By Jonathan Luevanos
Identity is defined as the quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties or, in particular, qualities under consideration; absolute or essential sameness; oneness. It is also defined as the sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition of being a single individual; the fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else; individuality.
According to Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua, the struggle for cultural identity “is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian—our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains.” To conduct a proper analysis of Chican@ identity then, one must understand that it is a project of the soul.
Anzaldua claims that culture “forms our beliefs…Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through culture.” Western culture encourages us “to kill off parts of ourselves. We are taught that the body is an ignorant animal; intelligence dwells only in the head.”
The faculty of reason is fundamental to Western culture. It acquires its legitimacy through the Cartesian method of doubt. The Cartesian subject posits reason and not sense perception as the legitimate faculty that corresponds to reality. Western culture has been involved in a project of duality and exclusivity because knowledge of the self or soul is based on an activity of the rational mind and not on any other processes. This activity is the root of all discrimination and violence.
According to Anzaldua, the U.S.-Mexican border culture is an open wound “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.” Borderlands are “vague and undetermined place(s) created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” The people of the borderlands are “the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal.’” The identification of the borderlands subject concerns the philosophy of dialectical monism.
Dialectical monism is based on the fusion of opposite forces. Dialectical monism is found in Taoism and Aztec philosophy. In Taoism, the ultimate form of being is the Tao, which is made up two contradictory but unifying sources: yin and yang. Yin consists of non-being, darkness and femininity and yang consists of being, light and masculinity. The emphasis of Taoism is that there is a fundamental unity in or balance between contradictions or opposite forces. The philosophy of dialectical monism shifts the focus from a dualistic soul to a soul that consists of “the coming together of opposite qualities within.”
The Chican@ soul consists of contradictions and fusion of opposites. Pre-Columbian thought on the constitution of the soul mirrors Taoist philosophy. Coatlicue, a pre-Columbian symbol, can be understood as synonymous to the Tao. According to Anzaldua, Coatlicue “gives and takes away life; she is the incarnation of cosmic processes.” Coatlicue “is… the symbol of…the psyche” or the soul. Coatlicue “depicts the contradictory. In her figure, all the symbols important to the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs are integrated. Like Medusa, the Gorgon, she is a symbol of the fusion of opposites: the eagle and the serpent, heaven and the underworld, life and death, mobility and immobility, beauty and horror.”
Chican@ identity is constituted by indetermination, which creates the capacity for freedom and individuality. Living “in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create.” The ontological status of ethics in this context is the freedom of the subject. Chican@ identity then consists of “a new value system with images and symbols.”
According to Anzaldua, before the conquest of Mexico, “poets gathered to play music, dance, sing and read poetry in open-air places around Xochicuahuitl, el Arbol Florido, Tree-in-Flower.” While the pre-Columbian practice of freedom flourished through music and poetry before the conquest, it has now evolved into a creative practice of bilingual discourse. Cultural identity “is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language.” Chican@s operate “a secret language,” Chican@ Spanish, mixing English with Spanish and sometimes incorporating pre-Columbian words. Chican@ Spanish “sprang out of the Chicanos’ need to identify ourselves as a distinct people.” Chican@s create their own values, going back and forth between seemingly contradictory linguistic discourses.
An understanding of the Chican@ soul facilitates an understanding of Chican@ identity because the struggle for identity is a struggle of the soul. Within this struggle, one must create one’s own values.
(Author’s note: All of the quotes are from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/ La Frontera, 2012, 4th ed.)
Jonathan Luevanos is an independent journalist. Contact Jonathan at jluevanosfelix@ gmail.com.