Borderlands/La Frontera: Being the Wild Tongue

Cover of Borderlands/La Frontera

Title: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Author: Gloria Anzaldúa

Publication Date: 1987

LC Call Number:PS3551.N95B6

I was really excited to read this book. I’d read a chapter from it before, and really loved Anzaldúa’s deliberate blending of Spanish and English, as well as the way that she wrote about language and the relationship between language and identity. I’d wanted to read the rest for a long time, and here I finally had an opportunity.

For those who are not familiar with it, Borderlands/La Frontera is a very heterogenous text—part history, part memoir, partly a passionate argument about the importance of language.  It even includes a small collection of poems at the end of the book.  For Anzaldúa, the borderland is where many different kinds of people, ideas, languages, ways of thinking and being come together, and her strategy is often to break down as many distinctions as she can in order to overcome anything that seems to divide different parts of herself. The subtitle of the book is The New Mestiza, and she is not kidding about this—she uses the concept of mestiza not just to refer to her multiracial ancestry but her demolition of barriers.

Throughout the book, Anzaldúa often uses a combination of English and Spanish—mostly English, but with some Spanish words or phrases, though these are often Anglicized. This is the blending that will be most obvious to most readers, I think, especially those who don’t know much Spanish, especially since she is most explicit about it. She doesn’t draw as much attention to the way that she combines academic writing, footnotes and all, with memoir.  The parts of this book that are both academic and bilingual are astonishing to read, because the language-switching feels natural, intimate, and informal, none of which are adjectives generally associated with academic writing.  So she can write paragraphs like this:

But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally.  Change, evolución, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por invención o adopción have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.   (55)

Anzaldúa wants to establish the legitimacy of this way of writing and speaking because it is closely tied to her identity:

Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.  (59)

So, in a word: she wants to feel comfortable and at home in language, and she uses this book to build both a space in which she can do that and an argument for the existence of such a rhetorical space. I haven’t encountered any other authors who write the way she does, but I’m also not very well-versed in Chicano studies generally, so I don’t know whether other authors have taken her up on this. In any case, it will be very interesting to see how other bloggers react to this use of Spanish and English together; although my language learning experiences have practically nothing in common with Anzaldúa’s, I’ve spent enough time thinking in both languages to find this rhetorical device exciting and pleasurable.  It’s hard for me to imagine what this will be like for those who have to struggle through the Spanish—but it’s not Anzaldúa’s fault that they don’t speak her language.

I knew all this going in, though. What did I get from coming back to Anzaldúa, or from reading the entire book instead of just an excerpt?

I was very surprised to find that she reminded me strongly of Audre Lorde, an author with whom I didn’t really connect.  Like Lorde, she can get essentialist.  I feel a little uncomfortable when I read sentences like this:

At the confluence of two or more genetic streams, with chromosomes constantly “crossing over,” this mixture of races, rather than resulting in an inferior being, provides hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool. From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making—a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer.  (78)

I don’t think that’s really how genetics works, but the science aside, I don’t like the idea of undermining racist paradigms by buying into them—it’s pretty important to me to insist that a particular racial background does not have an inevitable effect on a person’s political participation, because the history behind that argument is horrible, and because people are different from each other. She steps back from this racial essentialism not long after, however, admitting, “Pero es difícil differentiating between lo heredado, lo adquirido, lo impuesto” (82).   At the same time, I really like what she is saying about being able to use all the intersections that she experiences among languages, cultures, histories, religions, and identities in a productive way.  I love how she wants to reclaim what has been unjustly maligned:

This step is a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions.  She communicates that rupture, documents the struggle.  She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths.  She adopts new perspectives toward the darkskinned, women and queers. She strengthens her tolerance (and intolerance) for ambiguity. She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to foreign ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar. Deconstruct, construct. She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person.  (83)

This is very Lorde too; once you get through the essentialism, you find this determination to reclaim this entire constellation of marginalized traits, and not by bringing them under an existing framework (despite what I wrote above) but by remaking our understanding of history and challenging white supremacy and western-centric assumptions.  Like Lorde, she is willing to embrace the emotional, the personal, and the non-rational.  I loved the way that Anzaldúa addresses what she calls “the Coatlicue state,” a time in which she retreats into herself and which, from a Western medical point of view, might be called depression, as simply part of life. She doesn’t condemn it as an unacceptable experience, just one that happens and that she has to remember should not last forever.  She understands all the parts of her life as connected.

I don’t relate to Anzaldúa in very many ways, and her approach to feminism is very different from mine.  But I really love her writing, both for the formal rhetorical aspects of it I’ve discussed through most of this post, and for her energy and passion and insistence on owning her identity.  I’m really glad I finally got a chance to read this, and I’m very much looking forward to what others in the Year of Feminist Classics think. Perhaps I’ll be inspired to write again—there’s a lot here, and I’m really just scratching the surface.

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3 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts

3 responses to “Borderlands/La Frontera: Being the Wild Tongue

  1. Excellent review and i am glad you like Anzaldua. I look forward to rereading this. As I remember, what you see as her essentialism is not biological determinism, but an inheritance in which she chooses to engage in order to get out of her head and experience all that she is more fully. By not letting her body–the cause of discrimination against her–be a cage, she voluntarily accepts its metiszo character. Maybe that works and maybe it doesn’t, but it is not your ordinary essentialism. I’d say the same about Lorde. I really liked your comments about the similarity between them.
    If you not white, it not be enough to see gender and race as merely concepts. You have to deal with pain that is not theoretical. You might, like Lorde and Anzaldua, want to affirm what others have used to diminish you–your race and gender or the borderland of who you are. To accept academia definitions as all there is may seem too white.
    have you read Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen?

  2. Thanks for your insights–I think that’s right. I guess where Anzaldua makes me a little uncomfortable is when she wants her experiences, from which she draws strength and which have great political and even spiritual significance to her–to say something important about la mestiza as a political entity–which gets a little dangerous, I think, and I think Anzaldua is aware of how it can get dangerous when she looks at how some of the people to whom she feels the deepest connections see her as a traitor for departing from their identities. If that makes any sense–I’m not sure I’ve said it well. In any case, I really really respect her determination to claim her identity and I love the way that she writes.

    I have not read Sister Citizen–should I?

    • Yes, your discomfort is valid. I think she would agree, but be willing to take the risk.
      Absolutely read Sister Citizen. I think it is the best yet on African American women and thus intersection of race and gender.. With lots of insight about the rest of us.

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