Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Anzaldua at the liminal edges of identity

A shorter version of this was published at Mosaic Literary Magazine


Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands: La Frontera is a book that transcends all boundaries of genre and style. A text that includes poetry side by side with fragments of mainstream history, and intermixes them with personal and collective testimony, memory, revisionist history and journal entries, the closest description of it could be a poetic-political auto-ethnobiography. At once dialogic and polyvocal, the book has been one of the seminal texts in expanding notions of self-representation, and ways of formulating identity in late twentieth century America.

In this paper, I look at some of the ways that Borderlands influenced and expanded the genre and conceptualization of autobiography. Anzaldua is clearly writing herself into existence through her act of creativity, and in this process she acknowledges and brings into being not just the multiple facets of her own existence, but the existence of her entire culture's marginalized history.

I look at the way Anzaldua theorizes a hybrid identity, and how this construction of identity has shaped the genre of autobiographies, especially for political minorities within the US whose histories have been subsumed within a hegemonic, mainstream master narrative. I am also interested in the text's postmodern aspects, and in looking at the links between the fragmented non-linear style and how that style itself reflects and encapsulates a larger, political history. Borderlands leaves us with the possibility that personal transformation could bring about communal change, and I have woven into the paper an analysis of this idea of personal transformation that is linked so inextricably to the notion of political change.

In Borderlands, Anzaldua opens the doorway to the bridging of dualities. Acknowledging that we are always on "the Borderlands" between people, between cultures, between sexual encounters, between classes, she sees this trope as a fundamental one for viewing and understanding one's identity. Instead of searching for an essential, pure aspect, she recognizes the blurry ambiguities of being inbetween multiple states of being, and urges us to accept this as a new form of consciousness.

Anzaldua foregrounds the borders between gender, race, class, sexuality and ethnicity as five important frameworks through which to view one's autobiographical as well as communal history. These five elements, and their intersections, are seen to be integral to the creation of her multiple, complex identities.

As a woman, Anzaldua's private world of Chicano culture is as restrictive, with the same patriarchal structure of tyrannical rules and regulations, as the public world of Anglos who define the boundaries of labor. In one of her autobiographical sections, she mentions that: "Instead of ironing my younger brothers's shirts or cleaning the cupboards, I would pass many hours studying, reading, painting, writing…Nothing in my culture approved of me. Something was wrong with me." # Cultures on many sides are trying to force her into a specific idea of gender, but she refuses to fit the mold. She will neither take on the role of the nurturer who will iron her younger brother's shirt in the same way she refuses her role as the migrant laborer that the mainstream white culture has put aside for her. She struggles to put herself in a space where she is capable of writing herself out of the mother/whore/nun paradigmatic choice given to women, and into one where she can be a self autonomous person who has had the privileges of a education and a career. Through her acts of resistance to claustrophobic gendered molds, she redefines her own conceptualizations of gender.

Writing is an act of self creation, and she is very aware of the creative power of this process. Her book, therefore, takes head on not only the challenges of dealing with the everyday injustices of labor exploitation that happens at the border, but also the challenges of rewriting androcentric history. Borderlands looks explictly at four mythological and historical female figures from the layers of Chicano history: Coatlicue, the divine Aztec mother; the desexed Virgin de Guadelupe; Malinche, or la Chingada, mistress and translator of Cortes and labelled a traitor; and La Llorona, the wailer.

Coatlicue, the Aztec divine mother and the serpent goddess of sexuality, is resurrected by Anzaldua who looks at the way she used to balance the dualities between male and female, light and dark, life and death before she was turned into a dark diety. According to Anzaldua's feminist revision, Coatlicue and other powerful female dieties were driven underground by the Aztec rulers, who gave them monstrous attributes and then substituted male gods in their places.# Coatlicue was then subsumed under Tonantsi, the good mother who was later to be interfaced under the guise of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

According to Anzaldua, in defiance of the Aztec rulers, the common people continued to worship the goddesses of earlier times. This was the reason why the Virgin of Guadelupe, the successor of Tonantsi, enjoyed and continues to enjoy huge popularity with the masses to this day. The virgin, instead of being seen as a foreign interloper, is viewed as the mediator between the two cultures, the colonizer and the colonized. She does not discriminate between the two. She is a synthesis between the Old World and the New.# Anzaldua appropriates this mediator role for herself later in the book when she goes on to talk about her place in a dominant white world.

The figure of Malinche, or La Chingada, who was viewed as a traitor because she slept with Cortes and translated for him, is taken up by Anzaldua, who goes back and looks at the Aztec's already crumbling empire, where outlying states were beginning to rebel against their despotic rule. She concludes that the Aztec empire was defeated by the Spanish not because of Malinche but because they had already lost touch with their common people#. This deft bit of revisionist history, which redeems a fallen woman by looking at the class structure, reminds us that "feminist rebellion as twin to the racialized class rebellion advocated by the cultural nationalists."# Her revision of history is in every case always tied to her own personal history. As a self proclaimed lesbian, whose rebellion through sexuality approaches the same level of treachery as La Chingada's, Anzaldua's allusive writing is very aware that of its links between the past and the present.

Anzaldua also reconfigures La Llorona, the woman who wailed for her lost children. Long seen to be a symbol of defeat, La Llorona is put in a different light by the author who claims that wailing was an collective act of resistance for Indian, Chicana and Mexican women, who were speaking out against a society which glorified the warrior and war. Due to this, Anzaldua feels that she is herself entitled "to rebel and to rail"# against her own culture without betraying it, because it has long been a tradition within it. By appealing to culture and tradition, Anzaldua performs a feminist checkmate where she transforms a potentially disempowering tradition into a enabling justification of empowerment. This act of re-writing and re-transformation permeates her text, illustrating her act of creation of both self and culture.

While Borderlands is above all a feminist text, Anzaldua makes us realize that gender is but one of the elements that make up our identity. Gender is one small fragment, and without the insights of race, ethnicity and sexuality, it becomes irrelevant. All through the text, we are brought face to face with the intertextual interweavings between these different facets that make up an individual's identity.

Anzaldua was no stranger to gender activism. She was a long time activist in the Chicano women's movement, had already been actively involved in the 1970s in publishing the influential anthology This Bridge Called My Back, which questioned the paradigm of mainstream white feminism which claimed that the nature of oppression for all women were the same. This book had led to a "New Mestiza hermaneutics", a feminism that built coalitions across the US-Mexico geopolitical border, as well as internally within the US. Borderlands: La Frontera picked up this theme by disrupting both anglo-centric nationalist histories by challenging the homogeneity of US nationalism and popular culture, as well as the ungendered concerns of the Chicano nationalist agenda.

Anzaldua is very aware of being a non-white, minority woman within a mainstream white Anglo culture. "It wasn't until I went to high school that I saw 'whites'…I was totally immersed en lo mexicano, a rural, peasant, isolated, mexicanismo."# She explains to us as she lays bare her divided loyalties. As a woman who grew up in the shadows of an exploitative and dominant culture, she cannot forget that she is different. At the same time, she is not dealing with the simple black and white paradigm of America, but a broader patchwork of identities.

Anzaldua is more than just "non-white": she is a hybrid who embraces her Spanish, her Indian, her Mexican and her mestiza backgrounds with equal acceptance. Mexican, mestiza, Chicana, mulata, India, Raza, tejana. All of these are categories that Anzaldua identifies with. This ethnic diversity gives her a rich background that links her to many different cultures and histories. At the same time, the multiplicity also reflects the turmoil, both internally and externally, that exist for people who live in the border between many different identities.

While finding herself conflicted about her Anglo acculturation, and the white rationality that often tells her to forget her other realities, she believes in being a mediator between different cultures. For her, exempting one aspect of her identity would be as painful as cutting of another.

One of the most painful struggles in her life come from her acknowledgement of her sexual identity. As a lesbian by choice, she has had to deal with homophobia not just from the outside world but also from her own family. Just as the US-Mexico border is an "unnatural" boundary, Anzaldua view boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual as an unnatural one. "Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one of the other." # she says. Just as the border is seen as a danger zone where "aliens" cross-over to pollute a well ordered society, so does the sexual borderlands. Anybody who dares to cross over create moral panic Anzaldua sees her choice as a conscious act that breaks down the boundary that separates the male from the female aspects of her personality. The ultimate rebellion for Chicanas is through sexuality, and she embraces the magic aspects of what is sometimes perceived to be an abnormal deviance.

Anzaldua analyzes class issues with the same boldness as she deals with ethnicity and sexuality. As somebody from a working class background who had spent her childhood working as a migrant laborer, she focuses on the concerns of maquiladora, undocumented and migrant laborers as an integral part of the text. Exploitation - of labor, of human beings, of women - take place in the borders. Each crossing puts the crosser in alien territory, and they have to relearn to make sense of knowledge. She sees this violence as transformative. She also insists that class issues cannot be analyzed by themselves, they have to be seen in a gendered light.

Anzaldua ends by urging us all to adopt what she calls una cultura mestiza, the mestiza culture, which embraces all part of a hybrid identity. This new mestiza way leads to a new consciousness - "the new mestiza consciousness"# - that allows people on the borderlands to retain their different homelands, while at the same time embracing multiple subject positions, voices and languages, even the parts that clash. The mestiza way escapes all essentialist, reductive categories while allowing people to accept ambiguity and contradictions into their lives. This total acceptance of the clash of cultures at the borderlands leads to a spiritual reawakening, a revolutionary as well as evolutionary leap of "morphogenesis."#

Borderlands: La Frontera, in many ways, is a true border text that bridges the border between autobiography and political critique, between revisionist history and creative storytelling. It was one of the first to take on the trope of the border as personal as well as political, and translate it into the fragmented liminal work that has come to have a significant impact in the academic community as part of the canon on "border theory", as well as had a fundamental impact on artistic communities.

Melding ideas of personal transformation with ideas of collective change - 'nothing happens in the real world until it first happens in the images in our heads.'#, Anzaldua deals with the fragments of her journal, her memories, her history and her identity, and brings it all together in a style that mirrors the juxtapositions and the contradictions of her own life. By thus giving life creatively to a marginalized history, she also paved the way for other so called "minorities" within the US to think about their lives "autobiographically" in the same intensely personal as well as political way.

For the Mosaic Magazine version, click here.

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