Chicanos and Queers are excavators. Chicano Queers are doubly so. To be born either is to be born with a shovel in hand: I didn’t know about my indigenous roots until I found them in a book when I was in college. I didn’t know about Stonewall until an old queen smacked me over the head at a party for not knowing. We are people with buried histories. To discover ourselves, we have to dig.
I could go on and on about the similarities between my two cultures, between Queerness and Chicanidad, things I’ve noticed from being both all my life. But the most prominent thing they have in common is the giant question mark at their centers, the great Who am I?
Chicanos, people of Mexican descent born in the United States, often of indigenous and European ancestry, occupy a both-and-neither territory. Queers, people who challenge the heavily patrolled borders of gender and sex, embrace the question mark to make their own homes in a world that claims to have no place for them.
It was the writing of Gloria Anzaldúa, a lesbian Chicana, a Queer Mestiza, that I discovered this commonality, and in doing so, discovered myself.
“The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the life blood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.”
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza was published in 1987, but it is just as relevant today as it was back then. In it, Anzaldúa talks about growing up in the borderlands of Texas. She renders the border not just as a physical structure, but also as a psychological one that divides a people in half. In the in-between that the border creates, she argues, a new people sprung up.
“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”
A scholar of cultural theory, feminist theory, and Queer theory, Anzaldúa does not create walls between her identities. In keeping with her writings, she instead submits that these elements of herself are in constant contact with one another, in a constant state of dialogue.
She makes this clear in Borderlands, in which she often slips in and out of English, Spanish, Chicano Spanglish, and Nahuatl, the indigenous language of many tribes in Mexico, often in mid-sentence.
“Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” she wrote in La Frontera.
“Linguistic terrorism” is a major theme in her work, and she believed strongly in the connection between language and identity. She believed that when she spoke a certain way, or when she refused to ditch her accent despite pressure to do so, she was saving herself and all the cultures and people that lived in her.
“While I advocate putting Chicana, Tejana, working-class, dyke-feminist poet, writer theorist in front of my name,” she explained, “I do so for reasons other than those of the dominant culture… so that the Chicana and lesbian and all the other persons in me don’t get erased, omitted, or killed.”
Before her death in 2004, Anzaldúa achieved many things, including a Lesbian Rights Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fiction Award, and a Sappho Award of Distinction.
Today, however, she is rarely given the prominence she deserves in either the Latino or LGBT+ histories. It’s a shame, because, for me, Anzaldúa is an elder. A historian. An excavator. She is a person who taught me what the artifacts were and how they were used and what they meant. In that process, she helped me discover who I was.
“Books saved my sanity, knowledge opened the locked places in me and taught me first how to survive and then how to soar,” she wrote.
And so we celebrate Gloria Anzaldúa, her legacy, and her words, which have helped at least this Queer Chicano in more ways than I can list.
La Frontera is perhaps more important now than ever before, as the President of the United States promises to erect an enormous border wall. In the years ahead, we will need figures like Anzaldúa, people who can teach us how to deconstruct borders both physical and metaphysical.
“I change myself,” she wrote in La Frontera, “I change the world.”
Follow John Paul Brammer on Twitter @jpbrammer