Born to tenant farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, Gloria Anzaldúa’s family had fallen quite far from their original status as deeded landholders during the Spanish Empire.
They were ashamed of Gloria’s “Cara India” (“Indian Face”) and dark skin. Worse were her illnesses. During childhood, Gloria worked in the fields, where she suffered many ailments and was exposed to insecticide spraying from which there was no protection. The litany of her health complications included an endocrine condition that caused her to stop growing physically at the age of twelve. Her mother fashioned special girdles for her to disguise her condition and also placed cloths in Gloria’s underwear in case of bleeding. She eventually underwent a hysterectomy in 1980 when she was 38 years old for uterine, cervical, and ovarian abnormalities.
Gloria would die from complications of diabetes at the age of 62.
But given the kind of mind Gloria exhibited, the family moved to Hargill, Texas, when she was 11, so Gloria could attend school. Even so, she was exposed to her own family’s racism and gynophobia. She was “other,” with whiteness and maleness having prestige in the household. This proved to her that racism and sexism can come from one’s own family and from other people of color, not just from whites.
But Gloria graduated as valedictorian of her high school in 1962. Despite punishing poverty and the open racism and sexism she experienced trying to obtain financial and academic assistance, Gloria earned a B.A. in English, Art, and Secondary Education from the University of Texas, Pan American, and an M.A. in English and Education from the University of Texas, Austin.
In response to the enormous number of antagonists and people wanting a piece of her, she created El Mundo Zurdo (Left-handed World): a sanctuary where, Shiva-like, she used a “many-armed and legged body with one foot on brown soil, one on white, one in straight society, one in the gay world, the man’s world, the women’s, one limb in the literary world, another in the working class, the socialist, and the occult worlds,” as she wrote in her essay, “La Prieta.”
Gloria knew the power of writing could create a world that would compensate for what the real world failed to offer. Everywhere she went, she met with radical poets and dramatists, learning craft, synergy, and cooperation. These abilities came in handy when, in 1981, she and Cherrie Moraga wrote and edited “This Bridge Called My Back — Writings by Radical Women of Color.”
The internalized racism and sexism from childhood on would haunt Gloria, especially when people demanded that she choose which oppression was worse. Queer, lesbian, woman, Chicana, POC, decolonizer of La Gente — all the injustices Gloria faced spread out across a Monopoly board of “Whose Oppression Is Greatest?” that she questioned how to get beyond.
El Mundo Zurdo encouraged the gaining of power by speaking truths and was seen as a way to resist and unite women of color within the feminist movement.
This approach was central to Gloria’s “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” in 1987. A collection of her essays and poems, it was another revelatory tome. Here is theory and art and shamanic experience, with explorations of sexuality, sex, symbolism, and the code-switching of languages — English, Mexican Spanish, the Spanish of Spain, the various Mestizo tongues.
Language for Gloria is a tool of resistance against the oppression of white supremacy and heteronormativity. It is a tool against the suppression of her multilingualism, her Mestiza identity, and her poet-shaman aesthetics.
In 2010, the Unified School System in Arizona banned “Borderlands/La Frontera” by enforcing House Bill 2281, which prohibited the teaching of ethnic studies in a public school system. HB 2281’s purpose was to prohibit school districts or other educational institutions from including any courses that were considered to “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” and many other provisions targeted ethnic studies programs that were already in existence.
Library Journal recognized “Borderlands” as one of 38 best books of 1987, and it was deemed one of the 100 best books of the century by both the Utne Reader and the Hungry Minds Review.
There have been many conferences, workshops, scholarships, degreed programs, and arts grants named after Gloria and her works, in which her theories and paradigms have been used. We must acknowledge that Gloria now dwells in pretty hallowed company. According to Kathryn Parker at Fordham University, “Borderlands” is one of the five must-read books for every college feminist, along with “A Room of One’s Own,” “The Second Sex,” “The Feminine Mystique,” and “Sister Outsider.”
None of these plaudits could have been predicted for a girl growing up in the Borderlands, but here she is, with a legacy that will live on and on.