Do you remember elementary school? The days when we committed the multiplication tables to memory, took pride in winning the spelling bee and played four square at recess (not foursquare the app).
Then in high school we studied geography—we memorized maps of the contemporary world. Growing up in America meant I spent a lot of time learning the shape of each state, reciting the state capitals and learning the important dates (in 1842 Columbus sailed the ocean blue).
I’m very familiar with the lines—the borders—that draw the great United States as one entity. What didn’t occur to me at the time was how malleable those contours that comprised our nation actually were and are. I had yet to discover the true history of those state lines that hold our United States of America together. And I had yet to encounter the means people employed to obtain those border lines and continue to enforce them.
What do these state lines do other than make a pretty shape on a color coded map?
They provide an identity for the people who dwell within them as well as those who are forced out.
Identity is constructed over time and maintained through culture, environment, borders. Borders breed nationalism and patriotism, but what happens when borders collapse? Does one’s identity collapse along with it?
Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderland/La Frontera offers insight into the devastating displacement imposed on the Chicano people at the greedy hands of Anglo farmers. As Anzaldua explains, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” The war at the border wages in the name of nationalism. Nationalism becomes synonymous with racism as Chicanos are labeled the lesser—the Other. Many white Americans see Chicanos as an invasive species that needs to be repelled. What they don’t see is that they-the Anglos-are the initial intruders.
So much hangs on the construction of this border—whole economies are fueled by its existence. But is its existence healthy? Is it necessary?
Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters documents the adventures of two women, Alicia and Teresa, as they cross the border again and again. Teresa, a Chicana woman, and Alicia, a women with mixed ethnicity but with fair skin, embark on a tumultuous and intense friendship, and together they gallivant through Mexico and the United States.
The novel begins with a choice on the part of the reader. Castillo offers three paths: for the Conformist, for the Cynic, and for the Quixotic. Each path prompts a different order to read the letters, with omissions of certain letters left for certain paths.
I opted for the quixotic path, anticipating some Don Quixote antics. But instead of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, I met Teresa and Alicia—two women trying to understand the world around them. Their volatile world was controlled by the whims of men. As they navigated through one tangled love affair to the next, they struggled to find autonomy.
Letter Twenty-Seven was doused with vivid imagery and striking ideology. Teresa recounts a dream, a dream so real she was certain it had happened. Indeed, the events of the dream did happen. Her dream parallels the history of the Chicano people, and reflects her place in that history. It began in a town they’d visited during their excursions down south.
“The people were of mixed blood, people of the sun and earth…i was of that mixed blood, of fire and stone, timber and vine, a history passed down from mouth to mouth since the beginning of time…” Mixed blood—mixed identities—all untied under the sun and through the earth.
As her dream continues that sense of unity pervades, however, there is a divide between male and female. She meets a woman who is not her mother, but “this woman was still of my people and we accepted each other readily.” Her “people” are of mixed blood, but more importantly, they are the women of mixed blood.
When she meets a youthful male, she notes “Manhood had hardly touched his seraphic face.” While they are of the same blood, it is still quite salient that Teresa is a woman and this adolescent is a man. She goes on to say, “He was to know manhood in its entirety in the next hour.” For Teresa and the culture engulfing her, the notion of Manhood equates to copulating with a woman—but beyond that, in the context of this time (1980ish) and culture, Manhood means consuming a woman. Teresa feels compelled to “make a man” out of this boy in the middle of the street. As they begin to undress and embrace, they are interrupted. “…the intellectuals who criticized my intentions. In rage i tore open the worn shirt to reveal flesh. ‘i am woman,’ i shouted, ‘but i am first human.’ i pushed them out of the way and hurried back to the house with the old woman.” She returns to the woman, her people. While she had desired to make love with the young man, intellectuals tell her this behavior is inappropriate. The ambiguous intellectuals in this Mexican town resemble the patriarchal culture, a culture that associates liberal with ‘whore’ rather than ‘open to new ideas.’
Teresa is open to new ideas, and throughout her journey she must constantly define and redefine herself—unfortunately society tells her that for women, their definition comes through sex with a man. And men in turn consume women.
“There was no time!” she says, and she wields her weapon. This weapon, a gun, represents her growing agency in the changing world. She is her own weapon, and constantly battles for respect as a Chicana woman. The letter ends with “…to all that had lived and died and had been born again in that moment as i approached an opaque window and pointed my weapon.” The future is opaque, but still she points her weapon and holds her ground. What a powerful image. Teresa must stand up for her own future, the future of mixed blood people, and for women.
A woman is all too often thought of as just a body, but Teresa asserts, “i am woman,’ i shouted, ‘but i am first human.” What does it mean to be human? Well, that’s up to you.
As a woman—but first and foremost as a human, I view my body as a canvas. It is a temple. I choose to do with it what I wish.
But not every woman nor every human has that freedom. Anzaldua writes, “I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face…making a new culture—una cultura mestizo—with my own lumber, my own bricks a mortar and my own feminist architecture.”
She goes on to address the Shadow-Beast: the rebellious voice within that refuses to take orders. The guilt that stems from a cultural repression teaches women to be afraid of embracing their desires, their Shadow-Beast. But if a woman can face her Shadow-Beast and embrace it, she can live free of guilt. Free to make her own choices for her life and for her body.