By Michelle Kiang
“To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras be a crossroads.”
― Gloria E. Anzaldúa
In the first chapter of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Gloria Anzaldúa writes:
“The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] 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. Borders are setup to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados [the ones in the way] live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.” Gringos in the U.S. Southwest consider the inhabitants of the borderlands transgressors, aliens - whether they possess documents or not, whether they’re Chicanos, Indians or Blacks. 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 whites. Tension grips the inhabitants of the borderlands like a virus. Ambivalence and unrest reside there and death is no stranger.
What I admire most about Anzaldúa, who grew up in a family of migrant workers on ranch settlements in the Valley of South Texas, is that she continually practiced the theories she conjured from her life and struggles in her writing, her activism, and in her teaching. She was a rule-breaker in her explicit and artful questioning of white supremacy and patriarchy and in her challenging of genre and what kind of writing could and couldn’t be cultural theory in a time when the academy didn’t consider ethnic cultural studies a legitimate subject of study. Living in the Borderlands is not just an identity, it is a way of blurring, of challenging the borders that attempt to define, it is a way of fully being.
Anzaldúa co-edited This Bridge Called My Back with Cherríe Moraga after joining a Feminist Writers’ Guild, a writing community in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, that too often excluded the experiences and voices of women of color. In an interview with Karin Ikas, Anzaldúa described it as:
“Every two weeks we would have our meetings and everybody would talk about the white problems and their white experiences. When it was my turn to talk, it was almost like they were putting words into my mouth. They interrupted me while I was still talking or, after I had finished, they interpreted what I just said according to their thoughts and ideas. They thought that all women were oppressed in the same way, and they tried to force me to accept their image of me and my experiences. They were not willing to be open to my own presentation of myself and to accept that I might be different from what they had thought of me so far. Therefore one of the messages of This Bridge Called My Back is that gender is not the only oppression.”
Anzaldúa and Moraga responded to their environment to define themselves. In creating her own space and avenue to share the voices of other women of color, Anzaldúa destroyed the narrow definitions of feminist experiences that centered on whiteness. She later recalled this action as “speaking against this silencing from the outside by getting our work published.”
Just as she pushes her readers to transcend borders by describing experiences that do not fit clearly within them, she pushes her readers to make their own space known through their voice. Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana/Tejana/lesbian/dyke/feminist/writer/poet/cultural theorist, is our Feminist Hero because in her blurring, she creates. Her writing builds spaces for those who do not think they have a space to fit. In an interview of Gloria Anzaldúa by Karin Ikas, Ikas asked her, “How did Chicanas then receive your next book, Borderlands/La Frontera?” to which Anzaldúa responded:
“Well, when Chicanas read Borderlands, when it was read by little Chicanas in particular, it somehow legitimated them. They saw that I was code-switching, which is what a lot of Chicanas were doing in real life as well, and for the first time after reading that book they seemed to realize, “Oh, my way of writing and speaking is okay” and, “Oh, she is writing about La virgen de Guadalupe, about la Llorona, about the corridos, the gringos, the abusive, et cetera. So if she [Gloria Anzaldua] does it, why not me as well?” The book gave them permission to do the same thing. So they started using code-switching and writing about all the issues they have to deal with in daily life. To them, it was like somebody was saying: You are just as important as a woman as anybody from another race. And the experiences that you have are worth being told and written about.”