into the “self,” into the personal, and away from the collective analysis. The only history previously available to contemporary Chicana lesbians, however, was the history of the Chicanos' oppression by the U.S. imperialist forces in their conquest of South Texas, by the Spanish conquest over the indigenous cultures, and by the destruction of female goddesses in those increasingly androcentric indigenous cultures before the disaster of Cortés's crusade. Even with her critique of the conquest, Anzaldúa refuses to romanticize an Aztec history in which male domination “drove the powerful female deities underground by giving them monstrous attributes and by substituting male deities in their place” (27).
When the New Mestiza historian invokes Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the preconquest Aztecs located in what we now know as the U.S. Southwest, it is an Aztlán transformed by a mestiza feminist sensibility. While she engages in the debate with Chicano nationalists who unequivocally claim the U.S. Southwest as the Chicano homeland, her claim to this “origin” is a strategic move that aligns her, a lesbian feminist, with the undeniably homophobic, often misogynist nationalist Chicano movement. Her dialectical position as a feminist on the border, however, allows her to move between Chicano nationalism and socialist feminism.4
Anzaldúa manages to do justice to both nationalist and socialist feminist tendencies as she reconceptualizes both impulses. While she has been accused of escaping into essentialism in her probing into the psyche of the lesbian mestiza and in her insistence on discussing indigenous goddesses, her working-class experience always pulls her back to concrete analysis.5
Both Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano in “Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera” and Norma Alarcón in “Anzaldúa's Frontera” provide extensive discussions on Anzaldúa's Coatlicue State and her formulation of the Shadow Beast. I would like to relocate these two images as central strategies in the material recovery work Anzaldúa accomplishes as a mestiza historian, a creator of counterdiscourses of New Mestiza myths upon which we can build a counter-Aztlán, a Coatlicue “state.”
In the chapter “Entering into the Serpent,” the storyteller takes us into the cuentos border families tell their children. For the narrator of this section, Prieta, the story of the snake that slithers into a woman's uterus and impregnates her provides the link to her “serpentine” feminist theory.6 If the New Mestiza's task is to “winnow out the lies,” then she will provide an alternative metaphor to the ones promoted by androcentric psychologists and priests. Anzaldúa invokes Olmec myth when she asserts that “Earth is a coiled Serpent” (26) and rewrites the origin of the Catholic Guadalupe, empowering her as a pre-Columbian “Coatlalopeuh, She Who Has Dominion over Serpents” (27). In this chapter's subtopic, Anzaldúa claims the earth as a female, feminist deity in all her emanations. Like the constantly shifting identities of the Chicana in the contemporary world, the deities Anzaldúa unearths and names become a pantheon of potential feminist icons. Through these icons mestizas can unlearn the masculinist versions of history, religion, and myth. The New Mestiza methodology unravels how both the “male-dominated Azteca-Mexica culture” and the postconquest church established the dichotomy of the virgen/puta when they split Coatlalopeuh/Coatlicue/Tonantsi/Tlazolteotl/Cihuacoatl into good and evil, light and dark, sexual and asexual beings. Guadalupe, then, is Coatlalopeuh with “the serpent/sexuality out of her” (27).
In her mestiza feminist project to “use new symbols” and “shape new myths,” the New Mestiza theorist presents the traditional Virgen de Guadalupe story both in Spanish (28) and in English (29). Then she consciously “ruptures” the old cuentos with the sections on Aztlán and La Llorona (31-33). Throughout her revisions she intertwines the familiar stories with new feminist threads so that her insistence on the recuperation of the feminist—the serpent—produces a tapestry at once familiar and radically new. While “la facultad” can be interpreted as a spiritual extrasensory perception, what New Mestizaje has in fact developed is the ability to rupture the belief systems that have been presented as ancient truths and accurate histories.
“La herencia de Coatlicue,” in Chapter 4, is where history ultimately leads us. With Borderlands/La Frontera, for the first time Chicanas—mestizas—can turn to a document that offers a female-centered heritage. Undoing the dichotomy, which Alarcón accurately sees as the project of the Coatlicue State (“Chicana Feminism”), entails recovering the history of female serpent worship as well as writing new myths. While I do not want to ignore the psychological and philosophical aspects of these complex Borderlands chapters, I will focus on the material project with which the New Mestiza theorist also comes to grips.
As a mestiza historian with a mestiza political consciousness, Anzaldúa presents “the cluster in what I call the Coatlicue State” that are the pre-Columbian female deities she once again names: “Coatlicue, Cihuacoatl, and Tlazolteotl” (42). Armed with her new myths and symbols of female power, she confronts and tells the “terrible secret” of her childhood menstrual blood, which she calls “la seña” and “the mark of the beast,” an abnormality that magnifies her alien status. This alienating mark is what Western medicine calls “precocious menarche” (43).7 If her secret is embedded in female physiology, it is multiply encoded in obscure passages on her many names and fears. In her work as a mestiza historian, Anzaldúa has already offered us the multiple names of female deities, but now she has to complete her metamorphosis into a mestiza with a feminist, oppositional, political consciousness. Once she presents her “fear that she has no names / that she has many names / that she doesn't know her names” (43), she tells, in Spanish, how that fear is the outcome of dominant ideology: internalized racism. And as Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano notes, “the mark of the Beast, earlier associated with internalized racism and homophobia, is here linked with physical abnormality and multiplicity” (21). In “Anzaldúa's Frontera: Inscribing Gynetics,” Norma Alarcón asserts that the Shadow Beast figures as Anzaldúa's New Mestiza, the native of the Americas, as well as “the sign of savagery—the feminine as a sign of chaos.” And through chaos, or rather non-Western, non-linear-thinking, New Mestiza consciousness, illuminates how to enact a (border) crossing from marginalized other to whole woman who constantly shifts, crosses, and gains power from contradiction and ambiguity.
What the Shadow Beast finally leads to is knowledge, a mestiza political hermeneutics that makes Chicanas finally aware of exploitation and oppression. Once she begins to understand that her power lies in her ability to define by asking questions and providing new answers, the New Mestiza crosses over with an acute consciousness: “I am no longer the same person I was before” (48). Anzaldúa presents what and who she is with birth imagery: a woman who delivers with an inner power, the “entity that is the sum total of all my reincarnations, the godwoman in me I call Antigua, mi Diosa, the divine within” (50). Indeed, the New Mestiza historian and creator of neomyth divines the recovered names of Coatlicue in all her emanations; the politically conscious mestiza historian and mythmaker comes armed with the power of knowledge.
A NEW MESTIZA DISCOURSE
Using both Western and non-Western theoretical and philosophical approaches in her work, Anzaldúa is an academic completing a doctoral degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz, as well as a spiritualist who crosses over to philosophical traditions deemed illegitimate by U.S. academia and self-indulgent by traditional leftist scholars. Anzaldúa's feminism exists in a borderland grounded in but not limited to geographic space; it resides in a space not acknowledged by the dominant culture. She uses the border as an organizing metaphor for Chicanas living in multiple worlds, multiple cultures, and employs border discourse to describe the borderlands' inhabitants: “Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half-dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over or go through the confines of the ‘normal’” (3). By invoking racist, homophobic epithets, Anzaldúa obliterates the dominant culture's power over what is “normal” or acceptable. She uses the Spanish word atravesados to capture the multiple meanings the bilingual border speaker understands; atravesado also invokes the meaning of continuous resistance against a person or power.
Anzaldúa uses this border discourse throughout her text. It is a mestizaje of English, Spanish, Chicana/o dialect, and even some Nahuatl, the Aztec mother tongue. Throughout, Anzaldúa insists on the legitimacy of her border language:
For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castillian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves—a language with terms that are neither español ni inglés, but both. We speak a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages.
In this important chapter, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldúa reclaims language for the fronteristas de este lado. The Spanish dialect she names as a “living language” (55) emerges in this chapter as a tongue that she wants to reclaim and legitimize yet simultaneously critique as a language that enforces the codes of silence imposed by border patriarchs. For the New Mestiza linguist, an analysis of border discourse echoes her analysis of the mestizas' multiple identities: we have many languages just as we have many names. Anzaldúa's list of border languages travels from “Standard English” to norteño “Mexican Spanish dialect” (55). The vernacular of South Texas Chicanas figures as a central “homeland” as well. Her discussions of pochismos and of pachuco discourse are possible only after she has undertaken the political and psychological work of the previous chapters. Once she confronts the internalized racism of the Shadow Beast and reclaims Coatlicue, a feminist strength through the recovery of (feminist) history, the New Mestiza as linguist can now reconsider how language has been one more arena of contestation for borderers.
In her essay “Chicano Spanish,” Anzaldúa once more exhibits a New Mestiza consciousness. She guides the reader through a Chicano Spanish-language lesson that includes the way South Texas Chicanas pronounce words with two adjacent vowels and offers a history that legitimizes the Chicanas' use of “archaisms.” In a brilliant rhetorical move, Anzaldúa deconstructs the elitist disregard with which other (standard) Spanish speakers react to Chicano Spanish. She chooses the words borderers use that are most often mocked—semos [somos], truje [traje], ansina [así], naiden [nadie]—and implies that they are “pure” in the sense of their origins in sixteenth-century Spanish (57). The New Mestiza etymologist offers a counterhistory of language that battles the Shadow Beast criticizing Chicanas/os for their illegitimate use of Spanish:
Due to geography, Chicanos from the Valley of South Texas were cut off linguistically from other Spanish speakers. We tend to use words that the Spaniards brought over from Medieval Spain. The majority of Spanish colonizers in Mexico and the Southwest came from Extremadura—Hernán Cortés was one of them—and Andalucía. Andalucians pronounce ll like a y, and their d's tend to be absorbed by adjacent vowels: tirado becomes tirao. They brought el lenguaje popular, dialectos y regionalismos.
In the section titled “Linguistic Terrorism,” Anzaldúa herself becomes the terrorist as she unloads the ultimate irony for Chicanas: we are punished for speaking Spanish in “American” classrooms and playgrounds, yet we are mocked by other native Spanish speakers for the version of Spanish we have managed to retain. She refuses to give in to either hegemonic impulse; thus her strategy of using Chicana mestiza discourse in the text itself: the chapter titles and subtitles in Borderlands/La Frontera are in English and then Spanish, or vice versa, a reflection of the duality of the mestiza experience.
NEW MESTIZA HISTORY OF THE BORDER
Whereas the earlier works of women such as Angela de Hoyos articulate Chicano nationalist issues, Anzaldúa makes the leap from the history of colonization by the United States to the history of colonization as a mestiza, a Native American woman. And although some Chicana critics reject the internal colony model because, as María Linda Apodaca states, “when the land was conquered, the Mexican population in the Southwest was small given the total land mass” (“Double-Edged Sword,” 110), the specific history of the Tejana/o urges us to remember that there is not one monolithic Chicano/a experience in the United States. Apodaca's assumptions fail to acknowledge the historical specificity of the Tejanas/os who were forced to live under a reign of terror in post-1845 Texas.
In the poem “Hermano,” … Angela de Hoyos taunts the Anglo usurper by reminding him of his own immigrant status. He is told to “scare up your little ‘Flor de Mayo’— / so we can all sail back / to where we came from” (13; emphasis added). While de Hoyos identifies with her European heritage—the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María of the Spanish conquerors—Anzaldúa, in opposition, insists on identifying with the indigenous Indian tribes and the African slaves who mixed with the conquerors to produce the mestiza/o. She bases her political, feminist position on the Chicanas' history within multiple cultures: indigenous Mexican, African, and always “grounded on the Indian woman's history of resistance” (21).
In this border world, the Chicana is no different from the undocumented worker: “the only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites” (4). Anzaldúa immediately proceeds to present the history of the conquest of the Americas, linking the Chicana in kinship with North American Indians to “form an even greater mestizaje” (5).
Anzaldúa's text itself is a mestizaje: a postmodernist mixture of autobiography, historical document, and poetry collection. Like the “atravesados” whose lives it chronicles, Borderlands resists genre boundaries as well as geopolitical borders. The text's opening epigraph is an excerpt from a song by the conjunto Los Tigres del Norte. But if Anzaldúa's historical ties are closer to the corrido tradition than to the historical imperatives of postmodern theory, she is creating a new corrido of the mestiza with a political analysis of what it means to live as a woman in a borderland.
Through issues of gender politics, Anzaldúa locates personal history within a history of the border people. Legitimacy belongs to the Anglo hegemony; the indigenous population is nothing more than an aberrant species. To the White power structure, the mojado (wetback) is the same as the Mexicano de este lado (Mexican from the U.S. side). As she records the history of the new mestiza, Anzaldúa explores issues of gender and sexual orientation that most Chicano historians have not adequately addressed.
Presenting the other history of Texas that Anglo-Texans such as J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb never mention, Anzaldúa further merges autobiography with historical document. Her family history becomes the history of the Chicana/o experience in South Texas after colonization and occupation by U.S. forces. The Texas Rangers lynched those who dared resist.
She speaks of how the Tejanas/os “were jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from [their] identity and [their] history” (8). “My grandmother,” Anzaldúa recounts, “lost all her cattle / they stole her land.” The history of dispossession is transmitted orally from one generation to the next; Anzaldúa's mother tells the story of her widowed mother who was cheated by the Anglo usurper. In this narrative, we get the Tejano/a version of a history that such writers as Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove or James Michener in Texas have not recognized:
“Drought hit South Texas,” my mother tells me. “La tierra se puso bien seca y los animales comenzaron a morirse de se'. Mi papá se murió de un heart attack dejando a mamá pregnant y con ocho huercos, with eight kids and one on the way. Yo fuí la mayor, tenía diez años. The next year the drought continued y el ganado got hoof and mouth. Se calleron in droves en las pastas y el brushland, pansas blancas ballooning to the skies. El siguiente año still no rain. Mi pobre madre viuda perdió two-thirds of her ganado. A smart gabacho lawyer took the land away mamá hadn't paid taxes. No hablaba inglés, she didn't know how to ask for time to raise the money.”
The woman's border discourse, comfortably switching between English and Spanish, further emphasizes the historia that Tejanas articulate as opposed to the monolingual, monolithic version that Anglo-Texans or Anglo-Americans impose.
As it constantly shifts from personal story to collective historia, Anzaldúa's autobiography as presented in Borderlands reflects a Chicana positionality on the border. For the New Mestiza, autobiography is the history of the colonization of indigenous Southwestern people by Anglo-American imperialists intent on their Manifest Destiny. Texas history, in Anzaldúa's revision, is incomplete without the presentation of the Mexican woman who dares to cross the border. She is the one who is the most easily exploited, physically as well as sexually. The coyote can enslave her after raping her. If she is lucky enough to make it to the U.S. side, she can look forward to laboring as a maid “for as little as ＄15.00 a week” (12).
TRAITOROUS CULTURES/REBELLIOUS MOVEMENTS: MESTIZA FEMINISM
Once she establishes a working definition of the mestiza/o border culture with which she identifies, Anzaldúa begins her internal critique of that world. Because she is so much a part of it, she can penetrate its inner dynamics and understand the oppressions that it uses to control women within that culture. When Anzaldúa tells how she rebelled, we can see the intense power that the Chicano culture holds over women: “Repele. Hable pa' 'tras. Fuí muy hocicona. Era indiferente a muchos valores de mi cultura. No me dejé de los hombres. No fuí buena ni obediente. [I argued. I talked back. I was quite a bigmouth. I was indifferent to many of my culture's values. I did not let the men push me around. I was not good or obedient]” (15; my translation).
The ideal woman of the borderland is one who stands behind her man in silence and passivity. If she refuses her female role as housekeeper, she is considered lazy. To study, read, paint, or write is not a legitimate choice for a mestiza. Anzaldúa's testimony rings true for many Chicanas who struggle against their gender indoctrination. That her history exists for us to study is a testament to her resistance: “Every bit of self-faith I'd painstakingly gathered took a beating daily. Nothing in my culture approved of me. Había agarrado malos pasos [I had taken the wrong path]. Something was ‘wrong’ with me. Estaba más allá de la tradición [I was beyond the tradition]” (16; my translation). “Cultural tyranny” is an additional power against which the Chicana feminist struggles. She must not only contend with the racism of Anglo-American restraints but also resist the oppressive yoke of the sexist Chicano culture.
In addition to her study of colonialism and capitalism in Borderlands, Anzaldúa examines how patriarchy is inextricably linked to these two forces and how all three transcend geopolitical borders. She has shown how the men in the preconquest Americas invoked patriarchal privilege to displace the female deities. We now get an analysis, through self-writing, of how the family as an institution empowers imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy across geopolitical boundaries. Gender politics emerge in her assertions that “culture is made by those in power—men. Males make the rules and laws; women transmit them. How many times have I heard mothers and mothers-in-law tell their sons to beat their wives for not obeying them, for being hociconas (bigmouths), for being callejeras (going to visit and gossip with neighbors), for expecting their husbands to help with the rearing of children and the housework, for wanting to be something other than housewives?” (16). Anzaldúa's gender politics are always aware of the women who are complicit agents of the patriarchy.
But gender politics is never her only concern. When she examines how Chicanas have traditionally been limited to roles as nuns, prostitutes, or mothers, she discusses the liberating potential of an education for women. She recognizes, however, that this last possibility is available to very few Chicanas. For Anzaldúa, feminist possibilities are always intertwined with class issues: “As working class people, our chief activity is to put food in our mouths, a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs. Educating our children is out of reach for most of us. Educated or not, the onus is still on woman to be a wife/mother—only the nun can escape motherhood. Women are made to feel total failures if they don't marry and have children” (17). Anzaldúa consistently links gender analysis with class analysis. Ultimately for Chicana feminists, there can be no separation of race, class, sexuality, and gender issues.
The New Mestiza refuses to wait patiently for the men to liberate her. Given her history as a woman of a culture that insists that its women be submissive, Anzaldúa “refuses to glorify those aspects of [her] culture which have injured [her] in the name of protecting [her]” (22). As she puts it, “I abhor some of my culture's ways, how it cripples its women, como burras [like asses], our strengths used against us, lowly burras bearing humility with dignity. The ability to serve, claim the males, is our highest virtue. I abhor how my culture makes macho caricatures of its men” (21).
Anzaldúa's project problematizes further still the traditions of Chicanismo, when, as a lesbian Chicana, she forces the homophobes of Chicano communities to see their prejudice. If heterosexual Chicanas are ostracized from their culture for transgressing its rules of behavior, for the Chicana lesbian, “the ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual behavior” (19). She makes “the choice to be queer” and as a result feels the ultimate exile from her homeland, cultural as well as geographic. She transforms the bourgeois concepts of “safety” and “home” into concepts she can carry with her along with her political commitments. As a Chicana “totally immersed” in her culture, she can choose to reject the crippling aspects of traditions that oppress women and silence homosexual men and women. Her refusal to “glorify those aspects of my culture which have injured me and which have injured me in the name of protecting me” signals the agenda for the New Mestiza, the border feminist (22). The feminista that Anzaldúa presents is a woman comfortable with new affiliations that subvert old ways of being, rejecting the homophobic, sexist, racist, imperialist, and nationalist.
NEW MESTIZA POLITICAL POETRY
The second half of Borderlands rearticulates Anzaldúa's theories in poetry form. The poem “Immaculate, Inviolate: Como Ella” retells the story of her grandmother, whose economic exploitation was exacerbated by the fact that her husband had children by another woman:
Sometimes when I get too close to the fire and my face and chest catch the heat, I can almost see Mamagrande's face watching him leave taking her two eldest to play with his other children watching her sons y los de la otra [and those of his other woman] grow up together.
Anzaldúa's anger is palpable when she writes of her grandmother Locha:
I can almost see that look settle on her face then hide behind parchment skin and clouds of smoke. Pobre doña Locha, so much dignity, everyone said she had and pride.
Like the Bolivian feminist Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Gloria Anzaldúa presents powerful women's testimony. Unlike Barrios de Chungara, however, Anzaldúa, as a Chicana, a Third World woman in the First World, cannot ignore how women have toiled beside men, how women were lynched alongside men, and how, ultimately, they are still condemned to hard labor with little access to power within the Chicano culture. Through her relentless critique, Anzaldúa makes the border feminist's dialectical position clear: patriarchal traditions become co-conspirators with capitalism, imperialism, and White supremacy to keep the Chicana exploited, oppressed, and silent.
In addition to the gender transgressions that Anzaldúa's New Mestiza introduces, new subject matter for poetry is an “aberration” she presents. African Americanists from Ida B. Wells to Hazel Carby and Wahneema Lubiano have explored the terroristic method by which the dominant culture kept the African Americans under control: the law of the rope. Likewise, Chicanas/os, particularly in Texas, have lived under the threat of lynching. The historian Arnoldo De León has investigated lynching as an institutionalized threat against Tejanos, but it takes Anzaldúa's poem “We Call Them Greasers” to flesh out the ramifications of the lynch law for Chicanas. In the poem whose title pays tribute to De León's history They Called Them Greasers, the connection between the oppression of nineteenth-century African slaves and ex-slaves and nineteenth-century mestizos/Chicanos emerges.
Narrated by the Anglo usurper, this example of what Barbara Harlow has called resistance literature speaks of how Tejanos lost their lands and, often, their lives. The Anglo narrator assumes the role of deity as he forces the Tejanos to place their hats “over their hearts” and lower their eyes in his presence. He rejects their collective farming techniques, cultural remnants of indigenous tribal traditions of the mestizo.
He sneers, “They didn't even own the land but shared it.” The Tejano “troublemakers” who actually have “land grants and appealed to the courts” are laughingstocks, “them not even knowing English” (134). For the Anglo-American imperialist, literacy in Spanish or any other nonstatus language is illiteracy. The women, in particular, suffer additional violence before they are murdered by the gringo.
While Chicano (male) historians have done much to expose the realities of violent acts against the Tejanos, they have, to a great extent, been reluctant to voice the perhaps unspeakable violence against Tejanas. Even Américo Paredes (considered the dean of border studies) in his breakthrough text With His Pistol in His Hand cannot articulate the violence that Gregorio Cortez's wife, Leonor Díaz Cortez, must have suffered in the four months she spent in a Texas jail, incarcerated for her husband's alleged crime (87). During the Rangers' manhunt for Cortez, a Mexican woman is alleged to have given information to the sheriff leading to Cortez's capture. Paredes states: “The woman, whoever she was, at first refused to talk, but ‘under pressure’ told Glover where Cortez was going, so that Glover knew his destination before Cortez reached it. What sort of pressure Glover used, whether it was physical or psychological, there is no way of telling” (68).
Precisely because “there is no way” for a nonfeminist historian to tell the history of the Chicana, it takes Anzaldúa's voice to articulate the violence against nineteenth-century Tejanas. In “We Call Them Greasers,” rape is an institutionalized strategy in the war to disempower Chicano men. While the Tejano is tied to a mesquite tree, the Chicano version of the African American hanging tree, the gringo rapes the Tejana.
She lay under me whimpering. I plowed into her hard kept thrusting and thrusting felt him watching from the mesquite tree heard him keening like a wild animal in that instant I felt such contempt for her round face and beady black eyes like an Indian's. Afterwards I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing, didn't want to waste a bullet on her. The boys wouldn't look me in the eyes. I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree and spat in his face. Lynch him, I told the boys.
Once the rapist gains total control over the Tejano through the violation of “his” woman, the rapist can feel only contempt for her. Within the hierarchy of powerlessness, the woman occupies a position below the already inferior Brown man. De León chronicles how Anglo-American occupiers made their conquests and massacres more bearable by comparing their victims to animals; similarly, by emphasizing the mestiza's Indian features, the imperialist further relegates the Chicana to the “savagery” of the Native American (14-23). The White-supremacist Texans in the poem can discern no difference between the “dark blood” of Amerindians and that of Chicanas/os. Indeed, mestiza Chicanas and Native Americans suffer a kinship under institutionalized racism. Anzaldúa's reluctance to condemn the passive observers in the poem, “the boys,” does not stem from misguided loyalty to men or gringos. Rather, she implicitly recognizes the power of class structure even in nineteenth-century Texas, where the rich land barons controlled all of their workers, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity.
To the history of Anglo agribusiness in the 1930s Anzaldúa juxtaposes her father's history as a sharecropper in South Texas. We begin to understand her need to search for her Aztec, preconquest pantheon of goddesses. If history for the Chicana Tejana is the history of “blood feuds, lynchings, burnings, rape, pillage,” then we must allow for Anzaldúa's “escape” into the self as her way of recreating her history. If she dwells on the rediscovery of indigenous goddesses, it is because of her tribal memories:
I remember my father scanning the sky for a rain that would end the drought, looking up into the sky, day after day, while the corn withered on its stalk. My father has been dead for 29 years, having worked himself to death. The life of a Mexican farm laborer is 56—he lived to be 38. It shocks me that I am older than he. I, too, search the sky for rain. Like the ancients, I worship the rain god and the maize goddess, but unlike my father I have recovered their names. Now for rain (irrigation) one offers not a sacrifice of blood, but of money.
In poems like “Sus plumas el viento,” “Cultures,” and “Sobre piedras con lagartijos,” Anzaldúa reasserts her solidarity with the exploited women and men along the greater border. “El sonavabitche” protests the exploitation of undocumented farmworkers in places such as Muncie, Indiana. The poem exposes the methods by which unscrupulous farm owners create a modern-day slave system. Hiring undocumented Mexican laborers to work their fields, they tip off the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for a raid just before payday. The Chicano narrator expresses solidarity with his undocumented compañero when he refuses to work for the “sonavabitche” who colludes with the INS as part of his business strategy:
Como le estaba diciendo, today was payday. You saw them, la migra came busting in waving their pinche pistolas. Said someone made a call, what you call it? Anonymous. Guess who? That sonavabitche, who else? Done this three times since we've been coming here Sepa Dios how many times in between. Wets, free labor, esclavos. Pobres jijos de la chingada. This is the last time we work for him no matter how fregados we are he said, shaking his head, spitting at the ground. Vámonos, mujer, empaca el mugrero.
In the poetry and prose of Borderlands Anzaldúa redefines feminism. She complicates issues of First World versus Third World in ways that link the Chicanas' struggles with the struggles of women in other nations in the Americas. In the long narrative poem “En el nombre de todas las madres que han perdido sus hijos en la guerra” (In the name of all mothers who have lost children to war), written entirely in Spanish, Anzaldúa rewrites the Llorona legend. The indigenous woman who narrates the poem (“Soy una pobre india”) laments the child who has been machine-gunned in her arms by fair-skinned soldiers. But her lament quickly becomes more than powerless weeping. She clearly identifies the oppressors who have murdered two other sons and one daughter in their war. In her grief she wants to die, but she also expresses her despair with a militancy that seeks revenge on the men responsible for her children's murders. The Weeping Woman in this poem will not wander the earth searching for the children she killed—she will engage in active resistance against the military forces intent on massacring the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Finally, it is in the poem “To Live in the Borderlands Means You” that Anzaldúa sums up her definition of the New Mestiza, the feminist on the border. She is one who “carries five races” on her back, not Hispanic, Indian, African, Spanish, or Anglo, but the mixture of the five, which results in the mestiza, the mulata. She is also a “new gender … both woman and man, neither” (194). While not rejecting any part of herself, Anzaldúa's New Mestiza becomes a survivor because of her ability to “live sin fronteras (without borders) / be a crossroads” (195).
While Anzaldúa transgresses aesthetic boundaries in her text; transgresses gender boundaries with her “choice” to be a lesbian; transgresses ethnicity and race in her formulation of the New Mestiza combining Indian, Spanish, African, and even Anglo “blood” to form a mestizaje, her project is nonetheless articulated within the vital history of the Texas Chicana. If history is what forces Anzaldúa's escape into identity politics, it is because the only history previously available to Chicanas in Texas was the history of the mestiza's colonization by both the Spanish conquerors and the Anglo-American imperialists in their conquest of South Texas.
Once the Chicana feminist has learned the history of the border people, she can turn to other urgent concerns. María Patricia Fernández-Kelly's For We Are Sold, I and My People presents a history of the mestiza laboring in the exploitative maquiladora (factory) system that Anzaldúa alludes to in her own work. Anzaldúa also calls attention to the unwritten historia of the mestizas in the colonias of South Texas and in border cities such as El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. In these homelands of victims of U.S. multinational corporations, these people are being poisoned by the water they are forced to store in chemical drums that once held carcinogens.
Anzaldúa's feminist theory and methodology in Borderlands is ideological analysis, materialist historical research, as well as race, class, and gender analysis. It is never an ahistorical “politics of equal oppressions,” to use Jenny Bourne's phrase (“Homelands of the Mind,” 16), because Chicana feminism on the border develops from an awareness of specific material experience of the historical moment. Unlike the feminism of sisterhood, which Bourne defines as “feminism which is separatist, individualistic and inward-looking” (2), Chicana border feminists look inward in moments of self-exploration and see themselves as daughters of non-Western, indigenous tribes. Anzaldúa's feminist discourse leads her to look inward and claim a dual spirituality, one that culminates in a deeper understanding of a larger erased history and in a crossing of borders in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
With the publication of Anzaldúa's text, a cottage industry in border writing began. Many specialists in Chicana and Chicano studies would remind contemporary readers that at least since the 1950s, with Américo Paredes's work as an anthropologist and folklorist, the U.S.-Mexico border has been studied in its historical and geographical specificity. For Chicano studies scholars, the political location between the United States and Mexico is the crucial locus for borderlands studies. More recently, the border has been colonized and appropriated as mere metaphor. For a brilliant discussion and critique of these absorption strategies see Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano's essay “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera,” 8-10.
See Chela Sandoval's important essay “U.S. Third World Feminism.”
Fronterista is a word I coin to merge frontera (border) and feminista (feminist). My thanks to Clara Lomas for pointing out that my Chicana dialect may not be understood by standard Spanish readers.
In her essay “Chingón Politics Die Hard,” Elizabeth Martínez discusses how the continued sexism in Chicano activist circles is ingrained in the misogynist, patriarchal concept of Aztlán. Martínez speaks to contemporary Chicana feminist concerns that the nationalism of the Movimiento is “reactionary on issues of race and class relations. … Not surprisingly, the concept of Aztlán has always been set forth in ferociously macho imagery. The average Chicano today hardly takes Aztlán seriously as a goal, but he might secretly imagine himself garbed in an Aztec warrior outfit gazing on the naked breasts of some red-lipped princess. If you note the whiff of sexual possession there, it's no accident. Merely as a symbol, the concept of Aztlán encourages the association of machismo with domination” (47).
See Yarbro-Bejarano's discussion of the charges of essentialism in Anzaldúa's work in “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands,” 12-13.
See “Teoría y creación en la prosa de Gloria Anzaldúa” by María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba for a discussion of “La Prieta.”
In her essay “La Prieta” in Moraga and Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back, Anzaldúa discusses the onset of her precocious menarche as a three-month-old infant. I thank Felix Hull, M.D., for the medical information on early-onset menarche.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7967
SOURCE: Rotger, Antònia Oliver Maria. “‘Sangre Fértil’/Fertile Blood: Migratory Crossings, War and Healing in Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.” In Dressing Up for War: Transformations of Gender and Genre in the Discourse and Literature of War, edited by Aranzazu Usandizaga and Andrew Monnickendam, pp. 189-211. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.
[In the following essay, Rotger uses the term “sangre fértil” to describe Anzaldúa's ability to speak from a borderland position between a variety of cultures, languages, and perspectives and discusses the author's creation of a new consciousness as a feminist and political activist.]
In her elegy “Para los Californios Muertos” (“To the Dead Californios”)1 the Californian poet of Mexican origin Lorna Dee Cervantes conjures up the vague historical memory of the destruction of the towns and culture of Californios during the US occupation of former Mexican territory. This occupation began around the 1820s and culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), by which Mexico was stripped of the territories that today comprise the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and half of Colorado. In Cervantes' poem, a visit to a restaurant where the only vestige of her descendants is a cold brass plaque, stirs the poetic voice's raging lament for a history effaced by stretches of highway, white houses and “yanqui remnants.” In contrast with the blood shed in intercultural warfare, the poet's blood is referred to as fertile:
I run my fingers across this brass plaque. Its cold stirs in me a memory of silver buckles and spent bullets, of embroidered shawls and dark rebozos. Yo recuerdo los antepasados muertos. Los recuerdo en la sangre, la sangre fértil.
(I remember the dead ancestors I remember them in my blood, my fertile blood)
What refuge did you find here, ancient Californios? Now at this restaurant nothing remains but his old oak and an ill-placed plaque. Is it true that you still live here in the shadows of these white, high-class houses? Soy la hija pobrecita pero puedo maldecir estas fantasmas blancas. Las fantasmas tuyas deben aquí quedarse, solas las tuyas. [sic](2)
(I am only your poor daughter but I can curse these white ghosts. Your ghosts should remain here, Only yours)
The evocation of “sangre fértil” has a double function that reveals the position of the speaking subject within the oppressed group. On the one hand, it is the poet's claim of consanguinity and kinship with those whose blood was spilt in battle. She is therefore speaking about a collective history that she claims to share, but has been lost. On the other hand, “sangre fértil” is a figuration of the committed poet's written expression of sadness and anger at the loss and destruction of a culture. Consequently, she is also speaking for those who died at a moment in which they can no longer speak for themselves. In the work that I discuss in this essay, Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa similarly speaks for herself and for others. The most remarkable trait of Anzaldúa's speaking position is that it is explicitly described as both within and without a variety of collectivities and cultures (Chicano/a, US-American, Mexican, indigenous people, white people, women, feminists, Hispanic, Spanish-speaking, English-speaking). This speaker uses her borderland position in between worlds, languages, and cultural codes as a privileged place from which she tries to undo the “epistemic violence” that has kept the voices of men and women of Mexican descent unheard by creating a new consciousness.3 Anzaldúa's rhetoric in this rich “cultural autobiography,” as Caren Kaplan would call it, may be appropriately described with Cervantes' metaphoric epithet “sangre fértil.”4 The speaker's painful borderland existence brings about a new politically committed feminist consciousness and mythology capable of approaching and understanding a variety of social, gender, class and ethnic issues that have often been at odds with each other. In addition, “sangre fértil” also designates the challenges and the struggles that Anzaldúa faces as a speaker in between cultures, as both subject and object. These are challenges and struggles that we, as readers of her work, are also bound to confront.
Anzaldúa's autobiography may be included within Caren Kaplan's category of “outlaw genres.” Such genres defy conventional distinctions between autobiography, poetic prose, mythical or magical narrative, political pamphlet and/or manifesto, critical essay and historical document. For one thing, Borderlands/La Frontera incorporates and mingles all of these genres in an original production where the more aesthetic space of the text is grounded in the historical and political circumstances that pervade the “real” material space the speaking subject has inhabited. The terms “Borderlands/La Frontera” that entitle the work do not refer to a psychological disposition that easily accommodates contradictory categories. Anzaldúa is concerned with the material, psychological and emotional pain of those who live in the geographical, political, cultural and economic frontier between Mexico and the US. This is a struggle with contradictory notions of self-imposed by a variety of cultures. She attempts to forge a sense of place out of a sense of constant displacement. Her position, as she says repeatedly, is that of “mediator,” of someone who speaks for herself as both subject (a writer, an academic, and an author) and object (descendant of a Texan family of farmers whose territories were expropriated, a Chicana, a lesbian). Taking that double position and refusing to do away with it, she uses her knowledge, her privilege and her personal experience as a woman of Mexican origin, a descendant of migrant workers, and a lesbian, to establish a dialogue between these multiple locations and identities.
The very first chapter of Anzaldúa's work begins with the description and figurative representation of intercultural, geographic bloodshed in South Texas. The speaker places her own personal struggle within the history of her homeland, the side of the US-Mexican border “between the Nueces and the Rio Grande,” which she describes as an “open wound,” “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”5 This land, Anzaldúa says, “has survived possession and ill-use by five countries: Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the US, the Confederacy, and the US again. It has survived Anglo-Mexican blood feuds, lynchings, burnings, rapes, pillage” (90). The history of the Texas border between Mexico and the US is one of violent clashes, poverty, and displacement. Anzaldúa's birthplace was subjected to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century and the US invasion and “deterritorialization” of Mexican indigenous peoples since the early 1800s.6 US imperialism led to the creation of the Republic of Texas by Anglo-Texans in 1836, to the eventual annexation of the territory to the US in 1848, and to native Mexicans' virtual abandonment of the region in the 1850s. Anzaldúa tells us that the industrialization of the border following land expropriations and the establishment of agribusiness corporations and factories in the 1880s accounts for the massive presence of a poor Mexican migrant working class in this area. The speaker describes the subjection of her own family to race hatred after the Anglo invasion, her own widowed mother's and grandmother's loss of lands, and their powerlessness to contest a foreign law and language they did not understand. Borderlands merges collective, personal, and family history with popular sayings and songs such as those by the conjunto/band Los Tigres del Norte:
El otro México que acá hemos construido El espacio es lo que ha sido Territorio nacional. Este es el esfuerzo de todos nuestros hermanos Y latinoamericanos que han sabido Progresar [sic].
(The other Mexico that we have built here This space has been National territory. This is the struggle of all our brothers And Latin-Americans who've managed to make progress)
Like Cervantes' elegy, Anzaldúa's autobiographical writing springs from a collective history of cultural clashes and intends to be regenerating. Its rhetoric weaves descriptions of the “real” geographical, socio-cultural space of the borderlands and of the “imagined” space of a new mestiza healing consciousness. This new consciousness takes marginality in its various forms as a starting point for redefining American culture and geographical borders. It claims a “third culture,” a “closed culture,” a homeland which the speaker identifies with the mythical, utopian, egalitarian land that Chicanos invented in the 1960s and called Aztlán. Aztlán is the name that Aztec Indians had supposedly given to the territories now consisting of the US Southwestern States that used to belong to Mexico.7 In her “re-appropriation” of Aztlán the new mestiza redefines American nationalism and Chicano ethnic nationalism. She stands up against the constitution of the American national imagery at the expense of ethnic minorities and non-heterosexual people, but she also opposes the Chicano nationalist discourse of the late 1960s that excluded both women and homosexuals. As Norma Alarcón has argued, the utopian “neonationalism” or “ethnonationalism” of writers like Anzaldúa is guided by the notions of provisionality, multiplicity, and never by the separatist utopianism of former Chicano cultural nationalism:8
[I]n the Americas today, the processes of sociopolitical empire and nation-making displacements over a five-hundred-year history are such that the notion of “Home” is as mobile as the populations, a “home” without juridically nationalized geopolitical territory.9
As revisited by Anzaldúa, Aztlán ceases to be geographical territory that must be “re-conquered.” Despite this writer's appropriation of the indigenist Chicano term, Aztlán changes its meaning to stand for a symbolic claim for the rights of the dispossessed. In Anzaldúa's work it is a utopia forged by a new hybrid, mestiza consciousness, a land where illegal Mexican workers, sexual outlaws and other disenfranchised beings may coexist with their particular differences. As the African-American cultural critic bell hooks has observed, “[s]paces can be real and imagined. Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories. Spaces can be interrupted, appropriated, and transformed through artistic and literary practice.”10 For Anzaldúa, Aztlán is the borderlands to which the title of her work alludes. This region, very much in spite of Anzaldúa, is a real “frontline, a war zone,” the habitat of the undocumented, the queers, the maquiladora workers, the farm workers, the cholo gangs, the mojada (female wetback),11 “the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead” (3).
In addition, Aztlán also stands for the subjective borderlands of the imagination, a site of conflict and resistance that is, as we will see, crucial for the regenerating and healing process that Anzaldúa's creative writing seeks to bring about. In both cases, the borderlands, are, as she says in the preface, “not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.”12 In its claim for a “safe” communal place where sexism, racism and any other discriminatory practices will not exist, in its distinction between the oppressors and the oppressed, as well as in the manifest internal fragmentation of the autobiographical self and the communities described, Borderlands follows Caren Kaplan's definition of “cultural autobiography.” Kaplan observes that this sort of personal stories that link individuals with communities go beyond the limits of the individual and the exclusive focus on the self of Western autobiographies, becoming instead forms of healing and cultural survival.13 In the case of Anzaldúa, the title of her work is an indicator that this healing must come from a dangerous mental and cultural region between the self and Other.
The histories of collective displacement and struggle where Anzaldúa grounds her narrative have their counterpart in the psychological “inner war” of the autobiographical subject, a correlate of the outside wars occurring in specific borderland territories. As a lesbian and as a Chicana, Anzaldúa's autobiographical persona, the mestiza, lives in a constant state of transition between cultural codes, in a constant war against a “cultural tyranny” that often makes her afraid of being rejected in both the Anglo and the Chicano communities. The speaker establishes the usual equivalence between home, race, culture and community, but her own hesitance and fear of going back reveals the inadequacy of such identification. She has “[f]ear of going home. And of not being taken in. … Most [queers] unconsciously believe that if we reveal this unacceptable part of the self our mother/culture/race will totally reject us.” For the woman of color the world “is not a safe place to live in”: “Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self” (20). The mestiza feels “sold out” by her people, and defines herself as “hija de la chingada” (daughter of the fucked one), thus turning over the fundamental Mexican cultural construct of woman as traitor that will be later explored in this essay. Even if “‘home’ permeates every sinew and cartilage” in her body, she abhors and escapes the way her culture treats women in making them meek and subservient to men: “I had to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me” (16). Her “guerra de independencia” (war of independence) is a battle against herself to bring out the various others that make her a stranger in a variety of homes. In Borderlands the “Shadow-Beast,” Coatlicue, Cihuacoatl (the serpent goddess), and the various dark aspects of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin become the figurative representations of these others in herself, the rebels that “refuse to take orders from outside authorities” and go against imposed paradigms and behavior (16). Anzaldúa's confrontation of the “Shadow Beast,” to give an example, is a fight against the fear felt when a culture makes one push the supposedly “unacceptable parts into the shadows,” a fear that in psychoanalytical terms is known as abjection.
Kristeva defines the abject as the filthy, the horrid; in other words, that which the subject thrusts aside in order to live, and which in writing or representation becomes a metaphor of Otherness or alterity: “what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.”14 Kristeva's definition of the marginal involves conceiving it as a generalized, neutralized Other that may be found in the limits of representation of a decontextualized, disengaged writing.15 In a different vein, the feminist critic Judith Butler, suggests that there are certain abject zones within the social order that also threaten with dissolution; these are zones that the subject imagines as a threat to its own integrity and to which it responds “I would rather die than do or be that.”16 As George Yúdice remarks, the recognition that there is something other upon which writing and representation rest, is no guarantee that we are interested in the marginality of actual people.17 Anzaldúa does not merely want to unsettle the symbolic order that defines and constrains a subject trapped in language. She is not content with textual pleasure and disruption and cannot write from a figurative “pure” abjection or marginality, but from the constant repositioned margin that she calls the borderlands. The experience she relates is one of historical, social and institutional estrangement from a variety of codes and cultures. In order to overcome this eternal, “pure,” marginal position, meaning and figuration cannot possibly be effaced or collapsed; rather, they have to be constantly reconstructed and renewed to produce new values by taking what can be used from each and everyone of the codes the mestiza is exposed to.
Anzaldúa urges us to explore the relationship between the psychological, the historical and the social. She strives to find a “path of knowledge—one of knowing [and of learning] the history of oppression of our raza [race]” (19). In this particular case, the speaker's sexual difference and displacement as a lesbian in Chicano/a and American culture, and her marginal position as a woman within the Chicano/a community, has provided a way to understand her liminality with respect to cultural codes and discourses. She sees herself as “half and half, mita' y mita,' neither one or the other.” She “made the choice to be queer” and, therefore, “slips in and out of the white, the Catholic, the Mexican, the indigenous, the instincts” and fights against the despotic power of value laden dualisms and binary oppositions such as man-woman, white-Mexican, heterosexual-lesbian (19). For many feminist separatists lesbianism has been a speaking position from which it has been possible to undermine dualities, but this position has also established the limits of one's identity against patriarchy. This is the case, for example, of Faultline, the first “coming-out” novel written by Sheila Ortiz-Taylor, a writer of Mexican descent. The metaphor of the “faultline” that titles her work stands for a marginal position from which to unsettle dualities. The novel proposes a utopian familial order that is founded upon the common eccentric psychological disposition of her characters. This position is only vaguely related to “real” social struggles against oppression. Conversely, in Borderlands lesbianism is more a sign of the speaker's multiple identity that is subject to change depending on history and circumstance, than of an inherent “true” psychological identity. No doubt, Borderlands belongs to innovative autobiographical narratives by women of color in which, according to Biddy Martin, lesbianism is no longer an exclusionist ground for identity politics, but a central position from which women can launch a political and intellectual project. In these writings lesbianism does not create identity boundaries; nor does it do away with them completely; it helps the subject to remain in a constant state of “renegotiation” of boundaries, to create coalitions and affiliations that are not always comfortable, to imagine “home” as always provisional.18 Both at the level of content and form, Borderlands disrupts clear-cut views of identity, disciplinary categories, generic paradigms, forms of thought, and barriers between languages and national loyalties. As Anzaldúa says, the mestiza has both many names and no names and crosses over from one identity to another not without pain or struggle. Each crossing involves “making sense,” “making connections,” “formulating insights,” “incrementing consciousness” about all the different worlds that she inhabits (43-8). The “thin edge of barbwire,” which the speaker identifies as the mestiza's home in the first pages of Borderlands, is another of Anzaldúa's vivid images evoking this sense of displacement as well as the blood and the pain of crossing borders—be them physical or psychological.
As a “mediator” between cultures that defies oppressive hierarchical structures and binary oppositions, Anzaldúa's persona faces the challenge posited by the postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak. In her now classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak has reminded us of the importance of distinguishing between aesthetic representation (Darstellung, to speak about) and political representation (Vertretung, to speak for). Her emphasis on the double meaning of the notion of “representation,” as exemplified by the two German terms, should be a warning to all those who claim to speak for those who cannot do so for themselves. For Spivak, the distinction between speaking about and speaking for stands for the difficult predicament of the post-colonial intellectual and/or writer that wants to “unlearn” the discursive mechanisms that keep the Other silent, and attempts to rewrite and represent its history. As Spivak sees it, this intellectual and/or writer needs to be aware that “representing” in art or philosophy (darstellen) is also “speaking for” (vertreten). Both meanings of the term are related but not necessarily consistent nor in harmony with each other. Those who stage representational practices (Darstellung) may be the agents of the present, oppressive structure of power or the proponents of a different, liberating one (Vertretung). Spivak is therefore concerned with the ways in which writers and intellectuals deal with their double position as witnesses of the experience of certain groups, and as interpreters of such an experience from within official institutions. The intellectual may define the concrete experience of others without being critical of the position from which he/she speaks within institutions that serve power, which precludes the production of a counter-ideology.19 If, as Spivak says, the language of those who dominate the subaltern is at once the language that represents her, she can never be known, can never speak and, therefore, is condemned to perpetual Otherness.
Gloria Anzaldúa's speaking subject is not fully Other in any of the communities she speaks about, and yet she is also Other in that she does not fully feel at home in any of them. The following passage illustrates the mestiza's ambiguous position:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.
The way for Anzaldúa to avoid fetishising or aestheticising Otherness while yet speaking about and for its various forms, is to turn her marginal position in relation to several communities to her advantage. This allows her to redefine the concept of Otherness and marginality as a position from which one can speak. Because the speaker is never fully comfortable anywhere, she always speaks from the margin of a community or a discourse, but that margin is constituted by drawing on elements that may be central in other discourses. Marginality to a place means being in the center of something else; yet, that center always shifts depending on what she has to oppose, and such constant shifting prevents her from falling into the trap of constructing an absolute center and an absolute margin. In consequence, she disrupts binary oppositions and learns “to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view (…) to juggle cultures” (79). This double position of centrality within marginality allows the mestiza to speak both for and about others while always calling attention to the fact that her perspective is partial, insecure, and that it is always open to new meanings that may change.
Knowledge, as Anzaldúa says, is the only way in which “divided loyalties” can be overcome and boundaries can be redrawn: “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images of our heads” (87). These “images of our heads,” which we may also call myths, have, according to Roland Barthes, a historical foundation: “myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.”20 In becoming form, Barthes argues, the mythical signifier, the semiological chain upon which it is built, loses historicity; meaning is not lost, only impoverished, divested of the contingency that produced it. Barthes stresses the open character of myth, the instability of its meaning, its dependability on function: “the fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated.”21 A very pertinent instance to the subject of this discussion is the historical/mythical figure of Malinche, who has been appropriated according to different purposes in Mexican/Chicano culture.22 For Chicanas like Anzaldúa, mythmaking has the function of re-telling or rather re-imagining history from a female perspective, as well as of celebrating a lost indigenous female racial heritage and pride. The best antidote to myth, Barthes says, is to use artificial myths as a weapon: “since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?”23 In this vein, Anzaldúa constructs a counter-mythical language. As she puts it, she wants the freedom “to fashion my gods out of my entrails,” a new culture “with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture” (22). Anzaldúa does not represent reality as it really is; she creates a whole new signification out of a variety of revised, appropriated Mexican signifiers. As Rachel Blau Duplessis has put it, “making a critical mythopoesis goes against the grain of a major function of myth: the affirmation of dominant culture.” The critical mythic act may be used to say that a group is the privileged site of noncolonial consciousness, which reiterates and capitalizes on the affirmative function of myth and applies it to what Duplessis calls “the muted group.”24 On the other hand, as Duplessis says, to tell tales that are not central to mainstream culture involves the transformation of hegemonic society and its history.25
The speaking subject of Borderlands is enmeshed in a racial formation where there is a strong association between race and culture. As Mary Kaminsky has said, in the US “white is the norm and non-white is race.”26 This speaking subject appropriates indigenous figures and gives them politicized oppositional value even at the expense of inverting the white-Other opposition. Paradoxically, the fusion of opposites black-white, light-darkness, night-day is described as embodied by the indigenous goddess Coatlicue. In the chapter entitled “Entering into the Serpent” Anzaldúa claims back the resisting power of Aztec goddesses embodied by the serpent. This violent, destructive aspect of the female goddesses was suppressed with the advent of patriarchy, which caused the division of female deities into benevolent creatures of light and creation and monstrous creatures of night and destruction. Coatlicue and the various powerful aspects of this serpent goddess—Cihuacoatl, Cotlalopeuh, Tlazolteotl, Tonantzin—are all reincarnations of what the speaker calls “the godwoman in me” (50), the archetypal representation of the fusion of opposites—male-female, life-death, light-darkness—that prevailed in an early matrilineal Aztec society. The serpent becomes a symbol of a long-lost Aztec female power with which the speaker confronts dominant mythical tales that deny it. Drawing on anthropological sources that legitimate her account, Anzaldúa's mestiza traces the oppression of women back to Aztec mythologies that emerged with the rise of institutions of patrilineal descent from the 9th to the 11th centuries AD. These mythologies show the growing importance of the values of war, valor, and arms which eventually would prevail in the male-dominated Aztec state. The oppression of the indigenous woman is traced back to the disruption of the balance between male and female forces that culminated in the constitution of this state and the destruction of a matrilineal society based on the equal distribution of power amongst clans and tribes. With the extinction of the female resisting force in Aztec culture, wailing became the Indian woman's only form of protest in male-dominated world.27
Apart from drawing on the historical and social implications of mythology, Anzaldúa also recasts the colonial allegories of the Spanish and Mexican fathers, where Woman is depicted as the internal essence of a violated tradition, culture and place that Man needs to protect or possess. These sexualized allegories of the rape of the land, Norma Alarcón tells us, are the base of the dichotomy between virgins (docile women) and whores (treacherous women).28 Anzaldúa claims that her Chicana identity “is grounded in the Indian woman's history of resistance,” a history of silent resistance that conceals the real-life stories of indigenous women (54). She uses the popular legend of La Llorona against the grain of its usual social function in Mexican/Chicano culture. In its most traditional interpretations, La Llorona is a negative image of motherhood; a supernatural figure eternally condemned to search for her lost children as a punishment for her illicit affair with a white man or a man of higher social standing. In Anzaldúa's text, however, the wailing woman is identified with those women who participated in the collective rituals of mourning and wailing at a time in which women had no other recourse for protesting against war (33). It is by recasting this popular legendary or mythical figures that Anzaldúa recovers the unrecorded history of women who lost their children in battle. She also pays homage to the women who, like Mexico's mythical mother Malinche, have been and are being betrayed by their own culture and forced to remain silent during the aggression of another culture.29 These “unofficial” historical sources such as the legend of la Llorona and the story of Malinche are related to the history of all the women who have been made ashamed of their condition, enslaved and abused by their Aztec, Mexican, Spaniard, Anglo and Chicano male counterparts. The contemporary version of these figures are Mexican migrant female workers, the mojada, the woman at the maquiladora,30 and any other Latin-American women who have suffered in intercultural warfare. Even if Anzaldúa's mythological figures such as Coatlicue occasionally evoke an idyllic past free of oppositions, dualities and hierarchies, and hence, of patriarchy, her mythology has healing function in the present and a liberating potential in a distant future. This counter-mythology disputes those master narratives that fail to comprise the local experiences of the marginal subjects Anzaldúa speaks about. In addition, they reclaim and rework the past to create a new cultural ethos and a new historical subject, becoming, in Juan Flores and George Yúdice's words, an “ethnicity-as-practice.”31 Myths are mainly used by the speaking subject as affirmative, resisting tools with the aim of raising consciousness rather than as proposals of a single, authentic female ethnic self. The autobiographical subject has a mediating function insofar as it tells about a history of resistance in which she is also immersed, not about the universal, univocal, transparent Chicana/o experience and history.
As Barthes has rightly argued, myth abolishes the complexity of human acts and lives,32 so part of Anzaldúa's writing complements her political mythology with a more realistic style that conveys disturbing scenes from these women's ordinary lives. The poem “En nombre de todas las madres que han perdido a sus hijos en la guerra,” (“In the name of all the women who have lost their children in war”) included in the section of Borderlands entitled “Women Alone,” is Anzaldúa's homage to this silent resistance. Seeking to recover the voices of real women, the poem is the grievous monologue of a Latin-American working class mother. She is sitting by a pool of blood after her youngest son has been killed by a bullet during a war in an unidentified Latin-American country. Unlike other bilingual poems where Anzaldúa provides a glossary for non-Spanish speakers, this poem is entirely written in Spanish, which emphasizes the Otherness of the speaker for an Anglo reading public. The poem begins with the woman's thoughts as she holds her dead child in her arms in a pool or blood and refuses to move. She then gives vivid, horrifying descriptions of the shootings that have caused the death of people and children like her own, the shelling that has broken the land, and, with an imprecation to the Mother of God, reflects her own distress over so much death and destruction:
Le cubro su cabecita, mi criatura con sus piesecitos fríos. Aquí lo tendré acurrucado en mis brazos -hasta que me muera. Parece años desde que estoy sentada aquí en este charco de sangre. Esto pasó esta mañana.
Cuando oí ese tiroteo se me paró la sangre. Con el niño dormido en mis brazos corrí pa'fuera. Trozos de tierra se levantaban, volaban por todos los rumbos. Pedazos de ramas caían como lluvia, una lluvia mohosa. Vi a mis vecinos caer heridos, la sangre chiris pitiando en mis brazos, cayendo en su carita.
Unos soldados pecho a tierra disparaban sus rifles y más ayá vi unos hombres armados con ametralladoras, disparaban a la gente, a los jacales. Cerca de mis pies la balacera rompía la tierra. Detrás de mi sentí mi jacal echar fuego, un calor fuerte me aventó adelante. Tres golpes en el pecho sentí, uno tras otro, vi los agujeros de su camisita. (…)
Todo el mundo olía a sangre. Madre dios, ¿quién habrá cometido este mal?
(I cover his little head, my baby with little cold feet. I will nurse him in my arms until I die. It seems years since I've been sitting here In this pool of blood. It just happened this morning.
When I heard the shooting My blood stopped. With the boy asleep in my arms I ran outside. Pieces of earth were flying, Flying in all directions. Pieces of branches falling like rain, A moldy rain. I saw my wounded neighbours fall, The blood splashing my arms, Falling on his little face.
Some soldiers lying on the ground Were shooting their guns And further ahead I saw some men with weapons, Shooting at the people, at the kids. Down by my feet the bullets were breaking the soil. And behind me I felt my son go on fire, A strong heat pushed me forward. I felt three blows on my chest, one after the other I saw the holes on his little shirt. (…)
Everything smelled of blood. Mother of God, who will have done this evil?)
This Third World pietà gives us an explicit description of the child's mutilated body, thus conveying a dramatic depiction of the effects of war:
Con un pedazo de mi falda, le limpio su carita salpicada de sangre. Ay, Madre dios, un ojito le cuelga y el otro no parpadea. Ay mijito, no pude atajarte la muerte. Un duelo me sube como una fiebre. ¿Quién curará a mi hijo?
Mojo su cuerpecito. Entre su pavico meto su intestino. Aplico a sus ojos agua fría. Pongo su ojito izquierdo en su cuenca, se le sale y se le resbala por su mejilla. Limpio la sangre en sus párpados. Soplo sobre su cabecita, soplo sobre sus cuevas. Nueve veces soplo. Sane, mi hijo, sane.
(With a piece of my skirt, I clean his little face Splashed with blood, Ah, Mother of God, one of his eyes is hanging The other one cannot blink. Ah, my son, I could not prevent your death. Pain grows like fever. Who will heal my son?
I wet his little body. I put his intestine back in place. I wash his eyes with cold water. I put back his left eye in his socket, And it comes out and slides down his cheeks. I clean the blood in his eyelids. I blow over his little head, I blow over his sockets. I blow nine times. There, my son, there.)
The low-class indigenous woman, usually misconceived through stereotypes as ignorant, superstitious, submissive, silent and long-suffering is replaced by a mad, desperate woman whose prayers to a fundamental maternal figure, the Virgin Mary, combine with her rage and desire to kill all those men who make war. Although she remains powerless and paralyzed by pain, she now questions her very role as a woman and as a mother:
Qué han hecho con nuestra tierra? ¿Pa' qué hacemos niños? ¿Pa' qué les damos vida? ¿Para qué sean masacracos? ¿Para qué los güeros se burlen de la gente? En sus ojos nosotros los indios somos peores que los animales.
(What have they done to our land? Why do we breed children? Why do we give them life? So that they be massacred? So that Whites laugh at our people? In their eyes, we Indians are worse than animals.)
The woman's desperate, failed attempts to repeat the ritual of maternity highlight the contradictions between patriarchal institutionalized motherhood in many Latin-American countries (marianismo),33 and the actual meaninglessness of this ritual in the context of the attacks from “remote places” on the land and civilian population (163). The poem culminates in the woman's prayer to the Virgin in the name of all the women who have lost their children in a war, a prayer for her own death, and for the safety of the soul of her child who died too young to be a good Christian.
Anzaldúa does not only deal with women's agony, for Chicano/Mexican men have also suffered self-effacement and humiliation during social exploitation, war, and occupation, which has led them to make women the scapegoats of their fears of emasculation. An alternative source of self-validation and collaboration between men and women, Anzaldúa writes, should be found in the rewriting of history and culture—not in the humiliation of women. Writing against silence is however not an easy task, especially for women. As she says in a passage describing the writing process, her words are a struggle against a silence produced by violence, a silence which in turn has brought about her own ignorance of the stories of other women of previous generations. In the poem “To Live in the Borderlands Means You,” the mestiza affirms that the india in her, betrayed 500 years ago, is no longer speaking to her (145). While the French feminist ideologue Hélène Cixous traces the source of her language to her union with her mother and her “good mother's milk,”34 the mestiza finds in the shared silence and oppression of indigenous peoples the image for her writing practice. As in Cervantes' poem, blood becomes Anzaldúa's metaphor for describing the struggle to find a voice and resist the erasure of a violent culture and history: “Escribo con la tinta de mi sangre [I write with the ink of my blood]. I write in red. (…) Daily, I battle the silence and the red. Daily, I take my throat in my hands and squeeze until the cries pour out, my larynx and soul sore from the constant struggle” (71-72).
Like any other text by a woman of color in which indigenous mythologies, stories and popular culture are present, Borderlands runs the risk of becoming an exotic commodity in a market ruled by what Robert Carr calls the “shock of the new.”35 However, the resisting strategies of this cultural autobiography cannot be ignored. Anzaldúa's autobiographical persona does not emerge as the external intelligence of an essentialised ethnic self. The autobiographical “I” speaks against a variety of ethnic, political, feminist, national élites by refusing the steps followed by traditional, linear, fictional and/or non-fictional autobiographical narratives. Both of these genres consolidate all their parts in a monologic “I” and find a source of authority in the suppression of the sources of their enunciation.36 As in the resisting autobiographies that Caren Kaplan calls “outlaw genres,” Anzaldúa's Borderlands blends family history, testimony, personal accounts, lyrical prose, poetry, popular songs and sayings, mythology, fantasy and political discourse. This collective, cultural autobiography makes a constant reference to the sources of the speaker's discourse (her ambiguous position as a woman born and raised in the Texas border, a lesbian, a Chicana with divided loyalties towards Mexican culture, an American citizen that condemns the militarization and industrialization of the border). The text therefore avoids centralizing the fragmented self and community in a coherent “I” or a coherent narrative. Anzaldúa's purpose is twofold. She lets us know how her predicament and that of other Chicanos/as has been affected by the manipulation of representation and history. She also participates in the creation of una cultura mestiza (a mestiza culture) out of the pain and struggle of living in the borderlands of various codes. It is in this borderland psychic space where her new feminist, Chicana, working class vision is forged. The borderlands are therefore both a physical and a psychological territory where several emotions, cultures, discourses, economies and subjects clash and become intertwined. The Mexican-American border regions are the dwelling of those who suffer from the total or partial estrangement, rejection and marginalisation from the American and the Mexican nations, from their own families, from their own culture. This multi-faceted Otherness, the simultaneous association to and dissociation from a variety of places and collectivities, which is indeed painful, is turned into something positive by the Chicana writer.
It is the source of the borderland consciousness that, as the mestiza puts it, “take[s] inventory,” “[d]espojando, desgranando, quitando paja” (removing, separating, throwing out chaff), and differentiates between “lo heredado, lo adquirido, lo impuesto” (between inherited, acquired, imposed values), filtering the lies, “(l)uego bota lo que no vale” (tosses out what is not useful). Thus, Anzaldúa's mestiza gets rid of oppressive traditions but includes men, white people, homosexuals, and the variety of ethnic groups that make up US society in the creation of a new culture: “The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian—our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains” (82). The mestiza identifies with the forgotten mythical aspects of indigenous female figures. Part of her inner and outer struggle is the appropriation of and the coming to terms with these figures as a woman indebted to the indigenist, working class politics of the Chicano movement and to the feminist politics of women of color. She therefore salvages and revises popular legends and history. Hence, the borderlands, which are initially a symbol for otherness are turned into a new location for the speaking subject whose language is created by means of the strategic recovery of histories and cultures and the reinvention of myths. In speaking from the psychic and physical space of the borderlands, the Other mediates and negotiates between codes. In Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera the blood spilt in geographic and cultural borderlands by indigenous peoples, farmers, mojadas, cholos, migrant field or maquiladora workers, lesbians, American-Indians, Blacks, Whites or Asian is a fertile blood. This blood transforms into a writing that transmits communal knowledge, positive images of self and community, and a desire for a social and intellectual ethos free of confining racial, social, gender and national boundaries.
For some Chicana writers like Cervantes and Anzaldúa, the use of code switching from Spanish to English and vice versa is a way of expressing a bicultural identity. I have found it pertinent to translate the sections in Spanish in order to make them understandable to non-Spanish speaking readers. These sections will appear in brackets next to the original Spanish words.
Lorna Dee Cervantes, Emplumada (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981) 42.
“Epistemic violence” the term the post-colonial critic Gayatri Spivak uses to refer to the unquestioned premises by which the absolute Other has always been a “pure” signifier and a refraction of the Western imperialist self. According to Spivak, the cultural self-representation of the colonizer is always at the expense of the figure of the “native” who cannot speak and is portrayed as an unchanging essence. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1988) 271-313.
Caren Kaplan, “Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects,” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, ed. Sidonie Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) 115-138.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (S. Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987) 3. Further references to this edition will be given after quotations in the text.
Deleuze and Guattari use the term “deterritorialization” to refer to the constant movement and displacement of peoples and cultures in the contemporary world. “Deterrítorialization” also alludes to affective, social and economic losses. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking Press, 1972).
Alurista, “Cultural Nationalism and Chicano Literature,” Missions in Conflict: Essays on US-Mexican Relations and Chicano Culture, eds. Renate von Bardeleben, Dietrich Briesemeister, and Juan Bruce-Novoa (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1986) 41-52.
For more detailed accounts of the cultural nationalism of the Chicano Movement and its political failures, see Carlos Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (New York: Verso, 1989), and Suzanne Oboler, Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
Norma Alarcón, “Anzaldúa's Frontera: Inscribing Gynetics,” Displacement, Diaspora and Geographies of Identity, eds. Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg (Durham, NC, and London: Duke U P, 1996) 41-53.
bell hooks, Yearning. Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990) 152.
The cholo is the contemporary version of the pachuco, the Mexican-American young man who is part of a gang. The mojada or wetback is an undocumented person who crosses the Río Grande.
Unpaged preface to Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera.
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia U P, 1982) 2.
George Yúdice, “Testimonio y Concientización,” Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 36.2 (1992): 207-227.
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) 243.
Biddy Martin, “Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference(s),” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, eds. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenk (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988) 77-103.
Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 275.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 110.
In her work La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), Sandra Messinger Cypess traces the development of this figure from the work of the chroniclers and inventors of legends after the conquest (where she appears as the Great Mother of a new Mexican mestizo race) to the literature and essays of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries during the Mexican independence and post-independence movements (where she is portrayed as the traitor to her people, a victim, or as is the case in the literature of Mexican and Chicana writers, an example of assertive womanhood).
Rachel Blau Duplessis, Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985) 107.
Amy Kaminsky, “Gender, Race, Raza,” Feminist Studies 20.1 (1994): 7-31.
One of Anzaldúa's sources is the anthropological essay by June Nash “The Aztecs and the Ideology of Male Dominance” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4.2 (1978): 349-362.
Norma Alarcón, “Traddutora, Traditora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism,” Cultural Critique 13 (1989): 57-87.
La Llorona and La Malinche are recurrent figures in the literature by Chicanas. These figures result from the opposition between the White Anglo/Spanish father and the Mestiza/Indian/Mexican mother as a sign of feminist-indigenist self-affirmation. Many essays have been published with regard to the resisting potential of the myth and the legend for Mexican and Chicana feminists. Two of the most compelling ones are Norma Alarcón, “Traddutora, Traditora” and José E. Limón, “La Llorona, The Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women and the Political Unconscious,” Renato Rosaldo Series Monograph, ed. Ignacio M. García, vol. 2 (1984-85) (Mexican American Studies & Research Center, University of Arizona, 1986) 59-93.
The maquiladoras are the foreign-owned assembly plants that line all the US-Mexico border. They resulted from the Border Industrialization Program (BIP), initiated by the government of Mexico in 1966. Intended to reduce the number of illegal immigrants into the US, this industrialization program led to the proliferation of these industries. However, immigration increased.
Juan Flores and George Yúdice, “Living Borders/Buscando América: Languages of Latino Self-Formation,” Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity, ed. Juan Flores (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1992) 218-219.
For a further discussion on how the nationalist-Catholic gender ideology of marianismo has become a political as well as a resistance tool in Latin-American totalitarian regimes see Sarah A. Radcliffe, “Women's Place/El lugar de las mujeres,” Place and the Politics of Identity, eds. Michael Keith and Steve Pile (New York & London: Routledge, 1993) 102-116.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price-Herndl (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991) 339.
Robert Carr, “Representando el testimonio: notas sobre el cruce divisorio primer mundo/tercer mundo,” Revista de crítica literaria norteamericana xviii.36 (1992): 73-94.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6387
SOURCE: Alarcón, Norma. “Anzaldúa's Frontera: Inscribing Gynetics.” In Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader, edited by Gabriela F. Arredondo, Aída Hurtado, Norma Klahn, Olga Nájera-Ramírez, and Patricia Zavella, pp. 354-69. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.
[In the following essay, Alarcón analyzes the role of Anzaldúa's theory of mestiza consciousness in her attempt to repossess the borderlands in Borderlands/La Frontera.]
THE INSCRIPTION OF THE SUBJECT
In our time the very categorical and/or conceptual frameworks through which we explicitly or implicitly perceive our sociopolitical realities and our own subjective (private) contextual insertion are very much in question. There is a desire to construct our own (women of color) epistemologies and ontologies and to obtain the interpretive agency with which to make claims to our own critical theory. Theoretically infused writing practices, such as those found in anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981); All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave (Hull, Scott, and Smith 1982), and Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color (Anzaldúa 1990), are salient testaments to that desire for inscription in a different register—the register of women of color.
The self that writes combines a polyvalent consciousness of “the writer as historical subject (who writes? and in what context?), but also writing itself as located at the intersection of subject and history—a literary and sociological practice that involves the possible knowledge (linguistic and ideological) of itself as such” (Trinh 1989, 6). Self-inscriptions, as focal point of cultural consciousness and social change, weave into language the complex relations of a subject caught in the contradictory dilemmas of race, gender, ethnicity, sexualities, and class, transition between orality and literacy, and the “practice of literature as the very place where social alienation is thwarted differently according to each specific context” (Trinh 1990, 245).
Self-inscription as focal point of cultural consciousness and social change is as vexed a practice for the more “organic/specific” intellectual as it is for the “academic/specific” intellectual trained in institutions whose business is often to continue to reproduce his hegemonic hold on cognitive charting and its (political) distribution in the academy itself. As a result, it should be no surprise that critics of color, in a context different from that of Bridge [This Bridge Called My Back] and thus differently articulated, nevertheless critique through their exclusion, their absence or displacement in the theoretical production and positions taken by Euroamerican feminists and African Americanists. “The black woman as critic and more broadly as the locus where gender-, class-, and race-based oppression intersect, is often invoked when Anglo-American feminists and male Afro-Americanists begin to rematerialize their discourse” (Smith 1989, 44). Thus, cultural/national dislocations also produce cognitive ones as the models that assume dominance increasingly reify their discourse through the use of nonrevised theories, thus resembling more and more so-called androcentric criticisms. In other words, Smith says, “When historical specificity is denied or remains implicit, all the women are presumed white, all the blacks male. The move to include black women as historical presences and as speaking subjects in critical discourse may well then be used as a defense against charges of racial hegemony on the part of white women and sexist hegemony on the part of black males” (44-45). Thus the “black woman” appears as “historicizing presence,” which is to say that, as the critical gaze becomes more distanced from itself as speaker, it looks to “black women” as the objective difference that historicizes the text in the present, signaling the degree to which such theorists have ambiguously and ambivalently assumed the position of Same/I as mediated by current critical theories. In this circuitous manner, the critical eye/I claims Same/Not Same, an inescapability that itself is in need of elaboration through the narratives that incorporate the historical production of differences for the purpose of exclusion, repression, and oppression. The inscription of the subject takes place in a polyvalent historical and ideological context that demands larger frames of intelligibility than that of a self/other duality.
Insofar as the critical discourses of Euroamerican feminists transform white patriarchal thought via the critical infusion of gender and sexuality, and racialized men challenge a white supremacist patriarchy via the critical infusion of race, women of color who are minimally intersected by these are excluded from what become accepted critical discourses in institutions. Though it is no small critical achievement to transform conceptual frames of intelligibility through the inclusion of a culturally produced category of difference, the fact remains that women of color, by our mere existence and self-inscription, continue to question those critical hermeneutics that silence the very possibility of another critical practice that does not foreclose inclusion or at least reveals awareness of the exclusions that make the construction of our work possible. The work of women of color emerges through the critical and material gap produced by multiple exclusions in the silences of the text that further may implicitly suggest inclusion such that we appear to be working together in opposition to the “Name of the Father and the Place of the Law.” Are we?
Smith goes on to affirm that as black feminist theorists emerge they challenge “the conceptualizations of literary study and concern themselves increasingly with the effect of race, class, and gender on the practice of literary criticism” (1989, 46-47). My intention here is not so much to produce a “literary criticism” for Chicanas, nor do I want to be limited by the reach of what are perceived as “literary texts.” I want to be able to hybridize the textual field so that what is at stake is not so much our inclusion or exclusion in literary/textual genealogies and the modes of their production, which have a limited though important critical reach, but to come to terms with the formation and displacement of subjects as writers/critics/chroniclers of the nation and the possibility that we have continued to recodify a family romance, an oedipal drama in which the woman of color in the Americas has no “designated” place. That is, she is elsewhere. She is simultaneously presence/absence in the configurations of the nation-state and its narrative representation. Moreover, the moment she emerges as a “speaking subject in process” the heretofore triadic manner in which the modern world has largely taken shape becomes endlessly heterogeneous and ruptures the “oedipal family romance” that is historically marked white in the United States. The underlying structure of social and cultural forms in the organization of Western societies has been superimposed through administrative systems of domination—political, cultural, and theoretical—and subsequent counter-nation-making narratives have adapted such forms in the Americas that are now disrupted by the voice of writers/critics of color such as Chicanas, so that we must “make familia from scratch.”
In an earlier essay, “Chicana Feminisms: In the Tracks of the Native Woman” (1990), I appropriated as metonym and metaphor for the referent/figure of the Chicana the notion of the “differend” from Lyotard, which he defines as “a case of conflict between (at least) two parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of rule of judgment applicable to both arguments. One side's legitimacy does not imply the other's lack of legitimacy” (1988, 12). In part, her conflictive and conflicted position emerges as Smith affirms when the oppositional discourses of “white” women and “black” men vie for her “difference” as historical materialization and/or a shifting deconstructive maneuver of patriarchy, “The Name of the Father and the Place of the Law.” Yet one must keep in mind that Lyotard's disquisition on the term doesn't negotiate well the transitions between textual and political/juridical representation. As Fraser and Nicholson have noted, “There is no place in Lyotard's universe for critique of pervasive axes of stratification, for critique of broad-based relations of dominance and subordination along lines like gender, race and class” (1990, 23). Relations of dominance and subordination arise out of the political economy and the ways the nation has generated its own self-representation in order to harness its population toward its own self-projection on behalf of the elite. As such, the formation of political economies, in tandem with the making of nations, provides the locations from which historical material specificity arises and generates its own discourses. These discourses philosophically may or may not coincide with theories of textual representation, which may be held hostage through a discipline. The shift from theories of symbolic self-representation to juridical and phenomenological ones is not seamless; indeed, the interstice, discontinuity, or gap is precisely a site of textual production—the historical and ideological moment in which the subject inscribes herself contextually. In other words, the located historical writing subject emerges into conflictive discourses generated by theories of representation, whether juridical or textual/symbolic. Each is rule-governed by different presuppositions, and a Chicana may have better fortunes at representing herself or being represented textually than legally as a Chicana. That is, the juridical text is generated by the ruling elite, who have access to the state apparatus through which the political economy is shaped and jurisprudence is engendered, whereas representation in the cultural text may include representations generated by herself. However, insofar as the latter are, as it were, “marginalia,” they not only exist in the interstices, they are produced from the interstices. She, akin to Anzaldúa's “Shadow Beast,” sends us in as “stand-ins,” reinforcing and ensuring the interstitiality of a differend, as the very nonsite from which critique is possible. Her migratory status, which deprives her of the “protection” of “home,” whether a stable town or a nation-state, generates an “acoherent” though cogent discourse that it is our task to revise and inscribe.
It is, I believe, in the spirit of the above remarks, which are as much produced by my reading of Anzaldúa as hers are produced by her “hunger of memory,” and by a coming into “being,” which Anzaldúa understands to be both the truth and a fiction, a truth as the Shadow Beast who is continually complicit with and resistant to the stand-in, conscious will, and who “threatens the sovereignty” of conscious rulership, that the Shadow Beast ultimately undermines a monological self-representation, because it kicks out the constraints and “bolts” “at the least hint of limitations” (1987, 16).
Gloria Anzaldúa is a self-proclaimed Chicana from Hargill, Texas, a rural town in what is known as El Valle, the Valley. It is an agricultural area notorious for the mistreatment of people of Mexican descent, African Americans, and displaced indigenous peoples. Indeed, many of the narratives that emerge from that area tell of the conflictive and violent relations in the forging of an anglicized Texas out of the Texas-Coahuila territory of New Spain as well as of the eventual production of the geopolitical border between Mexico and the United States. These borderlands are spaces where, as a result of expansionary wars, colonization, juridico-immigratory policing, and coyote exploitation of emigrés and group-vigilantes, formations of violence are continuously in the making. These have been taking place as misogynist and racialized confrontations at least since the Spanish began to settle Mexico's (New Spain) “northern” frontier of what is now the incompletely Angloamericanized Southwest. Subsequently, and especially after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, these formations of violence have been often dichotomized into Mexican/American, which actually have the effect of muting the presence of indigenous peoples yet setting “the context for the formation of ‘races’” (Montejano 1987, 309).
Consequently, the modes of autohistoricization in and of the borderlands often emphasize or begin with accounts of violent racialized collisions. It is not surprising, then, that Anzaldúa should refer to the current U.S./Mexican borderline as an “open wound” from Brownsville to San Diego, from Tijuana to Matamoros, where the former are considerably richer than the latter and the geopolitical line itself artificially divides into a two-class/culture system; that is, the configuration of the political economy has the “Third” World rub against the “First.” Though the linguistic and cultural systems on the border are highly fluid in their dispersal, the geopolitical lines tend to become univocal, that is, “Mexican” and “Anglo.”
Of Hargill, Texas and Hidalgo County and environs, Anzaldúa says, “This land has survived possession and ill-use by five powers: Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, the Confederacy, and the U.S. again. It has survived Anglo-Mexican blood feuds, lynchings, burnings, rapes, pillage” (1987, 90). Hidalgo is the “most poverty stricken county in the nation as well as the largest home base (along with Imperial Valley in California) for migrant farmworkers.” She continues, “It was here that I was born and raised. I am amazed that both it and I have survived” (98).
Through this geographic space, then, people displaced by a territorialized political economy whose juridical centers of power are elsewhere, in this case Mexico, D.F., and Washington, D.C., attempt to reduce the level of material dispossession through the production of both counter- and disidentificatory discourses. That is, the land is repossessed in imaginary terms, both in the Lacanian and Althusserian sense. I return below to a more elaborate discussion of this proposition, which I also characterize as dialogically paradigmatic and syntagmatic, respectively, yielding a highly creative heteroglossia.
However, before turning to Anzaldúa's attempt to repossess the borderlands in polyvalent modes, let's quickly review one area of counteridentificatory or oppositional discursive productions that are based on a self/other dualistic frame of intelligibility. Thus, for example, Américo Paredes and now his follower José E. Limón claim El Valle as the site where the corrido originated. That is, in the Américas in the Valley of a landmass now named Texas a completely “new” genre emerged, the corrido. As such, Limón strategically moves the emergence toward a disengagement from claims of the corrido's origins in the Spanish romance—Spain's own border ballads. The Paredes-Limón move could be contextualized as a racialized-class-culture-based one, where “people” of Mexican descent mediate their opposition to Anglos via the corrido. The transformation and transfiguration in raced class-crossing remains unexplored (Limón 1992, chap. 1). That is, the metamorphoses of the Spanish ballad form are induced by the emergence of an oppositional hero in the U.S.-Mexico border whose race-class position is substantially different from Spanish ballad heroes, who are often members of the aristocracy. Limón's strategy is in contradiction to that of María Herrera-Sobek's in her book The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis (1990), where she aligns the corrido with the peninsular origins theory, in which border ballads also emerged in the making of Spain. Herrera-Sobek's lack of desire to disengage the formal origins from Spain in its Spanish-language form and relocalize them in Texas could be a function of an implicit feminist position. The representation of women, be it in the romance or the corrido, reenacts a spectacularly Manichaean or romantic scenario in patriarchal tableaux. Why claim a “new” genre when what we have is a “new” dispossessed figure with claims to becoming a hero for “his” people in a different formation—people of Mexican descent, Chicanos/as.
The point of my analysis, however, is to call attention to the need to “repossess” the land, especially in cultural nationalist narratives, through scenarios of origins that emerge in the self-same territory—be it at the literary, legendary, historical, ideological, critical, or theoretical level—producing in material and imaginary terms “authentic” and “inauthentic,” “legal” and “illegal” subjects. That is, the drive to territorialize/authenticate/legalize and deterritorialize/deauthenticate/delegalize is ever present, thus constantly producing “(il)legal”/(non)citizen-subjects both in political and symbolic representations in a geographic area where looks and dress have become increasingly telling of one's (un)documented status (Nathan 1991). It should be no surprise, then, that the corrido in the borderlands makes a paradigmatic oppositional hero of the persecuted in the figuration of the unjustly outlaw(ed), the unjustly (un)documented—in Anzaldúa's terms, Queers.
Thus, also, in Anzaldúa's terms, the convergence of claims to proper ownership of the land “has created a shock culture, a border culture, a third country, a closed country” (1987, 11). Here, the “detribalized” and dispossessed population is not only composed of “females, … homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned, the outcast, the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign” (38), but is also possessed of the “faculty,” a “sensing,” in short, a different consciousness, which is represented by the formulation of the consciousness of the “new mestiza,” a reconceptualized feminist consciousness that draws on cultural and biological miscegenation.
If, however, Gregorio Cortés becomes a paradigmatic oppositional corrido figure of Texas-Mexican ethnonationalism, given new energy after the publication of Paredes's With a Pistol in His Hand (1971 ), Anzaldúa crosscuts masculine-coded “Tex-Mex” nationalism through a configuration of a borderland “third country” as a polyvocal rather than univocal Imaginary and Symbolic. She says, “If going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture” (1987, 22). To the extent that she wavers in her desire for reterritorialization à la Gregorio Cortés's oppositional paradigm, the “third country” becomes a “closed country,” bounded; to the extent that she wants to undercut the “Man of Reason,” the unified sovereign subject of philosophy, she constructs a “crossroads of the self,” a mestiza consciousness. Anzaldúa's conceptualization of the mestiza as a produced vector of multiple culture transfers and transitions resonates simultaneously with Jameson's version of the Lacanian preindividualistic “structural crossroads,” that is, “in frequent shifts of the subject from one fixed position to another, in a kind of optional multiplicity of insertions of the subject into a relatively fixed Symbolic Order” (Jameson 1991, 354). It has resonance with Cornelius Castoriadis's version as well: “The subject in question is … not the abstract moment of philosophical subjectivity; it is the actual subject traversed through and through by the world and by others. … It is the active and lucid agency that constantly reorganizes its contents, through the help of these same contents, that produces by means of a material and in relation to needs and ideas, all of which are themselves mixtures of what it has already found there before it and what it has produced itself” (1987, 106). Notwithstanding the different locations of each theorist, Anzaldúa, Jameson, and Castoriadis, the resonance is inescapable. (As is the resonance with Trinh Minh-Ha, cited at the beginning of this essay.)
That transversal simultaneity is one where the speaking subject in process is both traversed “by the world and by others” and takes hold so as to exercise that “lucid agency that constantly reorganizes … contents” and works in what the subject has produced herself. Now, the relatively fixed Symbolic Order that Anzaldúa's text crosscuts is differently reorganized as she shifts the targets of engagement. It is now cutting across Eurohegemonic representations of Woman, now Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis (“I know things older than Freud” [Anzaldúa 1987, 26]), through Jungian psychoanthropology and the rationality of the sovereign subject as she in nonlinear and nondevelopmental ways shifts the “names” of her resistant subject positions: Snake Woman, La Chingada, Tlazolteotl, Coatlicue, Cihuacoatl, Tonantzin, Guadalupe, La Llorona. The polyvalent name insertions in Borderlands [Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza] are a rewriting of the feminine, a feminist reinscription of gynetics. Of such revisionary tactics, Drucilla Cornell says, in another context, “in affirmation, as a positioning, as a performance, rather than of Woman as a description of reality” (1991, 7). Because the category of Woman in the case of Chicanas/Latinas and other women of color has not been fully mapped nor rewritten across culture-classes, the multiple-writing, multiple-naming gesture must be carried out given the absence of any shared textualization. Thus, a text such as Anzaldúa's is the racialized “ethnic” performance of an implicitly tangential Derridean deconstructive gesture that “must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system” (Derrida 1982, 329; his italics). That is, through the textual production of, and the speaking position of, a “mestiza consciousness” and the recuperation and recodification of the multiple names of “Woman,” Anzaldúa deconstructs patriarchal ethnonational oppositional consciousness on the one hand, and its doublet, “the Man of Reason”—an oppositional consciousness, which, as stated earlier, is given shape through the dualism of self (raced male subject) and other (white male subject).
Insofar as Anzaldúa implicitly recognizes the power of the nation-state to produce “political subjects” who are now legal, now illegal, deprived of citizenship, she opts for “ethnonationalism” and reterritorialization in the guise of a “closed/third country.” Although she rejects a masculinist ethnonationalism that would exclude the Queer, she does not totally discard a “neonationalism” (i.e., the “closed/third country”) for the reappropriated borderlands, Aztlán. However, it is now open to all of the excluded, not just Chicanos, but all Queers. That is, the formation of a newer imaginary community in Aztlán would displace the ideology of the “holy family”/“family romance” still prevalent in El Valle and elsewhere in the Southwest, which makes it possible for many to turn away from confronting other social formations of violence.
The imaginary utopic community reconfirms from a different angle Liisa Malkki's claim that our confrontation with displacement and the desire for “home” brings into the field of vision “the sedentarist metaphysic embedded in the national order of things” (1992, 31). The counterdiscursive construction of an alternate utopic imagined community reproduces the “sedentarist metaphysic” in (re)territorialization. Malkki continues, “Sedentarist assumptions about attachment to place lead us to define displacement not as a fact about sociopolitical content, but rather as an inner, pathological condition of the displaced” (32-33). Anzaldúa has clear recognition of this in the very concept of a mestiza consciousness as well as in her privileging of the notion of migratoriness, the multiplicity of our names, and the reclamation of the borderlands in feminist terms that risk the “pathological condition” by representing the nonlinearity and the break with a developmental view of self-inscription: “We can no longer blame you nor disown the white parts, the male parts, the pathological parts, the queer parts, the vulnerable parts. Here we are weaponless with open arms, with only our magic. Let's try it our way, the mestiza way, the Chicana way, the woman way” (1987, 88). Indeed, the hunger for wholeness—el sentirse completa—guides the chronicles, and that hunger is the same desire that brings into view both the migratoriness of the population and the reappropriation of “home.” In the Américas today, the processes of sociopolitical empire and nation-making displacements over a 500-year history are such that the notion of “home” is as mobile as the populations, a “home” without juridically nationalized geopolitical territory.
THE SHADOW BEAST MOVES US ON
The trope of the Shadow Beast in the work of Gloria Anzaldúa functions simultaneously as a trope of a recodified Lacanian unconscious, “as the discourse of the Other,” and as an Althusserian Imaginary through which the real is grasped and represented (Lacan 1977; Althusser 1971). The Shadow Beast functions as the “native” woman of the Américas, as a sign of savagery—the feminine as a sign of chaos. The speaking subject as stand-in for the “native” woman is already spoken for through the multiple discourses of the Other as both an unconscious and an ideology. Thus, the question becomes: What happens if the subject speaks both simultaneously and, implicitly grasping her deconstruction of such discursive structures, proposes the New Consciousness? “This almost finished product seems an assemblage, a montage, a beaded work with several leitmotifs and with a central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. … It is this learning to live with La Coatlicue that transforms living in the borderlands from a nightmare into a numinous experience. It is always a path/state to something else” (Anzaldúa 1987, 66, 73).
The Lacanian linguistic unconscious sets in motion a triangulated paradigmatic tale of mother/daughter/lesbian lover. The Althusserian Imaginary, on the other hand, sets in motion syntagmatic conjunctions of experience, language, folklore, history, Jungian psychoanthropology, and political economy. Some of these are authorized by “academic”-type footnotes that go so far as to appeal to the reader for the authorizing sources that will “legitimate” the statement. Some of these conjunctions in effect link together multiple ideologies of racist misogyny as it pertains to Indians/mestizas. Simultaneously, the Shadow Beast is metonymically articulated with Snake Woman, Coatlicue, Guadalupe, La Chingada, and others and concatenated into a symbolic metaphor through which more figures are generated to produce the axial paradigm—the totalizing repression of the lesboerotic in the fabulation of the nation-state. The chronicle effect, however, is primarily produced through the syntagmatic movement of a collective text one may call “panmexican,” yet relocated to the borderlands, thus making the whole of it a Chicano narrative. The indigenous terms and figurations have filtered through the Spanish-language cultural text; the code switching reveals the fissures and hybridity of the various incomplete imperialist/neocolonial projects. The terms and figurations preserved through the oral traditions and/or folk talk/street talk coexist uneasily with “straight talk,” that is, standard Spanish and standard English, all of which coexist uneasily with scholarly citations. The very “Symbolic Order” that “unifies” in Anzaldúa's text the production, organization, and inscription of mestiza consciousness is granted the task of deconstruction of other symbolic structures.
In short, then, Coatlicue (or almost any of her metonymically related sisters) represents the non(pre)-oedipal (in this case non[pre]-Columbian) mother, who displaces and/or coexists in perennial interrogation of the “Phallic Mother,” the one complicitous in the Freudian “family romance.” Coatlicue is revised and released as non(pre)-oedipal and non-Phallic Mother: “And someone in me takes matters into our own hands, and eventually, takes dominion over serpents—over my own body, my sexual activity, my soul, my mind, my weaknesses and strength. Mine. Ours. Not the heterosexual white man's or the colored man's or the state's or the culture's or the religion's or the parents'—just ours, mine. … And suddenly I feel everything rushing to a center, a nucleus. All the lost pieces of myself coming flying from the deserts and the mountains and the valleys, magnetized toward that center. Completa” (Anzaldúa 1987, 51).
Anzaldúa resituates Coatlicue through the process of the dreamwork, conjures her from nonconscious memory, through the serpentine folklore of her youth. The desire to center, to originate, to fuse with the feminine/maternal/lover in the safety of an Imaginary “third country,” the borderlands disidentified from the actual site where the nation-state draws the juridical line, where formations of violence play themselves throughout miles on either side of the line: “She leaves the familiar and safe homeground to venture into the unknown and possibly dangerous terrain. This is her home / this thin edge of / barbwire” (Anzaldúa 1987, 13). The sojourner is as undocumented as some maquila workers in southern California. In this fashion, the syntagmatic narratives, as an effect in profound structural complicity with ideologies of the nonrational Shadow Beast, contribute to the discursive structuration of the speaking subject, who links them to figures (like Coatlicue) of paradigmatic symbolism recodified for ethical and political intent in our time, engaged in the search, in Anzaldúa's vocabulary, for the “third space.” Anzaldúa destabilizes our reading practices, as autobiographical anecdotes, anthropology, ideology, legend, history, and “Freud” are woven together and fused for the recuperation, which will not go unrecognized this time around. In a sense, reconstitution of completeness for the subject is a reweaving of the subject through “interdisciplinary” thinking, or, its inverse, “disciplinary” thinking has produced a fragmentation of the most excluded subject in the Symbolic Order. The (im)possibility that Anzaldúa presents is the desire for wholeness, or is it a totalization for Queers?
When Anzaldúa says she knows “things older than Freud,” notwithstanding the whispering effect of such a brief phrase, she is, I think, announcing her plan to re(dis)cover what his system and, in Lacanian terms, the patronymic legal system displace. This is so especially with reference to the oedipal/family-romance drama. The Freudian/Lacanian systems are contiguous to rationality, the “Man of Reason,” the subject-conscious-of-itself-as-subject, insofar as such a subject is its point of their departure (Lacan 1977). Thus, the system that displaces the Maternal Law substitutes it with the concept of the “unconscious,” where the so-called primal repression is stored so that consciousness and rationality may be privileged especially as the constituted point of departure for the discovery of the “unconscious.” Further, it constitutes itself as the science-making project displacing what will thereafter be known as mythological systems, that is, the “unconscious-as-the-discourse-of-the-Other”'s multiple systems of signification to which the maternal/feminine is also imperfectly vanished.
In a sense, Anzaldúa's eccentricity—effected through non-Western folk/myth tropes and practices as recent as yesterday in historical terms, through the testimonies textually conserved after the conquest and more recently excavated in 1968 by workmen repairing Mexico City's metro—constructs a tale that is feminist in intent. It is feminist insofar as through the tropic displacement of another system she re(dis)covers the mother and gives birth to herself as inscriber/speaker of/for mestiza consciousness. In Julia Kristeva's words, “Such an excursion to the limits of primal regression can be phantasmatically experienced as a ‘woman-mother’” (1980, 239). However, it is not as a “woman-mother” that Anzaldúa's narrator actualizes the lesboerotic “visitation” of Coatlicue, but as daughter and “queer.” In contrast, Kristeva gives us a sanitized “homosexual facet of motherhood,” as woman becomes a mother to recollect her own union with her mother. Though in her early work Kristeva posited the semiotic “as the disruptive power of the feminine that could not be known and thus fully captured by the masculine symbolic,” she has “turned away from any attempt to write the repressed maternal or the maternal body as a counterforce to the Law of the Father” (Cornell 1991, 7). We are left instead with a theorization of the “maternal function” in the established hierarchy of the masculine symbolic (7). Anzaldúa's narrator, however, represents the fusion without the mediation of the maternal facet itself. In Kristeva's text the “sanitization” takes place on the plane of preserving rather than disrupting the Freudian/Lacanian oedipal/family-romance systems, not to mention the triadic Christian configuration (239).
Anzaldúa's rewriting of the feminine through the polyvalent Shadow Beast is an attempt to reinscribe, on the one hand, what has been lost through colonization. She says, “Let's root ourselves in the mythological soil and soul of this continent” (1987, 68). On the other hand, she wants to reinscribe it as the contemporaneous codification of a “primary metaphorization,” as Irigaray has posited—the repressed feminine in the Symbolic Order of the Name of the Father and the Place of the Law as expressed in the Lacanian rearticulation of Freud and the Western metaphysic (Butler 1990). According to Irigaray (1985), the psychic organization for women under patriarchy is fragmented and scattered, so that this is also experienced as dismemberment of the body. “The nonsymbolization” of her desire for origin, of her relationship to her mother, and of her libido acts as a constant to polymorphic regressions (due) to “too few figurations, images of representations by which to represent herself” (71). I am not citing Irigaray so that her work can be used as a medium for diagnostic exercises of Anzaldúa's work as “polymorphic regressions.” On another plane of interpretation this could be understood as a representation symptomatic of the histories of dismemberment and scattering, which have their own polyvalence in the present for Chicanas. Anzaldúa's work is simultaneously a complicity with, a resistance to, and a disruption of Western psychoanalysis through systems of signification drastically different from those of Irigaray herself. Yet the simultaneity of conjunctures is constitutive of Anzaldúa's text. Indeed, what Irigaray schematizes as description is the multiple ways the “oedipal/family-romance,” whatever language form it takes, makes woman sick even as it tries to inscribe her resistance as illness already. The struggle for representation is not an inversion per se. Rather, the struggle to heal through rewriting and retextualization yields a borrowing of signifiers from diverse, potentially monological discourses, as Anzaldúa does in an effort to push toward the production of another signifying system that not only heals through re-membering the paradigmatic narratives that recover iconographic figures, memory, and history, but also rewrites and codifies the heterogeneity of the present. The desire is not so much a counterdiscourse as that for a disidentificatory one that swerves away and begins the laborious construction of a new lexicon and grammars. Anzaldúa weaves self-inscriptions of mother/daughter/lover that, if unsymbolized as “primary metaphorization” of desire, will hinder “women from having an identity in the symbolic order that is distinct from the maternal function and thus prevent them [us] from constituting any real threat to the order of Western metaphysics” (Irigaray 1985, 71) or, if you will, the national/ethnonational “family romance.” Anzaldúa is engaged in the recuperation and rewriting of that feminine/ist “origin” not only in the interfacing sites of various symbolizations but on the geopolitical border itself—El Valle (Saldívar-Hull 1991).
Anzaldúa's Shadow Beast, intratextually recodified as Snake Woman, La Llorona, and other figurations, sends her stand-in forth as an Outlaw, a Queer, a “mita y mita,” a fluid sexuality deployed through a fluid cultural space, the borderlands, which stand within sight of the patronymic LAW and where many, except those who possess it, are Outlaws, endlessly represented as alterities by D.C. and D.F. Borderlands/La Frontera is an “instinctive urge to communicate, to speak, to write about life on the borders, life in the shadows,” the preoccupations with the inner life of the subject and with the struggle of that subject amid adversity and violation with the “unique positionings consciousness takes at these confluent streams” of inner/outer. An outer that is presented by the Texas-U.S., Southwest/Mexican border “and the psychological borderlands, the sexual and spiritual borderlands” (Anzaldúa 1987, preface). A self that becomes a crossroads, a collision course, a clearinghouse, an endless alterity who, once she emerges into language and self-inscription, so belated, appears as a tireless peregrine collecting all the parts that will never make her whole. Such a hunger forces her to recollect in excess, to remember in excess, to labor to excess, and produce a text layered with inversions and disproportions, which are effects of experienced dislocations, vis-à-vis the text of the Name of the Father and the Place of the Law. Chicanas want to textualize those effects.
The contemporaneous question, then, is how this can continue to be rewritten in multiple ways from a new ethical and political position, and what it might imply for the feminine in our historical context, especially for women of Mexican descent and others for whom work means migrations to the electronic, high-tech assembly work on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
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———. 1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Creative and Critical Perspectives of Feminists of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
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———. 1990. “Not You/Like You: Post-colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference.” Pp. 371-75 in Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color, ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9494
SOURCE: Torres, Hector A. “Genre, Gender, and Mestiza Consciousness in the Work of Gloria Anzaldúa.” Contemporary Literary Criticism 200, edited by Jeffrey William Hunter, 2004.
[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Torres situates Anzaldúa's work within the cultural context of postmodernism via the literary and philosophical concept of mestizaje.]
“… this is where the new mestiza comes in … now, in these postmodern times we do not have to adhere to a windows and doors closed identity that remains in the Chicano community. We can be transcultural. The very concept of mestizaje is this mixture of cultures and we can do that intellectually so that the mestiza is wide open: it's okay for the mestiza to be reading theories of the major, theories of the minor, world literature, world feminism. But not everybody is that stage. There are still some feminists who still need this enclosed Chicano community to give them a foundation, to give them some sort of a sense of security as a Chicana, so that all these doubles are operating simultaneously—the Chicana just becoming aware that she is oppressed as a Chicana, that she is oppressed as a woman coming into her feminism, and the Chicana who has gone through all of this. Movimientos after movimientos and all these struggles and these two worlds. …”
Interview with Gloria Anzaldúa Santa Cruz, California May, 1990
May 15th of 2004 saw the passing away of Gloria Anzaldúa, still at her scene of writing, working on a manuscript. The news of her death rippled quietly through the internet. The students and scholars who were affected by her work know the loss her passing away represents at this point in postmodernity. In the postmodern condition Anzaldúa saw an opportunity to pen a body of work that would critique the hegemony of American Empire, contesting its elision of a Mexican contribution to the formation of the American nation, challenging the exclusionary practices of the Anglo American academy, foregrounding the politics of the social act of writing. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981, 1983), which she co-edited with Cherríe Moraga, contains contributions from Anzaldúa that anticipate the generic play that will generate her literary masterpiece Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). Similarly, Anzaldúa edited and contributed to both Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color (1990) and This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (2002). Through these acts of writing, Anzaldúa addresses Anglo and Mexican America at practically all levels of discourse and domains of practice: the blindness of white feminism vis-à-vis women of color in the United States; the systematic exclusion of Chicana writers from the literary canon of American literature; the racism and homophobia at work in both Anglo and Latino cultures. Together, Anzaldúa's ensemble of writings forms a body of work that is more autobiographical than simple autobiography (Olney). The distinction is a useful sophism because it is the logic of identity that is in question in these postmodern times and nothing seems to embody the logic of identity more than the literary and cultural phenomenon of genre. Keenly aware of the demise of epistemological foundations for the logic of identity, Anzaldúa seizes the postmodern day when she decides to write in the genre of autobiography.
If the history of genre attests to anything, it attests to a certain inability on the part of writers from classical times forward to keep genres pure—the law of genre as Horace coined it (Farrell 392). Indeed, one might take the history of genre and the disposition of writers to mix genres as one more sign that postmodernity is not a simple linear concept in Western history and historiography but a complex repository of Western memory, an archive of all the materials available to writers at any given cultural moment. This synchronic view of the postmodern might go some distance towards explaining why current literary theory on genre observes that the features defining a text as postmodern are revenants haunting contemporary literary production. In his essay “Do Postmodern Genres Exist?” Ralph Cohen observes this aspect of postmodern genres, pointing out that such features as multiple discourses, narrative discontinuity, ironic self-reference, etc., have been present in Western literary discourse since the 18th century (Cohen 11-25). Cohen raises the question of postmodern genres not only to answer it in the affirmative but also to offer a program of inquiry into genre history and theory. The issue as he expostulates it “is not a matter of multiple subjects or discontinuous narration, but of the shift in the kinds of ‘transgressions’ and in the implications of the revised combinations” (Cohen 16). In this respect, what Anzaldúa does with the genre of autobiography forms part of a history of literary transgressions. But while the Western American academy accepts the proposition that literary genres come mixed, it is not used to accepting these transgressions from women writers and far less from Chicana lesbians.
In her short lifetime, Gloria Anzaldúa made the Anglo American academy stand up and take notice of the contribution that Borderlands/La Frontera makes to the history of Western genre. In the genre of autobiography Anzaldúa finds an efficient vehicle for saying what she has to say concerning her life as a woman of color writing under the shadow of postmodern American Empire. Anzaldúa turns to an advantage the disunities of culture and self that begin spelling out a shift in aesthetic sensibility in the 1970s under the name of postmodernism (Hassan 1987, Harvey 1989). Biddy Martin, in her critical work on women's autobiography, describes this historical moment moving through American culture and institutions as it impinges on the social act of writing of Chicanas and other women of color:
The autobiographical contributions to This Bridge Called My Back … serve as a concrete example of how the politics of identity has [sic] been challenged on its very grounds. For the writings of Moraga, Anzaldúa, and others participate in attempts to attend to the irreducibly complex intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, attempts that both directly and indirectly work against assumptions that there are no differences within the ‘lesbian self’ and that lesbian authors, autobiographical subjects, readers, and critics can be conflated and marginalized as self-identical and separable questions of race, class, sexuality and ethnicity.”
Being at once traits and traces of existents, the variables of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender that Martin gives air to surface onto a field of tension in which aesthetics and politics cannot be separated. Anzaldúa takes the challenge to the politics of identity at this historical juncture in multicultural America as a condition of possibility. Mestizaje is the name Anzaldúa gives to her mode of critical thinking in order to negotiate a world being made increasingly complex by movimientos after movimientos, simultaneous doubles, and lack of epistemological and ontological foundations.
I take mestizaje as my point of departure for this critical study of Anzaldúa's literary production. Through this ideological practice she calls mestizaje or mestiza consciousness, Anzaldúa pens a body of work that negotiates the question mark punctuating the politics of identity in multicultural America at least since the political activism of the 1960s. The cultural and economic crises of the 1970s map onto the ideological shifts in aesthetic sensibilities announced in the postmodern condition (Harvey). The economic slowdown that plagues America after its defeat in Viet Nam has persisted into the new millennium, accompanied at every step by the typical boom and busts cycle of capitalism. Anzaldúa takes up the pen in the social act of writing during the late Reagan years, when the economic policies of his administration have generated staggering deficits. The so-called Reagan boom years not only widen the gap between rich and poor, introducing such euphemisms as ‘outsourcing’ and ‘downsizing’ into the American lexicon, they also set the stage for the culture wars and the politics of a liberal education. As the historians of the America Social History Project put it: “William Bennett, Reagan's secretary of education, denounced ‘relativism’ and ‘multiculturalism’ in university curricula, arguing instead for a return to the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition” (Who Built America? 2000 680-685). In many ways, Borderlands/La Frontera, with its discussion of NAFTA in chapter 1, anticipates the processes of globalization that come with the end of the Cold War. “The collapse of communism”, write Eckes and Zeiler, “and nearly half century of superpower tension released the ideological, if not the economic, forces of modern-day globalization” (Globalization 2003 22). Anzaldúa's social act of writing is situated in this ‘maelstrom’ of social, cultural, and economic forces, in the midst of the irony called the death of the author. Her reworking of the autobiographical genre are all the more remarkable for the fact that she confronts the culture forces crossing the American landscape ready to radicalize them.
The metaphorical structure of Roland Barthes' enunciation that the author is dead is not lost to Anzaldúa, as she mines the epistemological import of the énoncé, which is to say, its performative vein (1977 142-48). Thus, on the reading end of things Anzaldúa taps into Barthes's énunciation/énoncé:
Barthes has an essay on how the author is dead, and it's just at the time when the marginal writers are becoming authorial … it seems to me [that] the white European male author is dead—the white male European subject is dead—and we, the minor are not ready to relinquish the space that we have just won to our struggles. But I also feel that the author never existed because, when I write, I write from the raw materials that I read, from the people I come into contact with, from the experiences that other people tell me about. I am sort of like this pipeline that gathers up material and synthesizes it and puts it out so that it's not me a single author, but I belong to a collectivity that is invisible … when I'm writing. So I don't believe that the author ever existed so how can the author be dead?”
Being open to all forms of and modes of signifying practices, Anzaldúa collects them together into a critical vision of life, poised at the edge of self and collective. The “I” that writes recognizes the folly of taking anything for one's own. One can use the first person singular pronoun, as one already must, but the results do not empty out into the creation of a unique self-life-writing, but a much more paradoxical if not radical view of life, one that declares, beyond Barthes, that the author never existed hence never died. Through the exercise of mestiza consciousness, Anzaldúa affirms and displaces metaphysical opposites, cultural contradiction and tensions, all without the benefit of foundations. This ideological position has close affinities with writing under erasure, the modes of reading and writing that deconstruction brought to America at the end of the 1960s. My reading is concerned with the impact of Anzaldúa's theoretical practice of mestiza consciousness on the genre of autobiography. The mestizaje of genres that go into the composition of Borderlands/La Frontera, in particular, are effects that stem as much from the malleability of the genre as the contradictory cultural forces Anzaldúa encounters at her scene of reading and writing.
THE SPIRIT OF MESTIZAJE: MINOR THEORY, MAJOR IMPLICATIONS
“… I didn't see a division between theory and fiction or theory and poetry.”
With this statement, Gloria Anzaldúa effectively deploys the logic of mestizaje at work throughout the body of her literary production.1 With this statement, Anzaldúa glimpses or posits a unity standing in ironic contrast to the unities that the Western Liberal Arts trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic prescribes through the educational system and style manuals. The irony of the unity leads Anzaldúa to compose her work with a different consciousness at her scene of writing/reading, one that respects the pressures, exigencies, and heterogeneity of cultural and economic forces of everyday life. Anzaldúa undertakes a different tactic in the expository composition of her ideological conviction that “poetry derives from theory and you can derive theory from poetry” (Interview). On the side of the dialectic, theory is the discourse of truth for the Anglo American academy. Poetry on the other hand sides with the literary arts that Plato so condemned for falling away from pure intellect into the realm of imagery. Rhetoric fares no better when it is dismissed as performance that distorts dialectic. It is these sorts of divisions that Anzaldúa contests as “a false dichotomy that Anglo-American feminism and European male discourse has advocated—that there's a split between theory and fiction or theory and practice” (Torres Interviews). The unity that Anzaldúa asserts in place of those traditional divisions cannot be worked out as such because the unity she posits or glimpses must be worked out in practice and practice always involves the thoroughgoing mixture of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Thus, while she reconfigures unity through and for her mestiza consciousness, the unity she posits makes no pretensions to pure intellect but tries to account for and include the rhetorical logic of the body. Nevertheless, Anzaldúa's compositional strategies concede the impossibility of this task precisely because the unity that exists when grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic are given as undivided must take in the messiness, the mestizaje, of everyday life.
Any theory that hopes to account for the divided self of the new mestiza will have to reckon with the contradictory forces that shape her life. The social act of writing is a moment of unity for the new mestiza not so much because consciousness achieves a synthesis of those contradictory forces, as it does not, but because taking up the pen signifies that the new mestiza makes herself responsible for the process of constructing her own identity in the face of those unremitting forces. It is a practical unity that is sure to disappear into the ether of metaphysics as well as pass into the body, if she follows through and does not negate the “I” poised to write. In Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras, Anzaldúa states: “We begin to displace the white and colored male typographers and become ourselves, typographers, printing our own words on the surface, the plates, of our bodies. We begin to acquire the agency of making our own caras. ‘Making faces’ is my metaphor for constructing one's identity” (1990 xvi). As she will assert in Borderlands/La Frontera, the process is painful but also necessary because white academic theory does not account for the life of the mestiza, and in fact cannot account for itself, despite its theoretical surpluses. Thus, while mestiza consciousness rejects the unity of the fathers, it does not reject unity as such but seeks for it on its own terms. This general pattern of rejecting the unity of Western theory while at the same time reworking it with other ends in mind is also the general pattern of writing under erasure.
Derrida's well-known neologism ‘differance’ is meant to deliberate over Western philosophy's inability to provide adequate epistemological foundations for the rigorous study of ontology, the Being of beings. When Derrida strikes through the verb ‘to be’ twice in his essay “Differance” (1982, 6) he is striking at the utter inability of language in whatever part of speech to call forth from beyond itself any essential predicate for the definition of Western philosophy's epistemological and ontological projects. And yet in the same breath, Derrida must speak of ‘differance’ as that which makes meaning possible and history necessary. The problem lies with language, which simply provides no sure means for giving an account of ‘differance’—something akin to language not being able to provide the grounds for a science that would answer the twin questions of when and where language itself first appears. The elaboration of ‘differance’ that Derrida gives serves to radically decenter and delimit Western philosophy because ‘differance’ is not a unique of identity or substance, it does not favor any term in any of Western philosophy's time-honored oppositions and master words—dialectics and history, consciousness and the self, syntax and logic, sensible/intelligible, signifier/signified, to name just a few of these. Rather, ‘differance’ disrupts these oppositions, and even as it makes them possible, resists being reduced to them. Naturally, the deconstruction of these master words and oppositions requires that Derrida use the language and syntax of the oppositions he is deconstructing as well as seek or formulate a space out of the reach of their reach—an impossibility. This is why elsewhere he states that a deconstruction of master words and oppositions does not leave one with choice about the truth of the matter of the opposition in question (“Structure” 1970, 247-72). It is clear in Derrida's work that deconstruction does not mean destruction pure and simple but involves a more complex operation or practice. This practice requires the speaking and writing subject to proceed with the only language available while still engaged in the politics of knowledge construction (Spivak “Translator's Preface” 1997, ix-lxxxvii).
Anzaldúa also seeks to displace the authority of the oppositions composing Western theory—presence/absence, sensible/intelligible, subject/object, material/spiritual, literature/history, etc—but she also recognizes the inhospitability of Western theory to women of color. This is why she takes up the project of performing the deconstruction of dualities through the theoretical practice of mestiza consciousness, which she calls Low theory. The new mestiza borrows from the canon of Western theory, High theory, to produce Low theory, theory that is closer to the lows and highs of her daily life.2 The construction of theory addressing the social and economic realities of woman of color is an explicit mandate in This Bridge Called My Back. This was not an easy mandate to follow when white Anglo feminism had so thoroughly excluded Third World women of color from its cadre—the category This Bridge employs to describe the subjects it gathers in its pages as an echo of the Third Estate. The variables of class, race, and sexuality posed major obstacles between these two factions of feminisms, national and international. The classism, racism, and homophobia of white Anglo feminism reproduced the multiple oppressions of the white patriarchy within the feminist movement toward women of color. Because the former re-performed white Western epistemological practices and traditions, it did not provide a model of liberation for the latter. In an essay taking a retrospective assessment of the effects This Bridge on white Anglo feminism, Norma Alarcón pinpointed this major premise at work in the activism of white feminism: “It is clear that the most popular subject of Anglo-American feminism is an autonomous, self-making, self-determining subject who first proceeds according to the logic of identification with regard to the subject of consciousness, a notion usually viewed as the purview of man, but now claimed for women” (“Theoretical Subjects” 1994, 29 italics in text). Content with its own achievements, white Anglo feminism becomes complicit with the privilege of Western patriarchy.
The subjects of This Bridge engage this embattled field of tension with no guarantees. One of Anzaldúa's contribution to This Bridge—“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”—urges engagement with the field of tension, exposing as many of the forces as possible that whether one acknowledges them or not daily deconstruct the comforts of identity:
The meaning and worth of my writing is measured by how much I put myself on the line and how much nakedness I achieve … Throw away abstraction and the academic learning, the rules, the map and the compass. Feel your way without blinders. To touch more people, the personal realities and the social must be evoked—not through rhetoric but through blood and pus and sweat … put your shit on the paper.
(1981, 171-2 italics in text)
A double logic attends this passage—un movimiento tras un movimiento—a logic that simultaneously recognizes the need for the first person subject to take up the pen in the social act of writing and the difficulty of gathering that subject into a unity. That subject is less a unity than a process, an “I” that increases in value the more it opens its ‘identity’ to the body, its vulnerabilities, its potential for waywardness, its lower functions even. The body of writing the new mestiza puts on paper may prove an offense to the authority of Western theory to dictate what counts as legitimate knowledge about the sensible and the intelligible orders of experience. For the new mestiza, the construction of theory cannot turn away from the messiness (mestizaje) of daily experience because to do so is likely to reproduce patriarchal discourse, as it had been doing within the enclaves of white Anglo feminism. The kind of logic needed to negotiate the identity of the new mestiza would have to be embedded in the flesh, declares Anzaldúa in This Bridge Called My Back.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is Anzaldúa's response to the mandate to perform theory in the flesh through the social act of writing. Upon its appearance on the American literary landscape, reviewers of Borderlands straightaway noticed the uneven character of the work as well as its genius, in a word, its duplicity. Describing Anzaldúa's method of stitching Borderlands from a variety of cultural codes, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz notes the edges of the text where the logocentric norms of cohesion and coherence are not respected: “[Borderlands] … interweaves theory and visceral tale, prose and poetry, history, anthropology, psychology, literature, personal and collective experience. The experiment is sometimes a smashing success … And sometimes the stretch toward absolute theory falls short” (Review 1988, 62). The attention Kaye/Kantrowitz calls to the heavy theoretical machinery Anzaldzúa borrows from the Academy to compose Borderlands indexes the duplicitous logic governing the production of the text, the implication being that readers coming to Borderlands expecting the mix of cultural codes to coalesce into a unified discourse will be disappointed. Eleanor J. Baden also issued a caveat lector: “The terrain is not easy going; her language, merging English, Castilian Spanish, Tex-Mex, a north Mexican dialect, and Nahuatl, is sometimes difficult to follow. Nonetheless, it reflects what she calls ‘the language of the Borderlands.’ As such, it is her offering to those from the mainland, a political statement that shakes us from linguistic complacency” (Review 1988, 13). Baden's reference to the linguistic mainland is at once a reminder that Borderlands enters the scene of Anglo American letters and criticism in multicultural times and of the contradictions of both multiculturalism and the linguistic mainland—the Liberal Arts tradition. The Liberal Arts tradition does not disavow the use of code-switching in the composition of its canonical texts, only that this mode of textual performances should be in ‘acceptable’ languages such as Classical Greek and Latin, German and French. Anzaldúa stylistic choices of a variety of linguistic codes disquiet both the implicit and explicit prescriptions of the Liberal Arts tradition.3 In particular, her use of Spanish throughout Borderlands exposes the low status this once imperialist language now suffers in the context of the English-Only attitudes prevailing in American culture and society to today. Like Kay/Kantrowitz and Baden, Cherríe Moraga also fixes on the duplicity of the Anzaldúa's text, even taking issue with Anzaldúa's elliptical style of exposition, her tendency to leave thematic points unstated. In particular, Moraga's discussion of “La herencia de Coatlicue”, chapter 4 of Borderlands, takes Anzaldúa to task for the way the text “… disorients, jumping around from anecdote to philosophy to history to sueño, seldom developing a single topic” (Review 1989, 151). Moraga does credit Anzaldúa's Borderlands with one key strength: the concerted effort to bring life experience and writing together, in effect to write theory in the flesh. “The best of the writing,” Moraga asserts, “wroughts out a vision from a suffering which Anzaldúa does not objectify, but lives” (156). In a sense then, by taking note of both the lows and its highs of Anzaldúa's Borderlands, the reception of the text ironically participates with the text itself in reflecting the deconstructed identities of Third World women of color and the new mestiza as a collective subject. This irony finds a fitting home in the genre of autobiography, no doubt because the genre houses as many of the duplicities of the writing subject as she is willing to bare, and probably more.
James Olney tracks an epochal moment in the history of the study of autobiography, a moment that comes into prominence when critics begin directing their attention away from the second element of the compounded word, the bios/life of the genre, and toward the first element, the autos/self (1980 19). Autobiography itself, considers Olney, is a perplexing subject of inquiry with not so much an indeterminate history as one that will not yield a clear definition for the genre: “This is one of the paradoxes of the subject: everyone what autobiography is, but no two observers, no matter how assured they may be, are in agreement” (7). Anzaldúa's mestiza consciousness grapples with this paradox in the genre and its relatively young critical history. Inasmuch as mestiza consciousness does not see any real division between theory and poetry—the discourse of truth versus literary discourse—autobiography becomes an efficient vehicle for Anzaldúa to construct discursive knowledge over such disciplinary genres as history, ethnography, and psychoanalysis. Offering this discursive formation to the linguistic mainland in low theory, Anzaldúa plumbs the foundationless depths of the very lack of definition for the genre of autobiography. All the mirrors of identity are shattered in this discursive formation but remain useful despite the shattered images each sends back and forth. Anzaldúa deepens the complexity of being both subject and object at her scene of writing insofar as she contends with the irony of the death of the author. On the one hand, postmodernism, in league with post-structuralism, asserts the death of the author—the fact that the subject is a function rather than a transcendental essence—and on the other the genre of autobiography and its critical study has attained a dignity and priority in our times not seen since the rise of the realist novel (Morson & Emerson 1990, 15-21). Like the realist novel at the turn of the previous century, autobiography thrives on the polyphony of voices its pages and language varieties encode (Bakhtin 1984, 5-47). Olney echoes this dimension of autobiography at its cultural turn from bios to autos when he discusses the third of element of the compound, the writing/graphe: “it is through that act that the self and life, complexly intertwined and entangled, take on a certain form, assume a particular shape and image” (22).
The third element of autobiography—graphein—always bears a insistent urgency for the new mestiza. Making faces/caras/identities through the social act of writing is just the process of constructing knowledge through poetry. True to its root, poetry must be doing. In the postmodern condition, the social act of writing becomes all the more urgent for Third World women of color, the new mestiza, in ideological and aesthetic terms. The act of writing for the new mestiza is painful but necessary, the pain itself being a part of what is added to the text as it takes shape:
That focal or fulcrum, that juncture where the mestiza stands, is where phenomena tend to collide. It is where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs. This assembly is not one where severed or separated pieces merely come together. Nor is it a balancing of opposing powers. In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts. That third element is a new consciousness—a mestiza consciousness—and although it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm.
An account of the third element of autobiography such as this one that emphasizes the pain that comes of breaking down unities—the self undertaking the deconstruction of the self—approaches the ground zero of writing theory in the flesh. The ironic unity set against the unities prescribed in the Western Liberal Arts, the tradition Anzaldúa is writing within and contesting, may not be there. Anzaldúa does underscore process, change, and division over unity, balance, or synthesis. However, the concession that self/aute and life/bios can never align in the writing/graphe, turns into an opportunity for the new mestiza when she writes with knowledge that life and self deconstruct, leaving her with only one position to choose to write, construct knowledge. The new mestiza liberates herself from oppressive ideology by constructing the knowledge of identity incorporating the doing and undoing of the very concept she is standing on.
At this juncture, mestiza consciousness is a low theoretical practice of the condition of writing under erasure, a condition post-structuralism inscribes into postmodernism, making the theory and practice of erasure perhaps the most universal category and possibly the last universal for Western philosophy. (Gasché 1987, 3-20)4. The high philosophical language Anzaldúa adopts to announce and practice the double logic of writing and erasing her identity continually reverberates though the body of her writing. Borderlands's traversal through practically every domain of discourse in Western theory disturbs at every turn of exposition the proposition that truth comes from the Western logos alone. Borderlands stretches into these domains of Western theory disrupting logocentric norms of textual cohesion and coherence in the writing of history, ethnography, psychoanalysis, sociolinguistics, and philosophy.
Chapter 1 of Borderlands takes on the disciplinary protocols of traditional Western historiography whose founding values rest on the premise(s) of objectivity and disinterestedness, the neutral scrutiny of events and their mimetic narrativization. Anzaldúa does not contest history or historiography but the promise of the premise that objectivity is attainable. Anzaldúa severely critiques this premise. For Anzaldúa, the idea that objective histories are possible to write is one of the most effective patriarchal tools of the cultural fathers to keep the mestiza away from the social act of writing. The myth of objectivity attests to the power of myth and Anzaldúa, knowing this in theory and practice, engages this mythological, in the sense of an attack but also an employment. In the face of this double, the new mestiza applies/adds the third element of her consciousness to the mythological she is engaging. On this score, Anzaldúa's critique of traditional historiography itself rests on a mythological that, by not taking itself as objective truth, ironically attains a higher degree of truth. Amidst the myriad of ironies, one should notice at least that these ironies can only be performances, practices that acknowledge that the taint of subjectivity enters into all story-telling, whether we call it literature or history (Orr 1992, 84-108). Coming to grips with this ironic truth does not imply a threat to the linear exposition of history in or even abandonment of the discourse of truth but a widening of the empirical and conceptual fields of writing. There is so much to tell that Anzaldúa wants to script her versions of history with hieroglyphs, ideograms, pictographs and other such pictorial devices and not just through the linear exposition of text.
In “The Homeland/Aztlán” then, Anzaldúa recombines the historical events that led to the loss of her ancestral lands. The expositions she pens of the historical data/givens are always accompanied by pictures of some sort or another as well as thematic gaps, which are critical to the exposition as exposition because they denote at once the limits of objectivity and subjectivity. The shape the narrative takes makes ample use of expository gaps because it wants to be an iconic representation of the life of the new mestiza, who is also (a)kin to la mujer indocumentada. The myth of Aztlán rings with a heavy nationalistic toll in the opening of chapter 1, “The Homeland/Aztlán,” until the reader has to make it contend with the subtitle el otro México and the norteño corrido below it. Yes, Aztlán functions as nationalistic myth, and yes, the name may designate a region, a geographical location. Anzaldúa enters an alterity function to these affirmations. In every direction that Anzaldúa turns her narrative, the aute/self reaches a limit, passes over, and transgresses the border—she becomes indocumentada. But nevertheless, even without credentials and in spite of all the dangers, she will work, which is to say, she must write. Writing is work and the new mestiza must carry on the work of writing even without credentials because the fields of history and myth are too large to leave to the tenants of Western theory/historiography. The oft-quoted phraseologies, “The U.S.-Mexico border es una herida abierta,” and “This is her home / this thin edge of / barbwire” connote not only the pain of writing theory in the flesh but also strike at the reifications of objectivity that Western historiography enjoys. The gaps Anzaldúa suspends over the corpus of her text dispute the historian's cool claim to objectivity over the primary and secondary materials. No historian can help bringing personal interests to the study of history, even a certain narcissism consonant with the myth of objectivity itself. This means not only that there will always be gaps in linear exposition whether these are acknowledged or not but that they are the effects of the historian/subject/self. What Anzaldúa does with the gaps and the metaphors of her story echoes a Foucauldian position: “We want historians to confirm our belief that the present rests upon profound intentions and immutable necessities. But the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without landmark or a point of reference” (1977) Postmodern historian par excellence, Foucault is here caught in a double of the sort Anzaldúa grapples with: on the one hand, negating the logic attached to the writing of traditional history but affirming the positive value of a historical sense, not only living with the contradiction but also experiencing in the flesh its slipping away. This painful awareness of what is slipping away, of what cannot and will not make it into the manuscript/text, also goes into the composition of the High theoretical text of history.
Anzaldúa takes on another problem of similar epistemological scope and magnitude with Chapter 2, “Movimientos de rebeldía y las culturas que traicionan”. As a critique of Chicano and Anglo cultures, chapter 2 experiments with the protocols of postmodern ethnography, as Anzaldúa performs the ironic role of insider and outsider of these two patriarchal cultures. Of necessity, her position vis-à-vis both cultures has to be plural because she is both insider and outside in Chicano culture, and then again an insider and outside in Anglo culture, though not in the same way. Anzaldúa claims this plurality for her position of participant-observation in an act of mestiza consciousness that splits asunder the arbitrariness of culture with sexuality. To combat the multiple oppression she feels coming from both Chicano and Anglo culture Anzaldúa declares the arbitrariness of all identity. Neither culture is happy with her choice either to write or declare her same-sex preference. “Being lesbian and raised Catholic, indoctrinated as straight, I made the choice to be queer” (41). This choice performs the act of writing under erasure. Sexual preference is exposed as arbitrary, or at least as a variable that is as arbitrary as it is essential. The variable is sundered within itself and not trivially. The enormity of the critique leads Anzaldúa to claim an ironic unity for herself, “the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within” (41). This mythic figure of a divine marriage corresponds to another figure that also makes its appearance in this chapter, the Shadow-Beast. Not quite as sublated as the hieros gamos, the Shadow-Beast represents the strength to resist all the oppressions of Chicano patriarchal culture. The Shadow-Beast unleashes a critical energy over and against Western patriarchal Anglo and Chicano cultural institutions. The Shadow-Beast resists “the lie” of binary thinking that splits the body into Descartes and de Sade. The “lidless serpent eyes” (42) is a vivid image asking readers to rethink the mind/body split and revisualize it not as a split but as something more instinctual, not susceptible to the binary in the first place. In practice, Anzaldúa will not truck with any form of identity projects that deny to others the theoretical resources of myth while keeping them in reserves form themselves. She writes proceeding in the face of such duplicity that: (i) pits myth against critical theory, (ii) classes myth as lie and falsity, (iii), names itself a species of truth and rationality, but (iv) fails to see that even that narrow spectrum of consciousness forms a kind of mythological thinking, and hence (v) grants itself the privilege of myth but withholds it from others. This kind of duplicity Anzaldúa calls, “an absolute despot duality” (41), connoting a monarch or a lord of a Hobbesian bent that doesn't keep to the authority of law he himself imposes on his subjects. This Western despot wants all his subjects to have one and only sexual identity, one only one gender, whose correlation is one, a unity. The alterity function does not apply here.
In Making Faces, Anzaldúa speaks about the blank spaces of white racism that white Western cultural patriarchy practices. “Whites not naming themselves white presume their universality; an unmarked race is a sign of Racism unaware of itself, a ‘blanked-out’ Racism” (xxi). The logic of markedness Anzaldúa puts to work here means that white Western patriarchy in whatever guise—Anglo American cultural institutions, Anglo feminism, Chicano culture, etc.—takes itself as the class with the least distinctive empirical features: the most transparent and self-evident class such that without a second thought it is worthy to present the essential criterion for defining other classes. Race, class, and gender are constantly policed, overlooked by this essential criterion. I cross-reference this position with that of Horkheimer and Adorno in the Dialectic of Enlightenment when they say: “Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them” (9), and, “the principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition that the Enlightenment holds against the mythic imagination, is the principle of myth itself” (1972). An echo of Nietzsche comes across in this passage, denoting the extensive reach of his genealogy into postmodernity. Anzaldúa's effective pinpointing of this duplicity in the Western logos, Enlightenment Reason, is a source of great spiritual and critical energy, allowing her to live her life in dynamic tensions, both reconciled and at odds with her cultures. As the experiment in cultural critique begins to make a transition to the next chapter, a stylistic choice Anzaldúa makes can be read as a syntactic icon of the intersticios the new mestiza, and la mujer indocumentada, occupy. “Not me sold out my people but they me” (43). The non-canonical syntax puts an object pronoun in subject position, and the predicate sold out controls a gap between the pronouns they and me. That is, the predicate sold out is both audible and inaudible and in the Chicano cultural frame it evokes, it is what keeps the pronouns they and me both apart and together. Anzaldúa rigorously insists upon the compromised status of cultures in the postmodern condition, the empirical fact that no culture can study another culture from an independent scientific standpoint. Culture and cultures are first and foremost the product of mestizaje.
Chapters 3 and 4 open into a large arena that asks the reader to practice one of the most paradoxical traits of autobiography. The third element of the genre, graphein, is always the impossible alignment of an aute with a bios, and now the reader joins in the misalignments. The psychoanalytic dimension of all reading is the conduit that connects the reader and writer of autobiography. The misalignments of self and life that take place at the scene of writing for the subject reduplicate themselves at the scene of reading for the subject who reads. Olney tracks this trail of con-fusion: “The study of how autobiographers have done this—how they discovered, asserted, created a self in the process of writing it out—requires the reader or student of autobiography to participate fully in the process, so that the created self becomes, at one remove, almost as much the reader's as the author's” (24). What kind of ‘who’ does Anzaldúa wish her readers to become? Readers who are not afraid to confront their unconscious and dare to rewrite it for themselves. “Entering the Serpent” and “La Herencia de Coatlicue/The Coatlicue State”, chapters 3 and 4, comprise a mixed critique of Freudian psychoanalysis and involve the new mestiza in the massive project of rewriting the ‘contents’ of the unconscious. In practice, what her text critiques through the social act of writing is the Freudian proposition that anatomy is destiny and its persistent reincarnations in the mythoi of Oedipus the King. In the place of Oedipus, Anzaldúa puts Coatlicue; in the place of symptom, she puts the Coatlicue state of the body. Such displacements and replacements performed at the scene of writing do not so much pit Jung against Freud as exploits them both. It is not psychoanalysis per se that Anzaldúa has a quarrel with but with the essential unity of body, sex, and gender into which Oedipus the King wants to put all subjects, just because of his own search for truth.
The image of the Shadow-Beast definitely looms large in “Entering the Serpent”. It continues to be that zone or mode of consciousness that can take in all the mestizaje of daily life in the polis (Kristeva), but now it wants to bare its body—everything—from la rajadura of the body to its rajadura in consciousness as la facultad. Mediating this passage that does not cease but continually flows is not Oedipus the King but a mestizaje of historical and mythological thinking, put into operation as spiritual and critical modes of thought and being in the body, etc. Entering the serpent for Anzaldúa involves a movement into a dynamic picture of life in which it is not the conflicts of Oedipus that structure the ego and its unconscious but a history that denigrates and fears women and woman. The drama does not begin in the family per se and then radiate to the state. The drama begins in the generalized sentiment, tacit agreement, that woman as a body, the bodies of women have to be repressed by the state capitol and exploited by capital. Since it is in the interests of the state to keep the stage looking ‘natural’ throughout the entire process, the source of conflict comes to the family from the state. A mestizaje of these two positions writes sexuality and gender as arbitrary relations, the work of social conventions and power relations. Confronting the unconscious commits Anzaldúa to the practice of displacing the fear, the experience of being looked down upon that comes from the arbitrary experience of being born with one body rather than another. She does so with an outright declaration that minces no words: “I know things older than Freud, older than gender” (48). What is this knowledge older than Freud and gender? The answer appears to be that anatomy is not destiny. One's sex organs need not determine one's identity in the symbolica order. Resistance is not futile.
The composite image of the Shadow-Beast/snake-víbora/Coatlalopeuh/Guadalupe etc, collates history with myth, indexing the power relations that are responsible for the overthrow of the matriarchy in pre-Aztec society, and for the desexualization of Coatlalopeuh/Tonantsin/Guadalupe after the conquest of Mexico. Power relations always do motivate new identifications and displace old or previous ones in the mythography of a culture. It is these types of real power relations (in both the Althusserian and Lacanian senses) that new mestiza has to confront daily in life. It is no doubt truer than ever that the personal is the political and the political personal. For Anzaldúa this implies the practice of living theory in the flesh. The proposition that the body is a serpent, the serpent is the earth and the trick is to put feathers on this serpent holds together into a moment of unity, or better, into the possibility of unity. Anzaldúa does not withhold from herself this moment of possibility simply because Enlightenment Reason declares spirit the antithesis of matter. Anzaldúa names this antithesis a form of violence. The violence that splits spirit and matter also splits mind and body, subject and object. To fight this violence Anzaldúa advocates the exercise of la facultad—which might be defined as the high theoretical equivalent of the Shadow-Beast's lidless critical eyes. The exercise of la facultad calls the new mestiza to practice sensitivity to every relay she receives from the body, not to disregard it, but on top of everything else, attend to it too. The exercise of la facultad leads the new mestiza into all the dangers of sexual politics, confronting as much the empirical issue of violence against women, as the metaphysical deconstruction of the self. As such, la facultad appears at the same time as the effort making possible the writing of a life that can also unself-deconstruct itself without a mind/body split, a spirit/matter alienation, or subject/object dichotomy.
“La Herencia de Coatlicue” builds on the seriality of the serpent/earth/víbora, etc., that names the experience of entering into the serpent—acknowledging the processes of the body and rejecting the mind/body split. A paradoxical stylistic choice shows up in this chapter to denote the complexity Anzaldúa wants to provoke with the project of rewriting the unconscious with an archetype that does not automatically put women in a role that essentializes her life/bios into an object, and a secondary one at that: “Let the wounds caused by the serpent be healed by the serpent.” The second person address is epic and biblical, evocative in all senses of the word. The second person address is both singular and plural and thus addresses every reader within earshot with the question of the unconscious—enfrentamientos con el alma. Among all the pulsations the new mestiza receives one will be positing an essential unity and she has to seize it for the passing moment, ironically, to keep breaking down unities. To stay in the (posited) unity is to move back into dichotomy and out of the intersticios of mestizaje. Anzaldúa seems adamant in all her writing about the necessity of the new mestiza to deploy the unconscious as a body on behalf of her daily self-revolution, her “oposición e insurrección” (73). The moment of completeness is needed to fund this constant duty to wage cosmic warfare, to engage in the politics of the state through the social act of writing. The jouissance comes and completes, satiates and comforts, and finally recedes: “And suddenly I feel everything rushing to a center, a nucleus. All the lost pieces of myself come flying from the deserts and the mountains and the valleys, magnetized toward that center. Completa” (73)” The intensity of the jouissance funds a lot of critical energy at the scene of writing: “That which abides: my vigilance, my thousand sleepless serpent eyes blinking in the night, forever open. And I am not afraid” (73).
The lack of fear that comes of confronting the unconscious the new mestiza transforms into empowerment. She secures an access to language and inherits a critical project. It is probably no accident that after these enfrentamientos con el alma Anzaldúa should devote two chapters to language, spoken and written—another enormous project made manageable by the spirit and logic of mestizaje. Chapter 5, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”, a highly anthologized essay, turns the tenets of sociolinguistics against the prescriptions of traditional grammar as it descends from the Liberal Arts trivium. In ironic mestiza-style, Anzaldúa takes the role of linguist to articulate a low theory of language. Mestiza descriptions of language varieties keep pointing to the ideology of prescriptivism—the ideology that regards linguistic forms as having linguistic essence. Anzaldúa severely critiques this abstract opposition between essence and nonessence, substituting in its place a mestizaje of codes, social and linguistic. When Anzaldúa declares in constative language: “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language” (81), to take the copula as an essential predication is to miss the performative side. Like the “Let”, the “I am” erases itself, plays (with) the codes of authority. In Anzaldúa's ironic equation the new mestiza always already encounters her life as a mestizaje of cultural codes, never just one. The idea that language confers identity has to wrestle with the varieties of language and their interplay throughout the realm of culture where identity is formed—the symbolic order. “Let” and “I am” cannot really be self-identical until the imperative force of “Let” is actually satisfied—the new mestiza bares all her nakedness in her writing. Her body bare, the unconscious yields to something older than Freud, the days of the matriarchy. That absence is part of the subject of the “I am” and for that subject to call back those days it must write. War and politics are two sides of the same coin as politics are war by other means.
I read Chapter 6 as an extended meditation on autobiography's third element, the writing/graphing of life, its scripturality and taking on of life by dint of the social acts of writing and reading. “Tlitlli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink” works within the circle of self-reflexivity. It invests writing with the value of providing a variety of ways to arrive at the limits of language. Storytelling will take you there, as will high and low art, modern or postmodern. What Plato would have called a dithyrambic state clearly qualifies as it approximates the Shamanic state (perhaps even Coatlicue). In its sensuous aspect, writing takes your there to the value of writing. Writing becomes the very principle by which the new mestiza ties herself down to the earth on her own terms. Writing makes her material: “For only through the body, through the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed. And for images, words, stories to have this transformative power, they must arise from the human body—flesh and bone—and form the Earth's body—stone, sky, liquid, soil. This work, these images, piercing tongue or ear lobes with cactus needle, are my sufferings, are my Aztecan blood sacrifices” (97). The plane of immanent critique emerges quite strongly in the thematics of this chapter that opens to “La consciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness”, the last chapter.
Mestizaje gets its fullest treatment in the closing chapter of Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldúa celebrates the synthesizing powers of mestiza consciousness as well as points to its limits. As with Western theory, mestiza consciousness is susceptible to all the dangers of essentializing identity, losing sight of the arbitrary. It is possible to commodity the borderlands and no doubt this has happened. The decade in which Anzaldúa pens Borderlands is one episode in the history of NAFTA and the long history of GATT (Ortiz-Gonzalez 2004, Eckes and Zeiler 2003). Every turn in the page puts the reader with the breakdown of unity as a Western metaphysical category—the very stuff of ideology. Mestiza consciousness is a choice to be different, queer in an older usage. When Anzaldúa calls out, “People, listen to what your jotería is saying” (107), she is calling out to all of America to think the differences, accept the different as part of the same. Mestiza consciousness elaborates on difference, lives and writes off of it. The genre of autobiography is taken to the limits of the self and the literary construction of a life, for now it is charged with the pact not just to tell the truth (Lejeune) but also elaborate the differences. This project will keep the new mestiza at work for a long time to come engaging the social and economic forces that keep her from the social act of writing and away from her arts, as it did Anzaldúa.
This study does not take up Anzaldúa's poetry, which is another project unto itself.
See the interview with Gloria Anzaldúa, in Témas y Discursos: Conversations with Chicana and Chicano Writers of the Postmodern: 1990-20004
See R. Harris and T. J. Talbot (1989) for an account of language prescriptivism in the West that traces its philosophical roots to Plato and its eventual codification in the Roman educational system under the rubric of the liberal arts, i.e., the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. For a close historical study of the codification of the liberal arts in Roman times, see also J. Murphy (1974). Noam Chomsky (1965) discusses some of the significant empirical and theoretical difference that have emerged between the study of particular grammars with the prescriptive emphasis and the study of grammar and grammars from a “generative” point of view.
Alarcón, Norma. 1994. “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Eds. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press. 28-39.
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———. 1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press.
———. 1981. “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Eds. Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. New York: Kitchen Table Press.
———, ed, with AnaLouise Keating. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. New York: Routledge.
Baden, E. J. Review in Belles Lettres. May/June (1988): 13.
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Cohen, Ralph. 1988. “Do Postmodern Genres Exist?” Postmodern Genres. Ed. Marjorie Perloff. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 11-27.
Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge.
———. 1972. “Structure and Infrastructure in Primitive Society: Lévi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown.” The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Eds. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 247-264.
Eckes, Jr. Alfred E. and Thomas W. Zeiler. 2003. Globalization and the American Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Farrell, Joseph. “Classical Genre in Theory and Practice.” New Literary History: Theorizing Genres II. 34.3 (Summer 2003): 383-408.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Gasché, Rodolphe. 1987. “Infrastructures and Systematicity.” Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Ed. John Sallis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 3-20.
Harvey, David. 1999. Limits to Capital. New York: Verso.
Hassan, Ihab. 1987. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 1972. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum Books.
Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie. Review in Village Voice. June (1988): 60-62.
Kristeva, Julia. 1983. “Psychoanalysis and the Polis.” The Politics of Interpretation. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
LeJeune, Philippe. 1975. Le Pact Autobiographique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Moraga, Cherríe. Review in Third Woman. 4. (1989): 151-156.
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Olney, James. 1980. “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 3-27.
———. 1980. “Some Versions of Memory/Some Versions of Bios: The Ontology of Autobiography.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 236-267.
Orr, Linda. 1992. “The Revenge of Literature: the History of History.” Studies in Historical Change. Ed. Ralph Cohen. Charlottesville: University of Virginia. 84-108.
Ortíz-González, Victor M. 2004. El Paso: Local Frontiers at a Global Crossroads. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1997. Translator's Preface. Of Grammatology. Jacques Derrida. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ix-lxxxix.
Torres, Hector A. 2000. “Mestiza Consciousness and dialect(ic)s: Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” Literatura Chicana: Reflexiones y Ensayos Critícos. Eds. Rosa Morillas Sánchez and Manuel Villar Raso. Granada: University of Granada. 321-332.
———. Forthcoming. Temas y Discursos: Interviews with Chicana and Chicano Writers of the Postmodern. Austin: University of Texas Press.
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