Sonar Wildly

On the trail of Gloria Anzaldúa

Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker
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Only the most famous cemeteries have maps at the entrance locating the tombs of the dead. In the average graveyard, you have to follow the dirt paths that other feet have marked out. It is difficult to orient yourself among these pathways and shortcuts, especially the first time around.

When I visited the Valle de la Paz Cemetery in Hidalgo County, Texas, last March, the sunlight was truly merciless, and everything seemed to reverberate uncontrollably beneath its glare. Saúl and I split up the tombs and set about looking for her name. It was an instructive exercise, a kind of radiography of the local community. We learned that entire generations of Anzaldúas have lived and died around Hidalgo since the middle of the nineteenth century. There were Anzaldúa women and men; Anzaldúa children; little oval photos, cracked by time, showing Anzaldúa gestures.

At the edge of the premises, by the barbed wire fence, Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s grave could be made out from afar by the offerings heaped by it. Old candles, neon skulls, and bouquets of bright, plastic flowers lay at the base of the headstone and the adjoining Virgin Mary. The inscription was taken from the ritual passage that concludes Anzaldúa’s last book, Light in the Dark / Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality:

May we seize the arrogance to create outrageously
sonar wildly—for the world becomes as we dream it.

The phrase perplexed me, sending me back to the book, which was only published over a decade after Anzaldúa’s early death in 2004.[1] The “n” on the headstone was missing the tilde. Not the English noun sonar nor the related Spanish verb sonar, but the Spanish soñar, “to dream.” It was another trick of Nepantla, which Anzaldúa defined as the land of the in-between, as much a state of being as a material place where “‘seeing’ double” is not only possible but inevitable. It was one more sign that we were on the border.

Daughters of Cotton

The Valle de la Paz Cemetery sits on the outskirts of Raymondville, where Gloria Anzaldúa was born in 1942. In her paradigmatic 1987 work, Borderlands / La frontera: The New Mestiza, she describes this region as that “triangular piece of land wedged between the river y el golfo which serves as the Texas-U.S./Mexican border.” From a very early age, she was an obstinate girl who wouldn’t take orders, preferring reading and walking around to ironing her brothers’ shirts or cleaning the cupboards. She readily became an andariega, a rambler, just as they had warned her she would. And she eventually left to blaze her own trail elsewhere, “the first in six generations to leave the Valley, the only one in my family to ever leave home.”

Stealing a glance at some of my mother’s gestures in the rearview mirror, I wondered how many times we had traveled this highway together, and if we would do so again.

Anzaldúa came of age as seasonal farming in the Rio Grande Valley gave way to industrial agriculture, the land reordered into “neat rectangles and squares” where planting and harvesting happened, uninterrupted, during the “340-day growth season.” The 1848 treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had marked an imaginary national border floating in the middle of the Río Bravo. In the following decades, hundreds of Mexicans and Chicanos were lynched as white settlers and corporations moved in to grab land. Texas landowners benefited from international treaties that secured the United States unilateral access to the Río Bravo’s water; Mexican farmers were forbidden from accessing it. In time, they built an irrigation system that would alter the Tropical Trail Region of southern Texas forever. Great agricultural corporations arrived in the region in its wake, ramping up the production of cotton and establishing dairy and chicken farms. Like many native Texans, Anzaldúa’s father became a sharecropper. In Borderlands, she recalls how Don Urbano Anzaldúa resorted to loans from Río Farms Incorporated to make ends meet; he would pay these back at harvest time. Most members of his family, including the children, worked as day laborers in the ranches and farms nearby. Anzaldúa recalls a chicken farm at King Ranch where white feathers were “blanketing the land for acres around.”

In 1941, on the other side of the Mexican border, my maternal grandparents, Don Cristino Garza Peña and Doña Emilia Bermea Arizpe, arrived in the Colonia 18 de Marzo, also known as Valle Hermoso, a border town founded in 1939 with the purpose of welcoming laborers expelled from the United States after the 1929 crash. Two decades earlier, they had crossed the border the other way as children, toiling in cities and fields in southern Texas, until President Hoover’s anti-immigrant legislation made their lives unbearable. They were eventually deported back to Mexico, where the Lázaro Cárdenas government was parceling out land to cultivators along the northeast border as part of the Agrarian land reform, a unique social and agricultural experiment centered on cotton.

Repatriados—as deportees were then known in Mexico—were central to the program, as land-distribution was used to solve the “problem” of U.S. deportation. In this way my grandparents came to work their plot of fifteen hectares, becoming the first in entire generations to have land they could proudly called their own.[2] Financed by state loans from the Banco Ejidal, Don Cristino and his family plowed the fields, prepared the irrigation canals, and sprinkled fertilizers on the furrows lined with cotton plants. Bundled up, the picked cotton was shipped abroad.

In the mid-1930s, engineer Eduardo Chávez came from Mexico City to Matamoros to oversee a public works project aimed at curtailing the river’s overflow. A few years later, he helped secure water rights over the Río Bravo for Mexico in an international court. With the help of local workers, he designed a curious system of levees and dams based on gravity that eventually channeled water into the cotton fields of northern Tamaulipas. The region witnessed unprecedented economic growth and social mobility in the following decade. Wooden houses in the most authentic American style were constructed in agricultural communities, as were town squares where young men and women practiced the old choreography of courtship. Big banks set up their outposts; private and state-owned gins were built to process the cotton harvest. Laborers carved out the soil for the latrines where human waste, slowly mounting up, gave off the stench that confirms matter’s own cycles of decomposition.

This was the changing world where my mother, Ilda Garza Bermea, was brought up—a world she shared with Gloria Anzaldúa on the other side of the border. Born in Valle Hermoso in the fall of 1943—only a year after Gloria’s own birth—under the wondrous glimmer of October’s full moon. She and her five sisters were daughters of cotton.

The River of Our Lives

We arrived at the Valle de la Paz cemetery at the end of a long journey. Early in March, we had set off south from Houston to Reynosa, on the U.S.-Mexico border, where my mother was to take a flight back to Mexico City, her vacation cut short by the pandemic. Stealing a glance at some of my mother’s gestures in the rearview mirror, I wondered how many times we had traveled this highway together, and if we would do so again. Some fifty years before, she had followed the same route, but in reverse: showing her border ID to an immigration officer, catching a train from Brownsville to Houston to attend her first ball. Suddenly, that young girl with extraordinarily big eyes and thick eyebrows looked out from the reflection. She sat beside her sister Santos, the two holding hands every now and then, whispering and giggling as if they were still teenagers, some 160 years of experience between them.

About four hours out of Houston, we entered the Texas Tropical Trail, a region of some twenty counties in the southern corner of the state, framed by the border and the Gulf of Mexico. Just a few centuries ago, before the conquest, it was covered by a dense, riparian forest with palm groves. Today agriculture has inscribed its colors firmly in the territory, though flashes of greenery hint at this exuberant past. Soon we could feel the river in the air, which brought with it a wash of memories. I plunged into its waters as a girl, touching the sand with my hands, thinking, down at the bottom, that another life, another world, was entirely possible. Growing up, I often ate on the banks of one of many tributaries, a blanket barely covering the grass. With so many others, I have slowly walked over the bridges that cross it, stuck in slow lines. We often heard rumors of people desperate enough to attempt crossing at night, swimming against the current. In her book, With the River on Our Face, Emmy Pérez, Texas poet Laureate, writes of the Río Bravo’s “channels, canals, irrigations ditches, inner tubes, and interludes, its rafts cutting straight across currents during patrol shift changes.” It has been the river of our lives.

My mother had arranged to stay for a few days with her sisters in Brownsville. In the meantime, Saúl and I crossed over to Mexico to visit my grandparents’ graves in the Santa Rosalía cemetery in the town of Anáhuac, where my cousin Diego met us. There we visited the grave of Petra Peña Martínez, my paternal grandmother. She had survived so much—the long journey in horse-drawn carts, the hunger, the slow-moving caravan that slithered along the Río Bravo, the muddy roads, the rainy weather—but in 1943, six years after coming to the cotton fields, she passed away, allegedly of un coraje, a fit of anger. Ten years later, the remains of my paternal grandfather were buried in Santa Rosalía too, though not at her side. The cemetery feels crowded today, brimming with generations of the dead. We will be buried for a long time, Juan Rulfo wrote, a phrase that always startles me.

If the graveyard was a repository of the region’s history, the tall building we glimpsed from its premises, towering over the landscape, seemed out of place and even out of time. It was a thermal power plant, resembling a Martian campsite studded with towering chimneys, shrouded in smoke. “We don’t know who set it up,” Diego told us. “But it isn’t Mexican. All we know it that they steal all our water, barely paying a penny for it.” And then, as an afterthought: “It causes cancer too.”

The Río Bravo II power plant was built as a kind of “public-private partnership” between the Energy Regulatory Commission and private companies, including Mexico-based Central Río Bravo and French Electricté de France. It was given the status of an Independent power producer—a radical shift in state policies that had historically set strong limits to private intervention in matters of electricity production. The move came as a blow against the struggling SUTERM and SME electrical worker unions. Neither President Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000), under whom the permit for the Río Bravo II was issued, nor President Vicente Fox (2000–2006), whose regime oversaw the construction of the plant, bothered to justify the project to locals. According to the local press, cancer cases in the region have dramatically spiked in the last decade, turning the Matamoros, Valle Hermoso, and Anáhuac region into a triangle of death. One of my father’s sisters, aunt Quica, died of cancer in 2007. We visited her grave too.

To Diego, the plant was yet another marker of the exploitation of the region’s working people. “We worked so hard. And yet we have to pay derecho de piso to you know who,” he said, lowering his voice, as if the dead might betray him. He was referring to the organized crime syndicates that tax people for the right to work—and own—their own land. A flock of birds flew by as he was speaking, taking shelter in the fronds of the anacahuita tree. But Diego was looking at the ground, crushing a clod of dirt.

Snakes

Early in Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldúa recalls how she recognized her kindred animal spirit, the shapeshifting nahual. One day, she writes, as she was chopping cotton, she was bitten by a snake. Its fangs got stuck in her work boot. But her mother arrived with a hoe, swiftly cutting the animal in two, splattering blood all around, before the venom could be inoculated. Once alone again in the cotton fields, Anzaldúa took out her pocketknife and made an X over each prick. Then she sucked the blood from the wound and spat it back on the field. Of the many births and rebellions that Anzaldúa recounts in her bilingual book, which resists the mandates of a supposed purity of language, this scene stands out for me. This is how Gloria discovered herself to be forever immune to the venom of different kinds of terrorism—intimate, linguistic, gendered—that she would face throughout her life.

Anzaldúa came of age as seasonal farming in the Rio Grande Valley gave way to industrial agriculture, as the land was reordered into “neat rectangles and squares.”

North of the border, Gloria studied in segregated schools that even today denigrates the use of Spanish and its variants. South of the border, my mother and her sisters traveled some five kilometers each day, with their hot little lunches in tin containers, to a wooden house where a lone teacher taught them to read and write and do math—like the schools of amigas that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote about in La Respuesta a Sor Filotea (1691). Unlike Gloria, who grew up speaking a mix of native tongues—standard Mexican Spanish, Northern Mexican Spanish dialect, Chicano Spanish, Tex-Mex, and Pachuco—my mother and her sisters learned standard Mexican Spanish at school, but expressed themselves outside in a Northern Mexican fronterizo, a border language unique to their region. In those childhood years, the girls drank raw milk and went to bed early, ate squash freshly picked from the garden, and broke open summer watermelons on the ground. They didn’t have to do anything but pick the best hen from the coop to taste meat. Perhaps that’s why some took longer to leave.

The relationships between men and women on either side of the Río Bravo have not changed much since Gloria’s time. Women could either marry and have kids, as my mother’s eldest sister did; or work for a while and then marry and have kids, like my mother did; or migrate to the United States, like her two other sisters did: the older one to marry and have kids, and the younger one to work and then marry and then divorce and take part in the Chicano movement that shook Houston in the 1960s and 1970s.

While the opening of maquiladoras brought women out of the home and into low-paying jobs in precarious border cities, few were free to enjoy their hard-earned wages. In addition to the patriarchal family arrangements that had long kept them in their place, women came to face a new form of gendered violence. Ciudad Juárez became the epicenter of femicides at the turn of the century, with the corpses of young women from the working classes routinely found in empty city lots or on the desert hills, showing signs of torture and sexual violence. The situation is even worse in Tamaulipas, where organized crime has placed a tight gauze over people’s mouths, as the number of femicides continues to be ignored. Men make the rules and laws, Anzaldúa said, but women enforce them. In a land where machismo prevails and terror exacts obedience, the most steadfast criticisms can come from both men and women intensely committed to the status quo.

We often heard rumors of people desperate enough to attempt crossing at night, swimming against the current.

If I had read Anzaldúa earlier, when my relationship with the Tamaulipas borderlands was still taking shape, I might not have chosen to run so far away with such a ferocious stubbornness. But when I was born in 1964, heir to a legion of cotton women, Anzaldúa had yet to write her foundational texts. Moving to the United States for higher education, I believed for a long time that I had rejected everything from the valley: its ghost stories, the buzzing in the irrigation canals, the open fields, and above all the straitjacket placed on women. I didn’t want the dictatorship of domestic labor or the rule of reticence and cavernous silence of sexuality. I didn’t want Sunday masses or the subordination to the father or the baleful looks provoked by what was different. I didn’t want the word of God or the devil. When Anzaldúa’s book arrived in my hands, as I was preparing for my comprehensive doctoral exams at the University of Houston, I finally understood that there was also a tradition of rebellion in the land where I was born.

Traces and Erasures

Ricardo Piglia said about Borges, though this really applies to every writer, that an elaboration of origins, a process of self-clarification, is a fundamental step in finding one’s voice. In Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldúa takes the risky choice of claiming for herself, from among all the indigenous traditions available to her, the legacy of the Aztecs, the most powerful society of Mesoamerica that kept a tight fist over some five hundred small states. Like a good healer, she identified the strongest known sources of power. But she creatively subverted the verticality and domination of the Aztecs by locating herself on the outskirts of power, at the border, as a Chicana living in a hostile land. Though they look identical, neither her Coatlicue nor her Coaxihuitl nor her Tlapalli are the same characters featured in the official, self-glorifying narrative of the modern Mexican state.

Soon after the 1910 Revolution, the Mexican state adopted Mestizaje—the miscegenation of races resulting from the Spanish conquest—as an official ideology, choosing the Aztecs as its privileged historical reference. Murals by Diego Rivera, proudly rendered on the walls of the National Palace, helped marry the indigenous past and the promise of the revolutionary state. The social life in Tenochitlán took center stage.

In time, Mestizaje came to conceal, and eventually erase, the great diversity and vibrancy of indigenous cultures in Mexico—a process in which racism and marginalization have been fundamental. Rejecting the idea of a mestizo country, Indigenous activists such as Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil and Mardonio Carballo—speakers of Mixe and Nahuatl, respectively—have persuasively argued that Mexico is actually a nation made up of erased indigenous legacies. They are right to insist that the concept of Mestizaje has served to conceal or incorporate the indigenous presence in its erased and invisible form. “The mestizo Mexico, the Mexico of the bronze race, the one that speaks Spanish, that is heterosexual, the Catholic Mexico, the one of the national anthem, needs to retrace its steps to look in a giant mirror and gaze upon its true face,” Carballo, a Nahua speaker, noted in a recent interview with El Universal.

In my own family, Mestizaje is a rather recent affair. In my book Autobiografía del algodón, I explore how my paternal grandfather lost his indigenous affiliation as the twentieth century unfolded, gradually becoming a laborer—an ethnic erasure not uncommon in the long trek of migration. It is possible to chart an indigenous genealogy in the mouth of the Río Bravo or one in which all traces of native populations were wiped out by disease and genocide soon after the conquest. In Indians of the Rio Grande Delta, Martín Salinas surveys the considerable indigenous population that lived, during the early colonization of the area, in what is now the northern region of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León. Going further back, one can consult the writings of the Spanish military leader José de Escandón, who explored the region in the mid-eighteenth century and founded what at the time was called Nuevo Santander, becoming its first official governor. Escandón mentions twenty-six communities in the report he sent to the Spanish viceroy in 1747. These included the Anda en Camino, or Wanderers and the Comecrudos, or Raweaters, who perhaps occupied the largest native settlement in the area.

My family is not native to the Bravo Delta. It would be presumptuous to claim descent from the Comecrudo or Anda en camino. But, after many years of trips and research, I have found what I was looking for: the Guachichiles from the Central Mexican Plateau. Along with other indigenous communities from northern Mexico, they famously resisted the Spanish incursions after the conquest, unleashing the Chichimeca Wars between 1550 and 1590. While the pacification process was under way, the Guachichiles did not stop fighting both Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecas, indigenous allies of the Spanish empire. There is little resemblance between the powerful Aztec empire and the vanishing Guachichiles, who carried the ashes of their dead in little leather bags tied to the waist.

I often wonder what would have happened if Anzaldúa had instead reclaimed for herself the Comecrudo and the Anda en Camino of the Bravo Delta, that sliver of land where she was born and grew up. And what happens when I invoke the might of a community that so ferociously and persistently resisted Spanish colonization—to no avail?

A Door

Luz en lo oscuro concludes with a ritual in which Anzaldúa turns to face the four cardinal points, invoking the powers of air, water, earth, and fire. She prays to them to “to increase awareness of Spirit, recognize our interrelatedness, and work for transformation.” Aptly, the lines that were etched into her headstone correspond to Anzaldúa’s invocation of fire:

May we seize the arrogance to create outrageously
sonar wildly—for the world becomes as we dream it.

The noun “arrogance” and the adverb “outrageously” are double-edged; they take on positive and negative connotations depending on the context. Both live in between. They help us “see double.” An arrogant person can be proud but also brave. The Spanish correlative of “outrageous” goes from indignation to the merely extravagant, from the horrible to the scandalous to the flashy. Filtered through the double standard of class, it’s easy to call the arrogance of members of powerful families merely self-confidence, and to name as haughtiness any transgression made by men and women of the working classes. An arrogant man might be considered spirited or dashing, but a woman rarely is. Does it help, then, to reclaim the arrogance of the powerful?

If the graveyard was a repository of the region’s history, the tall building we glimpsed from its premises, towering over the landscape, seemed out of place and even out of time.

Anzaldúa would say that it does. For the girls who grew up in the burning lands of the Rio Grande Valley in the middle of the twentieth century, it was that or a life of feigned humility and contained rage. For the young women like her, who left home and became andariegas, stirring up all sorts of gossip and admiration in their path, it was that or a life of discrete steps, of quiet resignation in the face of fear generated, even now, by the shadows of racism, homophobia, and marginalization. What else is Borderlands—which took gringa academia by surprise, planting flags of conquest in fields as varied as philosophy and history, archeology and therapy—but a gesture of arrogance, a stroke of fundamental irreverence that no one has been able to ignore, much less put in its place, for three decades? No one who thinks about the border can now have the luxury of not first passing through the Nepantla that she reimagined, reconstituted, as a girl from southern Texas.

Right there, in that immediacy, the absence of the tilde on the n on Gloria Anzaldúa’s gravestone is not a mistake but a door. The objective is to sonar, to sound, to ring, to reverberate, to become an echo, to turn up the volume of her voice that is many voices: the voices of my mother and her sisters; the voices of the daughters of cotton; the multiplying voices of the border. Ni una más. When my mother asked me who Gloria Anzaldúa was at the outset of that journey that began in Houston one bright morning in March, I twisted around to look at the back seat. “She’s a rowdy woman,” I said, winking. “I think you and her would have gotten along just fine.” She burst into laughter. And then, delicately, she placed her hand over my hand, patting a little. “I bet we will,” she said, changing the verb conjugation. Porque el mundo se convierte en lo que soñamos.

 


[1] Up until the very end, Anzaldúa imagined she would submit the book’s manuscript as a dissertation to the University of California Santa Cruz. She was posthumously awarded the doctorate.

[2] While in central Mexico the Agrarian Reform mostly distributed land in the form of ejidos—a unique tenancy system that combines state ownership with individual use of land—some private ownership of fifteen to twenty hectares was promoted in the north of Tamaulipas.

Cristina Rivera Garza is a writer, translator, literary critic, and founder of the PhD Program in creative writing in Spanish at the University of Houston. In 2020, she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship.

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