Chapter-By-Chapter Summary and Discussion of "Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza" by Gloria Anzaldúa
Author and Book
Gloria Anzaldúa, the author of this book, is attempting to define the “New Mestiza” throughout its contents, and does so by examining herself, her land, and her language. The dictionary definition of a mestiza is “a [woman] of mixed parentage, especially the offspring of a Spanish American and an American Indian.” The “borderlands” Anzaldúa comes from include the familiar borderlands between Mexico and the United States, specifically Texas. However, these are simply the tangible borderlands that she discusses. The important counterpart to these physical borderlands that she addresses throughout this book are “[t]he psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands, and the spiritual borderlands [that] are not particular to the Southwest” (from the preface).
Her book is broken into two main sections. The semi-autobiographical first section deals with life on the borderlands, the challenges faced during this time in her life, and the challenges faced by all mestizos. This first section is broken down into seven parts: the first discusses the homeland, the next discusses rebellion and betrayal. The third part is entitled “Entering Into the Serpent." The next section is called “La Herencia de Coatlicue / The Coatlicue State.” The final three parts discuss language, writing, and speaking in the borderland world. The second, “notes,” section is a poetic homage to the native people of these “borderlands”: not just the physical borders, but the mental as well.
While you read Borderlands, unless you are multi-lingual, you will find some frustration. This frustration comes from the language not being English, and not being Spanish, but an amalgamation of both. This frustration is ironic because Anzaldúa describes the frustration she herself feels having a confused language and identity. The "Spanglish" language actually makes the book more powerful and real, without it, it would not be the book it is, and the book it is trying to be without it. The book is written in a way that it becomes an extension of the author rather than just something the author has produced. It feels that way from the beginning and continues to the end.
Into the Book
In the first chapter of the book, Anzaldúa describes her homeland, the border that separates the safe from the unsafe, and us from them (25). Those in power, the rich whites, live to the north and look down upon the “half-breed” and “queer.” This border is the white man’s way to keep himself from harm and to keep himself safe from the mixed-culture people in the south. Anzaldúa gives a brief traditional history of Mexico, describing how the original people came from the Bering Straits and down into Mexico. The traditional Aztec story goes:
“Huitzilopochtli, the God of War, guided them to the place (that later became Mexico City) where an eagle with a writhing serpent in its beak perched on a cactus. The eagle symbolizes the spirit (as the sun, the father); the serpent symbolizes the soul (as the earth, the mother). Together, they symbolize the struggle between the spiritual/celestial/male and the underworld/earth/feminine. The symbolic sacrifice of the serpent to the 'higher' masculine powers indicates that the patriarchal order had already vanquished the feminine and matriarchal order in pre-Columbian America” (27).
Anzaldúa next goes into the Spaniards invading Mexico and how they conquered it. This brief history is given to better illustrate how the land was originally inhabited by people migrating, and has been taken over and rearranged several times over to get where it is today. The author goes into detail about the Mexican-American war: the takeover of Mexican land, and how it created foreigners out of natives overnight. This was the beginning of the American creation of Mexican dependence on the U.S. For many Mexicans, illegal crossing to the U.S. is the only choice for survival. They will either cross into the U.S. and live, or stay in Mexico and struggle and perish. Their crossing into the U.S. continues their history of migration, only, this time, it is from south to north. The illegal migration of women is especially dangerous, for they risk being abused and raped as well as deported. They typically have no understanding of English; this lack of English language plus the fear of being deported leads to vulnerability, and the female migrants tend to be unable to get help, and reluctant to seek it.
The next chapter is Anzaldúa’s personal migration. She was the first one in her family in six generations to leave home; she took with her, however, many aspects of her home. She describes how women, in her culture and many others, are to serve and stay beneath the men in the culture. The men hold the power and the men make the rules. A woman who does not follow the rules becomes a “mujer mala” or bad woman, while the good women remain virgins until married (39). In her culture and time, the only options for a woman were to become a nun, a prostitute, or a wife. There is now a fourth option, to become educated and autonomous; however, very few make up this category. These roles are to keep women “safe”. The only safe woman is one who is stuck into a rigid culture sector. The roles are said to keep women safe; however, they just seem to keep women stuck.
Next, Anzaldúa explores her homosexuality and male/female identity. She discusses how, being raised Catholic, she made the choice to be homosexual. She recognizes that in some people it is genetically inherent and understood. She is said to make the “choice” because in Catholic belief, homosexuality is a choice, and nobody is created that way. She continues dealing with homophobic ideas, and the fear of being rejected. She goes on to say that, for some, their groups will conform to society's norms to be accepted and wanted in a culture. Those who go against the norms have a much harder time being a part of the group. She brings these thoughts back to the borderlands, where one feels alienated from one's original culture and yet alien in the dominant culture (42). She describes her struggle between being of her “home” culture and yet finding faults and betrayal within the culture. This leads to her fear of “going” home. Her going home is to accept her home for what it is, not just in the physical sense, but really believing in what is happening within her home or native culture.
The next chapters are entitled "Entering into the Serpent" and "La Herencia de Coatlicue/The Coatlicue State." Anzaldúa explores an experience with a snake she had once. It tried to bite her and only got her boot. It scared her, and from that day on she both sought snakes and shunned them. When she saw them she was fearful yet elated (48). She goes on to describe the folk-Catholic heritage she has come from. She describes the pagan ideas that link up with the Catholic religious stories. She describes how the goddesses were disfigured and pushed underground. Again, the male dominance was cemented further into the culture through religious stories. She goes on to describe how the Catholic Church had combined La Virgen de Guadalupe and la Virgen Maria into one woman. She is now the “most potent religious, political and cultural image of the Chicano/mexicano” (52). This symbol unites the cultures of Mexico through a woman figure. The mother figure represents the Indian side of the culture and the father or male identities represent the Spanish side. These arguments can be looked at further as the native Indians were simply people migrating from one land to another. These people were being peaceful and looking for comfort and stability; this quest is more feminine due to its passive and peaceful nature. Thus, in a mestizo, the feminine side lies with the Indian culture. The takeover of Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors for money through power is wholly masculine and power-driven, thus male figures are related to the Spanish culture.
The idea of snakes is also tied to woman. The author claims to have “died” several times throughout her life and had an out-of-body experience. She says she saw a snake each time she has had this experience. The snake is a pre-human idea of woman’s sexuality, her creativity, her energy, and life. Anzaldúa then discusses superstition and otherworldly spirituality. She describes how pagan spirituality is looked down upon in the formal religions, and in simply accepting those given religions you lose touch with nature and with yourself.
The next chapter discusses the duality of life and death. Anzaldúa discusses ideas of duality in her own life, and how her experience of being an “alien” in her own culture represents these ideas. The duality is expressed in wanting to be one with her culture but being uncomfortable inside of the culture.
The next chapter deals with the languages used by the author and the identities that they hold. Anzaldúa recalls being punished for speaking Spanish in school. Even her own mother was upset that she spoke English like a Mexican. In the university she attended, she was required to take two speech classes to get rid of her accent. This was not only an attempt to “cut out” her wild tongue, to eradicate any identity with her culture, but it was an attempt to assimilate her into American culture. According to Anzaldúa, the Spanish language has a way of putting women down. It has many derogatory sayings for women who speak up or out. The author then goes on to discuss how she, being a border woman, like other people in this area did not identify with any of the languages spoken by the majority of people around her, and had to create their own language by combining several languages and dialects. Language identifies people, and Chicanos needed a language to identify themselves with. They needed a language to use to communicate within their group, a language to call “home.”
A lot of Chicanos identify their language with their home. Their language is closer to home than the Southwest itself is, for some. They speak a combination of several languages. Anzaldúa lists several that she uses:
1. Standard English
2. Working-class and slang English
3. Standard Spanish
4. Standard Mexican Spanish
5. North Mexican Spanish dialect
6. Chicano Spanish (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California have regional variations)
8. Pachuco (called caló) (77).
All of these languages make up Anzaldúa's “Spanglish” language. She considers some of these languages her home languages, in which she feels more comfortable talking to her siblings.
Anzaldúa then goes into the evolution of the Spanish language that Chicanos speak today. She shows how pronunciation has evolved, how words were adopted from English, and how the language has changed with the culture. She goes on to discuss how people who grow up speaking Chicano Spanish are ashamed of speaking it because they feel that it is an illegitimate language, a false or incorrect way of speaking, even though it is their native tongue. “Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self” (80). People who look down upon the language that a person is speaking have a tendency to look down upon that person and write them off as stupid or uneducated. The language they are speaking, however, is simply what has developed over years and years of exposure to several languages for different needs. Chicano Spanish is a legitimate language and should not be looked down upon by anyone claiming to speak “correct” Spanish or English.
Until a person accepts the legitimacy of their own language, they won’t accept the legitimacy of their own self and culture. One can’t accept oneself until one has accepted her own language, because language is vital to worldview and ways of thinking and doing.
Once Anzaldua began to see literature and great speakers presenting this language, she began to see the language as legitimized. Anzaldúa feels that until 1965 Chicanos didn’t feel connected as a people. When Cesar Chavez united the farm workers, I am Joaquín was published, and La Raza Unida Party was formed in Texas, was when Anzaldúa's people felt connected as a people. They had started to become a distinct people, with a distinct language.
In the next chapter, the author discusses how she created stories in her head and how she releases herself through her writing. She begins by telling how she used to tell stories to her sister at night in bed. She goes on to say how important these forms of art are to her people, how her people would not separate “the artistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life” (88). She continues to explain how her art, or her writing, is not an inert object, but a living thing, like a person. All art created and seen by her people is a living thing, whereas in western culture it tends to be something that is dead, and valued in a monetary system rather than a spiritual one. Art should be a product of, and window into, one’s soul. The art obtains power from the way it is used and the way its power is invoked, as when a mask is worn during a dance. Anzaldúa also discusses how writing was once seen as a connection between humans and gods. The black and red colors used in codices were signs of writing and wisdom; metaphor and symbols, truth and poetry could be used as a tool to achieve communication with the gods.
She continues to discuss how the borderlands create unease between cultures and ideas, and how this unease and unbalance creates a need to write. The duality of it is just like how the writing process is a process of both sickness and health, both a willingness to write and an anxiety to write. There is a dual feeling to all of these ideas and they all relate to one another within the context of writing, language, and expressing the self.
The final chapter of this first half deals with Anzaldúa's race, ethnicity, and culture as a whole. She begins by discussing a “cosmic race,” one that consists of all races, an intermixed species that resembles those people on the borderlands, as a mix of several cultures, races, and ethnicities. However, this idea is hard to sort out, because people struggle to find a harmony within themselves when they have a mixed background tugging them constantly in different directions. Anzaldúa describes this tugging as people standing on banks of a river, shouting questions, and challenging one another's ideas. Trying to tear the other side down to take it over is not the solution. She says that for this harmony to work, people have to rebel against the ideology of making one person right and the other wrong, and be able to put two separate ideas alongside each other in harmony. If this can’t be achieved, then the ideas of all sides should simply move on from this battle. She explains that in order to achieve this type of freedom, one must move from convergent thinking, moving to a single goal, and move to divergent thinking, and working towards a whole perspective that includes rather than excludes (101). She describes how the new mestiza must cope by learning to tolerate contradictions and ambiguity. She explains that as a mestiza, a lesbian, and a feminist, she claims no race or ethnicity, but all races and ethnicities because she ("she" meaning mestiza, lesbian, and feminist) is a member of all of these groups.
Anzaldúa claims that she and her people have not melted into the American pot, but have rather come together into a separate group of Americans. She knows that someday her people will be a real ethnicity with real culture like it has been in the past. That day will come again.
The second half of the book contains poetry in both Spanish and English that deals with the struggles and lives of these New Mestizas. Some deal with crossing the border, while some deal with life on either side of it. It is all a good representation of the actual lives and feelings of the people whom Anzaldúa describes and defends throughout the first half of her book.
All in all, this is a wonderful look into the whole being of a borderlander. It shows how the mental borderlands, as well as the physical, are lands of a constant struggle for identity. She shows how the border pulls people to be something new. It pulls them to be something original. And at the same time, it pulls them to stick to the traditions. The borderlands can tear parts of you down while building other parts up. Anzaldúa shows that if someone is to overcome the struggle of the borderland, they have to understand their own self as well as where they have come from. Gloria Anzaldúa has accomplished a wonderful understanding of where she is, where has come from, and where she will be within her own mental borderlands, and does a wonderful job describing the place where many people like her exist.