Gloria Anzaldúa lived a pedal-to-the-metal life, refusing to deny any aspects of her dynamic identity and writing her own page in the great book of queer/feminist/critical theory by tearing out 20 others. Her writings are enactments of the “borderland/frontera” concept that she pioneered; her books fly between prose and poetry, English and Spanish, and any number of personal and theoretical topics that she felt compelled to put between a front and back cover. In occupying a space between genres, topics, cultures and identities, she broke the hegemonic norms that sought to restrain her throughout her life.
Anzaldúa lived and worked on a ranch in southern Texas, near the literal borderland with Mexico that would come to form her ideas of identity. A painful hormone condition accelerated aspects of her sexual maturation and she felt distanced from her body. Anzaldúa found refuge in stories; her fascination with them led her to enroll at Texas Women’s University, and then the Pan American University and then finally the University of Texas campus in Austin, where she finished her (formal) education with no less than three undergraduate and two graduate degrees.
Both the Chicano and women’s movements at the time of her first forays into activism suppressed her voice; the Chicano movement because of her status as a woman, and the women’s movement because of her status as a woman of color. Her theories of fluid identity stem from her feelings of separation from the communities she explored in her academic career. Her activist work bridged the gaps between gender and cultural studies, working to bring in the voices of women of color that were going unheard.
In the 1980s Anzaldúa co-edited The Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color with Cherríe Moraga. The compilation brought together brought together queer/feminist/cultural writings by women from all sorts of non-white backgrounds in a defiant shout back at the feminist movement that was dominated by only a few privileged perspectives. Bridge laid many of the foundations for the thought critical to the work of intersectional and third wave feminists. Anzaldúa’s seminal Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza mashed together autobiography, theory and poetry, to illustrate her concept of a space, physical and theoretical, beyond the binaries that dominated feminism, cultural theory and queer theory at the time.
After years of writing, activism and carving out spaces for new conceptions of identity, Anzaldúa passed on from complications with diabetes in 2004. Even in death she still received more academic degrees than I could ever hope for, receiving a PhD in literature from UC Santa Cruz for the dissertation she was still working on at the time of passing. UC Santa Cruz, in partnership with their Chicana/o Latina/o Research Center, offer two annual student awards in her name now.
I have to throw the ball into your courts here, dear readers. If you’re not familiar with Anzaldúa, I urge you to go out and find her work. To say I’ve given even a crash course on Gloria Anzaldúa here doesn’t do her justice. Her long and complicated body of work flows between her thought and her lived experiences, begging the reader to rethink their own world and to always, always dig deeper. I would recommend Borderlands/La Frontera to start with, and then Interviews/Entrevistas as a gateway to more of her invaluable work. If you have recommendations, please share them in the comments!