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My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

July 10, 2018: Representing Race: Borderlands/La Frontera

[On July 11th, 1960 Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. One of the most taught books in American classrooms, Mockingbird offers (among other things) a flawed but vital representation of race in American society and history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such complex racial representations, leading up to a weekend post on mystery fiction and race!]
On the tough but vital book that represents an ambiguous American setting and history.

Of the many things I wish we included more fully and with more nuance in our narratives of the Mexico-United States border and the many issues that surround it, the most fundamental is the incredibly complicated and contested history of that border’s existence and location. It’s true that the border has been more or less the same since the middle of the 19th century, but what we almost never acknowledge is the multi-decade, deeply debated process by which it reached that identity. A more full narrative of that process would include, among other things, the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836 to form its own independent Republic for almost a decade (a secession that the Mexican government treated almost exactly the same as the US government did that of the Confederacy before the Civil War); the process by which the US subsequently annexed Texas in 1845, a process that (because of that ongoing debate over secession) the Mexican government did not recognize; the highly suspect premises by which the US then found cause to declare war on Mexico; the details of that war itself, and of the multiple 1848 treaties that ended it and resulted in the US expanding to include New Mexico and Arizona and their borders; and the similarly contested annexation of California in 1850.

None of that history makes the existing border any less of a legal boundary, but it certainly would (I believe) inform our narratives on the relationship (historical and present) between the two nations, as well as on the multi-century histories of migration and movement between and through Texas, the Southwest, Mexico, and the United States. Even more significantly, such awareness would force us to engage with just how interconnected and intertwined the identities and histories of (for starters) Texas and Mexico have always been, and through them how much the cultures and communities of the two nations have blended into one another throughout the Southwest and beyond. Fortunately for such engagement, the meanings, stages, and effects of that blending, as well as its pains and promises, darkest realities and most ideal outcomes, have already been captured in one of our most challenging and difficult and disorienting and vital texts, the autobiographical-historical-psychological-anthropological-spiritual-philosophical-scholarly-poetic masterpiece that is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). Anzaldúa’s book is written in at least three languages (English, Spanish, and Mexican Indian, although she uses multiple variations on each of the latter two), moves without warning between all of the genres contained in my hyphenated adjective, and delves into some of the most dark and uncomfortable elements of her own psyche, both nations’ histories, gender and sexuality and identity, and the most violent and hateful kinds of discrimination and injustice. And it’s one of the most inspiring and powerful books I’ve ever read.

There are lots of moments or passages which I could highlight in support of that final point, but none are more concise and powerful than two poems from the sixth and final chapter of the book’s poetic second half. “To Live in the Borderlands Means You” is perhaps Anzaldúa’s clearest statement of her book’s most central idea, the concept of a mestiza (mixed) identity that she grounds in the experiences and worlds of the border but argues is a defining attribute of national existence (especially in the late 20th century) beyond any specific geographic setting. The poem includes some of the book’s darkest phrases (“the rope crushing the hollow of your throat”) and yet some of its funniest (“To live in the Borderlands means / to put chile in the borscht”), and ends with a very evocative and inspiring image: “To survive the Borderlands / you must live sin fronteras / be a crossroads.” And the chapter and book’s final poem, “Don’t Give In, Chicanita” (which Anzaldúa translates into both Spanish and English), connects this complicated and vital identity to a very personal and intimate subject, Anzaldúa’s realistic and unflinching but hopeful and loving advice to her niece Missy. Nowhere else in the book does Anzaldúa make more plain nor more moving her sense that an optimistic perspective depends precisely on an understanding of the histories that comprise the borderlands, what she calls in the poem’s first stanza “your roots like those of the mesquite / firmly planted, digging underground / toward that current, the soul of tierra madre— / your origin.” An ethnic, racial, and national origin we would all do well to better remember!
Next representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of race you’d highlight?

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