When no one was talking about borderlands and multi-cultural identity, poet, writer, and activist Gloria Anzaldúa was leading the way.
Anzaldúa’s life on the border of Texas and Mexico shaped her ideas for her autobiographical Borderlands, first published in 1987 and now just receiving its second printing (Aunt Lute Books). Her groundbreaking examination of border life through a woman’s eyes quickly became a classic. It’s as fresh and inspiring as today as it was twelve years ago.
The child of a migrant farm worker family, Anzaldúa first became known for co-editing with Cherrie Moraga the feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back which won the 1983 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. She has since published a series of bilingual children’s books centered around the adventures of a young girl named Prietita (Children’s Book Press), and edited the anthology Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras. Anzaldúa is currently at work on a collection of her interviews, and she is co-editing a 20th anniversary edition of This Bridge Called My Back.
Like many other Chicanas over the past 12 years, I read Borderlands while in college. Anzaldúa articulated, mostly for the first time, the feminist mestiza’s experience of having feet in two different cultures while juggling multiple and shifting identities and languages. Today, the book speaks not only to Chicanas, but to men and women of various cultures located, as Anzaldúa says, "wherever two or more cultures edge each other."
Gloria recently invited me to her home, tucked in the tree-lined hills of Santa Cruz, to discuss her current thoughts about Borderlands. Her home, filled with bright, colorful paintings, papier-maché lizards, images of la Virgin de Guadalupe, and overflowing bookshelves, seems like a writer’s retreat. We discussed art and her love for mystery novels before we began the following discussion.
Q: How did you get involved in the Chicano movement?
A: I was a senior at Pan American University and I was still working in the fields. That struggle led me to consciousness-raising with feminists. When Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers in Texas were having talks, I would go to their meetings. La Raza Unida was growing strong in the sixties, and I participated in some of their conferences. At one point, the feminist movement and the farmworkers struggle and the Raza Unida struggle all came together for me.
As I got more educated, I started writing about the struggles. A lot of the poems in Borderlands are about that experience. The race and gender stuff went hand-in-hand for me. In the beginning, it was the fact that I was a little Chicanita that opened up my eyes to the cracks in reality, and then it was the race thing, being a Chicana farmworker. But I think my race and gender awareness came at the same time.
Q: What did you hope to convey to Chicanas/os by writing Borderlands ?
A: The key idea was that growing up in the borders-between different cultures-is a unique experience and it’s very hard to find your way because that identity is not part of consensual reality. Those of us that grew up in these interfaces and these cracks, we have to really find ourselves, we have to make our identity. This is what Borderlands was to me.
It was my struggle as a Chicana from South Texas who was a dyke; who was not an academic, but who was an apprentice of the academy; who belonged to an intellectual class and was making myself part of an artistic class, and also part of las activistas, an activist; who was feminist, but who had a lot of issues with white feminism; who was spiritual, but who doesn’t believe in religion. How could I maneuver in this world? How could I navigate those different ways of being? So, I was talking about that experience, which everyone has-it’s just that the particulars are different, their landscape is different. For me to swim in that environment, I had to build certain strengths and certain skills, like the skills of the "new mestiza."
Q: How did Borderlands come about?
A: It was going to be a book of poems, about 100 pages worth of poems which I had spent years and years writing. I told Joan Pinkvoss, the publisher of Aunt Lute Books, ‘You know, they’re not going to understand these poems because a lot of the poems presented Chicano historical experience; so I’ll do an intro introducing the themes in the poems.’ The intro became seven chapters, which became half of the book! And lo and behold the prose part of the book, which I had spent a lot of time thinking about, but the writing was off-the-cuff-it’s that part that gets read and discussed and talked about, much more than the poems!
Q: Borderlands is widely read in colleges today. How do you think the book speaks to a younger generation of Chicanas and progressive activists?
A: Some of the Chicanas and women of color tell me that, "I read this book and it changed my life. I thought I was alone, but you have re-articulated my experience." But some white kids come along and say, "Why are you so angry?" The teachers will say, "Well, my class read Borderlands and it upset everybody. It upset all these white kids. It upset some of the kids of color." Chicanas come up to me and say, "Well, you know, I really struggled with this book because there is so much Spanish in it and I don’t know Spanish. It makes me feel like I’m not Chicana enough." A Hawaiian kid once said "[Borderlands] is about us." So wherever there’s borders, wherever there’s an interface between cultures, I think people will read something in it-not so much because of what’s in Borderlands, but what the reader brings from their experience. There are some people who accuse me of being essentialist. But others say that no, mestiza is about a plurality, it’s about de-essentializing. So, I feel that the response has been much more than I ever bargained for.
Q: It has been 12 years since Borderlands was first published. Has your world-view changed since the first publication?
A: Yes. It has expanded. I apply the Borderlands idea much more widely than I did in the book. I am now using the concept to describe the way the mind works and the way that consciousness evolves. The "Borderlands" idea has now become the nepantla, the in between-space, living in this crack in this in-between space. I’m taking it into these other realms about how the universe operates and how life evolved, but the basic idea is there. Just like we have cultural groups, racial groups, a person who theorizes or philosophizes or just thinks about the world has these root ideas. Como el arból de la vida-the tree of life. Which is another image that I use for what I call the new tribalism. This is that you have to be rooted in your home ethnic community with deep roots before you can partake of other cultures, other races, and other branches of the tree. If you are not firmly rooted in something very basic to you, then you are at the mercy of winds that can blow you every which way.
This whole thing about oppressed groups banding together and trying to fight against oppression and transform culture is there in Borderlands. It started in This Bridge Called My Back with the "left-handed world," la mano izquierda, and now I have this other concept that has evolved out of that about "with a heart in your hand" con corazon en la mano. When you do this work of struggling in communities to change society, the adversarial stance has limitations. What we need is a more compassionate, empathetic way of being with each other. Where we really attend to what the other person is saying, instead of jumping down their throat before they speak a word and saying, "Well, this is my side and I’m right and you’re wrong."
Negotiating our lives, our realities, and our world has to be from the point of view of con corazon en la mano. We need the personality, the emotions, the psychology of the person involved in the struggle. We can’t just say this is about numbers, this is about economics, this is about votes, this is about getting rid of the powers and replacing them with other powers. How do you work with what’s out there which needs repairing and healing and then what needs repairing and healing inside?
Q: What are the circumstances facing lesbian Chicana writers?
A: I think what lesbian Chicana writers have to realize is that it’s not enough to be queer sexually, but we have to be queer in the way we think and the way we see the world. We have to be queer because queer is always at odds with the status quo. Instead of buying in as lesbians that we’re just like all the other guys, we’re just folks, the only difference we have is our sexual preference, we have to say that we are not normal and we don’t want to be normal. Who wants to be normal? Normal is those fuckers that are polluting the world, the oppressors. We have to "queer" the world in a lot of different ways.
With Chicanas, we always want to be loved and accepted because as a group we were not valued. Mexico sold us out. The United States sold us out. We became a colonized people. We became the dirty Mexicans, the lazy Mexicans, the inferior beings. We bend over backwards trying to be agreeable and to accommodate people. We have to stop that.
I think it’s seductive because you want to belong. We want our work to be valued. We want to be thought of as fully human, not supplementary. But we feel betrayed by everything. We lost our land and we are just hanging onto our language by our fingernails. All these things that were promised us, never happened.
Q: It seems that the most revolutionary writing is coming from Chicanas today and that they are at the forefront of the movimiento. Would you agree?
A: Oh yeah, the movimiento has become what I call a movimiento macha, female. It’s mostly been lesbians, activists, artists, and academics. The ones that push the theories, the ones who make awareness happen through their writing, their talking, or their struggle. The old guard is going out of power but they don’t want to quite give up. But I think that, right now in Chicano Studies and Chicano communities, there are two things happening: One is that they are at each other’s throats, then there are also these places where these groups have managed to get along, and grow, and to feed each other. So the old polarities still exist but there is also this crossing over. We have to come up with a different category. I have been talking to some people about some kind of spiritual, imaginary category that people who don’t belong in these cubby-hole labels can say, "This is kindred to me in this other way." So if you guys have any ideas….