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Creating Common Ground: Writers Anzaldua, Cofer, Mukerjee, Orange, Staples, Tan

February 6, 2023


In her essay “The Path of the Red and Black Ink” from Borderlands: La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua explains, “I write the myths in me, the myths I am, the myths I want to become.” (Find that essay plus two more here). Her poem “Borderlands” goes deeper into these myths to understand what it means to live on the “Borderlands”:

To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra española
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata
, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;

To live in the Borderlands means knowing
that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
that mexicanas call you rajetas,
that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;

Cuando vives in la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half—both woman and man, neither—
a new gender;

To live in the Borderlands means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;

Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to
resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,
the pull of the gun barrel,
the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;

In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
the border disputes have been settled
the volley of shots have shattered the truce
you are wounded, lost in action
dead, fighting back;

To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

gabacha: a Chicano term for a white woman
rajetas: literally, “split,” that is, having betrayed your word
burra: donkey
buey: oxen
sin fronteras: without borders

  • Why does Anzaldua use different “tongues”?
  • What does Anzaldua mean that we “must live sin fronteras/be a crossroads”? 
  • How can we use language, experiences, stories to build a common ground between and within us?

One way is to share our stories with each other, to share artifacts of the cultures that combine to make us who we are. Find the Cultural Artifacts assignment I use here in this discussion about “Seeing Culture.”

Literature is another pathway to building a common ground. With my college students, we read from 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology edited by Samuel Cohen including essays by Gloria Anzaldua, Sandra Cisneros, Tommy Orange, and Bharati Mukerjee as well as the essays “Black Men and Public Space” by Brent Staples (protected by request of the author),  Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Myth of the Latin Woman” and Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” which consistently land on students’ Top Ten lists of texts from the semester. Considering these authors and essays listed above, ponder: 

ACCOUNT? How do you account for the popularity of these essays? Is it the way the essays are written, the points they make, and/or the relevance they have to today? Do you think this popularity is justified? Why or why not?

AGELESS? “Black Men” was published in 1986 and “Latin Woman” was published in 1993In what ways do you think times have changed with regards to discrimination and acceptance based on ethnicity, gender, class, age, or sexual orientation? 

ACCOMODATIONS?  It could be argued that rather than confronting the fears and prejudices of the strangers the authors encounter, the authors  accommodate them.  Do you agree or disagree with the authors’ responses?

ALTERING? Comparing your experience with discrimination with theirs, consider how:
A. You made a stranger uncomfortable or they were prejudiced toward you because of the way you “alter space” as described by Staples. How did you respond?
B. You judged others as threatening or in some other way solely because of their appearance or the way they “alter” space. Were your responses justified?


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