Gloria Anzaldúa: “I Had To Go Down”

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Gloria Anzaldúa was a groundbreaking, perhaps even groundclaiming theorist and poet. She is by far best known for her 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera. It is much easier to identify it as her most influential and enduring work than it is to place it into a genre. Is it theory? History? Poetry? Memoir? It is all this – and more.

Anzaldúa’s work can be challenging. It is a dense text with complex concepts, and some readers find it hard to understand. And it can be unsettling, especially to white (male) readers who might find their notions of privilege and status being called into question. This difficulty – this textual, psychological, social difficulty – is quite deliberate on Anzaldúa’s part. She confronts her readers as she upends dominant views of race, language, white privilege, gender and sexuality, and “ownership” of contested land between the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. In short, Borderlands/La Frontera is not an easy read nor is it intended to be.

Despite the challenges the book presents, there are so many wonderful sections and aspects to this multilayered, multifaceted book. Anzaldúa talks a lot about language shifting, new linguistic moves as part of what she calls the New Mestiza Consciousness. “At the confluence of two or more genetic streams,” she says, “with chromosomes constantly ‘crossing over,’ this mixture of races, rather than resulting in an inferior being, provides hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool. From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an ‘alien’ consciousness is presently in the making – a new mestiza consciousness. . . . It is a consciousness of the Borderlands.”

On one hand, she captures the New Mestiza through her hybrid use of language – as she fluidly moves “from English to Castillian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl,” often within the same work. It is quite a linguistic feat.

But Anzaldúa also demonstrates the New Mestiza Consciousness through her radical mixing of genres. The first half of the book features heady, theoretical essays, geographical history, and personal autobiography. The second half of the book is comprised of powerful and sometimes intensely personal poems. Theory and poetry – two seemingly opposed discourses placed right up against each other in one volume. Self-described as a “chicana dyke-feminist, tejana patlache poet, writer, and cultural theorist,” Anzaldúa creates a new approach to embody the many aspects of her self, of her creativity and consciousness.

Perhaps my favorite poem is “I Had To Go Down.” Reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck,” this poem tells of a narrator slowly going down into a dank, dark cellar. She’s put off the trip to the basement as long as she can – “I hardly ever set foot on the floors below,” she says. But finally, needing to do her laundry, she decides to take the plunge, saying “I should have waited till morning.” As she opens the door to the basement, the narrator discovers that “[t]he steps down had disappeared. . . . / I would have to lower myself / and then drop. . . .”

An explorer of sorts, the narrator makes her way into the basement, the moist, dark, musty cellar underneath a house. Basements and cellars are spooky, unsettling, creepy. The narrator encounters spider webs that “[shroud] the narrow windows,” crumbled bricks, old “bedsprings and headboards,” “a broken chair,” and a faded dress. Most pervasive is the dirt – rich, pungent, loamy earth. The narrator says, “A rank earth smell thickened the air in the cavernous room.”

But a cellar is also often a place of nourishment – as jars of canned preserves often line the walls. In this poem, what springs to life “into the belly of the house” is “[a] gnarled root,” “a shoot [that] had sprung in the darkness.” “[N]ow a young tree was growing,” the narrator says, “nourished by a nightsun.”

The trip downstairs into the dank heart of the house is frightening, but it is the only way the narrator can find this sign of new life. Numerous theories have been offered for this poem. Going down is a metaphor for the writing process, some say. Anzaldúa hints at this meaning when she writes earlier in the book, “Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create.”

Others point to the psychological journey the narrator is on as she delves into the space underneath her house. Our society has “strict taboos against this kind of inner knowledge,” says Anzaldúa. “It fears what [Carl] Jung calls the Shadow, the unsavory aspects of ourselves.” Later in the book, she writes, “Our greatest disappointments and painful experiences – if we can make meaning out of them – can lead us toward becoming more of who we are.” Going down into the basement, in the psychological reading, takes us down into the depths of who we are, brings us face to face with the gnarled root of new life pushing up through the dirt floor.

As she claims a rich Chicana identity and a robust Chicano language, Anzaldúa says, “I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”

To experience firsthand how Anzaldúa broke the silence, get a copy of Borderlands/La Frontera and dive in. Be forewarned: this is not an easy read. It’s technically challenging, and it will make you question what you thought you knew about race, place, language, gender, sexuality, history, and more. But if you go down into the basement with Anzaldúa, you just might find “a young tree” growing in your own consciousness.

To learn more about Anzaldúa, read this short biography and this overview of her work. Emory University places her work in a postcolonial context, and Ms. Magazine offers a retrospective of her career and her impact. Be sure to visit the website for the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Foundation. Those who want to teach Anzaldúa’s work will find Annenberg Learner’s resources very helpful. The National Council of Teachers of English offers the Gloria Anzaldúa Rhetorician Award, while the American Studies Association has the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award.

To go even further, check out the landmark anthology Anzaldúa edited with Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, and look also at another volume Anzaldúa edited: Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. Also worth a read is the University of Texas Press anthology Bridging: How Gloria Anzaldúa’s Life and Work Transformed Our Own, featuring 32 writers paying homage to Anzaldúa. And to delve into all of her writing, look no further than The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, published by Duke University Press.

Encountering Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time can be energizing and challenging, as she calls us to look at the voices from the deep, loamy earth. Start with “I Had to Go Down” in Borderlands/La Frontera, and then consider exploring more of her work. Reading Anzaldúa takes work, but it is effort that is amply rewarded.

Listen:Listen to a rare recording of Gloria Anzaldúa reading from unpublished work in 1991 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Image Credit: Photo taken of Gloria Anzaldúa in 1990 at Smith College by K. Kendall. Used with permission,