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Border Woman

Gloria Anzaldúa

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/29/2004

Many people’s first and only experience with Gloria Anzaldúa’s writing comes in a women’s studies course. The 1981 book she co-edited with Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, has become a staple of such courses. A Chicana lesbian feminist writer, Anzaldúa’s work, which concentrates on issues of race, class, and gender, makes her a perfect counterpoint to a culture dominated by white male heterosexuals. This otherness became the focus of much of her writing. She was fascinated by it. And while she felt it informed all she was and all she did, she also dreamed of breaking down the boundaries between Us and Them.

Born in 1942 in Jesus Maria of the Valley in rural south Texas to a family of Mexican immigrant farmworkers, Anzaldúa was always aware of being different. Part history of the Chicano people, part book of poetry—hers and others—and part memoir, her 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza examined the physical border between the American Southwest and Mexico and the less visceral borders of culture, race, and class. In the introduction she described herself as “a border woman . . . I have been straddling the tejas-Mexican border, and others, all my life. It’s not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. . . . No, not comfortable but home.”

Growing up in Texas, Anzaldúa struggled not only with racism against Chicanos but also with her growing awareness of prejudices and cultural bias within her community. She felt that she did not fit into the roles approved for women. “For a women of my culture there used to be only three directions she could turn: to the Church as a nun, to the streets as a prostitute, or to the home as a mother,” she wrote.

“Even as a child I would not obey. I was ‘lazy.’ Instead of ironing my younger brothers’ shirts or cleaning the cupboards, I would pass many hours studying, reading, painting, writing. Every bit of self-faith I’d painstakingly gathered took a beating daily. Nothing in my culture approved of me.”

Anzaldúa became an avid reader, sneaking books into her room and reading them secretly at night. Though her parents never got beyond grade school, Anzaldúa graduated high school while doing migrant farm work to help support her family, and went on to get her bachelor’s at the University of Texas-Pan American University and her master’s from the University of Texas at Austin. While in some ways Anzaldúa felt at home in the world of academia and feminism, as a Chicana it was not an easy fit. In an essay in This Bridge called “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers,” she writes, “We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women the first priority. We cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are willing to help but we can’t do the white woman’s homework for her.”

She educated her readers by embracing her roots instead of hiding them. In her writing she flows freely from English to Spanish to a Tex-Mex combination of the two without apology or sometimes even translation. At a conference in Cincinnati in 1992 she read one of her poems in Spanish, saying, “I know that was frustrating for many of you, but I wanted you to see what it feels like to be locked out of the language.”

But even as Anzaldúa pointed out borders and barriers, she also broke them. This Bridge is widely considered the first anthology of feminist writing by women of color, and Anzaldúa herself is considered one of the first openly gay Chicana writers. She went on to teach at San Francisco State University, University of California Santa Cruz, and Norwich University in Vermont, and wrote several books, including children’s books in both English and Spanish. She was about to finish her doctorate at UC Santa Cruz when she died from diabetes-related complications on May 15 at the age of 61.

Anzaldúa left behind a body of work that was groundbreaking and confrontational, yet hopeful. She was very aware of otherness, but she also foresaw a world where, by acknowledging our differences, we move past them. And while she will be remembered for her words, it was action that she truly hoped to inspire. As she wrote in This Bridge, “Basta de gritar contra el veinto-toda palabra es ruido si no está acompanada de accion. Dejemos de hablar hasta que hagamos la palabra luminosa y activa.”

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