Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 39-58
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Violence in the Borderlands
Crossing to the Home Space in the Novels of Ana Castillo
Kelli Lyon Johnson
To survive the Borderlands
You must live sin fronteras,
be a crossroads.
The characters in Ana Castillo's novels inhabit borderlands. Mixed in identity, nationality, race, and language, these characters signify the border culture between the United States and Mexico that is embodied in the Spanish and Indigenous mezcla that resulted from the colonization of the "New World." Gloria Anzaldúa defines a borderland as "a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.... in a constant state of transition," and she argues that within this borderland, the "prohib- ited and forbidden are its inhabitants." In the novels of Ana Castillo the metaphor of border crossing aptly describes the way violence intersects with gender, nationality, and sexuality. Mestizas who cross borders suffer violent consequences—social, political, and above all sexual. Throughout her fiction Castillo's male characters use violence to control women's sexuality and to avenge its violation by other men, imposing and enforcing women's place—both the physical space women inhabit and the psychological and social space by which women are defined. Women's place is therefore socially constructed through violence.1
Castillo, however, rejects the violent patriarchal imposition of borders; in her work, borders become what Homi Bhabha describes as "the place from which something begins its presencing." It is these new "in-between spaces" that "provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood, singular or communal." In Castillo's novels, collaboration and connection among women result in a place where "the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, [End Page 39] community interest, [and] cultural value are negotiated," home spaces of political involvement where la mestiza can resist oppression and violence. New terrain—a home space—can only be explored by crossing borders and risking the male violence that enforces them. La travesía—the crossing—is dangerous but remains the means by which women can arrive at their home space and escape male control and violence. Instead of accepting borders as a means of male control, Castillo broadens the sense and power of border crossing to create a space for women free of economic, physical, sexual, and psychological violence, while rejecting women's traditional place/s. By crossing borders, Castillo's female characters lay siege to traditional codes of masculinity and femininity in Chicano culture and to the violence that enforces gendered spaces. In Sapogonia, The Mixquiahuala Letters, and So Far from God, Castillo uses crossing as a metaphor for female agency, and constructs between and among the many borders that constrain mestiza existence a home space of political involvement.2
These three novels interrogate the relationship between borders and violence. In Sapogonia Castillo establishes on the first page her engagement in the contested geography of borders and their concomitant violence. The eponymous country is a "distinct place in the Americas where all mestizos reside, regardless of nationality, individual racial composition, or legal residential status—or perhaps because of these" (1). Cleaved by civil war, Sapogonia is the place mestizo/as are "relegated to" when "any acknowledgment of indigenous American ancestry" is made (2). It is a country "not defined by modern boundaries" because, for mestizo/as, Sapogonia is a place they carry with them (3). The main character of the novel is Máximo Madrigal, a displaced Sapogón whom Castillo calls an "anti-hero... a man who celebrates his own strength and bold exploits" (n.p.). According to Roland Walter, Castillo "uses this male protagonist and his experience to render an image of the border subject's estrangement from his natural roots." Castillo similarly depicts alienation from mestizo/a roots in The Mixquiahuala Letters, in which the main character, Teresa, exists between the United States and Mexico through her inability to settle in either place. Like Sapogonia, Mixquiahuala is a mythical place, one Teresa visits...