Claiming Borderlands and the In-between
"I write because it’s my calling, my task to do in the world. I write. It is a ritual, a habit, a propensity bred in my bones. It is what I do. I write because I like to think on paper. I write because I like to think, and to track my thoughts. I write because I want to leave a discernable mark on the world.” Gloria Anzaldúa, “When I Write I Hover"
I have always found Gloria Anzaldúa on my way from one experience to another, like the concept of "nepantla" she always wrote about – the in-between state. It’s encouraging to know this, especially as we commemorate 25 years since the publication of her groundbreaking work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The revolutionary book centers around the metaphor of being that she performs from the physical borderlands near the Texas-Mexico border. She also explores bicultural identity, the battered psychology of women of color and the survival mechanisms of one marginalized Chicana writer to instruct the many of us who live between and in multiple worlds.
It is also an election year, a time when there is an emphasis on minorities becoming the majority in the United States and a man of color (who, like Anzaldúa, is of mixed race) is the President of the United States. As mainstream narratives co-mingle with the flattening of narrative space via the Internet, stories of feminists and women of color have multiplied. The borderlands seem now more important than the main plains of our country. That Anzaldúa wrote about coalition building and inclusion - the struggles of the oppressed, who also oppress each other with their labels - was nothing short of visionary. We are all still attempting to write our stories from the borderlands of our mixed, shifting national identities.
“Adjectives are a way of constraining and controlling. ‘The more adjectives you have, the tighter the box.’ Marking is always marking down…my labeling of myself is so that the Chicana and lesbian and all the other persons in me don’t get erased, omitted and killed. Naming is how I make my presence known, how I assert who and what I am and want to be known as. Naming myself is a survival tactic.” To(o) Queer The Writer.
I first read Anzaldúa as one of a handful of young women of color at Emma Willard, an elite boarding school in Troy, New York. I pretended to borrow This Bridge Called My Back, only the second anthology of feminist writing (other than The Black Woman, edited by Toni Cade Bambara). I was actually a veteran book thief by then, so the truth is that I stole it from the library, and it completely changed my world view.
Books that oriented me in a non-white, non-privileged experience were my anchors as I negotiated home insecurity, the scars of homelessness from the past, and attempted to reconcile the bare beauty of amassing privilege on Emma Willard’s campus. I did not know it was nepantla, the Nahuatl word for “that uncertain terrain one crosses when moving from one place to another.” I knew I was grateful for three meals a day, finally, and the long stretches of uninterrupted quiet time to read and study as leaves fell with their autumn splendor on perfect green grass.
I want to say that my life was black and white then, but that’s an oversimplification. Anyone who has grown up in an urban center like New York never lives in a black and white world unless she chooses to live with blinders on.
Chicano is not a word that New Yorkers used very much when I was growing up, around young girls that were trained to be grown before their time – they were Dominicana y Boricua y West Indian. Those of us who were African American/black and not from another island besides the Bronx or Queens or Brooklyn were left on our own to shape an identity.
Some of us chose hiphop. Others chose dancehall, salsa, merengue. We were, all of us, in the New World urban centers shaped by white male politics, nepantla. We were also sharing in the mestiza identity Anzaldúa wrote about all her life – a mixture like La Prieta, the dark one, which was her moniker.
So, I didn’t know what it meant to be Chicana, or why that was different from being Mexican American. I did not know much about Anzaldúa, either, just that she was important. Readers who pay attention to the writers on whose shoulders we stand know a powerful, transcendent voice when we hear and read it.
The Chicana/Tejana patlache activist, born Sept. 26 in the Rio Grande Valley, was the oldest child of sixth generation Mexicans from South Texas. While her family rejected her for her lesbian identity, she went on to find her tribe in classrooms in Austin and California where, later in her life, she would find joy walking along the beach and communing with the Yoruban goddess, Yemaya, mother goddess of the ocean.
Reading about her many health issues, a couple of muggings in Austin, where I live, and many more incredibly astute critical race theories in The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Duke University Press, 2009), I was alarmed to note how little Texas, America and lives of women of color have changed since the publication of Borderlands 25 years ago. Women are still not cared for as if they matter - not in Texas or any state in the Union. Those of us who would be activists, writers - immersed in life while also trying to make the world better - are often passive-aggressively violent with one another in cyberspace, on the page, in real life. It’s as if the in-between state has extended its reach into the 21st Century.
The Reader’s editor, AnaLouise Keating, now a trustee of the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Literary Trust, writes that Borderlands resists easy classification, but scholars describe it as a complex cultural autobiography. The creation story of Borderlands/La Frontera is complicated. Anzaldúa writes that she came to write the book when she was living in Vermont, surrounded by white (faces, people and snow). She was homesick for the brown landscape we in Texas find brutal in summer but a respite in winter: “You are closer to home when you’re further away,” she wrote.
She evoked code in Borderlands, switching between languages and genres intentionally. I was fond and proud of her refusal to italicize her native tongue; her refusal to label herself other in her own voice for easy consumption speaks volumes. She wrote that she realized her work was “either really appreciated and used with appreciation or else it was appropriated.”
In some cases, the book was banned. This past January, the Tucson Unified School District banned Borderlands from the classroom along with more than a dozen other titles after voting to ban Mexican American Studies. Those of us who choose the literature that speaks to us are so much better off because of Anzaldúa’s generosity, her prolific contribution to race theory and her insistence on resisting easy labels or categories for herself or her work. Now that a quarter of a century has passed since her contribution, and eight years now since she died in May 2004, maybe we can each start to move away from our individual addiction to labels and classifications. Like the courageous and committed Anzaldúa, perhaps we can move from the in-between and find comfort in the borderlands of our lives.
J. Victoria Sanders has been a writer and journalist for over fifteen years. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, The UTNE Reader, Publishers Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News and The Austin American-Statesman. Her work has been widely anthologized and her publication credits include Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time; Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets; Madonna and Me; and the forthcoming Seal Press anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religion. She just completed her first book, Single & Happy, which will be published in 2013. She is a Bronx native living in Austin, TX. She blogs atwww.jvictoriasanders.com and at http://partyofones.com
The image is taken from the artist Malaquias Montoya's 2007 project to create a 12 by 40-foot mural at Beamer Park Elementary School in Woodland, CA. Read more about this project here...