Borderlands / La Frontera

Gloria Anzaldúa

Borders are set up 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.

One of those books I’ve been meaning to read for many years, Borderlands / La Frontera was a groundbreaking book when it was published in the late 1980s and the term “intersectionality” hadn’t been coined yet. Today (hopefully) the concept of enmeshed oppressions is more familiar, though her framing of Mexico’s history from an Aztlán perspective will likely be less so. In today’s political climate, that view of the space where the US and Mexico meet is more important than ever, but that is not the only dividing line established here.

Defining herself as a mestiza, descending partially from indigenous Mexicans and partially from Spanish colonists, Gloria Anzaldúa was also a feminist and a lesbian, and she describes how each facet of her identity situated her outside of “natural boundaries.” The book itself exists in a liminal place, encompassing both theoretical and autobiographical realms, prose and poetry, and written in a mixture of English and Spanish and Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec people) — a majority of the text is in English with other languages only occasionally translated alongside or in the endnotes. Readers without at least a decent grasp of Spanish will probably get a bit lost along the way or spend a lot of time translating. Yet this back and forth illustrates so clearly the constant negotiations people make when their lives are situated within the in-between of two cultures. As Anzaldúa defiantly declares:

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. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice; Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue — my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.