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Pat Mora’s Literary Nepantia: Blueprints for a Word-House Refuge

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 342-363 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Quien habla con refranes es un saco de verdades, who speaks in sayings is a sack of truths.

—Pat Mora, House of Houses

In Chicana/o literary studies, nepantla is both a theoretical and metaphysical border space, most famously conceptualized by Gloria Anzaldúa.1 Within this space, self and expression find new forms like the ones included in Cherríe Moraga and Anzaldúa’s co-edited mixed-genre collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981)2 as well as both of their personal autobiographical collages Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983)3 and Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987).4 For Anzaldúa specifically, the idea of nepantla guides her writing process, and it is from this space, one characterized by transition, that she produces her most influential cultural study, Borderlands, which theorizes gender, language, sexuality, and spiritual practice. When asked to reflect on her understanding of nepantla, Anzaldúa offers the following: “Nepantla . . . is a Nahuatl word for the space between two bodies of water, the space between two worlds. It is a limited space, a space where you are not this or that but where you are changing. You haven’t got into the new identity yet and haven’t left the old identity behind either—you are in a kind of transition” (“Interview” 237). Similarly, in her Preface to the collection This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (2002), Anzaldúa defines nepantla in this way: “I use the word nepantla to theorize liminality and to talk about those who facilitate passages between worlds, whom I’ve named nepantleras. I associate nepantla with states of mind that question old ideas and beliefs, acquire new perspectives, change worldviews, and shift from one world to another” (1). In Borderlands, she draws on personal experiences to theorize this liminal space she inhabits, carving out an activist-subject that takes her life in the borderlands, on the fringes of multiple cultures, and turns it back on itself, taking up a dynamic new consciousness—the New Mestiza Consciousness—to re-create the borderlands as a place of empowerment where subjects (not objects) of multiple identities thrive. While this space is ultimately a productive one for Anzaldúa, she famously defines the border as “una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (Borderlands 25). The lived experience of it is chaotic and filled with “an agony you experience [daily]” (“Preface” 238).

For Chicana author Pat Mora, nepantla represents something slightly different. While she too sees it as a middle space that presents possibilities for social and cultural activism, it is not characterized by the agony Anzaldúa emphasizes. Instead, Mora finds home in this middle region. In an interview with Maria Antònia Oliver-Rotger, Mora answers a question about what the term “border” conjures for her and how it affects her writing: “the border for me, la frontera, is a definite place, the U. S./Mexico border, that space separated by El Río Grande, those two tangled countries, the U. S. and Mexico rubbing against one another, the friction of languages, histories, values, economic disparity, attraction and revulsion. That constant tension is the geographical/emotional place from which I come.” Mora’s physical proximity to the border between the US and Mexico informs her definition and understanding of nepantla: “The land in the middle. ‘I am the middle woman, / not my mother, not my daughter.’ I had at times considered nepantla, which means ‘place in the middle’ in Nahuatl—one of Mexico’s indigenous languages—as a possible title for a poetry collection” (Nepantla 5). Instead, she chose nepantla for her collection of essays that theorizes her position as a Chicana writing at the end of the twentieth century in the United States. Although other scholars like Moraga and Anzaldúa are most often attached to the auto/biographical,5 mixed-genre, activist literary productions conceived of in the middle spaces of nepantla, in this essay I argue that Mora, through her construction of a multi-generational family home both physically and metaphorically in the transitional...



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