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here would be no Latinx geographies without Black geographies. What I mean by this is that Latinx and Black geographies are inextricably linked, because Blackness and Latinidad are not mutually exclusive and because Black thought, experiences, history and politics, along with the legacy of transatlantic slavery, profoundly shape contemporary social and spatial arrangements in las Americas. These realities became indisputably clear for me as a Latina feminist geographer working closely with, and writing about a diverse collective of Latinx community workers and activists struggling for social justice in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada.
When I first began my research, I was hard-pressed to find literature in Geography that spoke to the experiences of diasporic Latinx people. So, I turned to renowned feminist and queer Chicana scholar, Gloria Anzaldúa, for guidance. I read Anzaldúa’s (2007) ground-breaking Borderlands/La Frontera as a geographical text that articulates a powerful, personal and historical account of living in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a Brown mestiza. Yet, her words simply could not help me make sense of the experiences of Black/Afro-Latinx women and non-binary community workers I spoke to who shared stories of constantly being seen as not belonging to the “Latinx community.” People were surprised when they could speak Spanish, would insist that they were Jamaican or that they were more European Spanish than Black if they were light-skinned. Their presence at community meetings was met with scrutiny, and their demands for foregrounding Black experiences in community organizing were met with disdain from mainstream organizations and community elites.
Anzaldúa, while offering rich, poetic and painful descriptions of what it feels like to be excluded and caught between worlds as a working-class, queer Chicana, living in a white, Anglo dominant society, just could not help me explain the specific vitriol and violence directed at Black/Afro-Latinx activists within and outside their own communities. The challenges they faced were different. They were understood as less than human, unfeeling and there to do community labour for a community that did not recognize them as kin. This reality exists because of a persistent anti-Blackness stemming from transatlantic slavery that refuses the interconnectedness of Blackness and Latinidad and this anti-Blackness undergirds and shapes Latinx societies in Latin America and the diaspora.
Indeed, there is a troubling absence of Black life, thought and history in Anzaldúa’s (2007) Borderlands/La Frontera, which has been a fundamental text in Latinx theory and Latinx Studies more broadly. I was not able to fully unpack this critique in my dissertation but was motivated to do so by Dr. Katherine McKittrick, who has made profound interventions in Geography and whose work is foundational to the field of Black geographies. During my external defense this past fall, Dr. McKittrick’s insightful commentary and line of questioning encouraged me to think more deeply about how engagement with Black Studies, Caribbean Studies and Black geographies could enrich my analysis of Latinx urban struggles as there continues to be a tendency in Latinx scholarship to elide these streams of thought.
Lately, I have been wondering, what are the parallels and differences between Black and Latinx geographies? What would happen if we read Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory as a Latinx geographical framework alongside a Black geographies framework? How could this approach make visible and challenge the erasure of Black experiences in borderlands theory and Latinx theory more broadly?
While it is beyond the scope of this piece to describe the ever-growing and rich framework of Black geographies in its entirety, I believe some of its key tenets can be gleaned from engaging with the work of Katherine McKittrick (2006, 2007, 2013) and Clyde Woods (2007, 2009, 2017). First, in their ground-breaking edited collection, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, McKittrick and Woods (2007), describe how a Black geographies framework is rooted in a Black worldview that holds alternative notions of space and place. They assert that Black communities have understood “place as the location of co-operation, stewardship and social justice rather than just as sites to be dominated, enclosed, commodified, exploited, and segregated” (p.6). Therefore, a Black geographies framework rejects dominant modes of claiming place and pushes us to imagine alternative ways of making place and home.
Second, McKittrick and Woods (2007) emphasize how a Black geographies framework foregrounds how Black and racialized subjects are not marginal, but central to the production of space. They state, Black geographies disclose how the racialized production of space is made possible in the explicit demarcations of the spaces of les damnés as invisible/forgettable at the same time as the invisible/forgettable is producing space – always, and in all sorts of ways (p.4).
In other words, Black and racialized subjects are spatial actors who are always engaging in complex socio-spatial practices and are creating geographies that are fundamental to everyday life. Furthermore, McKittrick (2006, 2007) and Woods (2007, 2009, 2017) underscore how Black women, working-class people and communities can negotiate and produce space in ways that disrupt the dominant social and cartographic order. By making this argument, McKittrick and Woods (2007) push back against dominant geographies (within the discipline and everyday sites of oppression) that cast Black populations as ungeographic and less than human—a dual oppression specific to anti-Black violence.
Third, McKittrick and Woods (2007) develop a Black geographies framework that calls for keen attention to how the past and present are interwoven and especially how the legacy of transatlantic slavery haunts our current landscape. This can be seen in McKittrick’s (2007) analysis of Nourbese Philip’s Harriet’s Daughter, a story of a Black teenage girl in Toronto in the 1980s who takes part in a game called the Underground Railroad with other children at her school. McKittrick (2007) theorizes this game as Philip situating the Underground Railroad in the present, consequently troubling notions of Canada as a site and endpoint of freedom. Woods’ (2007) theorization of the Blues is also based on connecting past and present, as he explains how the Blues is reasserted over time and space through forms of Black creative resistance like Hip Hop just as plantation capitalist relations also shift and rearticulate themselves.
Overall, both McKittrick (2006, 2007) and Woods (2007, 2009, 2017) demonstrate how a Black geographies framework is (1) grounded in a Black worldview that holds alternative understandings and desires for place, (2) concerned with foregrounding Black and racialized subjects as integral spatial actors and (3) committed to unearthing how the past and present are interconnected, especially in relation to the legacy of transatlantic slavery. In these ways, a Black geographies framework opens up possibilities for a radical reimagining of space, place, humanity and politics that leads us to a more socially just and livable future. As McKittrick (2013) writes, Black geographies are “sites through which particular forces of empire (oppression/resistance, black immortality, racial violence, urbicide) bring forth a poetics that envisions a decolonial future” (p.5).
What I aim to do for the remainder of this essay, is explore how a Black geographies framework can inform and enrich my reading of Anzaldúa’s (2007) Borderlands/La Frontera. I’m interested in pointing out key parallels and differences and critically thinking about how this approach could illuminate and challenge the absence of Black experiences in Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory.
Reading Anzaldúa’s Borderlands Theory with Black Geographies
When Gloria Anzaldúa (2007) begins Borderlands/La Frontera, she begins by excavating the histories of Aztlán – the Chicanx ancestral homeland that has been stolen and occupied twice over – first by the Spanish, and then by the United States. She writes:
“1,950 mile-long open 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 / barbwire. / But the skin of the earth is seamless. / The sea cannot be fenced, / El mar does not stop at borders / To show the white man what she thought of his arrogance. / Yemayá blew that wire fence down. / This land was Mexican once / was Indian always / and is / And will be again” (Anzaldúa, 2007, p.25).
Anzaldúa describes the U.S-Mexico border as an open wound in the earth, but also across her body, splitting her violently. Yet, she makes this border, this “thin edge of barbwire,” her home and reaffirms how her people, like the earth, sea and wind, cannot be disciplined to obey the dominant social and cartographic order of borders, fences and walls. In this way, Anzaldúa illuminates how Chicanx and Latinx people in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have a fraught relationship to place because of the legacy of Spanish colonialism, US imperialism and ongoing intervention that continues to violently displace people from their land, families and communities on either side of the border. While her writing focuses on the Chicanx experience in the Southwest, she theorizes the borderlands expansively from beyond the U.S.-Mexico border to anywhere physical, social, cultural and psychic boundaries are created that mark some as less than others. As such, the borderlands extend across U.S. urban centers, rural landscapes and even beyond the 49th parallel into Canada, where Latinx people make home despite being considered perpetual foreigners. Therefore, Anzaldúa brings into focus “the borderlands” as an alternative, Latinx geography that persists alongside and intertwined with dominant geographies past and present, specifically geographies of Spanish colonialism and US imperialism.
Anzaldúa does the difficult work of tracing the impacts of Spanish colonization on Indigenous populations in Mexico, and the effects of U.S. imperialism on Mexican mestizxs, specifically the capture of Santa Anna in 1836, the U.S.-Mexico War in 1846, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 that was not honored and resulted in the loss of Mexican land, the greed of Anglo agribusinesses, the terrorism of Texas Rangers and white vigilantes that lynched and murdered hundreds of Mexican people from 1848 to 1928 (see also Carrigan & Webb, 2003). To bear the weight of such a violent past and haunted present, Anzaldúa proposes a vast borderlands onto-epistemological and spiritual framework. She offers numerous concepts like la facultad, the Coatlicue state, nepantla, and her renowned mestiza consciousness – a way of understanding the world that requires taking stock of inherited colonial histories, examining how they continue to shape our current ways of life, rejecting oppressive traditions and building something new.
Several parallels can be drawn between Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory and a Black geographies framework. First, Anzaldúa (2007) articulates an alternative, Latinx desire for place rooted in notions of social justice and a decolonial future throughout her book, but especially when she writes, “this land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is and will be again” (p. 25). Similarly, McKittrick and Woods (2007) articulate how a Black worldview holds an understanding of place grounded in cooperation and desires for a socially just present and future.
Second, Anzaldúa insists on the possibilities for Latinx life in the most inhospitable of places, “the thin edge of barbwire,” the borderlands, where Latinx people, racialized and marginalized groups face violence and oppression, but also make home. A parallel can be drawn here to the work of McKittrick (2006; 2007; 2013) and Woods (2007; 2009; 2017) as they also foreground how Black communities employ critical spatial knowledges and practices that allow them to survive across slave and post-slave contexts. For example, Woods (2007; 2009; 2017) does this by exploring how Black communities in the Mississippi-Delta, a region at the center of the brutal U.S. plantation regime, created place, home and spaces of resistance through the Blues.
Third, Anzaldúa, McKittrick and Woods, all work towards unearthing how the past and present are interconnected, and underscore struggles for human life that disrupt dominant geographies. For example, Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory provides a framework for understanding how the devastating ramifications of 1521 (the conquest of Mexico) and 1848 can still be felt in 1987 when she first published Borderlands/La Frontera, and today through the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, femicide, accelerated deportations, indefinite detentions and the state-sanctioned kidnapping of migrant children, while Latinx communities still continue to move, organize and live. This approach can also be seen in McKittrick’s (2007, 2013) analyses of Black geographies in present-day Toronto and New York respectively, and Woods’ (2007; 2009; 2017) theorization of the Blues as a dynamic geography that resists the “plantation blocs of the world” from the 1830s until now (p.58).
However, Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory and a Black geographies framework differ in a key respect -- their starting points. Anzaldúa begins from the point of Spanish colonization and its impacts on Indigenous people in Mexico in 1521. She then links this legacy of Spanish colonialism to U.S. invasion and occupation, especially 1848, the year of the failed Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that marked the beginning of a new era of U.S. domination that would set the stage for different forms of violence committed against people of Mexican, mestizx and Indigenous descent in the Southwest and beyond. On the other hand, Black geographies as theorized by McKittrick and Woods begin from the point of transatlantic slavery before and after 1492, and its impacts on African descendant people. As such, their project is to work against anti-Black violence that renders Black people as ungeographic and less than human by foregrounding how Black communities are central to the production of space and integral to a larger project of liberation.
Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory does not directly grapple with Blackness, or Black worldviews and geographies. Indeed, the borderlands can be read as a Brown, Latinx geography, devoid of Black spatial knowledges and struggles. I say this not to be ungenerous to Anzaldúa, because I still believe her project gives a voice to aspects of the Latinx experience, but I am concerned that this absence obscures how Black geographies are foundational to the borderlands and the Latinx geographies she speaks of. For example, 1521, the Spanish colonization of Mexico, would not have been possible without 1492 and the events leading up it. As renowned philosopher, Sylvia Wynter (1995) tells us, Europeans began to colonize parts of the world even before 1492 and the Portuguese landed in what is now known as Senegal in 1441 (Columbus landed there in 1482).
This encounter led to a system of knowledge of Black/African-descendant people that cast them as idolators and stereotyped images, which legitimized their subjugation and enslavement, and was later transposed onto Indigenous people of the Americas to legitimize their dispossession and genocide. Wynter traces how the category of idolator was subsequently segmented in the New World into categories of civil slaves, for Black/African-descendant people who were understood as legal merchandise and the only legitimately enslavable group, and natural slaves for non-Black Indigenous people who were understood as nature’s children who needed to be kept as wards of the Spanish. In this way, Wynter (1995) shows how Blackness and indigeneity are placed on the lowest rungs of the racial hierarchy in the Americas, but how Blackness is understood as the extreme human Other in relation to the white European settler:
“In this hierarchy, the differing degrees of mixtures were designated as more human the more they bred in the European and bred out Indio and Negro, while the latter category came to serve as the nec plus ultra sign of rational human being” (p.36).
While Anzaldúa theorizes racial mixing or mestizaje in the borderlands, she conceptualizes it as the fusing of Indigenous, Spanish and Anglo blood lines and cultures. She briefly mentions the importance of knowing one’s “afro-mestizaje” at the end of her book, but does not deeply grapple with how anti-Blackness has factored into making possible the landscape of the borderlands and the mestizaje she speaks of, and this erases the experiences of Black Mexicans (p.108). Furthermore, U.S. occupation of Mexican territory happened within the context of a brutal and burgeoning plantation economy championed by Southern slaveholding elites (presidents, government officials, diplomats, plantation owners) who were determined to maintain and expand the institution of slavery at home and abroad (Karp, 2016). For example, the capture of Santa Anna and seizure of Texas in 1836 and the subsequent U.S.-Mexico War in 1848 were part of a concerted effort by these elites to prevent abolition from spreading (as Mexico had already outlawed slavery) and to ensure the growth of a vast Southern empire:
“In the Senate, Robert J. Walker of Mississippi celebrated the 1836 Texan victory at San Jacinto as a triumph for both white supremacy and the security of slave property. The United States, Walker proclaimed, could never have allowed Mexico “to establish a government of Zamboes and Mestizoes, of Africans and Mulattos on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas… - a people prepared…to unite with and instigate the people of their own colored race within our limits to deeds of bloodshed and massacre.” A Mexican victory in Texas, as Walker understood it, would threaten the racial and social organization of the slave states. In the decade that followed San Jacinto, this formulation came to govern all American foreign policy in the region” (Karp, 2016, p.83).
Yet, Anzaldúa does not engage with how transatlantic slavery, the plantation economy or fears of Black uprising played a role in the occupation of Mexico and Anglo oppression in the borderlands. Again, I say this not to diminish Anzaldúa’s contributions, but to make visible this erasure and open up possibilities for thinking about what would happen if we approached her work, Latinx geographies and Latinx theory more broadly with a commitment to understanding Black experiences, struggles and geographies. In other words, with an understanding that there would be no Latinx geographies without Black geographies.
Latinx and Black Geographies, Interconnected in Practice
There is still so much more work to do to take up Katherine McKittrick’s invitation to read across Black and Caribbean Studies and Latinx Studies. This essay is just a small step towards considering the many, new exciting directions our work could take in Latinx geographies if we did so. For example, what if we looked to Tiffany Lethabo-King’s (2016) compelling theorization of conquest to understand the relationships between, and struggles of, Black, Latinx, mestizx and Indigenous people on Turtle Island? What possibilities would emerge if we stopped thinking of ‘Latinx’ and ‘Black’ as mutually exclusive and looked to the creative works of Afro-Latinx scholars, writers and artists? What if we approached the work of Afro-Latina, Dominican poet, novelist and scholar, Ana-Maurine Lara (2012), or The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, with the same dedication we give Anzaldúa in Latinx Studies?
While I think it is worthwhile to understand Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory as an alternative Latinx knowledge system and a critical form of Latinx geographical thought, I believe we must do so with attention to the absences of Black experiences and geographies in her work. By doing this, we would be able to work against tendencies in Latinx theory and Latinx Studies that erase Blackness and develop Latinx geographical scholarship that resonates with the expansive, multifaceted qualities of Latinx life and politics across the hemisphere.
I believe it critically important to state here that Latinx geographies as an AAG Specialty Group would not be possible without the path-breaking work of the Black Geographies Specialty Group (BGSG), led by Dr. LaToya Eaves. Dr. Eaves was integral to getting the Latinx Geographies Specialty Group (LxGSG) formally approved in 2018 with her generous guidance and assistance, from sharing her experience, materials and moral support. With this in mind, I believe it is crucial for the LxGSG to work in the same spirit as the BGSG and be a radical alternative to the status quo. The LxGSG would do well to continue building relationships of solidarity with BGSG and other social justice-oriented organizations and movements within and outside the academy. Furthermore, it would be critical for the LxGSG to foster a culture of collaboration (not competition, or hierarchy), mentorship and activism that deeply values the voices, experiences and contributions of racialized, Black and Afro-Latinx scholars, activists and communities. There are promising conversations already happening at this very moment that give me hope for our collective geographic and political futures.
Again, there would be no Latinx geographies without Black geographies and we must honour this reality.
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Carrigan, W. D., & Webb, C. (2003). The lynching of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the United
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Jiménez Román, M., & Flores, J. (2010). The Afro-Latin@ reader: History and culture in the United States.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Karp, M. (2016). This vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the helm of American foreign policy.
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King, T. L. (2016). New World Grammars: The “Unthought” Black Discourses of Conquest. Theory &
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