A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Borderlands/La Frontera: An Introduction

Book cover: Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria AnzalduaThis month’s selection is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Originally released in 1987, the book was a groundbreaking contribution to postcolonial feminism; it also introduced new Chicana feminist concepts to academia at a time when few feminists of color were being published.

A self-described “chicana dyke-feminist, tejana patlache poet, writer, and cultural theorist,” Gloria Anzaldúa was born on September 26, 1942 in south Texas (aka the Rio Grande Valley). A daughter of sharecroppers, she experienced different forms of oppression throughout her life that would eventually shape her Chicana feminist views: machismo in Chicano culture, sexism in the Chicano activist movement, cultural marginalization in academia.

Anzaldúa’s health and sexual development also shaped her feminist beliefs; born with a rare condition, she began menstruating when she was three months old and stopped growing when she was twelve years old. It was a painful condition that shaped her sexual identity, and the pain ended only when she had a hysterectomy. In an interview with AnaLouise Keating, she said:

I had no sexual identity because this part of my body was in total pain all the time. Once a month I’d get fevers of 106, tonsillitis, diarrhea, and throwing up. Sometimes it would go on for seven to ten days. So I withdrew all feeling from my genitals; from the time I was little it was always a smelly place that dripped blood and had to be hidden. I couldn’t play like other kids. I couldn’t open my legs, my mother had to put a little piece of rag there. My breasts started growing when I was about six, so she made me this little girdle. I was totally alienated from this part of my body.

Black and white photo: Gloria Anzaldua standing knee-deep in water at the beachUpon reflection, Anzaldúa later wrote, “I was born queer.”A lot of these themes come up in Borderlands/La Frontera, as does her sense of alienation from being caught between two cultures: the Mexican/Indian side (which at times also also labels her as an Other), and the Anglo side. She writes in her preface to the first edition:

The actual physical borderland that I’m dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, the Borderlands are physically present whenever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.

I am a border woman…It’s not a comfortable territory to lie in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.

Borderlands/La Frontera isn’t always the easiest read. The first half is comprised of essays that are part history, part personal narrative; the last half is comprised of poetry. Not only does Anzaldúa incorporate several dialects of Spanish and Spanglish, she does so consciously in response to all the language-related push back she experienced throughout her life. Several of the essays discuss how colonization has forced so many to lose their language, and she is adamantly opposed to translating her multilingual text into pure English. In one of her more famous essays, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” she writes:

Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without always having to translate…as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.

I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white.

I’ll leave it on that note and end with some ideas for further discussion:

  1. What is your reaction to the different languages in the book?
  2. This isn’t the first book this project has discussed where anger plays an important role in the text. How does Anzaldúa’s anger help shape her feminism?
  3. As Anzaldúa writes, borderlands are everywhere. In what ways do you think the mainstream feminism of today ignores/acknowledges these borderlands?
  4. What are some of the values Anzaldúa envisions in “Towards a New Consciousness” when she states:

I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.

Some links for further reading:

UPDATE: If you can’t get a hold of the book or are daunted by reading the whole thing, here are links to a few of the more popular selections from the book:

7 responses to “Borderlands/La Frontera: An Introduction

  1. RebeccaScaglione September 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    She sounds like such an interesting woman, but I feel so sorry for her sexual condition! I’m not sure if I would read this book, since it sounds very complicated, but I enjoyed the review!

  2. mdbrady September 17, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for such a fine introduction with information that I never had about Anzaldua despite my long admiration of her. I certainly agree about her importance, both as a Chicana writer and as a post-colonial challenge to the all-too-white feminists of the time. I heard her read from her work once and she was an increditabily powerful person. Very accessible for all the difference she pushed us to face.
    1. I feel guilty and ashamed that I can’t read her words and deeply curious.
    2. Like for many of us, anger provide her energy.
    3. It depends on which feminists. Some are as isolated as ever, but others are trying follow up on what she had to say. Those are the ones that excite me.
    4. A more open world, one which listens.

  3. amymckie September 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Great introduction! I’m finally home from a too-long work and vacation trip for which I forgot to pack this book. Am just about to begin, and a bit nervous as it seems like a difficult – but ultimately very rewarding – read.

    • mdbrady September 29, 2012 at 4:12 pm

      Not difficult intellectually. She is primarily a poet. The Spanish, or TXMex, can be a problem, but if you don’t know the words, you can glide over them. I respect her determination to make me adapt to her rather than vice versa.

  4. onereadleaf November 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    I never did get around to linking to my post on this one, so here it is.

    Thanks so much for this mini-biography, by the way; it’s intrinsically fascinating but it also changes my perspective on Anzaldua a little. She seems to put so much emphasis on her body, but it’s such a site of pain.

    As for your questions, which I really like…

    1. Delight. I love the way that she claims her language(s) and refuses to adjust her writing to make people happy, and as a long time Spanish language learner I love it when languages intertwine.
    2. I think anger is a big part of what makes her a poet. mdbrady pointed out in her comments on my post that Anzaldua’s writing is personal, never theoretical. Anger is an appropriate response to the things she’s experienced and I think it gives her a great deal of strength.
    3. Ah, I wish I were conversant enough to comment on “mainstream feminism of our time”! It’s too big a question for me. I do think “borderlands” is a useful concept that I’d like to see as a larger part of feminist conversations.
    4. I think that one major value of Anzaldua’s is claiming her identity, and honestly about that identity and her own experience. it comes through loud and clear in the passage you quoted.

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