In Chapter 5, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldúa discusses her relationship to language. As a Mexican child growing up in America, she grew up speaking Spanish. Yet the dominant white culture pushed her to speak Standard English. She was punished for speaking Spanish at school, and forced to take classes in college to get rid of her accent. Even her mother encouraged her to speak English, and was upset by her Mexican accent.
In the second section, “Overcoming the Tradition of Silence,” Anzaldúa argues that language and rules around language can function as a form of patriarchal domination. As a child, Gloria was constantly told to speak less, to avoid becoming a gossip, to not talk back. She notes that these injunctions were only ever applied to women. She also gives the example of the word nosotros, the Spanish word for “we.” In Chicano culture, the masculine form ending with “os” is used exclusively, even for groups of women. Anzaldúa was shocked when she first heard the word nosotras, where the “as” ending signals a female collective. The rules of conventional Chicano Spanish thus served to erase the existence of women.
In “Oyé como ladra: el lenguaje de la frontera [Hear how it barks: the language of the border]" Anzaldúa discusses Chicano Spanish. Chicano Spanish is a border tongue, a mix of English and Spanish born naturally of the fact that, for Mexicans living in the United States, neither English nor Spanish is a native tongue. Anzaldúa breaks down English and Spanish into eight different languages, identifying the many individual languages, such as “working class and slang English,” or “North Mexican Spanish,” which complicate a simple division of these tongues into two standard languages. She describes herself as strategically moving between languages depending on whom she is speaking with, and remarks that she can only speak completely freely or naturally with other Chicana tejanas, or Mexicans living north of the Mexico-Texas border. She notes her use of pochismos, or Spanish words distorted by English, as well as her adoption of pachuco, a youth language made up of both Spanish and English slang.
The next section, “Chicano Spanish,” documents this language more comprehensively. Anzaldúa describes how speakers of Chicano Spanish leave out some consonants, add Spanish syllables to English words, and diverge from Standard Spanish pronunciation. Chicano Spanish speakers borrow words from English, such as bola from ball, and most don’t use certain aspects of Standard Spanish grammar, such as the second person plural vosotros/as. Anzaldúa emphasizes here that most speakers of Chicano Spanish learned only from conversation, not through books or in a classroom.
“Linguistic Terrorism” argues for the violent impacts of language policing on Chicanas. Anzaldúa claims that women like her who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have “internalized the belief that we speak poor Spanish” (58). This self-directed shame and fear leads Chicanas to distrust one another, and to feel uncomfortable speaking their own language either around one another or to Latinas, who grew up in Spanish speaking countries. Anzaldúa emphasizes the connection between self and language, stating, “If a person…has a low estimation of my native tongue, she also has a low estimation of me” (58). She declares that she will no longer be made to be ashamed of her own language or her existence, that she will overcome the “tradition of silence” and use her voice (59).
In "‘Vistas,’ corridos, y comida [‘Vistas,’ border songs, and food]: My Native Tongue” Anzaldúa describes the ways in which she both up grew up within and sought out Chicano culture and literature. She speaks about the exhilaration of reading her first Chicano novel, or of encountering her first Chicano poetry. Even though these texts were marginalized by both schools and universities, she fought to both learn them and teach them to her students. Before literature, she watched Chicano films and listened to music from both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. She dwells most on corridos, songs of the Texas-Mexican border which tell the stories of valiant heroes or historical events like the death of John F. Kennedy. Finally, she talks about her memories of food, and how those memories are closely intertwined with her sense of Chicana identity.
In the last section of “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” “Si le preguntas a mi mamá, ‘¿Qué eres?' [If you ask my mother 'Who are you?']," Anzaldúa discusses the words Chicanas use to refer to themselves. She begins by professing that all Chicanos straddle the borderlands between the Spanish spoken in Mexico, and American English, and that they think of themselves as Mexican, not as a nationality, but as a race, “a state of soul” (62). As a culture, Chicanas sometimes call themselves Spanish, but this erases their Indigenous heritage; they sometimes call themselves Hispanic to emphasize their linguistic heritage, and they sometimes call themselves Mexican-American to express their complex relationship to nationality. When speaking to be self-affirming, rather than to explain themselves to outsiders, these same people call themselves Mexican as a race and ancestry, mestizo to affirm both Indigenous and Spanish ancestry, and Chicano to speak to a “politically aware people born and/or raised in the U.S.” (63). Raza is a collective term for Chicanos, and tejanos refers to Chicanos from Texas. All these latter terms constitute Chicanos as a distinct people with a name and a language. These people are waiting for the end of white control over their land.
Chapter 6, “The Path of the Red and Black Ink,” shifts from language to storytelling. Anzaldúa begins by describing how, as a child, she would tell stories to her sister late at night. To this day, she finds that stories, for her, are connected with the nighttime. From here, she moves to contrasting the roles of storytelling, and art more generally, in Indigenous and Western cultures. Her people, she states, do not distinguish “the secular from the sacred, art from everyday life” (66). This allows for stories that grow organically—pre-existing forms that get transformed and shaped by the writer. These story-shapes, in turn, transform the writer and audience. Spiritual art objects make for connection; they run totally counter to the logic of white museum curation, which honors artwork by separating it from day to day life. Anzaldúa suggests that if white people wish to borrow from Indigenous traditions, they must also learn from this integration of artwork and spirituality into everyday life.
Beginning with the section “The Shamanic State” Anzaldúa begins to focus more exclusively on her own process as a writer. She describes how she deprives herself of all sensory stimulation before she tries to enter what she calls “movies,” or waking dreams in which she envisions the events of her stories. Focusing on “her soul’s eye,” she engages with both images and words as physical things. Writing for her produces anxiety, because it forces her to remake her own body as she shapes the body of the story. Creativity, which is a kind of violent birth, always happens in moment of change. Learning to live with that shift is part of what makes living in the borderlands fulfilling, rather than nightmarish. Anzaldúa makes a differentiation between the inherent difficulties and blocks to creativity, which she attributes to her own culture, and to the profound confusion she experiences due to “living with cultural ambiguity” (74). Ultimately, working through both of these barriers is what allows her to access lively writing rooted in both spirit and body.
In general, “How To Tame a Wild Tongue” is more linear and less genre-bending than the previous four chapters of Borderlands/La Frontera. The most overtly symbolic passage is the anecdote about dentistry which begins the chapter. Anzaldúa formats this story as a separate segment, followed by a quote from another author. This formal choice allows Anzaldúa to integrate her own experiences with citations from other sources: she is affirming that her own lived experiences are just as valuable as sources of knowledge and perspective as accounts from other authors. This point about the value of personal experience is a political one: it rejects the prioritization of rationality which Anzaldúa identifies as rooted in colonial ideologies in favor of a way of knowing about the world that grants importance to individual experience and personal perception. That attitude structures the way Anzaldúa makes arguments, even in a chapter like this one which is less overtly experimental and poetic. Here too, she moves between more formal linguistic analysis and storytelling rooted in her own childhood, in order to make connections between Chicano identity and language.
In the dentistry anecdote, Anzaldúa’s tongue symbolizes speech. The dentist’s statement, “We’re going to have to control your tongue,” literally means that they will have to keep her tongue from moving in her mouth in order to operate on her teeth. However, literary convention also immediately suggests that tongue here is a stand in for language, as in the phrase “speaking in tongues.” Figuratively, then, the dentist’s statement speaks to the dominant culture’s desire to control Gloria’s use of language. Anzaldúa takes advantage of the intimacy and violence of the dentist’s office, punctuated by “drills [and] long thin needles,” to emphasize the personal violence enacted on the bodies of marginalized peoples when their use of language is restricted or regulated (53). The passage ends w
Throughout “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldúa emphasizes the relationship between identity and language. She asks, “for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language?” (55). She thus suggests that language is not a matter of use but one of personal identity; people who speak standard English also identify with the culture it represents and the power it holds. Within standard linguistic practice, Chicano Spanish would be identified as a dialect of Standard Spanish. By instead referring to it as a language, Anzaldúa argues that it is of equal importance to Standard Spanish, rather than merely a derivation of it. On an intimate level, Anzaldúa emphasizes this dynamic by documenting the relationship between what she speaks and who she speaks to. By documenting that Chicano Spanish is the language she uses with her siblings and friends, she connects it with social intimacy and with the people with whom she most closely shares experiences. Part of the importance of being able to speak her own language is that it is so closely intertwined with her broader cultural and social heritage.
Anzaldúa argues that one of the functions of oppression in her life has been the attempt to take away her voice. Just as the dentist’s needles and drills tried to restrain her physical tongue, so mechanisms like the public education system, the university, and her own family sought to remove the Spanish from her speech. She declares “I am my language,” emphasizing that the loss of one’s language is equivalent to a loss of one’s self. Along with directly restricting her ability to use her own language, systematic oppression also promotes internalized racism, in which Chicanas begin to see themselves and their use of Chicano Spanish as shameful. Anzaldúa outlines this dynamic by returning to the motif of the mirror from “The Coatlicue State,” noting that, “To be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror” (58). Looking into a mirror can allow for deeper perception, but it can also lead someone to see themself as an object, or to notice the things about themself which the oppressive culture deems dangerous. When this dynamic extends to other people, it makes community-building more difficult because Chicanas struggle to perceive one another as full people due to the oppressive culture in which they live.
Ultimately, Anzaldúa confronts this systematic injustice by reaffirming her own right to language. She upholds the value of Chicano Spanish through Borderlands/La Frontera by using both Spanish and English. This code-switching challenges the conventions of monolingual academic writing published in English speaking countries, and affirms that code-switching, or the use of multiple languages or dialects, is a valuable form of discourse with its own intellectual power. The text itself comes to embody mestizaje, or mixed-race identity. Importantly, Anzaldúa emphasizes that her version of mestizaje is not essentialist, or strictly referring to people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous heritage. Instead, she affirms that mestizaje is a form of consciousness, or a way of relating to the world, which can be expressed through text or through queer identity as well as through racial identification. Similarly, Anzaldúa defines Mexican not as a national identity, in the way it is used by state powers, but rather as a personal alignment with a race, culture, and community.