Saturday, 22 December 2012

Within and Between Worlds: Crossing Borders with Chicana Literature

By the 1980s, Chicana[1] writers became a powerful force that has influenced the mainstream literary canon of the United States and inspired women all over the world. Chicanas mainly deal with issues such as domestic violence, patriarchal society and fixed traditional role models, no access to education, sexual harassment and rape, poverty, discrimination and oppression, occupation of the motherland, migration, etc. These topics are not only relevant within their own communities and the American society, they build connections across borders. With their literature they break the silence and encourage women's voices to be heard as well as respected by everybody. Chicanas are women with a Mexican ancestry who are born or raised in the United States of America. The term “Chicanas” especially emphasizes that they are women with a political awareness. Consequently, Chicanas use their writings as a tool for self-determination and political resistance. They find strategies to free themselves from the shackles of the past and suppressing myths. Within this process, they overcome metaphorical borders to create a hybrid identity and teach others about how to be a new kind of human being.

The border as a key theme in Chicana writings is related to the transition in the discipline of American Studies - from a static and unified American identity definition to a viewpoint that allows multiple positions to emerge and therefore includes minority literature into the discourse. Thus, the border has become a contact zone, where previously separated groups encounter, and produce a new hybrid culture. The border between Mexico and the United States underlies two different concepts: Native Mexicans, who are the original inhabitants of the Southwest, view the border territory as their ancestral homeland, whereas for new immigrants from Mexico, the border is a line they cross when migrating up north to escape poverty.
Even though the United States won the Mexican-American War and took over parts of Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, the Southwest is even nowadays culturally closer to Mexico. As many Mexicans became exiles in their own home, the reconstruction of American history has become a major concern of Chicanos. Due to mobility and the proximity to Mexico, Mexican Americans keep strong cultural ties to their native land and preserve their values as well as Spanish language. It has not been easy for Chicanos to adapt to the melting pot myth because their heritage straddles two countries and therefore consists of two traditions. On the one hand, this can be seen as “enriching for the bicultural individual,” but on the other hand, this can also be a painful state of being.[2] Often Chicanos do not fully fit in here, neither over there. Consequently, they are caught “within and between worlds” – an unknown land and labyrinth where many people might get lost.[3]

Chicana writers suggest a way out of this labyrinth by crossing several metaphorical and psychological borders in the process of constructing an individual dynamic identity. Their literature is a form of resistance not only towards racism of the dominant American society, but also towards sexism within the oppressed Chicano community. Furthermore, these writers practice feminism on the border and, thus, move beyond national borders and ethnic identities because they unite with other women of color. Their movements not only show solidarity towards Third World women in the United States, but also towards oppressed women in other countries of the world.

As an example, Gloria Anzaldúa was one of the first ones to give account of her own autobiographical experience at the intersection of cultures and the contradictions of life on the borders. Her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza[4] is a theoretical and poetical study in which the border not only presents a theme, it has also produced new narrative forms such as hybrid genres. Anzaldúa mixes prose and poetry, autobiography and essay, myth and history, as well as English and Spanish, thus, creating her own literature, culture and language. Her book further deals with her struggle of the national border as a real geographical place and the multiple racial and sexual borders that are related to it. Furthermore, she reinterprets Mexican social myths, such as la Virgen de Guadalupe, la Malinche and la Llorana in order to overcome male/female duality and bring about social change. Through writing, Anzaldúa makes meaning out of her experience and transforms her state of psychic unrest of living in the Borderlands into a New Mestiza Consciousness – a consciousness that entails a political, feminist and social awareness.

Among other literature, the short stories “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros[5] and “The Cariboo Cafe” by Helena María Viramontes[6] build on Anzaldúa’s theories. Both of them reinterpret the legend of la Llorana and transform her from a powerless and suffering weeping woman into a strong and powerful figure that is able to fight against social injustice. This shows that Chicana writers draw their strength and inspiration from their pre-Columbian Aztec history by reinterpreting Mexican mythological figures. Cisneros analyzes border crossings from the perspective of a Mexican female immigrant who marries a Mexican American and moves to Texas. Viramontes’s strategy is to expose the political power of the United States and to extend her story into the lives of women and children in Central America as well as into the life of illegal immigrants in the United States.

Both Viramontes and Cisneros exercise social criticism that is still relevant today. Even though traditional values in Mexican society have been changing in the last years and many women work, domestic violence still seems to be prevalent in society. As mass media still produces the traditional submissive female role model, especially in famous telenovelas, many Mexican women as well as Chicanas are not able to change the dominant discourse and therefore submit to their expected role. This is why it is important to create an awareness that understands physical abuse as a moral degradation and educate women regarding this topic. Furthermore, migration from Third World to First World countries in the hope of a better life, material wealth and escape from repressive regimes, is also a critical topic nowadays. Because of limited education and knowledge, many people get disappointed since they continue a life in poverty at the margins of society, although they are in a rich country. Consequently, the struggle for social justice will continue and there will be more literature that serves as political intervention and the education of people.

Furthermore, globalization takes the experience of immigrants beyond the border between the United States and Mexico as the collision of cultures becomes a reality everywhere in the world.[7] In the preface of The Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa hints at the international perspective of Chicana theories when she writes, “The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest.” As the New Mestiza Consciousness allows connections across nation, race, culture, class and gender, many people can relate to this theoretical model.

The history of Chicanos proves that a flexible identity was essential to survive times of conquest, colonialism and domination as well as discrimination in the main society. However, this skill becomes relevant for every world citizen today because the concept of a geographical home territory within a homogenous culture is in times of globalization, mobility and hybridization untenable. Chicanas give an example of an intercultural approach that promotes harmony within diversity, equal opportunities despite differences, and integration due to the notion of cultural hybridity. Instead of shutting out what is unfamiliar, individuals can learn from theories that constitute the Mexican American Borderlands as an alternative third space where communication between cultures and negotiations of identities create new meanings.

Honoring the differences of human beings instead of judging them due to their race, skin color or nationality might cross borders and create a bridge among peoples and worldviews. Chicanas are activists who take their fate in their own hands rather than waiting for things to happen. They have learned strategies of how to feel happy and not torn apart by all the different identities they inhabit and the issues they face. Instead, they influence others and inspire them to create a better future. Finally, Chicanas enjoy being the creator of something new and feel “honored to travel within and between worlds, like dancing light – asking others to follow, to lay down their swords and allow transcendental qualities of humanity help them find both peace and justice.”[8]

Nicole Staiger

(1420 words)

[1]                                              There is a distinction of gender in the Spanish language. Thus, Chicana is the feminine and Chicano the masculine form. The word Chicano also refers to both genders.
[2]                                                              Mermann-Jozwiak, Elisabeth. Postmodern Vernaculars: Chicana Literature and Postmodern Rhetoric. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. 15-16.
[3]                                                              Alvarez, Julia. "Gloria Anzaldúa, Que En Paz Descanse (Introduction to the Third Edition." Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. Third Edition ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007. n.p.
[4]                                                              Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The ?ew Mestiza. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
[5]                                                              Cisneros, Sandra. "Woman Hollering Creek." Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1991. 43-56.
[6]                                                              Viramontes, Helena María. "The Cariboo Cafe." The Moths and Other Stories. 2nd ed. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1995. 65-79.
[7]                                                              Alvarez, Julia. "Gloria Anzaldúa, Que En Paz Descanse (Introduction to the Third Edition." Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. Third Edition ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007. n.p.           
[8]                                                              Martínez, Renée M. "Del Puente Al Arco Iris: Transformando De Guerrera a Mujer De La Paz - From Bridge to Rainbow: Transforming from Warrior to Woman of Peace." This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. 42-50.

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