By Shauna Osborn
How much of this truth can I bear to see
and still live
How much of this pain
can I use?
She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person. She learns to transform the small “I” into the total Self.
Judith Butler argues that “identifications are multiple and contestatory” which is a statement that both Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde discuss considerably within their poetry and theory. In fact, Anzaldúa and Lorde’s texts focus almost entirely on questions of identity. For both authors, anger and hatred begin as an external emotional reaction from other individuals which is then internalized for a marginalized body. This common act of internalization is discussed as a primary element that shapes identity. According to these authors, marginal bodies become silenced and invisible through their fragmentation by a masking of difference or/and the white washing of history/myth. Both authors recognize several ways for a marginalized body to be seen by those who would try to make such a body invisible and silent through their writings.
How do bodies become marginalized? In Sister Outsider, Lorde identifies what she calls a “mythic norm” which is found “somewhere, on the edge of consciousness.” She explains in our culture the mythic norm is identified as “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure,” and if you do not identify with any part of this norm, you know that the mythic norm is “not me.” The mythic norm is important because, “It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing.”
Not only does the mythic norm help create marginalized bodies, but it is one of the starting points for those individuals who do not reflect it to begin self-fragmentation. This succeeds in creating a self-induced silence that many individuals do not even recognize, which mirrors the silence that other members of society place on a marginalized body.
This is similar to sentiments Anzaldúa utilizes in La Frontera to discuss the beginnings of the “new mestiza” consciousness. She writes, “Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war. Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages.”
Like Lorde’s idea of the mythic norm, Anzaldúa’s mestiza has several versions of reality/norms which are contradictory and with which an individual within that culture is suppose to identify. To identify exactly with any one of them would be next to impossible for an individual enmeshed in more than one culture.
Anzaldúa and Lorde have similar answers for this problem; using identities that embrace multiplicity, even to the point of being seen as contradictory. They take “the freedom to carve and chisel” their “own face” in Anzaldúa’s words. These multiplicities in identity help combat the fragmentation that can silence and make individuals invisible. As Lorde explains, “My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition.”
Definition of self brought by self-design (and not those preordained by specific parts of our cultures) that is inclusive of all the elements of an individual is one way to resist fragmentation. Anzaldúa and Lorde are resignifying the words that identify them–Anzaldúa by claiming the “new mestiza” as her identity and Lorde through her insistence that identifying as a “Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two” is more inclusive.
In Bodies that Matter, Butler states that “Neither power nor discourse are rendered anew at every moment; they are not as weightless as the uptopics of radical resignification might imply.” Yes, power and discourse are not weightless, but they are subject to change over time. Besides this, the immediate goal of resignification is not to change the discourse of a society as much as it is to give those living as marginal bodies a way to reflect themselves in a positive light to (and amongst) themselves. Resignification becomes a way to use what in the current discourse of the mythic norm would be considered a “derogatory term” in a personally powerful way by someone within a marginalized body. The personal positive use of these terms often lead to their eventual change in connotation amongst the larger cultural discourse as well—a byproduct of the act of the resignification. The countless examples of former “derogatory” slang terms that are now utilized as neutral (even academic) terminology attest to the larger impact resignification has been proven to create. The fact that both Anzaldúa and Lorde’s texts have been so highly influential since their publication speaks to the fact that their call for resignification hit a chord amongst readers.
Both Anzaldúa and Lorde are poets who pepper their theory/prose with poetry, identified as queer and talk of the difficulties this created in their interactions with the homophobic society under which they lived, and use the straightforward language style most often associated with non-academics. The similarities show that these two authors are expressing the same concerns in many of the same ways in their work. One of the main differences between their theories on identity comes with Anzaldúa’s emphasis on identity’s connections to language and finding your identity through geopolitical space.
In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldúa states “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity” and that “if you really want to hurt” someone “talk badly” about their language, (59). By making a person’s language(s) illegitimate, you are making their ethnicity illegitimate as well. Anzaldúa enacts this theory within some of her poems, most notably in “We Call Them Greasers.” The persona within the poem, an English speaking male (most likely white), uses the Spanish terms “ranchos” and “mañana” in a contemptible, insulting way to the people he is trying to swindle out of land. Also, since within his actions in the poem we are assured he thinks of these women and men as less than human and his laughter at the fact they did not understand/speak English, we can infer he sees their language as illegitimate. In fact, in stanza three we see an actual event that shows that the language these people speak is seen as illegitimate.
Oh, there were a few troublemakers
who claimed we were the intruders.
Some even had land grants
and appealed to the courts.
It was a laughing stock
them not even knowing English.
Even with proper documentation, because their language was not seen as legitimate, these “troublemakers” lost their land to the persona. Like the unfortunate “greasers” in the poem, anyone who does not comply by speaking and understanding the cultural norms of the un-marginalized are “troublemakers.” Anzaldúa’s focus on language and place in regards to identity makes perfect sense to her readers that experience the reality of living in two or more languages/cultures. Written from a code-switching troublemaker to speak candidly to other code-switching troublemakers, La Frontera legitimizes personal experience with language in a similar way to Gertrude Stein. The major difference is the political ramifications of both Lorde’s and Anzaldúa’s work are much more overt.
Shauna Osborn is a Comanche/German mestiza who works as an instructor, wordsmith, and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2013, she received the Luminaire Award for Best Poetry from Alternating Current Press, a National Poetry Award from the New York Public Library and the Native Writer Award from Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. You can find her online at shaunamosborn.wordpress.com.