Sitting in an undergraduate Chicanx/Latinx Literature course, about seven years ago, is the first time that I heard Gloria Anzaldúa’s name. I was studying under another queer Latina poet named Griselda Suarez. Griselda was part of Las Guayabas, a queer latina poetry collective based out of Long Beach, California. Other members of this collective included Myriam Gurba and tatiana de la tierra.
At the time of studying under Griselda, I knew hardly any latinx poets, never mind a group of queer latina poets. Griselda quickly became a mentor and a refuge to me. She let me know about places for latinx poets online like La Bloga and Acentos. She told me about queer literary organizations like Lambda Literary. It is because of Griselda that I was able to discover other queer latinx literary figures, first by following her and then by following the works of her friends. I remember sitting at the Floricanto Literary Festival at USC while tatiana de la tierra was still alive, and hearing her shake maracas and sing her poem “Pintame una mujer peligrosa.” Her voice then chanting “cha, cha, cha.”
I remember sitting in
the audience of Viento y Agua coffeehouse in Long Beach listening to queer punk
chicana prose from Myriam Gurba. There is a story about her, quesadillas, and
grilled cheese that I am trying to recall. There is a punchline that I’m trying
to recall, but can’t. I was so awed to see my identity reflected in these
women, to know that I had a literary community that preceded me and that I
could write from their lineages.
Before knowing about Las Guayabas, my initial understandings of the Southern California literary scene were through the drunk and sexist Meat School of Charles Bukowski and friends. Growing up outside Los Angeles, I felt like only I could only be a poet if I were writing about baseball and beer. Las Guayabas was one of the first ways that I was able to see myself and learn about the writings of queer latinxs that came before me, like Gloria Anzaldúa.
In that undergraduate Chicanx/Latinx Literature course, Griselda assigned to the class Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from the book Borderlands/La Frontera (Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987). We spoke about code-switching, bilingual education, migration and assimilation. This essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” is one that I taught years later, while at NYU. This is an essay that I yearned to tattoo onto my body, especially where Anzaldúa writes, “wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”
Anzaldúa was the
first literary pathway for me to discuss and understand what it means to be
writing in English, Spanish, Spanglish. She wrote in that essay about the
various tongues that we speak in, how we accommodate the dominant tongues and
ideologies around us, what tongues are viewed as illegitimate.
In the following years, I would continue turning to Anzaldúa’s poetry, theoretical, and editorial work to find myself. She is often known for being the co-editor, with Cherríe Moraga, of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981). This anthology included many queer poets of color such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Cheryl Clarke, and more. This anthology was one of the foremost inspirations to me when I put together my own anthology, Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, which spans nearly 100 years of queer of color literary history.
In This Bridge Called My Back, Anzaldúa published an open letter called “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.” In this letter she compels other women of color to continue writing, while explaining her own reasons for coming to the page. Anzaldúa says:
Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear… I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit… Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.
The final line of this excerpt, “I’m more scared of not writing,” shakes me awake. It reminds me of all that is at stake for women of color, and queers of color, when we do not speak up about the realities we are living in. Excerpt after excerpt, I find myself more and more encouraged by Anzaldúa to produce literature, to speak up in an unassimilated tongue. I keep thinking too, about the relationship between Marxist movements in the 1970s and how they intersected with women of color movements led by collectives such as the Combahee River Collective during that time frame as well. I am trying to better understand the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist and transnational coalition building work that women of color were doing during those decades.
As a sequel to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Anzaldúa co-edited This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (Routledge, 2002) with AnaLouise Keating many years later. This subsequent anthology was published two years before Anzaldúa passed away in 2004.
This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation is an anthology of feminist discourse written across genres and by people of various races and genders. For the preface Anzaldúa wrote an essay called “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces” in which she spoke of the Nahuatl word “Nepantla.” In describing this word, she wrote:
Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla es tierra desconocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement–an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of “home.” Though this state links us to other ideas, people, and worlds, we feel threatened by these new connections and the change they engender.
The first years that I pondered this quote by Anzaldúa, I felt attracted to her definition of the word “Nepantla.” The feeling of transience and displacement and ever shifting boundaries that the word “Nepantla” can hold, as defined by Anzaldúa, allowed a method for me to understand my race, gender, and sexuality. I was better able to see how my relationship to my identity shifted according to the various contexts that I was in. In more recent years, I have began to question this essay by Anzaldúa, both of our usages of the word “Nepantla,” and also her ideas around mestizaje. This questioning of her work is done with great respect, understanding that even in her own lifetime she framed and then reframed her own ideas. I view Anzaldúa’s work not as flawless or full of absolute truths but more so as a process of continual intellectual exploration, field blazing in an ever changing landscape. Her work is brave and vital to the continued development of the political analysis put forth so many social justice movements that I currently affiliate with.
Almost 15 years since her passing, the legacy of Gloria Anzaldúa lives on. She has passed down so many tools for us queer poets of color to better understand ourselves. The reverberations of her of work and life continue to be felt throughout feminist discourse, literary criticism, ethnic studies classrooms, the streets of protests, coffeehouse poetry readings, and in the Nepantla anthology, where I and other poets honor her influence.