BY DAVID BOWLES
One of the most amazing minds to arise in the Río Grande Valley was Gloria Anzaldúa, a scholar and author whose impact on Chicanx philosophy has been immeasurable. Among her many contributions is the concept of nepantla, a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning “in the middle” or “in between.”
In her seminal “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” Anzaldúa defines nepantla as the threshold regions between different spheres of existence: “Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla (is terra incognita), and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement — an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling.”
It’s fitting that Anzaldúa uses nepantla to describe this positioning of the self. After the Spanish Conquest — through submission, conversion, and outright rape — the indigenous population of Mexico was forcibly blended with its European overlords to create the mestizos and the beginnings of the modern Mexican identity. These mestizos were the first to inhabit that particular nepantla, caught between the smoldering ruins of Tenochtitlan and the whitewashed walls of Madrid.
Anzaldúa herself — like all Mexican-Americans in the Valley — lived a life in a cultural middle between Mexico and the United States. But as a queer feminist grappling with physical conditions that further distanced her from the normative mainstream, she discovered new frontiers and how to emerge beyond them, blending the disparate or broken parts of herself into a new synthesis she termed the Coatlicue State.
Amazing (if painful) insight can arise from such a state for those who inhabit nepantla and straddle two (or more) often diametrically opposed ways of being: “Living between cultures results in ‘seeing’ double, first from the perspective of one culture, then from the perspective of another. Seeing from two or more perspectives simultaneously renders those cultures transparent. Removed from that culture’s center you glimpse the sea in which you’ve been immersed but to which you were oblivious, no longer seeing the world the way you were enculturated to see it.”
Vital to those of us in this liminal space is the realization that we should not abandon it, but should instead embrace even more intersectional thresholds, shattering imposed, normalizing notions of identity and “decolonizing” ourselves as we carve out new niches in nepantla and give rise to novel mestizajes.
Such an endeavor can be found in the pages of “Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalduan Borderlands,” edited by award-winning poets ire’ne lara silva and Dan Vera. The anthology brings together work of 54 writers who further explore the psychic, social, and geopolitical terrain in which Anzaldúa lived and carried out her spiritual and scholarly quests.
The title itself is a nod to mestizaje as “imaniman” is a Colonial-era word that blends the Spanish “ánima” with Nahuatl affixes to mean “their soul” in a syncretic blend of Catholic and indigenous religious thought. It’s a perfect title for poetry that arises from both the individual and collective souls.
You can hear many of the poets whose work echoes Anzaldúa’s vision tonight, May 5, at the annual event called El Retorno: El Valle Celebra a Nuestra Gloria, hosted by the UTRGV Mexican American Studies Program. This year’s celebration will be held at Yerberia Cultura, located at 613 S. 17th St. in McAllen. Come listen to wild tongues speak their truths.
David Bowles is a writer, educator and editor. You can contact him at www.davidbowles.us