A big part of Anzaldúa’s project in Borderlands: La Frontera is providing a new history of the southwest and the Mexican people. For her, history is less about documenting how things “really” happened than in creating a story of the past which justifies certain kinds of actions and ideologies in the present. Thus the United States portrays the history of the border as one of military victory, and economic justification. They conquered the land, and made it more valuable and profitable through the imposition of mass agriculture. In contrast, Anzaldúa offers a different story of history, one which emphasizes that Indigenous people arrived to the land first, “the oldest evidence of humankind in the U.S.—the Chicano’s ancient Indian ancestors—was found in Texas and has been dated to 35000 B.C.” (4). This historical fact is important not only because it is a truth which the U.S. has suppressed in order to justify its colonization of northern Mexico, but because it helps to create a different national story rooted in an anti-colonial ideology. By emphasizing when Indigenous people arrived, rather than how they profited from the land, Anzaldúa suggests that communal connection to the land is more meaningful than private ownership.
Anzaldúa ends this paragraph on the history of Indigenous people in northern Mexico with a statement grounded in mythology: “the southwest, Aztlán—land of the herons, land of whiteness, the Edenic place of origin for the Aztecs” (4). The fact that the southwest was “the Edenic place of origin for the Aztecs” becomes just as important of a justification for Indigenous people’s ownership of the land as the “factual” note that they arrived to the land in 35000 B.C. By privileging myth as a tool for knowing history, Anzaldúa suggests that the stories we tell about ourselves are meaningful parts of reality, both past and present.
Perhaps the central theme of Borderlands is the problem of dichotomies, and the necessity of finding ways to exist with contradiction. Throughout the book, Anzaldúa introduces a number of such dualisms, including light and dark, male and female, the U.S. and Mexico, and safe and unsafe. All of these divisions are constructed by those with power in order to reinforce inequality. Anzaldúa locates the root of these problems as the differentiation between self and other, which allows us to strictly delineate ourselves from other people and to imagine that we are superior by dehumanizing those who are marked as different.
However, Anzaldúa does not argue that duality itself is a fiction. In her description of Coatlicue, the Aztecs' original goddess, she states, “Coatlicue, Lady of the Serpent Skirt, contained and balanced the dualities of male and female, light and dark, life and death” (32). Similarly, speaking of her own relationship to gender, she states “I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female” (19). She thus argues that rather than ridding the world of dichotomies, we must each recognize within ourselves both sides of the opposition, and learn how to balance them. This subverts the self/other dichotomy, because we begin to recognize the other within ourselves.
Borderlands is very much focused on the physical U.S.-Mexican border, and the nature of the landscape where Anzaldúa grew up. The book begins with a description of this place that is clearly informed both by sorrow and love: “Across the border in Mexico/ stark silhouette of houses gutted by waves,/ cliffs crumbling into the sea,/ silver waves marbled with spume” (1). Yet the memoir-aspect of the book also emphasizes Anzaldúa’s decision to leave home, largely due to her lesbian identity. This choice creates tension between the novel’s political stake in the importance of the American Southwest, and Anzaldúa’s personal decision to leave that place behind.
Rather than regretting her decision to leave, or casting it as an unfortunate compromise, Anzaldúa casts it as an opportunity to build change. Discussing the political importance of queerness, she argues defiantly, “if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—une cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture” (22). Because the creation of this new mestiza culture is ultimately the revolutionary path which Borderlands argues for, this quote suggests that being cast out from home is part of the basis for the book’s political philosophy of reshaping culture.
Relationship between Art and Life
In “The Path of the Red and Black Ink,” Anzaldúa talks extensively about the role art has in her own life. She specifies that stories have always been a part of her experience of the world because they were told to her by older family members, her grandmother and father, and because she herself told them to her sister late at night. These anecdotes establish that Anzaldúa thinks about storytelling less as an act of individual expression than as a way of connecting with the people she loves, grounded in her own culture and ancestry. She contextualizes this claim within a broader point about the differing role of art in Western and Indigenous cultures. In the West, artworks are honored by separating them from everyday life, placing them in museums for people to visit, and surrounding them with security so they are protected from outside threats. In contrast, in Indigenous cultures, artworks are kept “in the home and elsewhere,” where they can be honored as part of day-to-day life. Anzaldúa emphasizes that this does not mean artworks are treated with less reverence. Rather, artworks are connected to spiritual life, an element of the sacred that is always present. Relatedly, Anzaldúa understands artworks not as dead objects to be preserved but as “performances,” or things built around relationships and with an audience in mind.
Sexuality and Pleasure
Anzaldúa’s history of Coatlicue and la Virgen de Guadalupe stresses the fact that patriarchy seeks to remove or stigmatize women’s sexuality through the creation of the virgin/whore dichotomy. In this false division, only the Virgin Mary, chaste and sexless, can be the object of respect. In emulating her, women are led to be “docile and enduring” (31). In contrast, women who do exercise independent sexuality are marked as whores, embodied by the mythical figure of “la Chingada,” the Indigenous woman said to have slept with a Spaniard and blamed for the defeat of the Aztecs. Anzaldúa argues that this casting of la Chingada as a whore is a betrayal of Indigenous women and is meant to stigmatize female sexuality. Although it was invented by men in order to strip women of their power so that they could preserve male dominance, it is an ideology also passed down by women. Thus Anzaldúa recalls her mother pressuring her to avoid snakes in order to protect herself from what was perceived as a threat to her chastity. In contrast, Anzaldúa embraces the serpent, which for her symbolizes sexuality and the power of Coatlicue.
The final chapter of Borderlands, “Towards a New Consciousness,” depicts the political answer to the problems Anzaldúa lays out in the rest of the book. This strategy hinges on the active development of a new consciousness, or way of understanding the world. Throughout the book, Anzaldúa has emphasized that one of the major impacts of colonization is the setting up of boundaries around how racialized people can perceive themselves and their world. Anzaldúa depicts this through the motif of the mirror, which could serve as a way of seeing her true self, but often reflects only what she hates about herself or feels ashamed of, because the white supremacist culture which surrounds her has denied her dignity. In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” this problem manifests in the ways Chicana women relate to one another because “to be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror” (58). The same problems with self-perception which make it difficult for Gloria to confront her own reflection also make it difficult for Chicana women to really see one another. Thus, before shaping a new material reality, it is necessary to develop a “new consciousness” which provides a way of seeing the world that operates along totally different axes than those taught by white supremacy. Only with this new perspective is it possible to self-advocate and to form collective movements.
Along with self-perception, self-expression is another major value that Anzaldúa emphasizes in Borderlands. The whole text is written in both English and Spanish, an aesthetic decision that asserts that Anzaldúa is unwilling to give in to the pressures or norms of white academic discourse. In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” she asserts, “I am my language.” "Language" here is more specific than English or Spanish: it refers to dialect, to the way she naturally speaks, which in turn connects back to Gloria’s place of origin, and to who she is and the people she loves. By so closely tying language to self, Anzaldúa is able to articulate why the U.S. educational system’s attempts to prevent Spanish-speaking children from using their language are so damaging. These efforts are a threat not just to language, but to a person’s fundamental self which cannot be extricated from the way in which they express themselves. Similarly, the absence of Chicana/o voices in higher education marginalizes those students because they are prohibited from learning their own language, here in the broad sense of native narratives, themes, and literary traditions.
By mixing languages, rather than choosing only one Spanish dialect, Anzaldúa writes in a way that embodies the principle of mestizaje. She speaks specifically to the origins of different languages, from the academic elitism of standard English, to the social and cultural forces which led to the forms of Spanish spoken along the border. Specifically invoking all this history, the text itself becomes a sort of mestiza subject. The book recognizes its own ancestry, and allows multiple languages to work together in the construction of a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Essays for Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua.