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Una lucha de fronteras/A Struggle of Borders
Because I, a mestiza,
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio.
Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan
(Anzaldúa, 1990, p. 377)
This essay is an exploration of the concept of reflexivity. Specifically, it examines what reflexivity might look like for research grounded in a borderlands epistemology. I argue that reflexivity in the borderlands can be understood through Anzaldúa’s metaphor of the nahual, the shapeshifter. I suggest nahualismo as a way to think about identity and situated knowledge.
I did not read Anzaldúa or any of the Chicanx Feminist writers until I encountered them three years into my PhD through a free workshop offered by Poder Afro y Abya Yala Fuerza Feminista, very much removed from the institutional contexts of the university. Encountering Anzaldúa was transformational – I cannot recall any other author who so clearly articulated my fears, frustrations and sense of being unanchored. I read Anzaldúa’s work as I was preparing my background readings for my comprehensive exams and beginning to structure my research proposal. I was excited by borderlands epistemology. I wrote this body of work into the core of my research proposal, and have now realized that in doing so I have committed to undergoing a deep examination of not only my research topic, but also myself. This examination has caused discomfort, which I unpack using Anzaldúa’s reference of the figure of the nahual.
My research is a community-based action project that builds networks of knowledge and skill to create health and mental support spaces in the Latinx community in Toronto, Canada. Others have pointed out that my roots in Mexico, and my personal ties to my research topic and organization with which I am working are things I should watch out for, because I am maybe ‘too close’ to my own research context. In addition, any potential criticisms of my research project from within the Latinx community feel like personal criticisms. Academic mentors have suggested that I approach any criticism with intellectual curiosity ‘as researcher’, yet this seems impossible when criticism is tied up with friendship and my sense of belonging to a community.
Positionality and reflexivity were discussed extensively by feminist geographers in the 1990’s (Gilbert, 1994; Katz, 1994; Kobayashi, 1994; Nast, 1994; Rose, 1997). Kobayashi writes that feminist geographies have reached a ‘reflexive turn’, noting that reflective research has become “the approach of choice” in feminist geography journal Gender, Place, and Culture (2003, p. 347). Reflexivity in feminist geographies is not just an exercise of listing the names of the categories that describe the identities we may be labelled with. Instead, reflexivity involves reflection on one’s goals, on the limitations of one’s approaches, reflections on how one defines one’s ‘field’, and an awareness of how we change as we move through social spaces.
Within scholarship grounded in Chicana Feminist Theory, identity forms such a central part of the mestiza consciousness, and a number of authors have written extensively about research from the point of view of Latinx or Chicanx scholars researching ‘their own’ communities (Alarcón, 1990; Cahuas & Levkoe, 2017; Flores Carmona, 2014; Moya, 2002). There is thus a large body of literature to draw on to build a concept of reflexivity that attends to the geographic specificities of a Borderlands context and Latinx or Chicanx researchers.
Reflexivity was discussed extensively by feminist geographers in the 1990’s. Kobayashi writes that feminist geographies have reached a ‘reflexive turn’, noting that reflective research has become “the approach of choice” in feminist geography journal Gender, Place, and Culture (2003, p. 347). Among other engagements with reflexivity, a special issue of The Professional Geographer on feminist fieldwork gathered reflections on reflexivity and positionality (England, 1994; Gilbert, 1994; Katz, 1994; Kobayashi, 1994; Nast, 1994).
Feminist geographers developed spatially notions of reflexivity in which the researcher not only sees their knowledge as situated, but also sees their ‘self’ as situated. Building from this discussion, reflexivity in feminist geographies is not just an exercise of listing the names of the categories that describe the identities we may be labelled with. Instead, reflexivity involves reflection on one’s goals, on the limitations of one’s approaches, reflections on how one defines one’s ‘field’, and an awareness of how we change as we move through social spaces. Despite the saturation of literature of reflexivity in geography, Longhurst and Johnston note an absence of literature on methodology and literature on “bodies, ‘race’, ethnicity and indigeneity” (2014, pp. 271–272). The absence of work that examines reflexivity in the context of race, ethnicity and indigeneity, all the more surprising considering that this was the focus of Kobayashi’s initial engagement with her reflections on fieldwork.
REFLEXIVITY And CHICANX FEMINISM – Towards NAHUALISMO
Those working within a Chicanx Feminist theoretical framework may note resonances between feminist geography literature on reflexivity, and Chicana Feminist reflections on the situatedness of knowledge. For example, Anzaldúa’s understanding of the mestiza consciousness begins from a place where knowledge is situated: For Anzaldúa, ‘living on the borderlands’ affords perspective: it means you grow up with the ability to see the arbitrary nature of all social categories (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 7), because from a young age the contradictions that arise from living in two worlds imprint onto your sense of self, giving rise to 'the mestiza consciousness' and a hybrid identity: “Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages” (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 100). In light of these opposing messages, the new mestiza develops 'la facultad': "the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 60). With this concept (la facultad) Anzaldúa conveys the "notion that individuals (primarily women) who are exposed to multiple worlds [...] develop the agility to navigate and challenge monocultural and monolingual conceptions of social reality" (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 6). Thus the Borderlands, in this intersection of multiple cultural contexts and multiple linguistic contexts, is important because it affords multiple perspectives. Similarly to Katz’s discussion on ‘dislocation’, for Anzaldúa la facultad emerges from seeing her worlds through multiple perspectives, from multiple locations, drawing on the metaphor of vision as does Haraway. In other words, Anzaldúa’s analysis is necessarily spatial in its formulation. The mestiza is always in a state of ‘betweenness’, and the new mestiza consciousness emerges from working through, rather than pushing aside, betweenness.
Anzaldúa writes that the new mestiza is like the nahual, a shapeshifter: "Deconstruct, construct. She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person" (1990, p. 382). Anzaldúa invokes the nahual to describe the mestiza’s identity once she embraces the ambiguity having a plural self: “Thee new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (1990, p. 379). This is necessary to resolve the internal restlessness that comes from trying to hold onto the idea of a unitary self when one is always between more than one world: "internal strife results in insecurity and indecisiveness. The mestiza's dual or multiple personality is plagued by psychic restlessness” (1990, p. 377). Nahualismo, coming to an acceptance of seeing oneself as nahual, is thus a strategy to ease the ‘psychic restlessness’ that comes with the mestiza’s process of coming to know herself. The figure of the nahual also allows us to expand Anzaldúa’s concept of la facultad. The new mestiza isn’t only seeing from different perspectives because she inhabits different spaces, the shift in perspective also comes from a shift in her ‘self’.
Is nahualismo helpful as a theoretical tool? Specifically, what does the idea of the nahual bring to the theoretical table that cannot be achieved through reflexivity. Is this not just reflexivity renamed in Nahuatl?
A borderlands epistemology, within which nahualismo must be situated, is grounded in specific experiences: Yarbro-Bejarano draws on Kaplan’s critique of the tendency to universalize theory to warn us that the importance of Anzaldúa’s theoretical framework is the specificity of the historical and geographical contexts of the Latin American diaspora (Kaplan, 1987; Yarbro-Bejarano, 1994). In the context of the Latinx researcher, doing research on their/her/his own community, the movement between the university and the ‘field’ of research is a movement between an institution and a community. Latinx researchers conducting research on activist communities engaged in decolonial praxis move between an institution with a history of colonization and an activist community with politics of resistance and liberation. Moreover, the relationship between the university and the community also matters in its specificity because these two spaces engage in representations of each other. Scholarship grounded in Chicanx Feminisms, for example, work very explicitly to contest representations of Latinx and Chicanx people in academic spaces through methodologies that aim to centre the voices of the ‘researched’ (Delgado Bernal, Burciaga, & Flores Carmona, 2012; Prieto & Villenas, 2012). In so doing, Chicanx Feminists contribute to discussions that frame academic spaces as colonial spaces (Alarcón, 1990; Arvin, Tuck, & Morrill, 2013; Mohanty, 1988; Villenas, 1996). Thus, the ‘field’ and the ‘university’ are overlapping spaces make each other and represent each other. As researchers who enter both spaces, we experience tension when the ways in which we are represented within each of these two spaces are in contradiction: as Villenas notes, we are both colonized and the colonizer (Villenas, 1996) – but these contradictions these contradictions are grounded the historical and geographic relationships between these spaces.
If one claims that nahualismo is theoretically distinct from reflexivity, is there room for slippage into the production of difference?
Feminist scholar Friedman argues that feminist authors of colour, such as Anzaldúa, have created accusatory scripts “denying the universality of woman” (1998, p. 42) that led white feminist authors to engage in scripts of “denial, accusation, and confession” which in turn result in confessional scripts of complicities in racism and analytical dead-ends (1998, p. 43). Friedman uses Anzaldúa’s work to demonstrate the ways in which feminists of colour’s work contributes to a production of difference that leads to this analytical ‘difference impasse’ because it is “not sufficiently global in perspective by not acknowledging that “processes of racial and ethnic othering are a worldwide phenomenon, not the exclusive product of Caucasians or the West in dealings with people of color" (1998, pp. 44–45). Moreover, Friedman argues that analyses like Anzaldúa’s "dim to near invisibility any common ground that might exist between women who occupy the opposing sites of ‘white’ and ‘colour’” (1998, p. 46). Although Friedman is attempting to open room for solidarity through looking for commonalities in ‘women’s’ experiences, her critique that work like Anzaldúa’s leads to analytical dead ends neglects to acknowledge that feminist traditions of colour, Chicanx Feminisms and Black Feminisms for instance, are writing into existence analytical positions that have been historically undertheorized and essentialized.
McKittrick notes, when “objectification is coupled with black humanity/personhood”, “this contradiction maps the ties and tensions between material and ideological dominations and oppositional spatial practices” (2006, p. xiv). In other words, McKittrick is urging scholars to identify the ways in which black women have, historically, contributed to geographic struggles and the production of space, rather than casting black women “solely through the constructs of “race” or race/class/gender/sexuality” (2006, p. xviii). Similarly, attention to the histories of contradictions in objectification/personhood through university/community could help Latinx geographers map out the ways in which Latinx communities produce spaces of resistance, healing, and community. Anzaldúa’s theoretical contribution through the concept of the mestiza consciousness write certain experiences into existence, and Anzaldúa does not suggest that the mestiza consciousness exists a priori as an essential quality of those who inhabit the Borderlands – rather, Anzaldúa is clear in that the mestiza consciousness must be produced, and its production is a process of “discursive self-formation” (Yarbro-Bejarano, 1994, p. 13).
Nahualismo offers an analytical alternative to the Malintizin as a way to theorize one’s positionality as a Latinx researcher conducting fieldwork on Latinx communities. La Malinche/Malintzin was a noble woman who was given to Cortés as his interpreter, and who has since been written into history as a traitor who “sold herself to the conquerors” (Godayol, 2012, p. 65). La Malintzin also serves as a central figure in Chicana Feminisms, not only in her role as a traitor, but also as a translator, mother figure (the mother of the Chicana), and as a strong female figure who navigated a complex world and tried to negotiate for the interests of her people (Godayol, 2012; Alarcón N. In Moraga & Anzaldua, 1981; Powell Wolfe, 2013). Chicana Feminist scholars have used the Malintzin as a figure to understand their position as Latinx researchers who research Latinx communities. For example, Flores Carmona notes that “being a ‘Malintzin Research’ one is in a position to replicate “oppressive acts when we translate and edit the voices of participants” and reflects on her responsibility to her research participants who she felt personally accountable to, as they were more than ‘just participants’ to her (2014). But the figure of Malintzin is one that highlights feelings of betrayal and penance.
Although as Latinx scholars conducting research in Latinx communities, it is perhaps the case that we will never be free of the tensions experienced by the Maltinzin researcher, the nahual offers us an analytical tool to work through these tensions. I hope that practicing reflexivity through nahualismo will provide a way to unpack the colonizer/colonized dichotomy and move beyond it, still grounding our analysis in the geographic and historical specificities of the mestiza consciousness.
One. I am in New Orleans at the first business meeting of the Latinx Geographies Specialty group. We talk in Spanglish, and we talk about the important role of Latinx scholars in supporting each other. I have been planning on leaving academia, but here I feel at home.
Two. After the specialty group meeting, I eat with my colleagues. I share my problems with fieldwork and they encourage me to finish my PhD as soon as possible, my project has too many cooks in the kitchen. I’m tired. Think about the goals of the PhD, and the end goal of producing a dissertation, and my timeline. I leave with the firm resolution that the project needs to change.
Three. I am back at my hotel two days later on a video call with the community members. My friends ask me how I’m doing. I tell them I need to finish the PhD as soon as possible; this term has been too difficult. They remind me we are familia. They are here to support me. The project will be what it will be. Ánimo. I agree with them. The goal is to build community, and that can’t happen overnight.
One, two three, like a nahual: “alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro - me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio” (Anzaldúa, 1990, p. 377). As we shift through our selves, the contradictions tear wounds in illusions of a self. The (counter)topographies that produce migrating life-stories play out at the scale of the body-self, as the production of a complex and contradictory selfhoods – the conception of nahuales. Anzaldúas’ writing is powerful because it resonates with a shared experience of coherent contradictions and complicated selfhoods – she guides us to sink our teeth into something solid, a shared feeling: her writing becomes a seed to grow new spaces, and to normalize and understand our contradictions. Spaces like the Latinx Geographies Specialty group are vital because they hold the potential to create community and knowledge through the confluence of selves, solidarities, and stories.