Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Igualada": Exploring The Gloria Anzaldua Link Between Powerlessness and Chicano/a Self-Expression

“Igualada”: Exploring The Gloria Anzaldua Link Between Powerlessness and Chicano/a Self-Expression*

Copyright 2011. Essay presented as part of panel discussion; 2009 National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Regional Conference, South Texas College, McAllen, Texas Feb. 24-26, 2011

~Chuy Ramirez

Igualada (e gua la da), noun, F. (old-fash, Borderlands Spanish), refers to a woman esp. a Chicana who believes herself (or behaves as if she is) equal to all; typically used as a form of criticism; see afrentoza; atravesada, atravancada, chocante. If the chicana igualada is inquisitive or challenging in any way, she can also be a metiche. If she is articulate and navigates her way in English and among others, she might be a lambiache or lambiscona.

The Borderlands did not change much prior to 1968. But 1968 marks, for me, the beginning of major social, political and economic changes in the Borderlands. The national student movement, urged on by the Vietnam War, the Delano farmworker’s strike in California and a new, confident and bold generation of Chicano college students could not be overlooked by the people of the Borderlands. The Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (“PASSO”), the American GI Form and the League of United Latin American Citizens (“LULAC”) had, for several decades, advocated on behalf of Chicanos, including, the poorest of the poor, who lived in the Borderlands. But life in the Borderlands centered on agriculture, what had first attracted the commercial land owners back in the 1920s as well as the thousands of Chicanos who provided cheap labor. Agriculture needed no educated Chicanos. Farmers wanted young healthy bodies who would work for starvation wages. That was the Borderland world that most of us grew up in.

By 1968, the number of Chicano lawyers, public accountants and doctors in the Borderlands could, collectively, be counted on one hand (for those of the younger generation, ask your parents or grandparents and they will confirm this). But now, Chicanos were graduating from the local college, Pan American College (“PAC”), and a few were heading on to laws schools and medical schools and graduate schools. A few years before, Pan American College had begun graduating hundreds of Chicano teachers. These were our new mentors who provided convincing proof that any one of us had the potential to go on to college. It was only a matter of time before this new class of youthful, educated Chicanos, would begin to search for an identity and to explore politics as a means of fueling the economic, educational and social development of the Borderlands.

When I heard about the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Regional Conference to be held in McAllen, Texas on February 24 -26, 2011, I finally resolved to try harder to understand this Chicana of whom I had only read sporadically: Gloria Anzaldua. I knew she was queer (she had been telling the world forever); wrote principally for women (or should we say, women of color) and gays and was highly respected in certain multi-cultural groups. But I learned she also wrote poetry and interspersed her works with Spanish words and phrases. I had never seen that done; not effectively. On a whim, without having sufficient background, I drafted a 100 word prospectus and titled it “Igualada”: Exploring The Gloria Anzaldua Link Between Powerlessness and Chicano/a Self-Expression”. “Igualado” is a word that I have attempted to give meaning to. I used the word “igualado” in my novel-in-stories Strawberry Fields to characterize a Chicano character beset by an inferiority complex as a boy who, as an adult, continues to overcompensate. Anzaldua struck me as such a character. She was someone from my backyard. I could immediately get into her thoughts and understand her intellect. She had truly explored the multiplicity of cultures, forensically, one might argue, challenging her own original, deep-seated, cultural views. Setting temporarily aside her “Chicanismo,” she had instead focused inward on the self and had discovered a new spiritualism that allowed her intellectual growth. She learned that she must navigate all of these different ways of life, and in order to so successfully, she must have a confident sense of self. Said another way, I felt that in order to overcome her inferiority complex, she had to develop that extra-sensory perception: learn to dwell in and navigate within multiple cultures as an equal.

In the few materials I had read I found a woman willing to challenge our most sacred of Chicano totems. But, she did not do so out of spite. She was challenging us as Chicanos, each of us individually, demanding that we search inward, and grow intellectually.

I knew I had made the right choice in selecting Gloria Anzaldua the new “Igualada”. But the remainder of the title I continued to question. Should I credit her with being a link between powerlessness and Chicano/a self-expression? The more I read the more I saw her moving away from my own comfortable Chicano mind-set. But yes, I had to admit that I found the word “self-expression,” in particular, appealing. Sure, it is such an over-used cliché. But, after I read piece after piece of her works, her interviews and her poetry, I realized that it did make perfect sense. “Self-expression” represents to me, a fully-conscious, wide-awake expression. And that is rare for most of us. Intellectually I was attracted to Anzaldua’s take: “self expression” was an expression (an abstract thought) devoid of all of that cultural baggage that we have loaded onto our psyche apparatus. Imagine, by focusing on the self, on the creative self, on the spiritual self, Anzaldua rips apart all of our traditional reliance on tribal culture as our primary source of self-identity. Que huevos! I (we) can be somebody else? This is indeed exciting! Where does it all end? Finally, someone had thumbed her nose at our Chicanismo, questioned our very own construct. Sacrilegious! Why did it take so long?

Gloria Anzaldua and I grew up but a few miles away from each other in the Borderlands (South Texas along the Rio Grande). She was born in the year 1942; I, in the year 1951. As Chicanos (one of the several “tribes” which Anzaldua would undoubtedly cast herself into during her lifetime) she and I saw much of that Borderlands world from the same vantage point. Yet, she seems, at times, to have experienced that world much more vividly, more intensely and more internally than I did. Perhaps a ten year difference in age explains it. Or perhaps because as a woman—and certainly as a Chicana and a lesbian—she pained deeper and longer and saw sources of her pain which I, as a man, was blind to. Her wounds took longer to heal.

These differences no doubt help explain her intensity. But, more importantly, Anzaldua appears to have moved away more quickly than most from the view that Chicano nationalism and Chicano political activism was our most effective change tool. Perhaps her views may come in part from her inability to philosophically reconcile the needs of her primary audience (who may not be principally Chicanos/Chicanas) with Chicano nationalism and Chicano political action. Or maybe, she is indeed Jung’s “Modern

Woman”, with superior, extra-sensory perception, who sees far and away ahead of the rest of us. I suspect there’s a little of both to explain her and I have no qualms conceding that or arguing that there is anything wrong with it.

You do not come across Anzaldua’s works by luck. You must search her out, for the audience that she has spoken to directly has been to Chicanas, Latinas, women of color, lesbians, dykes, queers (her words). Hence, Chicanos (men, that is) will not readily be attracted to her works.

As St. Paul would journey along the beaten Roman paths to deliver his letters to his small congregations, so too would this often self-assured/often self-loathing woman inscribe her memos to her legions. Her works could not have been meant to have commercial value or entertainment appeal (for one, they are hard reading and intellectual) for hers were often personal thoughts, spiritual endeavors and psyche explorations. Yet, she was so certain of their significance and their power to influence that she saved and copied every speech made, every interview given, every letter written. It was essential to her that her life story and her search into the self and the ego, be told in intimate and passionate detail.

No doubt, her exposure to the racism and economic oppression of the Borderlands must have initially compelled her Chicano activism. Like all humans, she must have been motivated by the pleasure principle (why was a little girl not allowed to be precocious and cute, and why was she forced to work the fields?).

Her journey of discovery must have begun like any ethnic activist of the 1960s. I would place her own beginnings at around 1968 when she still lived in the Borderlands and was a student at Pan American College (“PAC”). I met my wife that year at PAC during a voter registration drive in the Chicano east side. That was the year before Chicanas liberated La Lomita Mission from the Convention, ran us men out, and had their own closed-door session. At that point in her life, Anzaldua must have then been first and foremost Chicana. I use that word cautiously to describe a woman who, like the rest of the Chicanos at the time, was merely searching for a positive identity. We were then all just born-again, young hatchlings searching for an identity to replace that marginalized status assigned to us and our parents by the majority culture. Having precious little within the Borderlands to grasp onto, we, the Chicanos of the times, looked toward our immediate families and toward Mexico and her culture for an identity. For the first time in our lives, we truly sought to define ourselves in a positive mode. We wanted an identity, both for us individually, and as a group. It is at the intersection of this search for the “self” and the “group” identity where Anzaldua has departed ahead of most of us.

Not unlike the tribal member who sees too many faults and fissures in his tribal customs and culture, so too began Anzaldua’s quick departure from Chicano nationalism and Chicano politics. And her departure from that initial path took her on a journey that turns ever more intensely inward, toward the self, and toward resolution of the larger questions that beset the world and its peoples. Whether it has been a mask or her snake skin that Anzaldua wanted to shed, or her shadow she wanted to look at, she seems to have spent the better part of her adult life ridding herself of the tribal baggage that one begins to acquire beginning at birth.

Tribal and Individual Unconscious: The Point of Beginning

Tribal culture is a collective unconscious wherein language, symbols and myths produce a similar or unified response from its individual members. It is essential to tribal organization--indeed, essential to tribal survival-- that the individual’s responses to certain stimuli be both uniform and unconscious. Once an individual stops reacting unconsciously according to tribal custom and culture (includes tribal myths, and in more advanced groups, religious faith), she may be the thread which begins to unravel the tightly knitted, well-worn girth that encapsulates the tribe. Thus, the role of the individual in the tribe is to unconsciously advance the cultural interests of the tribe.

For tribal members, language induces the identical response from one member to another. A facial expression, an intonation or a certain bodily gesture is as good a communicative device as the verbal statement. The decibel level of a conversation, or whether more than one conversation are carried on among a group at the same time, may indicate total disarray to one tribe, but be an acceptable, and indeed organized, form of conversation to another.

Aesthetics, bodily adornments, our mannerisms, indeed our very gait and certain deference to persons on the basis of age or gender, are symbolic of the tribal culture. Deviation, depending on its degree, may be met with criticism, ostracism or outright banishment from the tribe.

The survival of tribal religion (myths, faith) is perhaps the most critical for survival of tribal culture and hence, perpetuity of the tribe. Tribal religion may arise and survive on rituals to gain admission to, and maintain active membership in, the tribe. Even in our modern Western religions, the symbols and rituals continue to play a major role in religious identity. They are both an outward expression of faith and a confirmation of identify. The most rigid of tribal identifiers, religion survives on its ability to survive not only generational and historical changes, but

scientific innovation and modernization. For religion to continue its force, for instance, it simply cannot allow the most advanced scientist to absolutely discard the essence of her tribe by replacing myth or faith with scientific fact. She must, at all cost, reconcile both, or find herself outside the tribe. Similarly, religion is at its best when it is defending its very essence against real or imagined threats. No doubt during times of prolonged and pitched war with outsiders, the tribe regresses in its faith more intensely (to the point of even readopting discarded views) and tends to shut out any views that may threaten tribal faith.

The Chicano Psyche

By her own account, Anzaldua had, from pre-adolescence shown an effect of preponderance for challenging her socially-defined status as a “Mexican” and as a female. I contend that both of these dimensions of her status were imposed principally by her Chicano culture (as opposed to the white culture). That is to say, that at such an early age, her young life, like the lives of most of us from the Borderlands, had been exposed only to close kinship. Therefore, all of her influences up to that point would have been her parents, siblings, and extended family, multigenerational in scope that would have lived nearby. In the Borderlands of those years, we attended segregated schools up through the sixth grade. Even for those Chicanos who were Protestant, separate, segregated congregations would have existed. Any contact with white society would have been limited to a teacher. Any exchange between Chicanos and the white world would have been rare and formalized. This historical background is important to consider for I rely on it to challenge Anzaldua that the Borderlands were a colonized area. But we will leave topic for another day.

No one that I know of has described with such personal and intimate detail the psyche of the Border land Chicano as does Anzaldua. Sadly, she began her studies late in life and her works are works in progress. She admits that. In cases where she has reconsidered an earlier view, she finds no difficulty in admitting so and explaining a modification of her theories. Thankfully, there is so much that she has said about the Borderlands, so that academics can in the future more objectively evaluate and challenge her theories. For my part, her greatest contribution is to challenge the individual to look inward before looking to the group. No Chicano writer before her had done that. Initially, I wondered why a work like this had not come from a leader, someone who had made attempts at changing the Borderlands, organized the community. It is not so surprising if we understand that politics is to a large extent consistent of manipulating public thought, corralling groups on the basis of easy formulas. That was something Anzaldua was not prone to do.

The Inferiority Complex

The Borderland Chicano psyche has developed from the historical confluence of two distinct and often diametrical opposites:

(1) a “Mestizo culture and consciousness” distinguished from any philosophy or political thought; and (2) the racist and xenophobic culture of white America (and in particular, a historical element of Texas culture, set on marginalizing Mexicans and Mexican Americans).

The influential forces which these two cultures have brought to bear on Borderland Chicanos can be explained in large part by an unconscious inferiority complex. I propose that Anzaldua’s theories about ego development are relevant to address this inferiority complex among Chicanos. While Anzaldua does not use the term “inferiority complex” to describe the condition of her psyche and Chicano psyche in the Borderlands, I propose that her life-long struggle was indeed a struggle which began by attempting to over-compensate, over-achieve and overcome that debilitating complex.

This complex of inferiority, for those who have never experienced it, is not simple nervousness or shyness, or an incidental reaction to an event or a circumstance and which can be easily overcome. Inferiority is an unconscious personal identification with an externally defined status or role. As an example, a child who in the late 1940s or early 1950s contracted Polio may very well have been isolated from other children by the public schools. The child may have been placed in special classes where other children with learning disabilities were placed. Externally, society tended to lump the physically-disabled and the mentally-disabled and assured that both received a substandard education. There is no doubt that society viewed these groups as “inferior”. These children were entitled to only a mediocre education. Often, their parents may have been of limited means and could offer little advocacy for their children. A child at a very early age can feel the marginalization, particularly if the status assigned her is universal: from parents, siblings, adult society and the educational system. There is no doubt that the students who were segregated simply because of their physical disability internalized what others thought of them and could very naturally develop an inferiority complex. This low or substandard self-image and self-esteem follows the child through adulthood. Regardless of the child’s accomplishments or great success, even under the most challenging of circumstances, which could be exemplary for most, she will always carry that underlying sensation that somehow she does not (cannot) measure up.

But how does this “inferiority complex”, which we can readily understand exists in individuals, arise in an identifiable group composed of entirely and exclusively of gender or ethnicity. Is that possible? I believe that the Borderland Chicano (with the proviso that we understand that the Borderlands have been changing in dramatic ways since 1968) carries this affliction of inferiority. I believe that the inferiority complex is so ingrained in the Borderlands that it explains both the over-compensating and overachieving (as I have described in Anzaldua), as well as many of us from the Borderlands.

If it is the pre-Anzaldua Borderland Chicana psyche that we are evaluating and conclude that she has an inferiority complex, we mean that the woman identifies with her socially-defined status. Hence, she is submissive to the male, and she is submissive because that is her assigned role. She will not—in fact, she cannot for she believes herself “inferior”—seek to advance her education, her independence, indeed, cannot develop a complete personality independent of her role as “wife”, “mother” or “spouse”. This unconscious inheritance of a subordinate social role will undoubtedly continue until the individual can learn to resolve her condition.

Entire generations of Borderland Chicanos have identified with their externally-assigned roles such as peons, shiftless, stupid, uneducatable. Today, the remnants of that marginalization still exist. The result is a self-imposed glass ceiling that dramatically limits not only the individual’s development, but an entire community’s development.

The perceived lack of self-worth is an unconscious, collective tribal culture that persists because we fail to challenge our collective ancestral mindset. Research will show that the vast majority, save for a few, of our fathers and mothers were Mestizos from the lowest rungs of Mexico’s multi-class society. Most were the children of generations of the uneducated and subjugated rural poor who were landless and survived at meager subsistence levels. They understood the class system adopted from Spain, were accustomed to it and lived in the marginalized outer limits of that society. Coming to the Borderlands, they were hungry for food and for jobs (any kind of job). And in a foreign land, they were very much the outsiders who must have been amazed at the success of the white land developers and farmers. Growing up under those circumstances, we also understood we were powerless because our fathers were powerless. No man could bargain for a wage. He worked for whatever was paid him and he thanked God for that. As a boy or girl, we internalized what we observed. Anzaldua tells us “deconstruct that world”!


Anzaldua tears at the Chicano tribal collective unconscious. Hers is a process of deconstructing tribal behavior by deconstructing tribal culture. For her, there is a “before” and “after”. Before deconstruction, our behavior is consistent with our ancestral teachings. So, the roles of men, women and children have been traditionally defined, for better or for worse, consistent with the tribal needs and with the construct created for us by the majority of culture. There is a place for everyone and everyone in its place. There is no deviation from the normal beliefs and behavior. Deviation from the norm is characterized as “abnormal” or “deviant” behavior which is often initially explained as illness or a temporary lapse in judgment.

The Path of Conocimiento

Do not ask Anzaldua for answers to the macro-issues of the world you live in. Anzaldua is at her weakest when she attempts to summarize for us her perception of that world:

“At the crack of the change between millennia, you and the rest of humanity are undergoing profound transformations and shifts in perception. All, including the planet and every species, are caught between cultures and bleed-throughs among different worlds—each with its own version of reality. We are experiencing a personal, global identity crisis in a disintegrating social order that possesses little heart and functions to oppress people by organizing them in hierarchies of commerce and power—a collusion of government, transnational industry, business and the military all linked by pragmatic technology and science voracious for money and control”.

Her prose is cold and dialectic. The foregoing litany is a convoluted attempt at simplifying a world-order. It is confusing rhetoric even if you can explain what she means. I think I understand her and feel her discomfort with the subject. But, when she talks to you and to me, as human beings, with her poetry, her words are inviting and flow with such clarity. That is her realm. We are swept by her emotions. When the individual “l” is indeed left alone to “swallow air” and allow the “primal senses to flare open”, without any external force defining for him or her, a path of righteousness, then, Anzaldua is at her best. And so are we. That’s the Anzaldua that I would have loved to have met. For it is her “visual intuitive sense” that each humano can/must experience in order to “startle…[himself/herself] out of tunnel vision and habitual patterns of thought”. How much clearer can her poetry read? Tira a loco la vibora (discard Anazaldua’s snake imagery, if you wish), but note, “conocimiento” (or a flared-open consciousness,” your personal, unencumbered-by-unconscious cultural-baggage, conscious and psychic awakening) and imagine if you will: without the benefit of an expensive psychotherapist-- you, the individual you-- aided by nothing other than your “intellect of heart and gut”, after endless, perhaps hundreds of hours of thought, spiritual thought, can finally break out “of your mental and emotional prison”. You now understand (as a woman, as a Chicana/o, as any person whose status has been delegated to a marginalized role that you can “challenge official and conventional ways of looking at the world, ways set up by those benefiting from such constructions”.

You, the individual, can now “scrutinize and question (both) dominant and ethnic ideologies and the mind-sets their cultures induce in others. And, putting all the pieces together, you (can actually) re-envision (re-invent) the map of the known world, creating a new description of reality and scripting a new story (for yourself)”. Finally, at some point, you are jarred “out of the cultural trance and spell of collective mind-set”. Your inferiority complex is beginning to disappear.

There is no political mind-set which Anzaldua can advocate because to do so would be to advocate a collective mind-set. The success of her teachings in fact lies in the failure of any political system. For political power exists by virtue of the individual sacrificing the intellect for the collective (and often unconscious) goals of the party. Anzaldua’s multiple levels of conocimiento are reached and experienced by the individual at different times. True conocimiento contradicts the existence of a political movement.

Call it what you wish, Anzaldua urges the individual to discard the unconscious baggage that both Chicano culture and white culture have imposed on you. Wow! Is that not but the road to alienation? No, for she suggests that you discard the “baggage” only, not all that you are. Once you have released the baggage you make space for a new awareness. For us men, our baggage includes how we see our spouses and our daughters: do we continue to unconsciously marginalize them? How much do we live within that ancestral mindset? Anzaldua is someone you keep by your nightstand, like your Bible, to keep reminding you that there is a better you somewhere inside of you.

Welcome to the Chuy Ramirez Blog

Works of Fiction:

Strawberry Fields, A Book of Short Stories

Toy Soldiers-to be released

Joaquin's Journey-to be released


Altering the Policy of Neglect of Undocumented Immigration from South of the Border, Vol. 18 in 1983

Igualada: Exploring The Gloria Anzaldua Link Between Powerlessness and Chicano/a Self-Expression



Chuy Ramirez at STC Pecan Library Campus