June 9, 2004
A great Latina feminist died last month. Her name was Gloria Anzaldúa, and she passed away at the age of 61 from complications associated with diabetes.
This month scholars, activists, students, writers and other community members are planning memorial services across the country to honor Anzaldua and her legacy. The outpouring of emotion after her death attests to the profound impact she made.
Born in South Texas in 1942, an area with a long history of racial discrimination and violence against Mexican Americans, Anzaldua attended segregated schools as a child. She learned English after beginning school but never gave up Spanish. Coming of age between two nations, as well as multiple cultures and languages, Anzaldua understood borders. She wrote, "I have been straddling (them) all my life. It's not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions."
Anzaldua concerned herself not just with the physical U.S.-Mexican borderlands. She explored "wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy." For her, the borderlands were physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual.
She loved words. She loved learning. She loved teaching. She became an avid reader as a child and a prolific writer as an adult. And she worked with migrant farm worker children in the 1960s and university students from then on. She earned a bachelor's from Pan American University, and a master's from the University of Texas at Austin.
She continued her own education despite the many obstacles she faced. In the 1970s, she was unable to continue her graduate education because her fields of interest were considered unacceptable. Back then scholars such as Anzaldua often had difficulty getting their work accepted by universities who did not believe that studying Mexican Americans or feminism was valid. As someone who tried to combine both, Anzaldua often met such criticism. At the time of her death, she was close to finishing her doctorate at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Anzaldua's work -- particularly her groundbreaking "This Bridge Called My Back," which she co-edited with Cherrie Moraga, and her book "Borderlands" -- transformed how a generation thought about and understood issues of identity, history, culture and sexuality.
As one of the first openly lesbian Chicana writers, she set a proud example for others to follow.
In the mid-1970s, I was her friend and student. I remember her telling me often to "be a bridge." It took me many years to understand what she was asking of me. Gloria Anzaldua believed in bridges; she believed in change.
Her legacy is a body of work that can speak to all of us, regardless of who we are.
Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She lives in Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.