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Borderlands, by Gloria Anzaldua.

September 29, 2012

Borderlands, La frontera, The New Mestiza, by Gloria Anzaldúa.
Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

An important statement of identity and vision by a radical, Chicana, lesbian feminist.

Gloria Anzaldua grew in the borderlands of South Texas, a distinctive, poverty-stricken region of people with ties to both Mexico and the US.  Written in 1987, her book is aimed at the predominantly white middle-and-upper class feminists who had defined womanhood according to their own limited experiences.  The issues which she raised are ones that continue to be echoed and expanded by global feminists.  If feminism is to be global movement, the rest of us need to listen and understand even when we see her path as different that our own.  Anzaldua is an author who makes me think.  What follows includes my own thoughts embedded in a summary of hers.

Anzaldua does not argue against gender-based understanding of women’s issues, but her approach is grounded in her life, her body, and her language, all of which give her contradicting messages about who she is.  Such grounding can raise the fear of “essentialism” in feminists when we fear that emphasizing our bodies means we can be trapped in them as women have been so often in the past.  Whatever that danger, Anzaldua tells us that we need such grounding to live as fully as she would have us live.  Interestingly, the women who make this point are typically women of color who believe they are left out of abstract definitions of gender.  Perhaps combining issues of race and gender means that we pay attention to their words and their experiences of the physical.

Borderlands are not just geographical, for Anzaldua, but can be anywhere or any way that cultures conflict.  She speaks out strongly against the dualism that prevails in much that is said and written, urging instead that we learn tolerance for contradictions and ambiguity.   In her view, “uprooting dualism” can end the prevalence of the violence of rape and war.  Such thinking also makes reading her work unsettling.  Her switching between English and Spanish and Tex-Mex is also unsettling for someone like me who is limited to reading English.  But her variations were useful in leaving me curious and aware that I am being excluded.  Fundamentally she is a poet, not a rhetorician.

Although Anzaldua does not make the explicit claim, perhaps for her, gender and race, social constructions and physical experience, are among the dualisms we must bridge and transcend.  I come away from her book envisioning ways to include essentialism in my feminism and my own understanding of myself, not as the only or major factor, but as a balance to the social definitions of gender that I believe are important.  I like the way that she points us toward understanding that all of us have multiple identities and perspectives competing within us.

Storytelling is something Anzaldua sees as essential to her Chicano culture. “Nudge a Mexican and he or she will tell a story.”  Borderlands is a cluster of her stories, held together more by poetry than logic.  For her writing is a “sensuous act.”  She describes

Picking images from my soul’s eye, fishing for the right words to recreate the images. Words are blades of grass pushing past the obstacles, sprouting on the page; the spirit of the words as concrete as flesh and as palpable: the hunger to create is as substantial as fingers and hand.

With such ideas, it is not surprising that nearly half of Anzaldua’s book is devoted to her poetry. Many poems were in Spanish and thus beyond me.  Those I read had more pain in them than I could handle.

Telling her own story, she relates leaving her homeland to escape the “personality imposed on me.”  Yet in leaving she took “the ground of my own being” with her.  She traces her identity back through her Indigenous ancestors in Mexico and the Southwest and to their oppression. At the same time, she glories in “the Indian woman’s history of resistance.”  As a lesbian, Anzaldua faced the fear of rejection by the culture that nurtured her as a child.   “We are afraid of being abandoned by the mother, the culture, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged.”  Such fear can result in the willingness to follow the culture’s demands even when they deny us worth.  But Anzaldua rejects the accusation of being the betrayer.  Instead, she honors la Virgen de Guadeloupe, who reaches out to conqueror and conquered alike, tolerating their ambiguity of race.

In addition to her contribution to feminism, Borderlands is an important statement about what it means to be an Indigenous writer.  She reminds us that many of those dismissed as “illegal aliens,” have lived and worked in the US Southwest since before the Anglos arrived.  These ancestors were Indigenous peoples along with a mix of both Spanish and African peoples.  She write of the US/Mexican border as a “1,900 mile-long open wound dividing a pueblo, a culture,” a wound which she has internalized.  Rejecting the umbrella term of Hispanic or Latina, Anzaldua writes specifically as a Chicana, descended from the native people of the Southwest and Mexico. Mexican is not national loyalty or a country with boundaries for her as she explores the language differences that define those who speak in different versions of Spanish.

Aunt Lute Press has just published the fourth edition of this book.   They are a multi-cultural women’s press active since 1987 publishing an exciting group of books on the radical, diverse side of the feminist spectrum.   They continue to make an important contribution. Check them out.

I heartily recommend Borderlands to anyone interested in variations of feminism, in Indigenous writing or more generally in living with internal contradictions.

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