The difficulty of discussing Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza becomes apparent when one surveys the critical reception of her work. There exists a clear division between two interpretative communities. On the one hand, the book is celebrated as a Chicana’s triumphant manifesto; on the other, it is read as an exemplary postmodern text. From the former perspective, Borderlands is a work in which the author asserts and formulates her ethnic difference, resisting the universalizing impulse that dominated feminism of the seventies and the eighties. Sonia Sáldivar-Hull criticizes white feminists like Julia Kristeva and Toril Moi for ignoring or dismissing women of color in their theorization of feminism. In contrast, Anzaldúa’s book is “a new discursive practice or methodology that would legitimize the specificity of Chicana/ black/lesbian . . . feminisms” (210). Sáldivar-Hull supports her argument by emphasizing Anzaldúa’s sensitivity to the history and material conditions of Chicanas. However, this reading does not avoid generalization altogether, for Sáldivar-Hull’s Anzaldúa is more of a collective being than an individual. It is not unusual to encounter a statement such as the following in Chicana readings of Borderlands: “Anzaldúa’s feminist discourse leads her to look inward only for a deeper understanding of a larger erased history” (Sáldivar-Hull 217). The Chicana perspective, in upholding ethnic specificity, ironically erases Anzaldúa.
At the other end of the critical spectrum, AnaLouise Keating insists on the parallel between Hélène Cixous’s écriture feminine and Anzaldúa’s “mestiza écriture” in an attempt to develop “transculturally contextualized theories” (121). In both writers, Keating observes “nonsymmetrical oppositional writing tactics that simultaneously deconstruct, reassemble, and transcend phallocentric categories of thought” (122). Others have taken this comparative approach further. Kevin Conannon, for example, compares borderlands to cyberspace in “The Contemporary Space of the Border: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands and William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” In this article, he equates mestiza consciousness with the postmodern condition, a condition in which everyone feels displaced to a certain extent. The dangers of this application lie in diluting the political urgency of Anzaldúa’s book. If mestiza consciousness is what everyone experiences in this postmodern world, why bother about the political oppression of people based on class, race, gender, and sexuality? When taken to the extreme, such comparisons lead to sweeping generalizations that, perhaps unintentionally, leave behind the most immediate and difficult aspects of a particular text. Readings that dismantle the contentious dimension of Borderlands have been identified, I think correctly, as “appropriations” by critics such as Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano and Linda Martín Alcoff.
The difficulty of doing justice to Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, however, is not simply a result of segregation in interpretative communities. It is, to a greater degree, generated by the text itself, an unconventional mixture of sociology, history, political manifesto, cultural analysis, personal narrative, poetry, songs, and other verbal fragments. Not enough attention has been paid to the elusive quality of this text. Borderlands not only theorizes border-crossing but performs it in a way that thwarts the reader’s attempt to paraphrase it. The prose section and the poetry section contribute in distinct ways. The first half of this paper discusses Anzaldúa’s model of subjectivity and the protean nature of her prose. The second half focuses on the issue of embodiment and the function of poetry in the text. Together, the two parts initiate an alternative reading practice that remains sensitive to the text’s own material specificity. This formal focus, I argue, deepens our understanding of that much circulated concept, mestiza consciousness.
In the chapter “Movimiento de rebeldía y las culturas que traicionan,” Anzaldúa writes autobiographically of her rebellion against her culture. She depicts Chicano culture as overwhelmingly male-centered, exacting absolute obedience from women: “The culture and the Church insist that women are subservient to males. If a woman rebels she is a mujer mala [bad woman]. If a woman doesn’t renounce herself in favor of the male, she is selfish” (39). Because female subjection is enforced by denying her a self, even the mildest form of self-assertion from a woman is condemned as selfishness, a common logical fallacy found in patriarchal cultures. Young Anzaldúa’s rebellion consists of holding onto her self-autonomy: “Every bit of self-faith I’d painstakingly gathered took a beating daily” (38). Through this struggle she emerges victorious. She leaves home, gets an education, and chooses career over marriage. By rejecting the culture of her youth, she becomes in her own words “selfautonomous” (39). Her autobiographical story at this point resembles the typical narrative of second-wave feminism, an affirmation of the female self and its autonomy.
The surprise of Borderland lies in the fact that the text gradually grows out of this initial narration of the victorious self. After having given an account of her earlier life, she is not afraid to write beyond what looks like the feminist happy ending. Two chapters later, the readers are startled to find a revision of the previous account: “I spent the first half of my life learning to rule myself, to grow a will, and now at midlife I find that autonomy is a boulder on my path that I keep crashing into” (72). Her autonomy interferes with her creative activities in particular and her need to forge new ways of thinking in general. In fact, immediately after admitting the difficulties posed by self-autonomy, she lets go of her agency and hands it over to Antigua, a goddess figure she has created out of the usable past:
The boundary between self and other is wonderfully blurred in this passage as the confusion of pronouns gives ample evidence. This multitudinous self can break away from congealed forms of identity whether national, ethnic, cultural, or genealogical. It even breaks open the confines of the singular self, arriving at the curious formulation “just ours, mine.” Furthermore, the fact that Antigua was in Anzaldúa from the start reveals that the self is “always already intersubjective and multiply interconnected” (Ramlow 182). As she acknowledges the other in her self, Anzaldúa moves beyond a politics of autonomy.
Borderlands is a text that grows with the writer, a text that does not hesitate to revise past views and assertions when the need arises. An interpretation of Borderlands that fails to take into account its continual shifting nature is an attempt to exert power over the text. This exertion of control is a common practice in Western aesthetics. According to Anzaldúa, “Its task is to move humans by means of achieving mastery in content, technique, feeling. Western art is always whole and always ‘in power’” (90). This statement may not be entirely accurate, yet it has the virtue of clarifying the effect she is aiming for in her own text. The text of Borderlands rejects such mastery over its content, technique, and feeling. At one point, Anzaldúa compares the book to a girl-child: “The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will” (88). The text is not satisfied with each new breakthrough -- there is no final stage of evolution to be reached. Significantly, Anzaldúa calls this movement “(r)evolution,” indicating that the emergence of a mestiza consciousness differs from models of linear progress. The movement is circular and outward, somewhat similar to growth rings of a tree or an outgoing spiral. With each new (r)evolution, perception is deepened and awareness widened. With each cycle, “her consciousness expands a tiny notch, another rattle appears on the rattlesnake tail and the added growth slightly alters the sounds she makes” (71).
Any attempt to capture the meaning of Borderlands is doomed to a partial failure from the outset, for how does one do justice to a text that keeps growing? Sáldivar-Hull is partially right in saying that Anzaldúa celebrates her Chicana identity, but the text also radically qualifies any simplistic assertion of ethnic pride. Keating is correct in noting the deconstruction of phallocentric categories of thought in Borderlands, yet the book refuses to be limited to feminist politics. Chela Sandoval stands out among critics in analyzing the slippery dynamics at work in Borderlands. She theorizes a new, shifting subjectivity that constantly recenters itself as tactical responses to “complex domination” (Fowlkes 107). The usual complaint that feminists had about women of color, as Sandoval captures with a sense of humor, was: “When they were there, they were rarely there for long” (58). This was due to their constant shifting of strategy, a kind of feminist guerrilla warfare. What is noteworthy in Sandoval’s discussion is her approval of this strategy. She presents it as a model for a successful oppositional social movement in the postmodern world:
Sandoval re-imagines the field of political struggle as a network of power relations that require a constant revision of tactics. The terms of political engagement are never fixed, never as transhistorical as the grand narratives of modernity would have them. The concept of tactical subjectivity provides a way out of the impasse created by the two kinds of readings summarized at the beginning of this paper. Sandoval’s interpretation preserves the contentious edge of Anzaldúa’s work without locking her into a narrowly defined ethnic category. Anzaldúa’s mestiza consciousness that “keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm” provides a powerful tool for subjects who need to create new coalitions and widen the imagination of social justice (102).
In the traditional bourgeois model of the public sphere, the normative subject was the literate and propertied white male. As Michael Warner points out, “other features of bodies could only be acknowledged in discourse as the humiliating positivity of the particular” (382). This unwelcome visibility restricted the free access of the public sphere to subjects marked by race, class, gender, and sexuality. In order to challenge this legacy, it was important for Anzaldúa to be able to make reference to her particularities in her writing -- the particularities of being female, Chicana, and lesbian. This constituted an important part of the cultural work performed by Borderlands. As Mariana Ortega notes, however, “many interpreters forget the importance of embodiment, materiality, spatiality, and cultural specificity in her work” (245). If popularity is a measure of success, Borderlands has been immensely successful in various fields. Such translatability at the same time has entailed varying degrees of abstraction of the book’s content. It is important to attend to the issues of embodiment, materiality, spatiality, and cultural specificity of Borderlands because these issues form the core of Anzaldúa’s challenge. How can new coalitions emerge without sacrificing these bodies, their experiences, and their histories?
The tension between abstraction and experience, idea and embodiment, begins early in the text:
Anzaldúa begins by defining the border as the construct of rigid and unrealistic dualism. This side of the line means “us”; the other side means “them.” Borders provide a sense of safety and security. Such an airtight closure, however, exists only in theory. In life, lines give way to space. Instead of a border, we have a borderland. The move from line to land entails a change of dimensions, introducing the concept of spatiality. As three-dimensional beings, humans occupy and move in space, and memories of such experience become part of who we are as individuals and groups. In the above passage, Anzaldúa deftly binds space to its inhabitants, shifting the emphasis from physics to history. The history of the United States Southwest, of course, heightens the artificiality of national borders. “The border fence that divides the Mexican people was born on February 2, 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. It left 100,000 Mexican citizens on this side,” writes Anzaldúa (29). The memory and everyday practices of those 100,000 Mexican citizens, however, could not be wiped out with the signing of a treaty. Their memories cling to the place in the form of the “emotional residue of an unnatural boundary,” highlighting the differential logic between history-space and the cartographical line.
When conceived this way, the borderland gives rise to movement and change. Far from being an empty, homogeneous space, it is in “a constant state of transition.” There is, for example, the movement of people both to and from Mexico, especially in the early years of the annexation. The border split up families and clans in some instances: “The Anzaldúas lived right at the border. Therefore the ones of our family who ended up north of the border, in the U.S., were the Anzaldúas with an accent, whereas the ones that still lived in Mexico dropped their accent after a while” (235). People knew people on the other side, and such ties were often maintained for generations. Sometimes, the crossings were as casual as going to the grocery store: “I remember when I was growing up in Texas how we’d cross the border at Reynosa or Progreso to buy sugar or medicines” (32). It is only with the increased surveillance of the national border that crossing became a risky and politically fraught activity. The dangers involved in illegal crossing of the border are depicted in vivid detail towards the end of the first chapter. “Without benefit of bridges,” she writes, “the ‘mojados’ (wetbacks) float on inflatable rafts across el río Grande, or wade or swim across naked, clutching their clothes over their heads” (33). On the American side, the border patrol awaits to snatch them up and transport them back to Mexico. Increased surveillance notwithstanding, crossing persists: “Some return to enact their rite of passage as many as three times a day” (34).
Although Americans perceive illegal crossing as an invasion of the body politic by alien elements, Anzaldúa points to a number of factors that complicate this picture. On the most immediate level, the Mexicans that cross the border are refugees of a colonized economy, the product of a previous (economic) invasion. “Los gringos had not stopped at the border. By the end of the nineteenth century, powerful landowners in Mexico, in partnership with U.S. colonizing companies, had dispossessed millions of Indians of their lands. Currently, Mexico and her eighty million citizens are almost completely dependent on the U.S. market” (32). As is clear in her formulation, it was the people of the United States who showed little respect for national borders, whether territorial or economic. While military, political, and financial invasions are justified and even glorified, the entry of dark bodies into the U.S. is framed as a national security issue. The racialization of Chicanos, however, is ironic in light of American continental history. Anzaldúa’s second point centers on the Native American ancestry of the Chicanos on which the irony hinges. Although irrevocably diluted, the Chicanos are part Native American. At the risk of sounding tautological, it still needs to be emphasized that Native Americans are the natives of America, the original inhabitants of the American continent. Their ancestors migrated across the Bering Straits from the northern parts of Asia and travelled southward for thousands of years. “We have a tradition of migration, a tradition of long walks,” notes Anzaldúa (33). Before the arrival of the Europeans, Native Americans migrated across the continent. She sees in the border crossings of today a continuation of this history of internal diaspora.
Anzaldúa’s placing yields a subject that is both material and historical. Not only does this allow Anzaldúa to challenge the hegemonic framing of Mexicans, Chicanos, and Native Americans, but it also allows her to search for the possibility of change. Her method is to examine the “residue,” the things that resist incorporation into the body politic. An interesting characteristic of such residual specificities is that they do not stay still. Land, for example, give rise to movement of the people but more importantly lends itself to organic growth. At the end of the prose section, Anzaldúa writes, “Growth, death, decay, birth. The soil prepared again and again, impregnated, worked on. A constant changing of forms, renacimientos de la tierra madre [regenerations of Mother Earth]” (113). And again in the last poem of the poetry section, “Your lineage is ancient, / your roots like those of the mesquite / firmly planted, digging underground / toward that current, the soul of tierra madre” (224). The firm grounding depicted in these lines leads to a deeper acknowledgement of the “constant changing of forms” or the “current” of Mother Earth. These are remarkable manifestations of Anzaldúa’s ability to insist on a politics of placing without succumbing to the neighboring conditions of stasis and parochialism. In fact, it is one of the mysterious dynamics of this text that the closer Anzaldúa works with the specific, the more questioning her writing becomes. The more closely she grounds herself in the soil and the more deeply she delves into her Chicana lesbian body, the more transformative power she gains.
Part of this is explained by the place itself -- the borderlands. Living in a state of continuous ambivalence sharpens the border people’s facultad, “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities” (60). As a creative writer, Anzaldúa has actively appropriated and further honed this capacity. In the chapter that discusses her writing process, Anzaldúa makes the following remarkable statement: “Being a writer feels very much like being a Chicana, or being queer -- a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. Or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, boundless, floating state of limbo” (94). This, of course, does not mean that queerness or certain ethnic identities guarantee a greater degree of artistic creativity. Nevertheless, Anzaldúa senses a structural similarity between living in the borderlands and the mindset of the artist as she defines it. Both acquire the capacity to see through hegemonic formulations; both develop a greater tolerance of the ambiguity produced thereby. Not everyone is made fit for such prolonged bouts of uncertainty, but for the artist, this is not even a choice. “I cannot separate my writing from any part of my life. It is all one,” admits Anzaldúa (95). In order to write, Anzaldúa repeatedly undoes herself and descends into the “nothing defined or definite, boundless, floating state of limbo.” Then she returns with something new, something that will point to alternative possibilities.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Anzaldúa’s theory of artistic creativity is the physical terms she employs to describe the process. Anzaldúa believes that “only through the body, through the pulling of the 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 from the Earth’s body -- stone, sky, liquid, soil” (97). The human body and the Earth’s body provide the raw material for cultural work. Anzaldúa deftly brings together the two meanings of culture -- the tilling of land and the totality of expressive practices through which a group of people gains self-awareness. To be transformative, cultural work has to begin on the ground and in the flesh. Because the subject’s relation to materiality is always already mediated, the act of re-accessing materiality necessarily involves the two-fold process of unmaking and making. “Pulling” is an interesting verb to use in this context. Pulling can be anything between a gentle tug and a violent ripping of a surface. The act of pulling results in the simultaneous undoing of the previous shape and the making of a new shape. Pulling thus implies an intentional and modulated application of force on an object to change its given form. Only with such a pulling is it possible to confront “the me that has something in common with the wind and the trees and the rocks,” the aspect of the self that remains resistant to subjection (72).
The body is never a stable entity in Anzaldúa’s writing. The volatility of the body is celebrated in Borderlands by the many shapes and meanings it takes. In “The Cannibal’s Canción,” the lover’s body is ceremoniously consumed; in “Holy Relics,” the body parts of a dead saint become religious objects; in “Interface,” the body of the lover takes on a ghostly quality to the point of passing through walls. In some of the poems, the body is brutally mutilated, while in others, the body is healed. Taken apart and put together again, holy and profane, pained and luminous, the body provides the site on which meaning is made and unmade. It is in this context that the poems of Borderlands gain a sudden weighty significance. The poetry section of Borderlands has marked its presence negatively in Anzaldúa criticism. It is hardly ever mentioned, much less studied seriously. This oversight cannot be fully explained by the fact that the insights of her prose were so urgent as to draw attention away from the poems. The critical silence, I would argue instead, reflects the critics’ bafflement. The function of poetry in Borderlands is not immediately clear, especially when the reader is focused on the theoretical contributions of the text. In fact, one could argue that among all the different levels of embodiment in Borderlands, the most neglected is of the text’s own poetic embodiment.
Unlike the prose section that emerged from a need to comment on the poetry section (Garber 216), the poems require that each reader utilize all her resources in her attempt to meet them on their terms. They are uncompromising in that they do not offer to explain themselves but demand to be met. In the words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response” (11). Because poems invite a total response, they are resistant to epistemological appropriation. In this particular case, most critics responded by bypassing the poems altogether in their discussion of Borderlands. However, if Borderlands is a text that demands a more ethical relationship to the other, it is hardly surprising that Anzaldúa would demand a literary reading of her text, a reading that responds to its material difference. To read her poems is to take the first step toward the changes called for in Borderlands. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” Anzaldúa insists (109). Poems provide new images and new words, and they are no less real for happening “in our heads.”
The tension between the literal and the figurative is a key factor in all the poems in Borderlands. It keeps the readers on their toes and forbids an easy interpretation. At moments, it even interrupts and suspends the epistemological drive. “Letting Go” is a rich instance of Anzaldúa’s poetic strategy:
“To open oneself” is a common idiom we use to mean revealing our thoughts or secrets to somebody else. The first two lines operate within the bounds of the everyday register. The pause after the first two lines builds suspense, being a moment of wavering between the everyday mode and Anzaldúan mode. Then we enter into her “aesthetics of the grotesque” as Monika Kaup calls it (107). We suddenly have a woman literally ripping herself up, plunging her fingers into her navel. Of course, one realizes with horror, she would go to her navel because that is the point that marks a previous connection to the maternal body. This shock effect of the opened body ruptures the complacency of the audience. Anzaldúa then loosens her grip and lets the readers slip into the metaphorical -- out spill not intestines but lizards and toads, also orchids and sunflowers. The body is a described as a maze that contains odds and ends. Alternatively, the maze could stand for intestines that contain flora and fauna. The last line of the second stanza, “Shake it,” disrupts the readers again. Who is doing the shaking? How does one “shake it” when it is one’s body turned inside out? Who/what is the subject and who/what is the object of this shaking? How can flora and fauna spring out of a woman’s body? Could this be a rewriting of the creation myth, where the woman’s body becomes the site and the raw material of new flora and fauna?1 Analyzing another poem in Borderlands, George Hartley argues that the “distinction between the literal and the figural itself is one of the consequences of the colonization the poem seeks to undo. Body, mind, soul, and writing are intimately and intricately interwoven” (43). His observation can be applied equally to “Letting Go.” The disembowelment appears to be at once bodily and psychological. The poem translates a psychological letting go into an embodied experience, letting go of that very distinction in the process.
As indicated by the instructional tone of the speaker, the poem lays out the stages of spiritual development. First, one needs to decide to open; next, one needs to split open. The third step, depicted here, is the process of letting go. The body qua maze is inhabited by monsters that, unlike the lizards, cling to the deep recesses of the mind-body. These monsters do not spill out when the maze is shaken. The addressee needs to enter into the maze and personally confront them. The possibility of her loss of being, which was only hinted at in the opening lines, becomes palpable when she dissolves in the dragon’s saliva. Being a puddle she is no longer recognized; even the memory of her existence threatens to dissipate. At this moment of utter liquefaction, she realizes that not even her body is of her own making. This is a necessary stage in soul making, the undoing of coherences that have served their purpose.
This process of unmaking and remaking needs to be repeated again and again: “It’s not enough / letting go twice, three times, / a hundred.” The repetition of the phrase “It’s not enough” is significant. It is not enough to decide to open up, you need to enact it; it is not enough to let go once, you need to let go over and over again. With repeated practice, however, you might develop the necessary equipment to live in a state of constant vigilance. The poem closes with these lines:
The metaphor is slightly confusing. Why would fish come to the air between breathings? Some fish are known to come to the surface when the water’s oxygen level is low, and this possibility may lurk in these lines. Here, anyway, the implication is that the woman, until she grows gills, needs to come to the surface for air. The final image of a woman with gills on her breast is perhaps the most concrete image of (r)evolution in Borderlands. This odd figure symbolizes both an evolutionary step forward and a return to an earlier stage. In the early stages of embryonic development, there is a moment when humans indeed have gill slits. One gets a whiff of the monstrous from this creature. The image initially resembles the mermaid, but upon a closer inspection turns out to be quite different. In myth, the mermaid is usually depicted as an alluring being, with human torso and fish tail. Theoretically speaking, they would need gills, but part of their attractiveness has to do with the fact that they look as if they have lungs. The standard image of the mermaid (popularized by the Disney animation The Little Mermaid) is a good example of our tendency to see only what we want to see. Anzaldúa’s creature, on the other hand, is simply different, strange, and new. It is we who need to adjust to this new being, get used to her strangeness, her radical difference.
In the poems of Borderlands, images are set on the page without explanation, demanding an active engagement and a total response from the readers. Unlike the concept of mestizaje, her poems resist an easy appropriation. In fact, the poems preserve the real challenges of Borderlands. “The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended,” states Anzaldúa (102). Even more than in her prose, the material-figurative quality of her poems unsettles our ordinary mode of perception. The subject and object in her poems constantly switch places, melt, dissolve, flow into each other. Reading her poems, we enter an unfamiliar element and learn to tolerate ambivalence. Some poems are written entirely in Spanish, stubbornly refusing to shed their particularity for our convenience. The poems make us work through the strangeness of their images and their words. As Anzaldúa says, mestiza consciousness is not confined to the inside of our heads but needs to find expression “in the flesh and through the images,” the cultural practice of mestizaje.
In her 2006 tribute, Debra A. Castillo reminds us, “Gloria Anzaldúa is, we need to recall, a poet as well as, more importantly than, a theorist. It is as poet that she continues to inspire some members of the next generation, even as she angers others. She is not and should not be all things to all people” (265). As is clear in Castillo’s formulation, Borderlands has been tokenized to the point where people have forgotten that it began, originally, as a book of poems. Anzaldúa herself was wary of all systems of thought. Mestizaje was not offered as a new philosophy of postmodernism or even transnationalism. A close reading of Borderlands reveals that mestiza consciousness is the antithesis of systematization; it is the willingness to break coherences, again and again. The prose section of Borderlands records the writer’s own (r)evolutionary growth, while the poetry section pushes willing readers into a state of psychic unrest, the precondition of (r)evolution. The function of poetry in Borderlands, therefore, is to take the work of mestiza consciousness beyond the limit of the book, into the reader’s lives and the world they inhabit.
1I would like thank Horace Jeffery Hodges for bringing this point to my attention.