Must Reads: Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa
Professor Desirée Martín tells us about the first book she turns to for solace and for theoretical insights.
I encountered Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley but I didn’t really grow to love the text until I was a graduate student researching Latina/o and Latin American studies. Today it is my theoretical bible, the text that I turn to first whenever I need to work out a problem in my writing or just to seek solace and resistance in the face of so many physical and psychological attacks on immigrants and people of color post-election.
As a graduate student, I had been looking for a way to understand the simultaneous cohesion and alienation exemplified by the condition of being Chicana/o, from an immigrant background, speaking multiple languages, and generally feeling that you are “ni de aquí, ni de allá” [neither from here, nor from there] regardless of what side of the U.S.-Mexico border you are on.
Borderlands/La Frontera is a hybrid text that plays out the intersections between fragmentation and unity in both its form and content. The text incorporates many genres, including poetry, history, myth, and autobiography, as well as various languages, including formal English, Spanglish, formal Spanish, and Tejano Spanish/English slang. It also privileges ever-changing kinds of physical embodiment and multiple sexualities as modes of resistance in patriarchal cultures.
All of the stylistic and narrative border-crossings that Borderlands/La Frontera enacts make it a perfect text to help us understand how lives can be shaped and informed by multiple places and homes but never fully belong to any one of them. But this inability to fully belong is not a state of despair and abjection – far from it. Rather, it is a productive state that signals agency and adaptability even as it honors the pain that comes with embodying contradiction.
Anzaldúa describes the new mestiza, or the mixed indigenous-European woman, as someone who “copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned.” Anzaldúa knows that the borderlands are “not comfortable, but home.” They are certainly not an easy place to live in, which scares many people, especially those in power who want nothing more than to resolve or to eliminate contradictions. But the borderlands condition that the mestiza inhabits is powerful in its inclusivity and its flexibility. It anticipates cultural and ethnic expectations, and subverts them by shifting among them at will. The mestiza bears the wound of the border on her body – the “1,950 mile-long open wound” – but she understands that “the skin of the earth is seamless, the sea cannot be fenced, el mar does not stop at borders.”