BORDERLANDS: LA FRONTERA, THE NEW MESTIZA
by Gloria Anzaldúa
Spinsters/Aunt Lute: 1987
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Book Review #7 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
This book is written by a deeply wounded soul, an author whose pain and grief are almost palpable from start to finish. Borderlands: La Frontera, the New Mestiza is a powerful, highly polished collection of cultural and personal essays, mini-memoirs, and poetry that prick and prod our emotions and makes us think deeply on all the borders Anzaldúa deftly describes to us.
It is a dual story of traumatic conflict told in parallel tracks: the borderland assaults on Mexican and indigenous peoples by the White culture throughout recorded history; and the cultural assaults that Anzaldúa, as a woman of color, and as a representative of women generally, endured in establishing her autonomy and worth as a human being in a chauvinistic world.
Born in Texas just north of the Mexican border, Gloria Anzaldúa was a sixth-generation American, “a border woman,” as she calls herself, someone never comfortable with the American culture but who was instead keenly bonded to her identities as Indian, Mexican, española, Chicana, Tejana, and mestiza. Her usage of code-switching throughout this book, as well as entire portions written in Spanish, reinforces this cultural split—between American and Mexican, English and Spanish primarily—that consumed and defined Anzaldúa till the day she died in 2004 at the age of 61.
Borders and Their Pain
“I have been straddling that tejas-Mexican border, and others, all my life,” she says in the Preface to her book. “It’s not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.” Toward the end of the book, after we have seen the immensity of her cultural turbulence, she states in a poem: “To live in the Borderlands means you/…are carrying all [the] races on your back/ not knowing which side to turn to, run from;/….you are at home, a stranger,/…you are wounded, lost in action/ dead, fighting back” (p. 194).
Added to these complex mixtures of identities are Anzaldúa’s lesbianism and—according to some reports, bisexuality—as well as her staunch rejection of male dominance. Anzaldúa writes: “I made the choice to be queer (for some it is genetically inherent)” (p. 19, Anzaldua’s emphasis).” The book examines these sexual and gender conflicts at length. Anzaldúa’s poem, “Creature of Darkness,” describes the personal yet universal battles that rage inside her as a “deep place/ this underplace/ this grieving place/ getting heavier and heavier/ sleeping by day creeping out at night….I want not to think/ that stirs up the pain/ opens the wound” (p. 186).
A rebel since early childhood, Anzaldúa straddled symbolic borders even within her family, as she renounced expectations handed down through generations of women: that she do domestic chores instead of studying, that she marry and demur to her husband and males in general, that she live and work in Texas. Instead, she earned college degrees, remained single and childless, and became the first person in her family’s history “to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me” (p. 16). She lived life on her own terms, moving to California and the east coast, but paid dearly with rejection by her mother and others.
Racial Conflicts: Natives vs. Encroachers
Borderlands is heavy on history. It recounts how the ancient ancestors of Mexicans and Texans—the Cochise, Aztecs, and others—peopled the Southwest for centuries, only to have White “invaders” steal their lands, terrorize, expel and defeat the native peoples, and institute oppression that continues to this day. The border fences built by Whites between the United States and Mexico starkly symbolize the separation of races and relegation of Mexicans to undesirable, inferior status. Anzaldúa describes the border as “una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (p. 3).
The theft of lands is personal to Anzaldúa, since her own family and neighbors, who had owned ranches in the Rio Grande Valley for many generations, lost theirs to greedy White encroachers. Anzaldúa decries the gringos’ “fiction of white superiority” (p. 7) and recounts how her people were “jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from our identity and our history” (p. 8). In the poem, “We Call Them Greasers” (p. 134), she describes the brutal rape of a Mexican tejano rancher’s wife by a White man who stole the ranch, assaulted the woman in front of her husband, brutally killed her, then lynched her husband.
Anzaldúa’s clear-eyed but mournful retelling of her antecedents’ history represents a deep cultural trauma to her and the Tejanos, who have never recovered their sense of belonging in their own ancestral lands. Her inability to identify as “American” is unquestionably linked to this. In the poem “Don’t Give In, Chicanita,” Anzaldúa says: “yes, they’ve taken our lands./ Not even the cemetery is ours now…./ where they buried your great-great-grandfather./ Hard times like fodder we carry/ with curved backs we walk…./ But they will never take [our] pride/ or our Indian woman’s spirit” (p. 202). The author’s voice is grieving but defiant.
Being “Queer,” and Other Inner Struggles
Anzaldúa’s exploration of gender and the subjugation of women may seem like a tired topic in the 21st century; but in 1987, iniquities against women were more pronounced, and Latina voices writing against this were rare. The author discusses female archetypes familiar to Latinas—La Malinche, Coatlique, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and La Llorona—and she lashes out against being boxed into any of these or any other stereotypes by chauvinistic expectations of men and Mexican tradition.
Anzaldúa also discusses the loss of native spirituality among her people and others of color. She takes organized religion to task, especially the Catholic Church, as vehicles of oppression, primarily toward women, and as denouncers of any spirituality besides their own ideology. She also decries “machismo” as representing men’s fear of tenderness and their excuse to abuse and demean women. Mostly, however, Anzaldúa delves into her own fears of inadequacy, of not being “normal.”
Many other writers have explored these issues, as well as the ostracism of homosexuals and “others”—but hardly anyone has done this more eloquently, more passionately, and with greater poignancy and genuine pain than Anzaldúa does. She is a complex woman who lived these subjugations and marginalizations, beginning her life with medical and physical deformities, skin dark like an Indian’s, and culminating in her decision to be “queer” (lesbian).
The New Mestiza
The 25 years that have passed since this book’s publication have not diminished its relevance. This is a sad statement to make, but the issues Anzaldúa rails against are still raw and present, especially for contemporary women. In her lengthy discussion of “the new mestiza,” the author depicts this racially mixed woman (part Indian, part Hispanic), her hero and savior-to-be, thus:
“The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity….She learns to juggle cultures. She…operates in a pluralistic mode….The future depends on the breaking down of paradigms,…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” (p. 80). This description sounds like the multi-tasking career woman of today.
The new mestiza, through centuries of cross-breeding, has the best of many different genes, is stronger, and thus better able to survive. Anzaldúa confers her surest bets for a more enlightened, progressive society on this Latina, who can effectively navigate different cultural environments and who “could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war” (p. 80).
Anzaldúa’s Place in Literary History
Better-known as the co-editor of the ground-breaking This Bridge Called My Back : Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), (with another pioneering Latina author, Cherrié Moraga, previously profiled in this series) Gloria Anzaldúa was one of the first feminist, lesbian Latina authors published in the 20th century. This Bridge won the prestigious Before Columbus American Book Award in 1986. Borderlands was named one of the best 38 books in 1987 and one of the 100 Best Books of the Century by three prominent literary organizations. Anzaldúa also won other awards for her literary accomplishments.
A university professor on the east and west coast, Anzaldúa influenced generations of young thinkers for over 30 years and contributed significantly to academic theories regarding Chicanos, feminism, homosexuality, racism, and multiculturalism, especially regarding mestizaje, or the state of thinking in dualistic rather than unitary terms due to mixed heritage. She was awarded a doctoral degree posthumously by the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2005.
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.