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Anzaldúa, Gloria

culture mexican borderlands women

1942–2004 Gloria Anzaldúa was an internationally renowned Chicana lesbian feminist scholar-poet and gay rights activist. She was born in Jesus Maria Ranch, Texas, on September 26, 1942, to a family of Mexican migrant farmworkers and grew up to become one of the most highly celebrated Chicana theorists in the United States. She is best known for her path-breaking work on the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality in her highly acclaimed, award-winning book Borderlands/La Frontera : The New Mestiza (1987) and her co-edited volume (with Cherrie Moraga) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981). She also edited Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives of Women of Color (1990) and authored numerous essays and poems.

In Borderlands , Anzaldúa used standpoint theory as a point of departure to demonstrate the complex realities of people of color in general, and Mexican women in particular, who live “betwixt and between” multiple worlds. Using poetry and an unconventional style of writing, Anzaldúa offered a snapshot of the dilemmas of life in the United States for people traditionally viewed as “Other” to mainstream society, with a major emphasis on the working class, Chicanas, and lesbians.

Anzaldúa described the borderlands as “an open wound,” a “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (1999, pp. 24–25). The borderlands represent both a metaphorical and a geographical space, where the cultural influx of opposing nations creates an unstable, shifting ideological re-creation of those caught in the middle. The result of this constant interaction and renegotiation of power relations is the formation of a new culture informed by the Mexican, indigenous, and Anglo worlds—in short, a “borderlands culture.”

In her writings, Anzaldúa challenges conventional models of oral tradition and history. She explores how various cultures have curtailed the opportunities for women, and for those who do not abide by the heterosexual norm. Anzaldúa argues that cultural beliefs are formed by and for men, but that it is primarily women who instill these norms in younger generations. The ultimate form of rebellion within Mexican culture is thus to eschew these norms. One potent form of rebellion is to reclaim one’s sexuality. Anzaldua’s account of her assertion of her own lesbian identity reveals the contradictions latent within ethnic and heteronormative cultures.

For Anzaldúa, the borderlands is a space to reclaim human rights and reconstitute those Mexican cultural components that have stripped women of their rights, their potential, and their life chances. However, it is not only Mexican culture that stifles women’s existence. White privilege, upheld by U.S. national policies, also drives women of color toward marginality. As she writes in Borderlands :

Woman does not feel safe when her own culture, and white culture, are critical of her, when males of all races hunt her as prey. Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can’t respond, her face caught between los intersticios , the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits. (p. 42)

Integral to the process of asserting agency and claiming one’s identity is the recognition of mestizaje , the hybrid nature of ethnic identity among Mexicans in the United States. Anzaldúa argues that a recognition of one’s mestiza identity is the key to empowerment and forms the heart of a new borderlands culture. She thus seeks to adopt or retain elements that foster strength. But these elements come not only from Mexican culture, but from the Anglo and indigenous cultures as well. One of Anzaldúa’s greatest contributions to Chicana feminist theory is the concept of la conciencia mestiza . This consciousness is in a constant state of transformation, for it straddles three cultures that at times send contradictory messages. La mestiza must therefore be flexible as she develops:

a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in a 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. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns ambivalence into something else. (1999, p. 101)

The objective of this emerging consciousness is to come to terms with all of the inconsistencies and oppositional messages of these cultures. Anzaldúa made it clear that “the answer between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts” (1999, p. 102). When the capabilities of la concienica mestiza are duplicated in other individuals and enter into the collective consciousness, change and social equality are made possible. Anzaldúa will always be remembered for her contributions to Chicana/o theory, queer studies, and her activism. She died on May 15, 2004, from complications due to diabetes.

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