RELIGION, GENDER, RACE, AND NATION IN CONTEMPORARY CHICANA NARRATIVE
By Theresa Delgadillo
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Theory of Spiritual Mestizaje
Nuestra alma el trabajo, the opus, the great alchemical work; spiritual mestizaje, a "morphogenesis," an inevitable unfolding. We have become the quickening serpent movement. — Gloria Anzaldúa
A new mestiza consciousness cannot be achieved without it, yet "spiritual mestizaje" is named only once in Gloria Anzaldúa's seminal work Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). As the epigraph demonstrates, the term is synonymous with transformative genesis in Anzaldúa and closely associated with the figure of the serpent, a creature much maligned in the Christian tradition, but often sacred and revitalizing in indigenous worlds. This meta phorical description locates spiritual mestizaje at the center of Anzaldúa's autobiographical, historical, theoretical, and poetic text about personal and social transformation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Here the writer works her own experience of spiritual, social, emotional, and intellectual journeying to theorize the significance of the U.S.-Mexico border in the creation and potential of the Chicana subject, particularly the queer Chicana subject. In this work, Anzaldúa develops a theory and method of spiritual mestizaje capable of guiding the Chicana subject toward a heightened consciousness of justice that is also an em bodied one. This state is one out of which the new paradigms of social relation that Anzaldúa imagines might be enacted. What is this powerful and life-changing process named spiritual mestizaje? It is the transformative renewal of one's relationship to the sacred through a radical and sustained multimodal and self-reflexive critique of oppression in all its manifestations and a creative and engaged participation in shaping life that honors the sacred. My work examines the significance of this critical mobility, lived and imagined at the border, as a key critical intervention in recent scholarship.
Anzaldúa's innovative theoretical contributions and her instantiation of new narrative forms have been widely influential in studies of subjectivity, consciousness, language, spirituality, gender, religion, sexuality, literature, history, feminism, activism, culture, and cultural change. Born of the U.S.-Mexico border, Borderlands/La Frontera has been received throughout the hemisphere and the world as a text that addresses new global realities, advancing our understanding of many aspects of the cross-cultural exchange increasingly characteristic of contemporary society. Her theory of spiritual mestizaje, however, remains underexamined, prompting my interest in fleshing out its place in Borderlands and This Bridge We Call Home, and considering it in relation to other theories and theologies that pair mestizaje with spirituality. The shape and significance of this process in Anzaldúa's work are the subject of this chapter; subsequent chapters will enlarge upon spiritual mestizaje in an analysis of eight Chicana narratives that enter into the space opened by Anzaldúa's queer, feminist, and border theorizing on spirituality. These narratives include both fictional and documentary texts that are significant for the forms they invent, the arts they employ to tell particular stories, and their meaning in the world outside of the text. My discussion of them derives from my interest in the imaginative use of language and narrative technique and the social practice of imagination—what some would call literature's political unconscious and others would call its ability to speak to us about our worlds. In these fictional and documentary narratives, to imagine spiritual mestizaje is in some ways to enact it. This participation in the creation of new forms of consciousness—a route toward new ways of thinking and being in the world—is not unique to Chicana literature and film, but the narratives themselves are beautifully unique and compelling.
Anzaldúa's instantiation of a new narrative form—autohisteoría—in Borderlands/La Frontera also merits further examination, particularly as it converges with and differs from the Latin American testimonio form. Since both forms factor into the theory and method of spiritual mestizaje, this analysis is a necessary step in the creation of a framework for reading what occurs in Chicana texts that engage religion and spirituality. The Chicana narratives that I will address include Denise Chávez's Face of an Angel (1994), Demetria Martínez's Mother Tongue (1994), Norma Cantú's Canícula (1995), Judith Gleason's and the Feminist Collective of Xalapa's Flowers for Guadalupe (1995), Lourdes Portillo's Señorita Extraviada (2001), and Kathleen Alcalá's borderlands trilogy: Spirits of the Ordinary (1998), The Flower in the Skull (1999), and Treasures in Heaven (2000). A Borderlands ethos emerges in these texts in their testifying, historicizing, critiquing, and imagining of the past, present, and future on the U.S.-Mexico border. The spiritual realm and spiritual work figure centrally in that ethos and in each of these narratives. Indeed, as contemporary texts, these novels and films speak to the growing "spiritual inventiveness" that many have observed in contemporary society. My discussion of these texts begins with those that imagine the nexus of religion, gender, race, nation, and sexuality in individual contexts, then moves to those that imagine this nexus in the register of the communal, and ends with those that focus on these intersections in broader social contexts. Taken together, this selection of Chicana narratives portrays a spiritually pluralist borderlands that is also (of course, since this is what pluralist societies demand) the site of difficult negotiations.
Throughout this work, I employ terms that require a critical caveat, specifically the terms religion and spirituality, especially when used in relation to indigenous rituals and beliefs. "Religion," as Tomoko Masuzawa notes, exists as a Christian and Western category of thought and social relations that is widely imposed upon societies for which the term holds no meaning or is retroactively applied to societies in the past that bear no resemblance to Christian or Western society. Talad Asad illuminates the mechanisms by which "religion" has become a prevailing concept in the West for categorizing certain kinds of human behavior or social relations and for furthering the presupposition that religion is universal, but differs from place to place in values, rituals, and symbols. Asad argues that this approach has obscured the relationship between religious discourses and relations of power as well as the ways that religion overlaps with contemporary national identity in the West (through his discussion of the British government's response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie). In some respects, "spirituality" is similar, and shares origins with "religion"; however, the former has entered the contemporary lexicon as a signifier of non-Western belief and life systems and non-institutional or organic forms of engagement with nonmaterial realities. Therefore, in this book I generally employ the term religion to refer to organized, institutionalized, traditional religions in Western thought and the term spirituality to refer to non-Western and non-institutional forms of relation to the sacred.
In Borderlands spirituality informs the theorization, in the narrative section, and imagination, in the poetry section, of the psychic, intellectual, emotional, discursive, and material components of a process that can shift the borderlands from a world of "isms" to a more just order. Anzaldúa emphasizes the development of a spiritually informed critical awareness and its employment rather than the achievement of a prescriptive consciousness. This unique and radical contribution to feminist thought departs from the search for resolution to the conflict of gender, sexuality, and institutional religions. More importantly, it insists not on epistemic privilege but on unceasing epistemic inquiry.
Spirituality denotes, on one hand, a connection to the sacred, a recognition of worlds or realities beyond those immediately visible and respect for the sacred knowledge that these bring and, on the other hand, a way of being in the world, a language of communication and interrelation embodying this understanding and one's response to it. A transculturative process, Anzaldúa's spiritual mestizaje demands the recognition, assessment, and critique of the paradigms that, woven together, have colonized the borderlands and the Americas. Queering spirituality creates a vehicle for the mestiza body and self to combat and surpass oppressions. The Borderlands perspective begins to disentangle the religious, racial, gender, sexual, and national conceptions—where, for example, one's ethnicity determines one's religion, or one's religion determines one's sexuality—that have contributed to this colonization. Because intellect and rationality, psyche and spirit, and the body and the material are subject to these paradigms, and interrelated, spiritual mestizaje involves all of these spheres in the reconfiguration of individual and collective social relations and subjectivities. For Anzaldúa, spirituality is distinct from organized religion and describes both an ethics of recognizing multiple ways of knowing and a specific acceptance of a nonmaterial sacred realm present in the world. A multilayered text, Borderlands works its way through these varied discourses, centering the negotiations that Anzaldúa's queer Chicana self and body must engage and thereby advancing a theory of Chicana subjectivity rooted but not fixed in the experience and epistemology of the U.S.-Mexico border and of queer Chicana feminists.
The many scholars and readers who have found in Anzaldúa's theory of the borderlands a paradigm through which to think about other encounters, literary or material, between divergent cultures have drawn from the powerful ability of Borderlands to address both the conditions and conceptions specific to the border between Mexico and the United States and its ability to represent in microcosm, in the age of globalization, the conditions of the world and its peoples. Writing about the ways in which Borderlands has been received, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano observes that some readings of this theory of difference ignore the specific conditions, histories, and identities that the text addresses—the very difference it asserts—and cautions against such "appropriative readings" whether they come from those seeking to theorize and understand difference across borders or from those working to understand identity in a postmodern context. Yet Yarbro-Bejarano rightly situates Borderlands as a work that "exemplifies the articulation between the contemporary awareness that all identity is constructed across difference and the necessity of a new politics of difference to accompany this new sense of self." Chela Sandoval places the work's theory of differential consciousness alongside the work of Frantz Fanon, Cherríe Moraga, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Emma Pérez, and Trinh T. Minh-ha in an analysis that brings these varied perspectives into conversation. The two levels of work in Borderlands—the elaboration of a specific difference and a more abstract theory—remain tightly interwoven throughout the text and apply to the cultivation of new levels of consciousness about the material, social, and conceptual frameworks through which we define ourselves. In Anzaldúa's work, and here, consciousness is not confined or limited to the mind/rational, but is instead an awareness that can be experienced in varied modes. Borderlands and the other Chicana narratives under discussion in my project must also be situated within an evolving body of Chicana feminist work and queer Chicano/a literature from 1969 to the present that began in small community and academic publications and now garners international attention and includes national and international publications. For that earlier generation of Chicana feminists, a confrontation with prevailing religious systems was necessary to the project of securing gender equality, and their efforts reverberate here and in other Latino/a feminist writing, art, theorizing, and activism.
Many have commented on the elision of lesbianism in Borderlands, the failure to recognize both the text's grounding in queerness and the work it does in situating Chicano/a queerness at the center of transformative thought and action, which, indeed, remains an oversight in many assessments of Anzaldúa's work. As a theoretical work, Anzaldúa's Borderlands might be read as visionary or utopian; what both perspectives recognize in her theory is the emphasis on future possibilities. The aspect of Borderlands that remains still in the shadows, and that this book engages, is its spirituality, which is not unconnected to its queerness or its forward-looking perspective.
The Serpent Movement of Spiritual Mestizaje
Spirituality informs every aspect of the work that Borderlands performs with respect to subjectivity, epistemology, and transformation, including its consideration of inherited and invented practices honoring the sacred, recollection of home-centered religious rituals and healing ceremonies, descriptions of out-of-body experiences, research on and contemplation of the significance of indigenous deities, and exploration of love, compassion, and justice in addressing social inequalities. In this light, it is plain that Anzaldúa does not employ the unique term spiritual mestizaje to designate a particular practice or belief, but instead names and theorizes a critical mobility through which one might gain a new mestiza consciousness. In Borderlands, she states:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.
We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the gods. In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us crazy constantly, but if the center holds, we've made some kind of evolutionary step forward. Nuestra alma el trabajo, the opus, the great alchemical work; spiritual mestizaje, a "morphogenesis," an inevitable unfolding. We have become the quickening serpent movement. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Spiritual Mestizaje by Theresa Delgadillo Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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