Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza Code Switching in Borderlands/La Frontera

Code-switching is the practice of moving between two or more languages, dialects, or registers. Although the concept itself is broadly applicable, it is most frequently used to describe the lived experiences of racialized people speaking or writing within a dominant power structure which marginalizes them and their language or language variant. Some common examples include African Americans moving between standard and African American Vernacular English, or Mexican Americans moving between (perhaps multiple dialects of) Spanish and English. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa employs this practice strategically, intentionally moving between Spanish and English as a tool to remain within the intellectual and cultural 'borderlands' she is working to describe.

In the introduction, Anzaldúa describes her switching “from English to Castillian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl to a mixture of all of these” as “my language, a new language—the language of the Borderlands” (Preface). Rather than understanding the book’s language as fractured or divided, we should read it as constructive, actively creating a new language that would draw on multiple cultural and linguistic sources. This, in turn, embodies Anzaldúa’s idea of the new mestiza consciousness, or a consciousness rooted in Chicana/o experience which would celebrate confluence and contradiction.

Anzaldúa wrote Borderlands partially with an academic audience in mind. In interviews connected to the work, she emphasized that she was not trying to create a completely new language without any reference to what had come before her. Instead, she wanted to borrow what was useful from white academia, and write something that used academic tools, in order to enter into academic conversation and create an example for how critical race theory coud change not just the content, but the style of academic writing. Her use of code-switching is thus not designed to alienate a monolingual, English-speaking reader, but rather to encourage them to think differently about language. Much of the Spanish in the book is translated, or brief enough that the meaning can be inferred from context clues. Rather than creating a book with a bilingual audience in mind, Anzaldúa uses multiple languages to create a different literary aesthetic, and to suggest to a white audience that English need not be the exclusive language of academia, and that not every word needs to be understood for a work to be meaningful.

At the same time, Anzaldúa was also writing for her own community. Although Borderlands makes a political argument with broad applications, and Anzaldúa encourages a non-essentialist view of mestizaje which can accommodate multiple racial narratives, along with marginalizations like queerness or womanhood which operate across racial lines, she also centers Chicana/o readers. She partly chose to write in fiction because it would make academic theory accessible to readers who were perhaps not college-educated, or uncomfortable with the conventions of white critical theory. In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” she specifically notes that she can only speak completely comfortably, moving between registers without being strategic, when she is with other people who grew up along the U.S.-Mexico border. The code-switching in Borderlands can thus also be read as a gesture specifically to a bilingual audience, and as Anzaldúa choosing to write with her own people in mind, moving between registers as she would in conversation with them.

Along with the switches between multiple dialects of both English and Spanish, Borderlands draws upon multiple codes along numerous other axes. Throughout the book, she moves between academic and informal language, between poetry and prose, and between historical and personal registers. All of these moves also serve to make gestures towards multiple audiences, and to embody the spirit of the borderlands in writing, to create a text whose unity is built upon contrast and contradiction.