Borders and Binaries: A Latinx Heritage Month Reflection

“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Gloria Anzaldua by Angela Yarber

Gloria Anzaldúa was a queer, Chicana, feminist writer from the Texas-Mexico borderlands, specifically the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), a regional tether we share. While her life later took her to the West Coast and mine to the East, I find myself as did she, often returning to our home and exploring the many ways it shaped us. Gloria’s critical challenges of the status quo have found international acclaim with the establishment of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldua at the University of Texas at San Antonio and an international conference at the University of Paris in 2019, co-organized by universities from the U.S., Mexico, and France. She is both a figure of pride and division for those in the RGV most recently emphasized with the renaming of Robert E. Lee Elementary School in the city’s acknowledgement of the honorific granted to a Confederate Army leader and racist icon. The subsequent public call for nominations resulted in her name as the current frontrunner, but not without considerable backlash. The value of her queer politic both embraced and lost.

As we find ourselves at the close of Latinx Heritage Month, heritage itself calls to me as a return to home. The relationship of the geographical border to myself and my family is a tricky one. Family members and pieces of our lineage disappeared with the passing of my Mexican grandfather a month before my birth who took many secrets along with him. My grandmother’s roots date beyond the generations that proceeded our current border line of the Mexican-American War and truly do not have an origin point other than the land my family continues to reside in of the Rio Grande Valley. This state of being is commonly captured by the phrase “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

Beyond the topography of border, what speaks so powerfully to me from Gloria’s words I shared at the opening is holding the knowledge that for her, the borderlands were not confined to geography but to the spiritual, physical and psychological as well. I urge you to re-read her words above in the context of these other frameworks. What we know far too intimately, though possibly not always consciously, is that borders are binaries and binaries in all of its applications are inherently destructive. They hold no place for expansive ideas and people, for creativity or compassion, for a future of possibility. Binaries, much like the borders colonization established, are stagnation, essentially a form of chronic suffocation. We must all ask ourselves, how do binaries/borders show up in our worlds, our lives, and what do they continue to deprive us of? And what can we dream into existence beyond the restrictive world of borders?

What I find myself most often drawn to is the relationship of borders to our bodies, particularly in ways that define and constrict our movement and our autonomy.

I cannot unravel my culture from my gender, my transness and I refuse to.

It is captured in the way my curves encapsulate the lineages of my past of all genders and manifestations, where my voice not only hints to the twice-now hormonal influence upon my vocal cords but where the drawl and slang of my home make itself known. The gendered roles and hands of my grandmother as a caretaker, a seamstress, a cook and the hands of my grandfather as the bracero, the railroad hand, the factory worker found themselves side-by-side in the citrus groves and cotton fields of Texas. Those hands have made a home for themselves in the same hands that self-inject the testosterone into my thigh every two weeks. Those hands have guided me here.

“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them.” As many powers of our worlds continue to emphasize the demonization and othering of individuals and entire communities, my personal confrontation with the border as the gender binary kept me from exploring what was deemed ‘unsafe’ for far too long. Knowledge and access to what existed was out of reach often intentionally because of other’s fear and, without restraint, because of hate. Who holds the power of these safe/unsafe designations? What truth are they keeping from us? The gatekeepers of binaries and borders are often the same or are similarly motivated by a concentration of power. It has been those who choose/chose self-determination over prescribed fear and hate who have begun to unravel the harm of these binaries and borders. Those efforts of self-determination have granted in-roads to a world full of possibility.

“A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge.”

What drives a person to take a risk, to take the plunge over that edge, to be motivated into the unfamiliar? Often, in particular in the cases of migration and gender exploration, it is that our current conditions are not suitable for survival. The risks of the unknown outweigh any remnant of benefit that may be available by staying fixed in our place or in our identity. The unknown calls out to us with uncharted promise.

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.”

Our queerness, our transness is both essential to our culture where our bodies and lives and love have historically been met with high regard, and it too is disruptive in demanding to exist infinitely without restriction and definition. Rather, what is unnatural is the use of a fluid river whose evolving margins have been labeled a partition for the sake of oppression. Not too dissimilar from how our physical bodies are assigned labels prior to birth without the full context of the influence of our genetics, our lineages, our hormones, our environment, and our minds collectively and the allowance of their natural evolution. As the Rio Grande River has carved itself into the canyons, geography reminds us that the course of nature is inherent to the shaping of our world and it too is disruptive in order to find a home.

“The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”

We must ask of ourselves and each other, how do borders/binaries limit our world’s full potential? Who is granted the power to label places and people as prohibited and forbidden and who carries the unjustified burden of those titles? What gifts exist in the forbidden? What lessons can we learn? How do we repair the harm?

Oral tradition tells of stories, whispers, and folk tales of places and people who no longer exist but in the imagination. It is precisely this imagination that is capable of dreaming that past back into existence, of finding a new home for all that has been lost and stolen. It is what we are witness to now as we continue to reclaim our bodies as our sanctuaries, in motion and at rest.

This month I am reminded that heritage is a reunion, a reflection, and a source of familiarity to return to from our explorations beyond. My heart assures me that my lineage contains a multitude of transcestors, of boundary breakers who have found a new breath of life within me. Heritage calls us to honor our bodies and our autonomy and to seek a home of abundance, whether that home be the physical body or where we build our lives and community. Our bodies are mirrors of our environment, we must nourish each other in our growth. Our bodies hold roots and destinations, arrivals and farewells, grief, joy, affirmations, the unknown. My scars, my needle pricks are roadmaps. Our homes within our bodies and within this world exist beyond the boundaries that define us, that language often cannot capture. Borders/binaries cannot contain our expansive magic and the future awaiting us.

For Latinx Heritage Month, I ask you to examine the borders/binaries that exist in your world and to shed these confines. Lean into and embrace the possibilities which envision a world unrestricted of affirmation and abundance. I will call myself home to a land of cactus and palm trees and orange skies and a history that holds me without expectation and allows me to explore.

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