- Shifting Subjectivities: Mestizas, Nepantleras, and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Legacy
Gloria Anzaldúa was a prolific writer and, as Chela Sandoval phrased it, a “theorist of hope” (xiii) whose visions for future transformations were bold and always already present in her own theory and practice of consciousness. Her inclusive approach to subjectivity radically broke with binary thinking and identification by exclusion. Anzaldúa was simultaneously a Chicana, queer, poet, feminist, writer, theorist, spiritual activist, and more. Her own experiences and theories fully embrace the fact that ambivalence is inevitable when dealing with questions of subjectivity. However, at the same time, Anzaldúa recognizes the difficulties of living this ambivalence. The famous mestiza consciousness is only the starting point in her work. This essay traces the shifts, similarities, and differences in Anzaldúa’s vision for a transformative subjectivity from her mestiza consciousness to her latest concept of becoming a nepantlera. Nepantla is a Nahuatl word for the in-between, and Anzaldúa adopts the nepantla as the precarious but only possible home for a nepantlera subjectivity (“now let us shift” 574).
These theories of subjectivity are also transformational strategies that start with and transcend individual change, creating new communities and worlds if enough people participate. These individual and collective changes may materialize through the power of language to rename and rewrite identities and personal, mythical, and spiritual histories—for example, with regard to one’s location in the conventional ethnic frame of reference or within heteronormativity. This essay analyzes the mestiza consciousness and becoming a nepantlera in their function of destabilizing and overcoming the tremendous influence of ethnic frames of reference on subjectivization. Both of these alternative, self-chosen subjectivities are located in the in-between spaces. They refuse to view and practice identities through the conventional categories of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, or sexuality.
Nevertheless, even though Anzaldúa’s visions create alternative identity locations that potentially transform realities through literary and spiritual activism, the differences between a mestiza and a nepantlera and the significant developments in her later work are often overlooked (Keating, “Introduction” 4). Instead of viewing Anzaldúa’s landmark publication Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) as the culmination of her work, I use its central chapter “La conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness” as a point of departure from which to compare her mestiza subjectivity to the theory-practice of becoming a nepantlera as presented in the chapter “now let us shift . . . the path to conocimiento . . . inner works, public acts” from this bridge we call home (2002).
The first part of this essay offers brief definitions of mestizas and nepantleras and a review of the controversies surrounding Anzaldúa’s own standpoint and her earlier work. On the basis [End Page 71] of a close reading of the metaphors Anzaldúa uses to define mestiza consciousness, I argue against interpretations of her work that see mestiza consciousness as exclusively addressed to Chicanas. Even though Anzaldúa’s early work is firmly rooted in Chicana heritage and culture, the deeper metaphorical structure already points beyond ethnicity as the defining element for becoming a mestiza; Anzaldúa changes her understanding of what constitutes an alternative and transformative subjectivity in her later conception of becoming a nepantlera. The second part of this essay offers a comparison of the similarities and differences between becoming a nepantlera and becoming a mestiza. The last section explores why Anzaldúa saw the need to change her theory of subjectivity, drop overt references to her Chicana affiliations, and adopt the neutrality of the nepantla, the in-between, as the only possible space in which to develop a nonrestricted subjectivity. The conclusion speculates on reasons for the scholarly oversight of nepantla and the popularity of a narrowly defined mestiza in the borderlands.
The following two quotations juxtapose Anzaldúa’s definitions of a mestiza and a nepantlera. In both cases, she develops alternative subjectivities that dismantle the Western philosophical and political tradition of unitary, rational subjects that base subjectivity on the exclusion of the other (Ortega 156). Regarding the changes in her later work and the differences between mestizas and nepantleras, Anzaldúa emphasizes a shift...