In Chapter 1, “The Homeland, Aztlán,” Anzaldúa writes a history of what is today the U.S.-Mexican border, while also introducing the reader to her own personal history. The chapter begins by comparing the border to the sometimes-peaceful, sometimes-violent collision of earth and ocean. Anzaldúa remembers her own childhood spent at the barbed-wire fence delineating the United States from Mexico, a fence which she describes as like a wound across both the body of America, and her own body. Yet she also remembers the sea just beyond the fence, the sea which defied national borders by extending without break from one country to the next.
Anzaldúa goes on to discuss the border as a location defined by the meeting of two artificially defined worlds. A “borderland” is the emotional impact that unnatural boundary has on the people who live along the border. Anzaldúa defines these people both geographically, as the inhabitants of the U.S.-Mexican border, but also more figuratively, as any people living in a constant state of precarious transition, such as queer people, troublemakers, or mixed-race people.
Throughout the rest of this chapter, Anzaldúa alternates accounts of more recent, personal history with the history of indigenous peoples in the Southwest. She tells the story of Pedro, a fifth-generation American who did not speak English. Unable to tell border patrol of his American citizenship, he was deported to Mexico, a country which he had barely visited. Anzaldúa follows this story with an account of the early peopling of the area now known as the American Southwest, where Indigenous people have lived for at least 20,000 years. Only later did they arrive in what is now known as Mexico, where the Aztecs established an empire, and, as Anzaldúa notes, began inscribing male domination into their history and national self-image.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Spanish invaded Mexico and killed off the majority of the Indigenous population. Their arrival created a new race, “el mestizo,” or people of “mixed Indian and Spanish blood” (5). Anzaldúa describes these people as “originally and secondarily indigenous to the Southwest” because they both came from Indigenous people who had lived in the Southwest long before arriving in Mexico, and because they returned to the Southwest before Americans began immigrating illegally to the area in the 1800s. When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War, they rendered the Chicanos, or people of Mexican origin, who lived in the region separate from both Mexico and the United States, creating a border people. Individual racial hatred and systematic white supremacy functioned to gradually drive the Chicanos off their ancestral lands, or to relegate them to economically precarious positions like sharecropping, as Anzaldúa’s father was.
In the second section of the chapter, “Illegal Crossing,” Anzaldúa discusses the current migration to the American Southwest from Mexico, due to lack of economic opportunity in Mexico which is itself the product of imperialism, and especially the theft of Indigenous lands in Mexico by U.S. corporations. The Mexicans, themselves originally native to the United States, who emigrate in the hopes of escaping the widespread unemployment and monetary depreciation in Mexico end up being branded as invaders. Anzaldúa ends by returning to the border, describing both the physical delineation between nations, and the borderlands made up of the choice between criminalization and poverty which Mexican immigrants must face within the United States.
In chapter 2, Anzaldúa shifts to describe her own individual history. At a young age, she chose to leave her home and her family, becoming the first in six generations to leave the Southwest. She always had a strong sense of who she was, and refused to abandon her own interests in order to do chores around the house; Anzaldúa attributes this stubbornness to her inner rebel, who she calls “the Shadow Beast.”
Rather than simply her own family, she was rebelling against culture. Anzaldúa describes culture as the product of men, because it is men who hold power within the group. Thus men set restrictions and rules for women, rules which women pass on to their children. Anzaldúa argues that patriarchy is built on a fear of women, of their status as “other” to men. This fear in turn justifies a focus on the “protection” of women, really a desire to protect women from themselves, which forces women into “rigidly defined roles” (17).
In contrast to this assimilation, Anzaldúa discusses queerness as an alternative. She describes a woman who used to live near her who was marked as “Other” by the neighbors because she was rumored to spend half the year with a vagina and half with a penis. Anzaldúa sees this doubling, this bringing together of “opposite qualities,” within her own queer identity.
Anzaldúa describes her own lesbianism as a choice to rebel, to adopt the internal oppositions of queer identity. It is a difficult path, because it means her own mother, both in the sense of family and in the sense of homeland and culture, would like to abandon her. Nevertheless, Anzaldúa praises those lesbians who embrace their Shadow-Beast, their inner rebel. She also specifies that although she left her physical home, she retains an indelible connection to Chicana culture because she grew up totally immersed within her own Mexican cultural roots.
Rather than choosing between white, Chicana, and Indigenous cultures, all of which have embraced misogynistic expectations, Anzaldúa expresses a desire to create her own culture, one in which she could exist freely. She partially roots this rebellion in her own Indigenous ancestry, the women who have been branded as traitors by other mestiza people for having sex with white men. Anzaldúa identifies this placing of blame as a profound betrayal, and instead testifies to the tenacious fight made by Indigenous women, and the Indigenous woman within her, even when they were silenced, rendered invisible, or ignored.
Borderlands/La Frontera is a cross-genre work, or a work that blends multiple literary genres. In “The Homelands, Aztlán,” Anzaldúa combines poetry, memoir, history, quotation, and critical theory, both switching between genres and drawing on multiple registers within individual passages. The poem which begins the chapter surrounds the work’s critique of the border with extended metaphor and rich visual imagery. Anzaldúa thus enriches her political point through the literary techniques natural to poetic writing. In the second stanza, she begins by describing the border fairly literally, “across the border in Mexico/ stark silhouette of houses gutted by waves” (1). This visual imagery describes the physical setting of the work, and the impact the sea makes on human dwellings. From here, Anzaldúa moves fluidly into a more metaphorically charged description of the sea: “silver waves marbled with spume/ gashing a hole under the border fence” (1). Here, she combines visual imagery of the sea’s impact on the border fence with a new, symbolic register, in which the sea symbolizes a threat not just to the physical border fence, but to the very idea of the border.
The first chapter describes two opposing models for justifying a claim to land. The United States claims the Southwest based on power: their military’s power to expel the Mexicans who were there first, the power of white supremacy to deprive people of color of land and freedom, and the power of citizenship law to mark Mexican Americans as illegitimate. Conversely, the indigenous peoples of the Southwest have a claim based on their historical roots in the land: their first arrival over 20,000 years ago, as well as their more recent presence due to the northward expansion of Mexico. In the long poem which begins this first chapter, Anzaldúa states, “This land was Mexican once,/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (3). Anzaldúa suggests that, ironically, it is white settlers who are illegitimate. The land will one day return to the people who call it home based not on power, but on history and a persistent connection to the land itself. It is this claim which is backed up by the corrosive presence of the sea.
Perhaps the most important idea Anzaldúa introduces in the first chapter is the idea of the “borderland,” which she defines as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (1). This concept is derived from the idea that national borders are unnatural impositions on the land, the result of political power rooted in white supremacy. From here, Anzaldúa suggests that the impact of borders goes beyond physical border landscapes, like the U.S.-Mexican border which this chapter is primarily concerned with. Instead, Anzaldúa discusses the border as just one manifestation of a broader ideology that consolidates power by marking some places as safe and others unsafe, some people an “us” and some people a “them.” In this sense, anyone who is marked as illegitimate because their existence crosses those boundaries could be said to inhabit a borderland, regardless of where they live. The idea of a “borderland” has proven enormously influential in the field of postcolonial studies, as well as queer and feminist studies. Scholars have applied the concept of a “borderland” to a wide range of political and geographical spaces, as well as to more figurative spaces such as subversive academic writing or non-binary identity.
In chapter 2, “Movimientos de rebeldía y las culturas que traicionan" (Movements of rebellion and the cultures that betray), Anzaldúa applies a similar figurative view of space to talk about her own relationship to home. In the same way that a person could inhabit a borderland both because they live near a border fence or because they are rendered illegitimate anywhere through the same forces which construct borders, so Anzaldúa argues that she can be said to “carry ‘home’ on [her] back” because Mexican culture is in her “system” regardless of where she lives (21). This construction allows for a more individual relationship to culture, independent of a broader community that has betrayed and expelled her. By carrying her home with her, Anzaldúa makes herself impossible to exile, and she also suggests that it is possible to negotiate multiple cultural legacies within the places one chooses for oneself.
The second chapter also articulates a feminism rooted in the idea of the borderland. Like the U.S.-Mexican border, gender exists because people in power (in this case, men) draw an artificial boundary between men and women. Anzaldúa emphasizes that the same dynamic of safety which informs national borders also influences our ideas of gender, which are rooted in a similar belief that one group—women—are dangerous. She argues that men perceive women as dangerous, and then prescribe strict social and cultural restrictions in the name of protecting women from men, even though the real purpose of these precautions is to prevent women from exercising their own power. Anzaldúa proposes that queerness, which inhabits a borderland by crossing the border between maleness and femaleness, can create a challenge to patriarchy by creating the space to imagine alternate cultures.