poetry as untranslatable: gloria anzaldúa on straddling dual identity


Alison Hawthorne Deming

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“borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them”

The Chicano movement – the extension of Mexican American civil rights movement during the 1940s and 60s – was a movement of working-class Americans born of a cultural and racial ‘mixture’ across the southern borders of the US, exhibiting political solidarity and a linguistic common ground within their community. Queer theorist and Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa is known for her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), a poetic discourse of the hybrid identities formed in the borderlands and voicing the people of inherited colonial oppression.

‘Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965.. with that recognition we became a distinct people, we became aware of our reality and acquired a name and a language that reflected that reality’

the tool of language

The semantic field of Anzaldúa’s poetry, her littering of Spanish nouns amongst her majoritively English political discourse, raises the question: do the words she uses mean more, or something altogether different, in the language in which they are written? Does Anzaldúa speak to greater literary philosophies beyond the cultural, political remit that thematises her work? In conflating her dual identities, she speaks only to those who share this identity, irrespective of the glossary given at the bottom of her text to translate her Spanish. We ask, what does ‘rajetas’ mean for Anzaldúa, and is its meaning lost in translation lest it is kept in Spanish? Does the exercise of translation rid the word of its cultural exclusivity and meaning altogether? Her bilingualism speaks to the transitional state of life on the border: a physical and psychological border. Yet in her alternation, she is unable to commit fully to either language. Her orphan tongue is not native to any fixed geography, instead, she straddles in between, incomplete. Her linguistic alternation becomes central to the way she understands herself and the complexity of her cultural background: the border splits and prevents her from one sole identity; she is both.

In this dualism, Anzaldúa finds strength. The ‘crossroads’ she imagines become a point of divergence. Self-determination born out of identification. A sense of autonomy and agency is manifested within the crossroads, and in this exercise of choice, there is identity. It seems that to transcend borders, whilst the borders home identity, requires being ambiguous and contradictory. Anzaldúa is emphatic in her promotion that to overcome or navigate the border, you must become a crossroads. You must diverge and emancipate from the border rendering it as merely an origin, not as a final, immobile destination.

the struggle of the mestiza* is above all a feminist one

“The future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.”

The Chicano Movement, in its romanticisation of the past, was a highly masculine environment, with conservative ideas of sexuality and gender roles, and Anzaldúa’s Chicana identity is rooted within this patriarchal and homophobic community. As a working-class queer woman, her sexual identity became another means of ostracisation, and for her poetry, she risks exclusion from her own cultural movement for her sexuality. Thus the intersections of her identity become internalised within the Chicano movement: oppressed outside the community for her Chicana heritage, and within for her queerness.

Violent metaphors seem to feminise the poem: the Woman as a site of bodily oppression and violence. The ‘open wound’ Anzaldúa imagines can be seen as a state of suffering, an exposure of dual identity that prevents healing, or, identification from either side of the border. Belonging exclusively to the isolated ‘third country’ in between. However, Anzaldúa seems to believe that in the possession of an ambiguous, contradicting identity, there is empowerment. In contradiction there is conflict, and in conflict, you can shake up both sides of the border.

Anzaldúa speaks self-consciously to her own language within her poetry: “until I am free to switch my language I will be illegitimate”. In translational gaps and miscommunication, the paradigm that she will be misunderstood by monolingual Spanish or English speakers, she finds strength and community. There, in refutation of the exclusion from her racial community, she speaks to the Chicana movement itself. She tackles and activates the language that defines her community around a shared experience and identity, insofar that her poetry, its duality and conflict and fragmentation, is her identity: “I am my language”.

*Mestiza = (in Latin America) a person of mixed race, especially one having Spanish and American Indian parentage.

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