Veruska Cantelli

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.

From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.

From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.

 - Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth.


Borderlands/La Frontera by Chicana writer and poet Gloria Anzaldúa is an indefinable work. It is an autobiography, an historical and social critique, a manifesto of Chicana identity, a theoretical and practical understanding of borders and their effect on the body and the psyche of those who populate them, and also a storytelling session. Its the legitimization of a language. It’s an act of cultural re-appropriation. Anzaldúa’s borderlands are the regions between Texas and Mexico where she was born and raised, exactly in the geographical space where political legitimacy and illegitimacy is disputed on the basis of language and skin color. We soon discover that the borderlands people that inhabit Anzaldúa’s work are “the females, the homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned, the outcast, the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign.” As a Chicana, lesbian writer, Anzaldúa’s book represents the uncompromised marking of a space and identity. As a writer who inscribes upon her body generations of pain and torture from marginalization, it represents a plunging into the depth of the soul, the place of darkness and fear from which she will discover the way to a new mestiza consciousness.

In the chapter “Entering Into the Serpent,” Anzaldúa introduces the concept of la facultad, which she defines as an ability, a faculty to capture the depth of the soul, the self. This faculty, which breaks the habitual modes of seeing reality and the patterns of consciousness, she tells us, does not reside in reason but in the body. At its first stage, la facultad is a “survival tactic” developed by those who have suffered and experienced oppression; it is an ability to capture danger, a threat, through the smell of another or through a tingling on the skin. At its deeper stage, la facultad is “anything that breaks into one’s everyday mode of perception, that causes a break in one’s defenses and resistance, anything that takes one from one’s habitual grounding, causes the depth to open up, causes a shift in perception.” It is through this secondary stage that awareness - “the experiencing of the soul” - is reached. 

The ability Anzaldúa describes resonates with anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the native perceptiveness within the space of his colonial confinement: “The native is always on the alert, for since he can only make out with difficulty the many symbols of the colonial world, he is never sure whether or not he has crossed the frontier.” The borderlands people are in fact caught in the paradox of being born in a space where they are not recognized as legitimate, or where they are categorized as different, and are therefore constantly being asked to question their own existence. The tension that Fanon discerns in the body of the colonized is the perception of fear and danger of la facultad, the uncertainty that brings awareness of one’s condition. Distinct from Fanon, who describes the oppressed as simultaneously facing fear of the colonizer and the desire to become the persecutor, Anzaldúa speaks of the outcast who has not been desensitized by the brutality of marginalization and oppression. Those who experience oppression but are not caught in the mode of acceptance and victimization, Anzaldúa affirms, have the opportunity to tap into a level of awareness that will allow them to see, perceive, and understand their condition, but also to reconnect with the psychic realm and collective consciousness that ages of cultural oppression have concealed. According to Anzaldúa, this understanding occurs through a process not involving reason, but the body, where she affirms la facultad has been dormant from long-ago times. La facultad is the capacity to remain open even in a state of danger. It is perhaps the perception of being, the possibility to create and destroy at the same time, and for this reason, fear, illness and death can increase it precisely because they represent a point of rupture with the everyday “safe and easy ignorance” and “mode of consciousness.” They shatter “defenses and resistance” that would result in violence, and it is then that the journey through the soul in the depth of the underworld, the pit, a realm of birth and death, can begin. This is the journey that the author herself undertakes for the creation of the new mestiza consciousness. 

Through reconstructing and unpacking the Mexican myths of goddesses, deemed evil and inappropriate by the Spanish Christian missionaries, and with the meticulousness of an archivist and the sentiment of a dispossessed, Anzaldúa re-establishes and re-interprets a collective consciousness/unconsciousness suppressed by the Spanish colonialists. She chooses the ancient Aztec goddess of life, death and rebirth, Coatlicue, as the archetype through which regeneration and change occurs. By re-inhabiting these ancient myths she at once finds her own individual space and reestablishes the genesis of her relatedness to her community.

Borderlands/La Frontera, written in Chicano and English without translation, has become a manifesto of Chicano identity. It is an understanding of borders, from geographical ones, precisely as those that have divided and defined the US and Mexico, to cultural borders that segregate communities and individuals because of ethnicity, language, religion, gender, and sexuality. The latter are the borders with which Anzaldúa is mostly concerned. With its annexation of Mexican territories that now represent the state of Texas, and after the US-Mexican war, the US became responsible for the separation of entire communities and families which overnight became citizens of a country with a different language and a different culture. In 1830, Mexico closed its frontiers to the illegal settlement of US immigrants, and in 1836 General Lopez de Santa Anna centralized his government, establishing a dictatorship against which many states, including Texas, rose up against. This signaled for Texas the beginning of the war for its independence from Mexico. In 1846, the US invaded more territories in Mexico, forcing the nation to finally concede the territories of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. Soon, cultural differences in the annexed territories marked the establishment of a hierarchy that instituted a white supremacy not only in the social and political structures, but also in cultural ones. Similar to Native Americans, Chicanos became victims of injustice and segregation that persist today: “Gringos in the U.S. Southwest consider the inhabitants of the borderlands transgressors, aliens — whether they possess documents or not, whether they are Chicanos, Indians or Black. Do not enter, trespassers will be raped, maimed strangled, gassed, shot. The only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with white.” In this territory, caught in its paradoxical modes of oppression, is also added the illegal migration of Mexicans: “Those who make it past the checking points of the border patrol find themselves in the midst of 150 years of racism in Chicano barriors in the Southwest and in big northern cities. Living in a no-man’s-borderland, caught between being treated as criminals and being able to eat, between resistance and deportation, the illegal refugees are some of the poorest and the most exploited of any people in the U.S.” 

It was within this historical context that Anzaldúa was raised by a family of farmers, the first of six generations to leave her homeland. As with many women’s autobiographers, for Anzaldúa, the return to her homeland takes place in the process of writing, a process in which she reestablishes a relationship with the past and the present, and therefore with the community and the family: “To this day I’m not sure where I found the strength to leave the source, the mother, disengage from my family, mi tierra, mi gente, and all that picture stood for. I had to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me.” This first rupture from the familiar represents the beginning of the journey in building her own identity, both distinct from the set of preconceived cultural expectations and ideas of her community, and linked to it through a path chosen and rediscovered by the author.

Anzaldúa describes how the general expectations for any woman of her community were very precise: a woman could either become a mother, a nun or a prostitute. She also points out that, in time, the path of education opened up the possibility of independence. This was, in part, the path she chose for herself, but not without judgment and resentment from her community. Along with the social structure that sees women as perpetuators of men’s supremacy, she sees a more subtle and profound structure that has been part of her cultural tissue, the spiritual and religious image of womanhood:

Humans fear the supernatural, both the undivine (the animal impulses such as sexuality, the unconscious, the unknown, the alien) and the divine (the superhuman, the god in us). Culture and religion seek to protect us from these two forces. The female, by virtue of creating entities of flesh and blood  her own stomach […] by virtue of being in tune with nature’s cycles, is feared. Because according to Christianity and most other major religions, woman is carnal, animal, and closer to the undivine, she must be protected. Protected from herself. Woman is the stranger, the other. 

Following this concept of womanhood are "sanitized" versions of the mythological stories of Mexican gods and goddesses implemented by the Christian Missionaries, which were to represent the feminine. Along with these interpretations was the confused message that came directly from the model of the mother whose creed was to be protective of the child while being submissive to men. This particular behavior, Anzaldúa explains, was perhaps the consequence of a tribal structure that necessarily sought the survival of the clan over that of the existence of the individual, and it is precisely this understanding, along with the realization of her own sexuality, that raised in the author questions of belonging, legitimacy, of exclusion, and conformity:

There is something compelling about being both male and female, about having an entry into both worlds. Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and half are not suffering from confusion of sexual identity, or even from confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other. It claims that human nature is limited and cannot evolve into something better. But I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female. I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within. 

From this very specific condition comes Anzaldúa’s poetics of borders, as a clarification of an existence on the threshold of any definition, a shifting ground where the self is not built on legitimacy or conformity, but rather on its plurality - a plurality that, for Anzaldúa, is specifically connected with the oppressed and the outcasts. The author writes of the three spiritual archetypes very present in the life of Mexicans: Guadalupe, La Chingada (Malinche, the raped one), and La Llorona (the weeping one). The Christian missionaries manipulated the existence of these three women figures in order to tame and convert the Mexican colonized population: “Guadalupe has been used by the church to mete out institutionalized oppression: to placate the Indians and mexicanos and Chicanos. In part, the true identity of all three has been subverted — Guadalupe to make us docile and enduring, La Chingada to make us ashamed of our Indian side, and la Llorona to make us long-suffering people. This obscuring has encouraged the virgen/puta (whore) dichotomy.”

Further in her analysis of pre-Columbian America, Anzaldúa tells us that the symbol of the serpent, whose dominator becomes the Christianized Maria Coatlalopeuh, was considered sacred by pre-Columbian population, it was believed to be the creative womb from which everything both originated and returned. These visions become, for Anzaldúa, moments of realization, an awareness of reality and the self, not from rationalization, but from psychic experiences: “Like many Indians and Mexicans, I did not deem my psychic experiences real. I denied their occurrences and let my inner sense atrophy.” Anzaldúa recalls having had the Coatlicue state the first time when she was two or three years of age. She describes this state as being “a rupture in our everyday world. As the Earth, she opens and swallows us, plunging us into the underworld where the soul resides, allowing us to dwell in the darkness.” Anzaldúa’s journey through the darkness symbolizes her realization and acceptance of being different. 

“When I create stories in my head, that is allow the voices and scenes to be projected in the inner screen of my mind, I ‘trance’… Because writing invokes images from my unconscious, and because some of the images are residue of trauma which I then have to reconstruct,” she writes. This power is not limited to the suffering and questioning of the self, but it is directly connected to that of others, as the author clearly affirms in the following statement: “I am playing with my Self, I am playing with the world’s soul, I am the dialogue between my Self and el espiritu del mundo. I change myself, I change the world.” The storyteller, in her trance, locates herself in the world in between, at the edge of self and others, abandoning the ego in order to open up to change, but she also becomes a healer, a singer, and a voice to her listeners.

Anzaldúa affirms that for the ancient Aztecs, the poet was able not only to communicate with the divine through poetry and its recreation of truth through images and symbols, but also to reconcile the world above with the one of the underworld. She interprets this as a process in which the “metaphorical mind precedes analytical consciousness,” and by reinhabiting this function, she decenters the western order of thought and knowledge formation. She tries to undo centuries of western appropriation of indigenous culture: “Ethnocentrism is the tyranny of Western aesthetics. An Indian mask in an American museum is transposed into an alien aesthetic system where what is missing is the presence of power invoked through performance ritual. It has become a conquered thing, a dead ‘thing’ separated from nature and, therefore, its power.” The author strongly condemns the behavior of the white American towards people of color and calls for an anti-Cartesian understanding of the relation between man and the world - one not in opposition or in superiority.

There is a broader return to myths and goddesses of ancient times by poets and writers of the seventies as a means of finding a new interpretation of the world’s order, one other than that represented in western thought, and Anzaldúa’s work finds its place as well in this context. In his book Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities, for exameple, Mircea Eliade devotes a large space to the introduction and contextualization of the shaman: “The future shaman marks himself off progressively by some strange behavior: he seeks solitude, becomes a dreamer, loves to wander in woods or desert places, has visions, sings in his sleep, etc.” The period of wandering and solitude, which may be painful and physically demanding, is followed by a return to the village with a realization and a responsibility of possessing a divine power which is not only an essential, respected and devoted attribute by the inhabitants, but also something vital in the equilibrium of their lives. Therefore, “far from being neuropaths or degenerates, shamans are, from the intellectual point of view, evidently superior to those around them. They are the principal custodians of the rich oral literature…” The shaman, as described by Eliade, is far from being a victim of a psychological imbalance, he/she is a source of collective knowledge, of healing, of spiritual guidance, yet he is also a human being, who shares with all the rest of human beings a life on earth, a characteristic that makes him/her he/she a member of a non-dualistic world. 

After the decision to become a shaman, and having declared the will to be a seer, as a shaman is often considered, the training will be completed when the aspirant has had the experience of death and resurrection. It is through this experience that the shaman finds the illumination that will allow him/her to navigate through darkness, the future and the secrets of other souls. One needs only to look at the great poetic works of Dante, Homer, Gilgamesh and Inanna as examples directly liked to such a vision of spiritual endeavor: the experience of loss and search, as often the descent into the underworld signifies, followed by a rebirth, a regeneration which finds its meaning in the civic communion — Dante’s journey for the salvation of the corrupt Florentines and Odysseus to save Ithaca from the assault of the suitors. In the Sumeric epics of Gilgamesh and Inanna, we clearly see the transformation of the individual into a man and a woman for his people.

Contemporary poets Alice Notley and Diane Di Prima have been greatly influenced by the study of storytellers, poets and shamans. In Notley’s Descent of Alette, the poet undertakes a journey, resembling the one of Inanna in the underworld, in the underground of New York city subway system, and it is here, among the voices - so compellingly present and evident in the unique form of Notley’s verse, made in a rhythm of quotation marks - that a reconciliation with the story of her deceased Vietnam veteran brother takes place. Diane Di Prima’s Loba, whose mythological goddess is identified as a bone gatherer and recreator, is made here to represent the voices of women lost within the dogmatic western thought. In her retrieval of other myths, Di Prima tries to recreate new roles for women. For both Notley and Di Prima the intention was to return to a voice, a true personal voice, that was both deeply connected to a communal knowledge and that it is also suffered privately.

Anzaldúa’s work finds its place as well in this context. Borderlands/La Frontera begins with the history of Mexico as an attempt to collectively reorganize fundamental events. She wants to name those who are responsible, and this desire to transcend is in fact born from historical limitations; her "flight" is born in her own body: “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.” Her writing, as much as it is a medicine for the wounds of the past, offered to her people, as a shaman would, is also a call to consciousness and to change, and therefore it has all to do with history and human condition. That deeper understanding of reality she calls la facultad is a capacity risen from the conditions of living on the border. She describes it both as a survival tactic and an opportunity to see one’s surrounding differently and with a new awareness. 

The subsequent journey into rebirth is described by Anzaldúa as the realization of a human existence which transcends class, race and sexuality: “And someone in me takes matters into our own hands, and eventually, takes dominion over serpents—over my own body, my sexual activity, my soul, my mind, my weaknesses and strengths. Mine. Ours. Not the heterosexuals white man’s or the colored man’s or the state’s or the culture’s or the religion’s or the parents’—just our, mine.” From this journey, the shaman is complete: “The ability of story (prose and poetry) to transform the storyteller and the listener into something or someone else is shamanistic. The writer, as shape-changer, is a nahual, a shaman.” Just as one cannot separate the shaman from her/his life, writing is life. Anzaldúa’s activity becomes her ultimate sacrifice, an offering and a responsibility.

We Mexicans are   collective animal                     This I

accept     but my life’s work              requires autonomy

like oxygen.                     This lifelong battle has ended,

Raza.            I don’t need to flail against                you.

Raza india mexicana nortamericana,              there’s no-

thing more you can chop off             or graft on me that

will change my soul.            I remain who I am, multiple

and oneof the herd, yet not of it.                        I walk

on the ground of my own being                  browned and 

hardened by the ages.I am fully formed              carved

by the hands of the ancients,                   drenched with

the stench of today’s headlines.                  But my own

hands whittlethe final work                                   me.