Embracing the Border: Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera

According to the common understanding, a liminal state is supposed to be one we use to pass from one phase to the next. It’s a threshold, so to speak. But what happens when that liminal state is a permanent residence?

Gloria Anzaldua, the noted Chicana, tejana-originating, lesbian-feminist poet and fiction writer (who also spent a great deal of her life in California), explores this state in her seminal 1987 cultural criticism Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The Women’s Museum of California also will discuss the book during its inaugural book club (http://womensmuseumca.org/event/read-like-girl-wmc-book-club-0).

Although Anzaldua passed away in 2004, her ideas may be even more relevant today. As an American-born Chicana, Anzaldua explores the contradictions and challenges of being considered neither one nor the other. She notes often in her writing that this Otherness is socially and culturally – and sometimes – infrastructurally constructed. She writes in Borderlands, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms, it haemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture” (25). We must question, then, the effects on this third country, this border culture, when President Trump’s physical wall becomes a reality.

Those who permanently reside in this liminal state already are not considered normal, Anzaldua asserts. Americans see the border people as too Mexican. Mexicans see the border people as too American. Readers in 2018 needn’t think too much to understand that the border culture still exists – and it will continue to exist whether the U.S. government erects a wall or not. What remains for those of us who oppose the wall is less how we can stop something that will occur anyway and more how we can eschew labels and embrace the Otherness of those along the border.

That trick, Anzaldua writes, will require us to fight against what she calls cultural tyranny. To do so, we need to understand our dominant culture – what it represents and what the effects are. She writes, “The dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance” (108). She is not just talking about well-meaning allies but also about those who are marginalized: “The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society” (109). Our dominant society has helped us develop images, stereotypes of Mexican nationals, Chicanx peoples, border peoples. It would take most of us no time to devise a list: hard workers, Trump’s “rapists,” Speedy Gonzalez, machismoists, family-focused folks, the list goes on. We need a new consciousness, Anzaldua writes, one that values not one dominant culture but one that values more. In essence, the border culture is to be embraced. That open wound, the split, needs to heal, and we can aid by starting to walk away from what Anzaldua terms dualistic thinking.

Anzaldua uses a clever analogy of corn to explain how escaping dualism can benefit us. Corn, of course, is a staple of Mexican food culture. Miles (literally and figuratively away), corn also is a staple of Midwest American food culture. Perhaps all can see some common ground, as Anzaldua writes, “like corn, the mestiza is a product of crossbreeding, designed for preservation under a variety of conditions” (103). Corn can be transformed into tortillas; anyone who has travelled rural American has seen signs in corn fields touting the newest hybrid.

Anzaldua’s work itself is a smart hybrid of cultural criticism, a summary of history poetry, prose – sometimes all on the same page. And it is effective. Her metaphors underscore her assertions and her poetry gives images to our ideas. Join the Women’s Museum of California in exploring this important and still relevant work and participate in the discussion at 5:30 p.m., Friday, February 16 at the museum.


Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California and teaches writing at the University of California, San Diego and copyediting at UCSD Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum. She presented at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2015.

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