This is the third entry in the Writing on Glass Femcyclopedia, a nascent online encyclopedia of feminist icons. This piece was researched and written by Emily Crain, and edited by Stephanie Newman.
The Essential Gloria Anzaldúa
Gloria Anzaldúa's scholarship covers bilingualism, gender, and race. Through personal experience, history and art, she covers topics ranging from spirituality to linguistic terrorism, to mestiza and U.S./Mexican border culture, to sexuality. As Trump and his supporters extol the virtues of a "wall" along the border, Anzaldúa's work remains as relevant as ever.
Key Texts by Gloria Anzaldúa
Anzaldúa humanized issues along the U.S./Mexico border through bilingualism and poetry.
Anzaldúa's wrote bilingually, crossing between Spanish and English. Her work explains concepts in a way that makes sense for any bilingual person, or person who spends time in multiple languages. This is a perspective held by large populations along the U.S./Mexico border, a border that forcefully changed and was created by U.S. colonizing powers, and that U.S. governing powers continue to try to strengthen both physically (the wall) and mentally (by demonizing the Mexican "other").
In addition, Anzaldúa embedded poetry into her writing, alongside history and ideology, to humanize the experience of being Chicana, lesbian, bilingual, feminist and someone who grew up on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. She was particularly interested not only in prejudices against native Spanish speakers in the U.S., but in issues within Chicana culture and religion that aim to control women and demonize queer identity.
She considered culture a man-made concept used, together with religion, to falsely ‘protect’ women.
Anzaldúa commented on cultural tyranny: “Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture. Culture is made by those in power – men. Males make the rules and laws; women transmit them… The culture expects women to show greater acceptance of and commitment to, the value system than men.”
She also cross-examined the dynamic between culture and the church, and how they are structured to maintain control over women: “The culture and the Church insist that women are subservient to males. If a woman rebels she is a mujer mala (bad woman). If a woman doesn’t renounce herself in favor of the male, she is selfish. If a woman remains a virgin until she marries, she is a good woman.” Here, Anzaldúa uncovered the challenges both social and religious constructs bring to women, through various demands and expectations. We are witness of this today in the United States, especially regarding reproductive rights: politicians will yield to religion as the ultimate excuse for what a woman should, or should not, be allowed to do with her body.
Anzaldúa used bilingualism to demand acceptance of Mexican heritage, but also observed language as a male construct.
Language was another way Anzaldúa elevated political issues of prejudice against Spanish speakers along the border. She described growing up around white Americans that would say, “Speak American or go back to Mexico." Again, these are prejudices we still hear today in the U.S., aligning with discriminatory politics that have groups chanting, “Build a wall."
Her response to the right to speak her native language interchangeably is still relevant today. “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate," she remarked, "while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.” Through this lens, she pushed the boundaries of dominant, white ‘norteamericano’ (North American) culture, criticizing it by saying “…the white laws and commerce and customs will rot in the deserts they’ve created, lie bleached.”
Additionally, she brings to light the ingrained masculinity of Spanish: “Chicanas use nosotros whether we’re male or female. We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse.” This issue is present in languages that have gendered words, a continuing issue that still discussed today among Spanish-speaking feminists and progressive media outlets across borders.
Ultimately, she believed that the struggle of being mestiza has an answer in feminism.
Anzaldúa said, “It is imperative that mestizas support each other in changing the sexist elements in the Mexican-Indian culture. As long as a woman is put down, the Indian and the Black in all of us is put down. The struggle of the mestiza is above all a feminist one.” Through a feminist lens, all social constructs that oppress populations can be deconstructed. Anzaldúa was not anti-white. She saw herself as a mediator, and believed in the importance of allowing a space for white allies. She strongly believed that people color should voice their needs, and that white society must “own the fact that you looked upon us as less than human, that you stole our lands, our personhood, our self-respect.”
Who Was Gloria Anzaldúa?
Gloria was a “border woman” who grew up between two cultures: Mexican with indigenous influences, and Anglo, having been a member of a colonized people within their own territory. Born in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas in 1942, she was a Chicana tejana (Texan), lesbian-feminist poet and writer. She's best known for her semi-autobiographical book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” She also edited collections of essays, elevating the voices of women of color throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s.
She refused to be confined by patriarchal constructs in her culture and society, explaining herself as a Shadow-Beast: “There is a rebel in me – the Shadow-Beast. It is a part of me that refuses to take orders from outside authorities. It refuses to take orders from my conscious will; it threatens the sovereignty of my rulership. It is that part of me that hates constraints of any kind, even those self-imposed.” Her written eloquence, allows us to get to know her through her own words, “So, don’t give me your tenets and your laws. Don’t give me your lukewarm gods. What I want is an accounting with all three cultures – white, Mexican, Indian. I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails. And if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture – una cultura mestiza – with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture.”
What Are the Key Tenets of Feminism, According to Gloria Anzaldúa?
1. Overcoming U.S. domination, and the demonization of Spanish-speakers and border culture. Today, U.S./Mexico politics are heightening prejudice and violence along the border. Looking at these issues through a feminist lens deconstructs these prejudices and enables us to look more clearly at power dynamics.
2. Culture is created and controlled by men, to falsely “protect” women from themselves. Religion also intersects with culture to insist that women are subservient to men under this façade of "protection."
3. Language is a male discourse, particularly in gendered languages like Spanish, where there is always a masculine plural.
4. White culture in the U.S. is a patriarchal structure, enforced on people of color, those with non-English native tongues, women, and the LGBTQIA population.
5. Feminism promotes peace. It is a lens through which an oppressive society can be unveiled and ultimately deconstructed.
How do I apply Gloria AnzaldúA's feminism in my everyday life?
1. Identify the ways society makes others seem like "mujeres malas."
Examine the laws, social norms, and religious standards that might be making you, or people around you, seem like the “mujeres malas." Identify the source of this control, and fight it. What groups or individuals are being excluded or targeted? What constructs are making this so?
2. Use your language as a platform of empowerment.
Anzaldúa pushed the masculine norm of Spanish and showed it for what it is. In which ways is language playing a role in patriarchal culture? How can we use, or change, our language in the way we speak, write, and interact with the media? Think about how we can entertain linguistic changes in our societies.
3. Pay attention to U.S./Mexico border issues.
There are continuous forces at play to demonize the "other" and to ignore the underlying reasons for migration. Look at immigration laws in your country with a feminist lens to deconstruct the powers-at-be. For those living both in and beyond the United States: Does your government discriminate against immigrants/migration/refugees, even if they are using at-risk populations for economic benefit?