In her book “Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” Gloria Anzaldúa examines her land, her language, and herself through a beautifully crafted combination of poetics, memoir, and cultural criticisms. In addition to this hybridization of text, the book is written in an amalgamation of both English and Spanish. This would propose Anzaldúa’s target audience is aimed at multilingual readers, but perhaps her decision to incorporate both languages—both of her identities—serves a greater purpose. Readers who are not linguistically equipped to interpret the Spanish sections of the text will encounter frustration throughout their reading experience, some might even feel a sense of alienation. And this is no accident.
This sense of frustration felt by non-Spanish speakers ironically parallels Anzaldúa’s personal challenge with deciphering her own confused language and identity.
In her chapter “How to Tame a Wild Tongue, ” Anzaldúa identifies:
“I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate…my tongue will be illegitimate.” (80)
With that being said, one’s inability to interpret Spanish elicits the very experience that Anzaldúa communicates in this passage. In doing so, Anzaldúa allows her readers to position themselves and empathize with the Chicano people who were not able to identify with many of the languages spoken around them. Spanish is gendered, male oriented, and has a habit of dehumanizing women, which is showcased when Anzaldúa explains, “In my culture they are all words that are derogatory if applied to women—I’ve never heard them applied to men” (76). Additionally, if one attempted to speak English it is occasionally recognized as the oppressor’s language. Language plays an essential role in establishing identity, and in response, the Chicano language was created through a culmination of other languages and dialects that reflect their condition.
The Chicano language is a border tongue that developed alongside the Chicano need to identify as a distinct group of people. Anzaldúa explains that the Chicano “language is a homeland closer than the Southwest” and that “being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in” (77, 84). Identity, in this respect, begins to root itself not geographically, but culturally. Identity is a matter of practice, which reminds me of James Paul Gee’s “Discourse and Social Languages.” Gee uses the term “being-and-becoming” to characterize social identities because he determines that once you fail to practice the criterion required to be a part of that social identity, you are no longer considered such, and on account of this, there is no such thing as simply “being” apart of a social identity once and for all. Anzaldúa extends this idea when she addresses that “for a language to remain alive it must be used” (81).
Nevertheless, Chicanos still face backlash on account of the instilled belief that Chicano Spanish is incorrect. They are taught to believe their language is wrong or evokes a low estimation of self when, in actuality, Chicano Spanish is a living language that evolves linguistically and regionally. Anzaldúa writes, “There is no one Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience,” and this is reflected in the aggregate of dialects that make up Chicano Spanish (80). Consequently, many Chicanos will speak English as a neutral language, but then they are faced with fear they will be misidentified for not speaking Chicano Spanish. This is not the only issue that arises with speaking English, however. English is an imperialist language, and although Anzaldúa does not explicitly state this, it is apparent within her narrative. Anzaldúa was required to take speech classes to correct her accent which was an attempt to not only assimilate her into American culture but more importantly, to eradicate her cultural identity. Language is instrumental in how individuals learn to accept themselves and interact with the world around them. Chicano Spanish enabled Anzaldúa to feel legitimized through a connected culture, and “Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza” encourages us to recognize the significance of such.