An Interview with Gloria Anzaldúa

By Patti Blanco


Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter Volume 16.1, November 1991.

This interview was conducted while Gloria Anzaldúa visited the University of Arizona for a week as a Rockefeller Humanist in Residence in Women's Studies. She gave a reading for the Poetry Center on October 23, 1991.

Gloria Anzaldúa writes in prose and poetry, Spanish and English, about her experience as a Chicana Tejana lesbian-feminist. Her latest work is the anthology, Making Face, Making Soul/ Haciendo Caras, (The Aunt Lute Foundation, 1990). Her book Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Spinsters/ Aunt Lute, 1987) was chosen as one of the 38 best books of 1987 by Library Journal. She co-edited the award-winning This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983).

Anzaldúa is currently editing an anthology of essays, Lloronas / Women Who Wail: Explorations of Self-Representation and the Production of Knowledge, Writing, and Identities, due out in 1994 from the Aunt Lute Foundation. La llorona is a legend, common in Mexico and the southwestern United States, which tells of a weeping woman, usually seen wandering the countryside, who is searching for her children which were either stolen from her or killed by her own hand, according to the version being told. It is believed that the tale originally referred to Malinche, the Indian woman who bore children to Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico.

 In the following interview, Anzaldúa discusses la mestiza (a woman of mixed blood, usually Spanish and Indian) and mestizaje, the heritage of mixed blood.

Patti Blanco: The “new mestiza” which you write of in Borderlands sounds like a kind of hero. You have this litany of what she would do, as if she's a metaphor for a more inclusive and courageous society. On page 82, you write:

She puts history through a sieve, winnows out the lies, looks at the forces that we as a race, as women, have been a part of.  . . She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths. She adopts new perspectives toward the darkskinned, women and queers. She strengthens her tolerance (and intolerance) for ambiguity. She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to foreign ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar. Deconstruct, construct. She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person. She learns to transform the small "I" into the total self.

At this point in the book, it seems as though the idea of who you're describing is not the mestiza with a small "m"—the Chicana on the border of Texas and  Mexico, or the southwest and Mexico—but a kind of concept of "la Mestiza" with a big "M."

Gloria Anzaldúa: I think you're right. The use of the capital in "Mestiza" goes along with the capital in "Borderlands." If it's an actual, physical borderlands, I use the small "b." If it's a metaphorical Borderlands I use the big "B." So I think you're right; in this case I should have used the big "M." Typically, for me, the "new Mestiza" is a kind of border woman who is able to negotiate between different cultures and cross over from one to the other and therefore has a perspective of all those different worlds that someone who is mono-cultural cannot have. And because she has that kind of perspective, tiene conocimiento: she has an understanding of what's going on in all these different terrains. And so her interpretation is based on perceiving more about the different realities in this world than  someone who is just mono-cultural.

What I was trying to do is set up an ideal—this woman is a superhero, a superwoman and she doesn't exist. Yet if just one aspect of the new Mestiza is in us, then we can say, "I have that quality, too; I'm not so bad. This is a strength in me. This is a facultad. " So these are all facultades: abilities, capabilities that a person that crosses cultures and shapes/shifts identity may have in the future.

In my latest book, which is like a sequel to Borderlands, I break it down and I talk about mestizaje as it is known in the U.S ... The new Mestiza for me is a feminist, is definitely a feminist, whether she calls herself that or not. And she's different from the old mestiza because it's no longer just a question of blood, it's no longer a matter of one being Indian or black or Asian or Spanish; you may have those bloods and be raised in a white, middle-class world, or you may be a white woman but be raised in  a Chicano community. So it goes beyond just the biological mestiza… there's such a thing as a cultural mestiza. It's a kind of consciousness. But I'm also open; I just throw out these ideas and hope people will explore them and take off on them. I'm co-editing the book on mestiza consciousness and I'm encouraging people to disagree or agree or take that concept and go in other direction.

I continue to work on the new Mestiza, mestizaje, the nationalist trend that all cultures go through. And also something that I call the "new tribalism," which is adhering to one's ethnic identity, one's racial identity, but yet not isolating oneself from other ethnic communities or the white community, or even the international communities. I have received some adverse criticism for Borderlands. I'm accused of trying to return to the tribe and isolating, and yearning for this lost paradise.

Patti: Can you respond to those claims?

Gloria: Well, I think for me, la llorona typifies my reflection on the lost land, the lost homeland, because we're a people that, first of all, had an identity imposed on us by the Spaniards and then later by the Anglos. That took away our personhood, who we really were, a sense of self. Then our land was taken away—and we were very much rooted to the land, our ancestors. Now, as modem-day mestizas and mestizos, as modern-day Chicanos, our language is not permitted. When I was growing up, we were not allowed to speak Spanish in school. And then in California they passed that English-only law ...

Patti: It was passed here, too.

Gloria: Ay, que feo… and then the whole thing with the land—Indians are still being ripped off and Chicanos are still being ripped off: there's a loss—la llorona is weeping and wailing for her lost children and we're still mourning the loss of our past and before we can come to grips with the trauma, the susto, that we suffer because of all the assaults by all these different colonizers—los patones [big-footed ones]—we need to look at our history. For us to know who we are now, and where we are going, it's very necessary to retrace our steps, because we have an ethnic identity and that ethnic identity has a history.

What I was trying to do in Borderlands is retrace some of our history and go beyond just Columbus—go to pre-Columbian days and, especially, to see what the lot of the women was. So that's what I study in Borderlands. I explore the Virgen de Guadalupe and Coatlicue and Tonantizin and snake woman. It wasn't that I was idealizing these cultures because they were screwed up, too. For example, the lesbians—patlaches, which is a Nahual word—were stoned to death, as were women and men who committed adultery. And there was very much the same kind of patriarchal oppression of women then as in western culture, so it's not like I'm trying to romanticize them or idealize them. I just want to know my different roots because the only roots that have been taught me were that Columbus discovered America and that we're Hispanic and we're Latinas and Latinos. That's a very small part of our history.

So, there is a nostalgia for what is lost, especially if, as the years go by, your imagination compensates for the problems that you are having and all the anxieties and stresses. Maybe you start idealizing your childhood, for instance, and then when you return to your childhood home you see how small the house is and how shabby the windows look. So time has a way of compensating for the problems going on today by making the past a little more beautiful. I think that's the tendency with all people—there's a yearning for this innocence, this time and place of innocence. I recognize that urge, that loneliness. And so I address it.