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Tejana Radical

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As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s, I read an anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, that was edited by Gloria Anzaldúa. The experience was akin to having an oxygen mask drop in front of you in a depressurized airplane cabin—you didn’t know you were grasping for air until the oxygen started flowing. Such was the shock and recognition many women of different stripes experienced upon encountering the work and intelligence of Anzaldúa. She was born to break the mold, over and over again.

Anzaldúa put her finger on the ways in which white feminism did not address race and class. And Anzaldúa was fearless in asserting her various identities: “I consider myself a mestiza multiculturalist teacher and writer informed by my identity as a Chicana Tejana dyke from a working-class background. I am involved in the anti-colonial struggle against literary assimilation, claiming linguistic space to validate my personal language and history.” Yet she never let any one identity limit or censor her totality. Yes, there were many directions from which to approach the idea of what it meant to be a woman or a feminist.

Born in Raymondville, Texas, Anzaldúa (1942-2004) was a writer, theorist, educator and thinker. From a young age, she worked in the fields alongside her family. Anzaldúa found a refuge in books, first as a child who felt she didn’t fit in because of a rare physical ailment, and later as a teen who felt different because of her sexual orientation. She received a bachelor’s degree from Pan American University and a master’s from The University of Texas at Austin. Although she struggled to complete her Ph.D. (which was awarded posthumously by the University of California in Santa Cruz in 2005), she was being asked to lecture, teach and speak on campuses around the world. While she was never fully accepted or rewarded by academia, her personal priority was to reserve most of her time for her own writing. The financial instability that comes with being contingent faculty, plus her health issues, contributed to her untimely death because of complications from diabetes. She left behind several unfinished manuscripts.

Edited by her colleague, friend and literary comadre, AnaLouise Keating, The Reader does a good job of offering a wide range of Anzaldúa’s writings, from her most famous and well-loved essays that appeared in the seminal Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza to never-before-published poems, experimental fiction, interviews, e-mail communications, and unfinished pieces. Anzaldúa was a notorious perfectionist, sometimes revising essays and stories until an editor had to yank them from her hands. Still, this selection would’ve made Anzaldúa proud. While some of the fiction fragments are rough, they are nonetheless interesting and experimental.

Anzaldúa was interested in liminal states, the in-between states of being, the in-between among cultures and languages, a space she called Nepantla, after the Aztec equivalent of the Catholic “limbo.” It’s fitting that she explores that state in her fiction. Those who move between worlds she called the nepantleras: “Nepantleras are the supreme border crossers. They act as intermediaries between cultures and their various versions of reality. Las nepantleras, like the ancient chamanas, move between worlds. … They change the stories about who we are and about our behavior. … They possess the gift of vision. Nepantleras think in terms of the planet, not just their own racial group. … They serve as agents of awakening, inspire and challenge others to deeper awareness, greater conocimiento; they serve as reminders of each other’s search for wholeness of being.” As evidenced by this quote, The Reader also brings to light previously unpublished writings about Anzaldúa’s complex vision of spirituality, and how her theory really had a holistic approach—mind, body and spirit—that was not often welcomed in academic circles.
Anzaldúa was also one of the first theorists to write in the language that she spoke, a mixture of English and Spanish, the Spanish of her native South Texas. To my ear it sounds right, authentic, true. For non-Spanish readers, she includes a glossary after each piece, and Keating provides a more extensive one at the end of the book.

Anzaldúa’s papers are housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at UT Austin, where current and future generations will explore and mine her rich materials. The Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa was founded in 2005, and it will hold its second international conference November 5 to 7 in San Antonio. As Anzaldúa wrote in her brilliant post-9/11 essay, here included: “May we do work that matters.”

Liliana Valenzuela is currently serving as guest editor for Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. She lives in Austin.