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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Gloria Anzaldúa (b. 1942)

[5394] Dorothea Lange, Mexican Mother in California (1935), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-000825-ZC].

Gloria Anzaldúa’s work is fundamentally concerned with articulating what she calls a “new mestiza consciousness,” an identity characterized by hybridity, flexibility, and plurality and focused on the experiences of Chicanas (Mexican American women) and particularly mestizas (Chicana and Mexican women who have mixed Native American and Spanish heritage). Writing fiction, poetry, memoirs, and literary and cultural criticism (sometimes all within the same text), Anzaldúa has helped define and lend authority to women of color as well as gays and lesbians, whom she identifies as empowered by the inclusiveness and expansiveness of mestiza identity.

Anzaldúa was born on a ranch in south Texas, near the border of Mexico. In her youth, she and her family labored as migrant agricultural workers. Although she felt stifled by the confines of a traditional Chicano home life in which gender roles tended to be rigid and rather limiting, Anzaldúa early found what she calls “an entry into a different way of being” through reading. Defying everyone’s expectations, she went to college and earned a B.A. from Pan American University, an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and did graduate work at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has taught high-school English, been involved in education programs for the children of migrant workers, and taught creative writing and literature at a number of universities. A prolific writer, Anzaldúa has published stories, poems, critical theory, children’s books, and a novel (La Prieta). Her work appears in both mainstream publications and alternative presses and journals. Anzaldúa’s complex identity as a woman, a Chicana, a mestiza, and a lesbian is reflected in her pioneering contributions to gender studies, Chicano studies, queer theory, and creative writing. Her 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, stands as a manifesto of her ideas about culture and identity construction.

Because she believes that language and identity are inextricably linked, Anzaldúa’s writing often engages in daring narrative innovations intended to reflect the inclusivity of the mestiza identity: by shifting between and combining different genres, points of view, and even languages, she attempts to represent the mestiza‘s propensity to “shift out of habitual formations . . . [and] set patterns.” In this way, her narrative literalizes her ideal of “border crossing.” Her writing thus works against hegemonic structures that limit individual expression or impose stereotypes based on race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation. Composed partially in untranslated Spanish and slipping between poetry and prose, Anzaldúa’s texts consistently articulate her commitment to making writing a vehicle for personal freedom and political activism.

Teaching Tips

  • Students who do not read or speak Spanish may be frustrated by Anzaldúa’s inclusion of words, phrases, and sentences in untranslated Spanish, and even students with a background in what Anzaldúa calls “Standard Spanish” may have difficulty understanding her use of regional Chicano dialects and Chicano slang known as Caló. Ask your students to pick a page of Anzaldúa’s prose or poetry and look up the Spanish vocabulary both in a traditional Spanish dictionary and in a dictionary of Chicano Spanish such as The Dictionary of Chicano Spanish/El diccionario del español chicano by Roberto A. Galván and Richard V. Teschner. Ask your students to write a journal entry discussing why Anzaldúa challenges her readers in this way. What kind of audience is she hoping to reach? What kind of experience is she trying to provide for readers? What message does Anzaldúa send about the relative importance of English, Castillian Spanish, and Caló?
  • Ask your students to think about the significance of the title Borderlands/La Frontera, the work from which the passages in The Norton Anthology of American Literature are drawn. Have your class discuss the importance of Anzaldúa’s choice to incorporate both English and Spanish in the title and the significance of the slash, which itself functions as a kind of border within the title. How does the title reflect Anzaldúa’s concern with articulating multiple perspectives and celebrating inclusivity? Anzaldúa has claimed that the capitalization of the word “Borderlands” throughout her text is a means of indicating that the border is less a physical place and more a state of mind or a cultural experience for mestizas. Ask your students to list and discuss the different kinds of psychological, cultural, sexual, racial, and spiritual borders that the text explores.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is a Chicana? A mestiza? What does Anzaldúa mean when she calls for “a new mestiza consciousness”?
  2. Context: Examine the “Visit Mexico” poster featured in the archive. What relationship does the poster seem to posit among Mexico, women, and food? Examine the portions of Borderlands/La Frontera in which Anzaldúa discusses cooking and the cultivation of corn. How does Anzaldúa restructure Chicanas’ relationship to food and fertility? How does her comparison of mestizas to indigenous corn and her lyrical description of a woman making tortillas challenge the poster’s image of a woman invitingly offering up a bounty of fruit?
  3. Context: What traits and values characterize the “new mestiza” as Anzaldúa conceives of her? How does the new mestiza compare to the ideals of femininity expressed in the three traditional representations of women in Mexican culture, La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona? How might Anzaldúa’s work help readers understand these traditional figures differently?
  4. Context: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca has sometimes been called “the first mestizo” because he had a hybrid identity influenced by and oriented within both native and European cultures. How does de Vaca’s narrative of the “first mestizo” experience compare to Anzaldúa’s narrative of the “new mestiza“? How do these two writers articulate their intercultural and interlinguistic abilities? How do they benefit from their status as hybrid? When does their hybridity become problematic for them?
  5. Context: Gloria Anzaldúa is not the first person to acknowledge the power of sexual deviance to shape people’s experience of a “contact zone.” Spanish exploration accounts and art representing the Conquest are rife with descriptions of the berdaches–Native American males who cross-dressed and performed female sex and social roles. What does Anzaldúa argue is the relationship between the “queer” and the borderlands? Compare Anzaldúa’s notion to the role that transgendered figures play in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative.
  6. Exploration: Do writers have a responsibility to make their work clear and easily understandable for readers? When might it be artistically or politically important for a writer to use languages or styles that might be unfamiliar to readers?
  7. Exploration: Compare Anzaldúa’s use of polyvocality in her poem “El sonavabitche” to Sarah Piatt’s use of polyvocality in “The Palace-Burner” or “A Pique at Parting” (Unit 9). How does each poet use polyvocality to articulate her consciousness of her own status as a woman? How do they use polyvocality to register protest? Do you find one of the poems easier to understand? Why?
  8. Exploration: In recent years queer writers and activists have sought to break down traditional ideas of normal and deviant and to argue for a more fluid notion of identity and sexuality. Compare Anzaldúa’s use of the term queer and her construction of a queer identity to the notions of lesbianism developed by poets Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich (Unit 15).

Selected Archive Items

[5394] Dorothea Lange, Mexican Mother in California (1935),

courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34- 000825-ZC]. 
New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange captured many images of the hardships endured during the Great Depression. Here, a Mexican migrant worker living in California explains, “Sometimes I tell my children that I would like to go to Mexico, but they tell me, ‘We don’t want to go, we belong here.'”


[7084] Mirta Vidal, Cover of Chicanas Speak Out (1971), 
courtesy of Duke University. 
Chicana authors, including Cherrie Moraga and Lorna Dee Cervantes, protested definitions of womanhood and American identity that did not include Chicana heritage and life.


[7338] Jorge Gonzalea Camarena, Visit Mexico [poster] (c. 1940-50), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory. 
A pretty young Mexican woman is shown holding out a bowl of tropical fruits in this poster, which was intended to encourage U.S. tourists to vacation in Mexico.


[7605] Anonymous, Unidentified Woman Finishes Defiant Message (1973), 
courtesy of the Denver Public Library.
A young woman with long hair, wearing bellbottoms, scrawls out a message which reads, “We are not beaten . . . and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. . . . What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.” The building pictured was damaged in an explosion that followed a shootout between Denver police and people of the Chicano community on March 16th, 1973.


[8215] American Passages, Gloria Anzaldúa–Critic/Poet/Writer (2002), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Photograph of Anzaldúa, whose works explore what it means to be of mixed descent, as well as a lesbian, in the United States.


[8756] Eliot Young, Interview: “Chicano Literature” (2002), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Elliot Young, assistant professor of English at Lewis and Clark College, discusses the role of Chicano and Chicana literature in American history.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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