Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942-2004) was a visionary queer Chicana feminist, cultural theorist, writer, storyteller, poet, healer, and teacher. Her theoretical contributions have fundamentally shaped Chicanx, Latinx, and women of color feminism(s), and radically redefined feminism as a critique of structural power. Most well-known for her theories of the borderlands, ‘mestiza consciousness,’ and ‘nepantla,’ Anzaldúa’s work traversed epistemological boundaries and ontological divides of time, space, and being in the pursuit of transformative possibilities for decolonial healing. She continued to expand and develop this work into an epistemology, ethics, and practice of what she called ‘spiritual activism’ to enact revolutionary change toward social justice.
Born in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Anzaldúa grew up in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, where her Tejano family had lived for seven generations. Descended from both Spanish colonizers and Indigenous ancestry, then later split apart by U.S. conquest and the 1848 re-establishment of the U.S.-Mexico border (as it stands today), Anzaldúa’s family lineage was carved from colonial divides.
Anzaldúa began working with her family in the fields at age eleven; at age thirteen, she spent a full year as a migrant fieldworker with her family, moving from farm to farm to pick crops. While her family was socially and culturally marginalized as part of the Chicano/Tejano borderlands community, Anzaldúa was an outcast in every aspect of her life. She was made an outsider in her own family: rife with internalized racism, they considered her “so dark and different” as to be an aberration, for she lacked the whiteness they so prized in their own fair skin (1981, 198). Furthermore, she was born with a rare condition that not only caused disabling chronic pain and illness her entire life, but also stopped her from physically growing past the age of twelve. Never able to fit within boundaries of gender, sexuality, or of any identity, Anzaldúa found herself always excluded by some marker of difference, even in the margins. Such experiences formed the foundations of the prolific body of creative and theoretical work that Anzaldúa produced, developed, and revised throughout her life.
Despite the groundbreaking impact of Anzaldúa’s first book (co-edited with Cherríe Moraga), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), she is most famous for her second book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). In this genre-defying autohistoria, Anzaldúa draws from her experiences growing up in the U.S. – Mexico borderlands and uses the concept to refer to the distinctive space that is in between borders – meaning the place in between borders that are geographic, but also borders that are psychological, sexual, and spiritual as well.
Anzaldúa uses the concept of the borderlands as a way to describe a place of consciousness that is in-between worlds; or, put another way, a consciousness that is born from living within (and in-between) multiple worlds at once. Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledge of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’. A mestiza* consciousness dwells in-between worlds in a painful state of tension, caused by her perpetual navigation between a hegemonic world of white rationality and the spiritually informed world(s) of her Indigenous ancestors, where the spiritual realms that Anzaldúa intimately sensed and experienced throughout her life were ‘real,’ but which the hegemonic world had dismissed as irrational and primitive superstitions.
To heal this painful divide, Anzaldúa first disrupts the façade of white rationality’s claims to authoritative reality by exposing the dismembering spatial and temporal logics which structure its world. She demonstrates the inherent colonizing project of such logics that reduce the entirety of the world down into singular, isolated objects; abstracted from their relational context, and categorized into representations of colonial meaning. In effect, all life is cohered into relation with the colonial world. In this way, colonial logics masquerade as the rational laws of the ‘natural’ world and, thus, colonialism recursively legitimizes its own authority as the dominant ‘real’ world.
At the root of this colonizing project, Anzaldúa locates the subject/object duality of Western colonial thought. She writes, “In trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence” (1987, 59). For Anzaldúa, this dichotomy is the source of all colonial violence, as it is the originary split for every colonial division. Therefore, she argues that ending colonial violence lies in healing this split “that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts” (1987, 102).
Anzaldúa theorizes that the process of healing such dualistic thinking begins “underground” in the subconscious, where “it is work that the soul performs” (1987, 79). Because the hegemonic world of colonial violence encourages what Anzaldúa describes as “fear and distrust of life and of the body,” colonial dualistic thought has “split between the body and the spirit” and has “[encouraged] us to kill off parts of ourselves” (1987, 59). According to Anzaldúa, by reincorporating the spiritual back into the body, colonial duality would be transcended in the consciousness of self. As the world is experienced and understood through consciousness, it is also through consciousness that we interact and materially impact the world (or place/s) we inhabit. If consciousness experiences and understands the world through the duality of colonial logics (i.e., the self as separate from nature and as split into Cartesian body, mind, and spirit), then it follows that colonial duality is externalized and projected onto the world so that, in a sense, it is made ‘real’ in the world.
In this way, Anzaldúa theorizes that ending and healing colonial violence began with the transcendence of colonial duality in the subconscious, which the mestiza consciousness has the unique ability to achieve. She proposes that because the divide between worlds is a site of friction, it is “where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs” (1987, 115). As mestiza consciousness dwells in the tension of this divide, Anzaldúa theorizes that its tremendous pain is also a source of great energy that has powerful potential for transformation. Already having learned to navigate and sustain contradictions between worlds, a mestiza consciousness can learn how to transcend duality.
To realize this potential, Anzaldúa develops an embodied subconscious practice to reincorporate the spiritual back into the body. According to Anzaldúa, the body retains latent, intuitive, ‘spiritual’ knowledge and abilities that we have lost connection with due to the violence of conquest and colonization. These dormant knowledge and abilities are reactivated and reawakened during moments of shock and upheaval, which send consciousness traveling beyond the material bounds of the body and present time and space. For example, during a flashback, however fleeting and momentary, we re-enter and re-live in that memory. We experience an embodied sort of time-travel to the different time and space of that memory. Anzaldúa describes that these experiences are real and not imaginary because what is experienced in the body is real. Such “bodily and boundary violations” bring us into new ways of seeing and being in the world; they “[shock] us into new ways of reading the world” (2015, 86).
Because the physical body exists in the hegemonic world of reality (as it is materially tangible and thus ‘real’) and the spiritual world exists in the mind (as it is ‘irrational belief’ and thus ‘not real’), by reawakening the body’s latent spiritual knowledge the body reconnects with the mind as its spiritual knowledge become embodied. In effect, the self that was split (as body, mind, spirit) is now pieced back together as a fluid whole. In effect, the painful divide between the world of the spiritual and the world of reality no longer exists: the worlds have been mended back together in the mestiza consciousness. By healing this divide, Anzaldúa describes how the self generates a “third element” that is “greater than the sum of its severed parts” (1987, 102). This third element is a new consciousness, what Anzaldúa calls a mestiza consciousness, “and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm” (Ibid.).
The task of mestiza consciousness is to generate such healing: “the work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended” (Ibid.). By using artistic and creative mediums of expression, it is possible to think and imagine in ways unbound from colonial epistemological borders. What begins with the self then unfolds and weaves its way slowly, but eventually, into the collective consciousness.
By creating a “new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave,” a new collective consciousness is created, what Anzaldúa conceptualizes as “the new mestiza” (Ibid.). As a collective, plural consciousness, the new mestiza can access and create new possibilities for existence and life beyond the borders of the colonial world. As a “holistic, nonbinary way of thinking and acting,” this consciousness breaks down ontological barriers between worlds and between human and non-human life. It heals colonial divisions but refuses homogeneity and does not seek inclusion. Instead, it moves fluidly with contradiction and complexity in a perpetual process of growth and radical transformation. It is this consciousness that Anzaldúa proposes can end colonial, racial, and gendered violence. Although embracing the new mestiza is “the beginning of a long struggle,” it is a process “that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war” (Ibid.).
In her later work, Anzaldúa continued to theoretically develop mestiza consciousness and the process of change, liminality, and transformation into the concept of “nepantla.” A Náhuatl word meaning “in-between space,” nepantla describes a “psychological liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future” (2009, 322). Through nepantla, Anzaldúa creates a place for thinking and healing from. She develops what began as (the new) mestiza consciousness into an experientially-based epistemology, ethics, and practice of spiritual activism. Although its final form (2015) involves an extensive and complex metaphysics of interconnectedness, Anzaldúa’s spiritual activism remains simple in its purpose: it is spirituality for social change. “By bringing psychological understanding and using spiritual approaches in political activism we can stop the destruction of our moral, compassionate humanity. Empowered, we’ll be motivated to organize, achieve justice, and begin to heal the world” (2009, 313).
Anzaldúa’s work opens pathways for political theology to partake in this collective healing work by providing a practice-place to ‘transcend duality’ in its own thinking so as to foster a more radical approach. Through an Anzaldúan framework, it becomes clear how the divide between religious and secular is central to colonial violence, reproducing the world of conquest logic. However, the ability to reframe requires incentive or desire to engage beyond the terms and tools of colonial logic, and a willingness to remain receptive to possibilities of meaning and existence that exceed colonial comprehension and definition.
Key to Anzaldúa’s process of healing is using creative expression to think and imagine in ways unbeholden to colonial logic in order to create possibilities of existence where life can become something otherwise than what colonial violence has already pre-determined for us. This process provides a way for political theology to break beyond its limits that have already been firmly set and defined by the colonial, bordered world. It further motivates a transformation for political theology by showing that it will only reproduce colonial violence unless it refuses to adhere to colonial logics.
Political theology may fruitfully turn to Anzaldúa’s approach to ‘the spiritual’ or spirituality. Through an Anzaldúan framework, ‘the spiritual’ can be understood in ways that exceed its meaning as a colonial term, as it instead signals to the unfathomable and multitudinous ways of life, cosmologies, ontologies, and relational complexities that have been systematically eviscerated, expelled, and submerged, and which remain criminalized in the production of the colonial world (first through the ‘civilizing force’ of Christianity, then through secular scientific rationality).
This conceptualization of the spiritual reckons with (re)connection to and creation of otherwise worlds, and the possibility of life and existence beyond colonial violence. It is this sense of the spiritual that resonates with what is meant when Indigenous land defense movements call to “defend the sacred.” It is this sense of the spiritual that signals the possibility of healing, where the growth of something other than dispossession can take root, a place that can neither be defined nor determined from within the epistemological boundaries that structure the colonial world.
*Anzaldúa received criticism for her use of the term mestiza given that the word (in its original meaning) defines a racial project to create a new ‘hybrid’ race from the ‘racial mixing’ of European colonizers and Indigenous peoples (in the context of sexual violence as conquest). Furthermore, the term affirms and naturalizes colonization and Indigenous elimination. Nonetheless, Anzaldúa’s conceptualization of mestiza is not so much as an identity, but rather as the experiential and embodied knowledge of the layered and overlapping places between worlds, borders, and colonial divides. Anzaldúa’s mestiza theorizes the radical and transformative potential of this interstitial in-between space, in its generative capacity for fluid, perpetually mobile, ever-shifting creativity and non-normative thinking.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Eds. Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa. Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981.
One of the first anthologies authored by feminists of color to be published in the United States, Bridge is a groundbreaking feminist text and a definitive work of women of color feminism(s). It confronted the rampant racism of white-dominated feminism and established critical frameworks for the cultivation of feminist solidarities across divisions of race, class, and gender. Bridge radically redefined feminism as a critical analysis of structural power.
Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Anzaldúa’s first solo-authored book, Borderlands/La Frontera is a visionary, rebellious work of postcolonial cultural theory that defied academic, linguistic, and epistemological boundaries through its weaving of essay, memoir, prose, and poetry, written in a fluid blend of Spanish and English (‘Spanglish’). The tremendous and enduring influence of Borderlands foundationally reframed Chicanx and Latinx studies through an analysis of gender and sexuality, and has critically shaped cultural studies, feminist and queer theory, and postcolonial and decolonial scholarship. Drawing upon her experiences growing up as a queer Chicana in the geographical U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Anzaldúa’s conceptual borderlands describe and refer to the particular consciousness that is born from living in-between borders – those that are geographic as well as psychic, sexual, and spiritual. She develops a theory and practice to cultivate healing through a postcolonial feminist ‘mestiza consciousness’.
The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Ed. AnaLouise Keating. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
This reader presents a carefully curated multi-genre selection of essays, poems, letters, interviews, short stories, journal entries, and drawings, representative of Anzaldúa’s prolific body of work. In three chronological parts, this volume is arranged to demonstrate the constant development, growth, and transformation of Anzaldúa’s thinking throughout her lifetime. From early works such as This Bridge Called My Back (1981) to her post-Borderlands mid-life works (Making Face, Making Soul / Haciendo Caras ), to her late and final works (this bridge we call home ), this collection provides an expansive and intimate look into Anzaldúa’s life and mind, providing a deepened understanding of the tremendous and lasting impact of Anzaldúa’s theoretical contributions.
this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa & AnaLouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002.
In this multi-genre ‘transcultural’ collection, editors Anzaldúa and Keating provide new directions and possibilities for feminist thought and visionary, transformative approaches to social justice organizing and solidarity-building. Revisiting and adapting theories first proposed in Borderlands (1987) and Bridge (1981), this collection represents the development of Anzaldúa’s ‘mestiza consciousness’ into ‘nepantla,’ expanded into an epistemology and ethics of spiritual activism and decolonial healing.
Light in the Dark/ Luz En Lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Ed. AnaLouise Keating. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2015.
Published posthumously, Light in the Dark was written by Anzaldúa during the last decade of her life. She died before finishing the nearly-complete manuscript that would have been submitted as her doctoral dissertation at UC Santa Cruz. It represents the most comprehensive and in-depth development of Anzaldúa’s theoretical work.