[For this year’s installment in my annual series of holiday wishes for those mischievous AmericanStudies Elves, I’ll be expressing wishes for figures from American history whom we should better remember. Share your nominees in comments and happy holidays!]
On what a stunning autoethnographer reveals about the US and us.
As with earlier subjects in this week’s series, I’ve written about Mexican American writer, scholar, and activist Gloria Anzaldúa and her amazing book Borderlands/La Frontera in multiple prior posts, and wanted to dedicate this first paragraph to highlighting them in case you’re able to check them out (the first hyperlink above is the most in depth of those posts, just FYI).
Welcome back! One of the best reasons to better remember and read Anzaldúa is just how fully both her book and her perspective challenge not just exclusionary definitions of American identity, but really any narrative that seeks to define America as something homogeneous. While it might seem that the “borderlands” of her title refers to the particular region in which she grew up (the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, located as fully in between the United States and Mexico as any place can be), or even the Mexican-American border overall, my argument (which I advanced in both a chapter in my second book, Redefining American Identity, and part of the Mexican American chapter in my newest one We the People) is that Anzaldúa helps us see the entire United States as a borderlands. She does so through one of the most multi-layered texts I’ve ever read, a book that utilizes literatures and languages, history and culture, religion and myth, autobiography and communal stories, and more to create this profound new vision of the nation, one all Americans should at least consider.
Anzaldúa’s subtitle is The New Mestiza, and I would say something parallel about this figure/identity—that while she might seem to be referring to particular individuals or a specific form of heritage, her argument instead is that in the late 20th century all of us are in a number of important ways “mixed.” Given just how much our collective conversations seemed unable to grapple with Barack Obama’s multi-racial heritage and identity—and I’m thinking here not just of the Birtherism and racism on the right, but the much more general and often celebratory tendency to define him as “the first black president”—I would argue that we very much still need strategies for engaging with the concept of “mixed” identities. And again, while of course particular individuals (with our 44th president and, yes, my two sons as examples) seem to literally embody that complex combinatory heritage, Anzaldúa makes a persuasive case for this mestiza form of identity as not just widely shared, but indeed the defining experience of late 20th century humans. Here in the early 21st century, Elves, we could all benefit from better remembering and reading that challenging and crucial perspective.
Last wish tomorrow,
PS. Figures (or stories, histories, texts, etc.) you wish we’d better remember?
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