Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24.2&3 (2003) 1-9
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"There is great good in returning"
A Testimonio from the Borderlands
Yolanda Chávez Leyva
There is a great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one's life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistibly. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them walked in them lived in them even for a day, we keep forever in the mind's eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there.
N. Scott Momaday, "Revisiting Sacred Ground," in The Man Made of Words
I moved back home to la frontera between Texas and Chihuahua in the summer of 2001, back into the little casita de piedra where I had grown up. It had been vacant since the deaths of my parents years ago. I knew living back on the border, where the divisions are so great and painful and the people so resilient and persistent, would be exciting and challenging. Returning to the place where I could say, in the most profound way, "I am who I am because I have been there," meant that I would be confronting an often painful history—my own and, in a myriad of ways, that of my people—on a daily basis. It meant that, for my own survival, I had to continue my efforts to make sense of the painful stories and to find ways to create a healing history.
I had been imagining a healing history for several years, inspired in part by historian, poet, and activist Aurora Levins Morales's essay, "The Historian as Curandera." Her advice to "make absences visible," to "identify strategic pieces of misinformation and contradict them," and to "tell untold or undertold stories" spoke to my own sensibilities as a historian who consciously cultivated ties to my communities of origin. 1
On my first night back in my childhood home, I stood on the porch and looked south toward the greenish-hued lights of Ciudad Juárez, and I felt my sister Elisa near me. Identical twins, we were born to Guadalupe in the spring [End Page 1] of 1956 in a small clínica near downtown Ciudad Juárez. Unmarried, impoverished, and just nineteen years old, our mother, Lupe, was frightened to keep us. My great aunt and uncle, Esther and Gerónimo Leyva, took me across the border to El Paso where they adopted me and raised me as their daughter in a lower-middle-class/upper-working-class neighborhood in central El Paso.
My sister Elisa stayed in Juárez with Lupe and died several weeks later of an intestinal disease, still the predominant killer of babies in Juárez. She was buried in the panteón municipal in an unmarked grave that I have never seen. Yet, because her bones lie in this earth just south of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, I know that I belong here on the border, too. Because generations of my people's bones lie buried in this earth, I am grounded to this place, the border, as a fronteriza , and I grew up to be a Chicana lesbian historian.
I left home at nineteen to attend the University of Texas at Austin. My journey was a winding road that led me to a degree in business administration, a decade spent as a social worker in the Chicano and African American neighborhoods of East Austin, and finally back to graduate school in my thirties. In my forties, I earned a Ph.D. in history and began teaching in San Antonio.
From elementary school through high school, history bored me. Yet, at home the historias of my family riveted me. Historian Vicki Ruiz has written, "When I was a child, I learned two types of history—the one at home and the one at school.... Bridging the memories told at the...