One of the great joys of being an artist and writer is working on commissions, enlivening in paint, canvas, and word the stories of revolutionary holy women who have emboldened and inspired the one commissioning the Holy Woman Icon. Gloria Anzaldúa was on my list of holy women for a while when Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza finally gave me the nudge to paint her by commissioning an icon. Anzaldúa gave Robyn—and so many others—the framework, the bridgework, for dismantling the binaries of difference, for finding the beauty that resides at the borderlands of race, gender, and sexuality. As a scholar-activist, Robyn speaks of Anzaldúa as a patron saint, saying:
“Anzaldúa has always been for me the bridge between theory and action, and her work, both in writing and teaching, compels me to live into my vocation as a public theologian, which at root is bridging across lines of radical difference. Without Anzaldúa and without her bridging frame, I am unable to do the work that I now do. This icon offers me a visual reminder of the ways in which I’m called to be a bridge in curating communities of radical difference.”
Queer borderlands. Chicana borderlands. Feminist borderlands. Gloria Anzaldúa (September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004) was an American scholar who focused on the intersections among queer theory, feminist theory, and Chicana cultural theory. Born in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, Anzaldúa also bridged the borders of personal and academic writing, weaving together theory with lived experience, English with Spanish, and inviting readers into a new world—Mundo Zurdo—that transcended these seeming binaries.
In her book, Bordlerlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, she offers her personal experience of the oppression of Chicana lesbians, while addressing heteronormativity, colonialism, and male dominance. Her notion of a new mestiza offers a “new higher consciousness” that dismantles dualistic and oppositional forms of gender and sexuality. She introduces the term mestizaje, which is a state beyond binary that challenges Western dualism. Confronting her sexuality at the Mexican-Texas border, and within a family that internalized racism and sexism, forced Anzaldúa to build bridges between seemingly oppositional cultures and worldviews. Because of these embodied borderlands, she developed theories for the marginalities that exist in the interstitial spaces along borders.
Partnering with Cherríe Moraga to edit This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Anzaldúa names the ways in which she is often asked to choose between loyalty to women, to people of color, or to the queer community, even though they are all vital pieces of herself. In creating a new world—Mundo Zurdo—she lives into all these borders of difference, poetically claiming:
“1,950 mile-long wound
dividing a pueblo, a culture
running down the length of my body,
staking fence rods in my flesh,
splits me, splits me
me raja me raja
This is my home
this thin edge of barb wire.”
Often speaking of her devotion to la Virgen de Guadalupe, Yoruban orishás Yemayá and Oshún, or Nahuatl/Toltec divinities, she lamented that many scholars ignored the spiritual side of her work, creating yet another border between what is academic and what is spiritual. In fact, it was Anzaldúa that gave us the language of spiritual activism. Her bridges are the bond that hold together this chasm, because education without the soul is no education at all.
Though she identified as a chicana lesbian, Anzaldúa also claimed a queer identity and wrote specifically for queer communities of color. So, when Sheriff Arpaio is pardoned after terrorizing Latinx bodies for over twenty years, I think of Anzaldúa. When a group of conservative evangelicals releases a Nashville Statement, claiming that queer people are abominations, I think of Anzaldúa. When Latinas are paid only 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men, I think of Anzaldúa. I think of the code-switching necessary when shifting languages, when speaking in a heteronormative culture, or when mansplanations otherwise abound. And I think of the bridges she miraculously built amidst these differences, amidst the barbed wire that constantly threatened to tear her apart, to split her.
Supported by the bridge she built, surrounded by the desert that formed her and her spirit animal, the jaguar, Anzaldúa’s arm stretch wide enough to fill the breach. Under Yemayá’s moon and Oshún’s sun, embraced by Guadalupe’s stars, her heart cries out to us:
Bridging the barbed
beauty of borderlands with
split tongue, su corazón se
raja. And mundo zurdo
was created, a new
Do you ever feel your body or soul split in two? Does it ever seem as though you have to be one version of yourself in one space, and another version of yourself in another space? Are you constantly translating your identity in order to maintain relationships with a homophobic family member, unconsciously racist friend, or sexist workplace? When the barbed wires of this bordered existence threaten to split you wide, remember Anzaldúa. Stand firmly on the bridge of your existence. Stretch your arms open wide, embracing every piece of yourself. And join Anzaldúa in creating a new world of justice and beauty that honors every piece of our fractured souls.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the Founder and Creative Director of the Holy Women Icons Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion. A professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she is the author of seven books. As an author and professional artist, she is creating a retreat center with her wife and child on Hawai’i Island as a part of the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit.