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2. Disease and Pain: American Voices in the First Person

The Wound as Bridge: The Path of Conocimiento in Gloria Anzaldúa's Work



This article examines the role that pain and vulnerability played in shaping Gloria Anzaldúa’s poetics. Her approach to wounding and pain and her proposals for healing and transformation are discussed at various stages of her career considered as different stages along the path of conocimiento. The latter is an epistemology she developed in the post-Borderlands years, by which she meant a form of spiritual inquiry /activism reached via creative acts.
What emerges from this analysis is a vision in which the personal and the social are closely connected and in which various traditions (the Aztec and the Catholic) converge and mix to provide a conception of pain not as privatizing, meaningless, and world-destroying, but as significant and transformative. Even in the last part of her career, when the feeling of personal and social vulnerability became stronger due to her diabetes and to the 9/11 attacks, she invited readers to overcome the temptation to victimhood and to use pain as a conduit to recognizing another’s suffering, opening the possibility of an ethical encounter.

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“Where did it begin, the pain, the images that haunt me?”
(Gloria Anzaldúa, “La Prieta”)

“To bridge is to attempt community, and for that we must risk being open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded.” (Gloria Anzaldúa, “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces”)

1Gloria Anzaldúa’s work is entirely crossed by issues of dismemberment, pain, wound, and trauma, but it is also inhabited by visions for transformation and healing. At the center of her work and social activism, in fact, there are processes of re-signification, the best known of which is the re-vision of the borderlands between Mexico and the United States from a dividing line, an “open wound” between the First and the Third World, to a prolific crossroads of races, languages and cultures, a mestizaje that enriches American culture.

2I would like to take into examination Anzaldúa’s approach to wounding and pain and her proposals for healing through the different stages of her career, starting from This Bridge Called My Back (1981), through Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), to This Bridge We Call Home (2002), considering them as steps along the path of conocimiento. The path of conocimiento (a Spanish word for knowledge) is, in fact, an epistemology that Anzaldúa elaborated in the post-Borderlands years, by which she meant “a form of spiritual inquiry /activism, reached via creative acts—writing, art-making, dancing, healing, teaching, meditation, and spiritual activism—both mental and somatic (the body, too, is a form as well as site of creativity).” (This Bridge We Call Home 542)

3In 1981 Gloria Anzaldúa edited the anthology This Bridge Called My Back. Writings by Radical Women of Color with Cherríe Moraga. It is a collection of writings (autobiographical pieces, poems, letters) by writers and activists of color (Black, Native American, Asian American, and Latina women) who introduced, for the first time, issues of race, class, and sexuality within the feminist debate. As Toni Cade Bambara states in the Foreword, the book documents particular rites of passage, that is, “the writers’ coming to terms with community—race, group, class, gender, self—its expectations, supports and lessons. Their coming to grips with its perversions—racism, prejudice, elitism, misogyny, homophobia, and murder. And coming to terms with the incorporation of disease, struggling to overthrow the internal colonial /pro-racist loyalties.” (vii)

4In their analysis of the multiple forms of their oppression and their pain, the women of This Bridge bring their bodies into the foreground; they develop, in fact, what Cherríe Moraga calls a “theory in the flesh,” that is, they theorize starting from the “physical realities of [their] lives—[their] skin color, the land or concrete [they ] grew up on, [their] sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity [...] This is how our theory develops. We are interested in pursuing a society that uses flesh and blood experiences to concretize a vision that can begin to heal our ‘wounded knee’ (Chrystos).” (23)

5For these writers, the body is an “object” written from the outside, and therefore, a source of pain, but it is also the prime mover of the healing process, when it becomes the “subject” of consciousness and action. The metaphor of the bridge used in the title of the collection, on the other hand, refers both to the weight of racism and other forms of marginalization that women of color have to endure (which they literally carry on their backs) and to the space of dialogue and confrontation the book offered to these women: “the image of the bridge can bind us together” [...] “For the women in this book, I will lay my body down for that vision. This Bridge Called My Back.” (xix) As Suzanne Bost points out, for the women of This Bridge pain is not simply material evidence of oppression but is also the rhetoric of political mobilization and resistance.

6Gloria Anzaldúa contributes to the anthology with two writings, an autobiographical one, entitled “La Prieta”, and a letter “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”, in which she recounts her experience as a woman of color in a predominantly white society. She shares Moraga’s theory in the flesh and in her challenge to Western philosophical tradition based on binary opposition, she deconstructs the dichotomy between theory and autobiography and chooses for her theorizing forms that allow her to create intimacy with the reader; she, in fact confesses in “A Letter” that “the meaning and worth of [her] writing is measured by how much [she] put[s] [herself] on the line and how much nakedness [she] achieve[s].” (172)

7In This Bridge Anzaldúa begins her struggle against internal and external forms of colonialism, that is, against the stereotypes imposed on Chicanos/as as well as the latter’s appropriation of them. In “La Prieta” Anzaldúa recounts the pain derived from the feeling of alienation that has accompanied her life since her birth greeted by her grandmother with an expression of regret for the dark skin of the child: “too bad mihijita was morena, muy prieta [...] it was too bad I was dark like an Indian.” (198) The complexion of the girl, darker than the rest of the family, showed the indigenous root present in every Chicano/a and regarded negatively by most of them. The writer says that she spent much of her childhood and adolescence struggling against her mother’s orders and recommendations, of not going to play outside, under the sun, to avoid her skin becoming too dark and thus be mistaken for an Indian; of not staining her clothes to avoid being labeled as a “dirty Mexican.” Such experience made her aware of the (un)conscious introjection of dominant ideological structures and cultural models by her community. The sense of inadequacy experienced by the future writer was also amplified by a number of personal and social circumstances: a hormonal imbalance that deeply marked her childhood making her feel strange and queer; poverty, reinforced by the early death of her father, that was a cause of shame; and her desire of not conforming to the traditional roles of wife and mother that were strongly encouraged by her community. 

8All these factors had a negative, tearing effect on the formation of her identity. We know that the experience of the self takes shape in the dialectical exchange between subjectivity and objectivity, but the image of herself that Anzaldúa saw reflected in the eyes of others, beginning with her mother’s, was of absolute otherness: “In her eyes and in the eyes of others I saw myself reflected as “strange,” “abnormal,” “QUEER.” I saw no other reflection.” (199)

9Reading “La Prieta” we realize that, since the beginning of her literary career, Anzaldúa had been concerned with the issue of dismemberment, that will become so central to her poetics. She focuses, in fact, on her feeling torn up by the scrutinizing gazes of others, as well as, by her mother’s dismissal of the indigenous part of her identity, that is, by her dis-remembering that all Mexicans are part Indian. Like the other women in the book, therefore, Anzaldúa suffered of external and internal colonialism and to unlearn what had been inculcated in her and break with Chicano and American cultural prejudices took her much time and much pain:

But it's taken over thirty years to unlearn the belief instilled in me that white is better than brown—something that some people of color will never unlearn. And it is only now that the hatred of myself, which I spent the greater part of my adolescence cultivating, is turning to love. (202)

10But, at the same time, it was pain, and the questions raised by it (“Where did it begin, the pain, the images that haunt me?” 199), to put her search and writing in motion; and since then, the urgency to find the answer to that question, and to counteract different forms of personal, social, and cultural oppressions, had never left her.

11In the last section of “La Prieta”, entitled “El Mundo Zurdo (the Left-handed World),” Anzaldúa claims the necessity for change and transformation, advocating “a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society” (208), but she admits, at the same time, that she is still confused as to how to accomplish that.

12A few years later, this project finds its realization in Borderlands/La Frontera, a text which is an innovative blend of autobiography, history, myth, poetry, and socio-linguistic analysis; Anzaldúa defined it as “autohistoria-teoría,” a term she coined to describe a relational form of autobiographical writing that includes both life story and self-reflection on this story, that is, personal experience becomes a lens with which to reread and rewrite existing cultural stories. As the title suggests, Anzaldúa focuses her analysis on the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, desiring to place the issue at the center of U.S. political and cultural scene. She introduces it through the eloquent metaphor of the bleeding wound: “The U.S.-Mexican border,” she writes, “es una herida abierta 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.” (25) At the same time, Anzaldúa proposes an overlapping of the borderlands with the body of the mestiza (a woman of mixed blood) ripped by the barbwire; she, in fact, defines the border between Mexico and the United States as a “1,950 mile-long open wound dividing a pueblo, a culture, running down the length of my body, staking fence rods in my flesh, splits me splits me me raja me raja This is my home this thin edge of barbwire.” (24-25)

13The body of the mestiza is torn up the way the lands between Mexico and the USA are torn up; what Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands explains the historical, social, cultural, and linguistic reasons of this dismemberment and dispossession, proposing, at the same time, a healing process, through the developing of a new consciousness. The fragmentary narrative trend of the text couples with its issue and is intended to cope with the complexity of it; but Borderlands can also be read as an autobiography whose turning point is represented by chapter IV that recounts the process of death and rebirth suffered by the writer in order to be healed by the wounds of the past, and being able, as representative of the new mestiza, to develop a vision for the recreation of American society.

14The metaphor of the wound used by Anzaldúa and her reference to an unnatural boundary (“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” [25]) recall the annexation of a third of Mexican territory by the United States following the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in 1848. Without crossing any frontier 100.000 Mexicans found that the frontier had crossed them and made them strangers in their own land. But it also refers to the results of the continuous hegemonic practices of the United States over Mexico, that informed Mexican economy and politics, shaping the fate of the Mexican diaspora to USA, in great part characterized by practices of marginalization, segregation, and, more recently, by incarceration and deportation. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo conferred American citizenship, and the rights attached to it, to all Mexicans who chose to remain in those territories, soon the U.S. government began a process of racial discrimination which gave legal privileges to whites. The racial and class difference between the two groups and the attachment of the former Mexicans to their own traditional ways, with their consequent stance of resistance against American culture, laid the foundations of the relationship between the two groups. Many Chicano historians share the view that the history of Mexican-Americans is a continuation of the social relations settled since 1848; Mexican migrants, who in great number entered USA in the twentieth century, found themselves in “a society that had institutionalized the separate and subordinate status of Mexicans.” (Gonzalez and Fernandez 11)

15After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Americans, “locked into the fiction of white superiority” (Borderlands, 29), were able in a short time to strip Indians and Mexicans of their land, so that, as Anzaldúa says, “we were jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from our identity and our history.” (30) Since the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera the metaphor of the wound has been extensively used in Chicano Studies; Guillermo Gomez Peña, for example, claimed that “the border remains an infected wound on the body of the continent” (Kandiyoti, 146); the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in the article entitled “Cut Throat Sun”, suggests that the same identity of Chicanos is a wound that emerges from a series of cuts.

16Attempts were made to remedy this situation of marginalization and exploitation in the Sixties when the struggle for civil rights inflamed the United States. Chicanos organized in a movement fighting on several fronts: for political representation, labor rights, social programs, and access to education. The many and diverse local struggles, involving Mexican-Americans, found a moment of synthesis and unification in the Denver Youth Liberation Conference, commissioned by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and the organization Crusade for Justice, as a moment of aggregation and dialogue for young Chicano activists coming from all over the Southwest. To act as a unifying motif was the recognition of a common past, identified in the ancestral land of Aztlán. According to the myth, Aztlán was the original home of the Aztecs left in 1168 when they moved south to found the promised land Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) in 1325. Many Chicanos localized this pre-Hispanic country in the Southwestern United States, claiming a presence in those territories far more ancient than that of the Americans, considered “brutal invaders”. That is what El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, a manifesto advocating Chicano nationalism, written by the poet Alurista, proposed and adopted on the last day of the Conference, says. Through the recognition of indigenous heritage and the re-appropriation of an original territory, the myth of Aztlán acted as a symbol of identity and cultural cohesion for Chicanos, as well as a strategy of decolonization. In the Manifesto Chicanos claimed their identity as a mixed people (“bronze people”), and their lands, saying that they did not recognize “capricious frontiers on the bronze continents,” (Anaya and Lomelí, 1) and considering themselves at war with the “invaders” to reach their social, economic, political, and cultural independence.

17Part of the work of the Movement was to revive the Indian past, revitalizing the history, myths, spiritual thinking, and symbols of Native Americans, that were part of the collective history of Chicanos. As Benedict Anderson explained in his study on the emergence of the modern nation-states, in the transition from socially dense community to nation-states, imagination played a central role in creating in individuals a sense of belonging to the same national community. For Chicanos the legend of Aztlán had the same effects of unifying the different struggles they were engaging in different parts of the country. The Plan provided them with a past able to re-compose the dismemberment caused by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo as well as the one daily lived by them, due to racism and exploitation. As Lee Bebout remarks, Aztlán operated as “an alternative site of struggle, a discursive space through which psychological colonization [could] be contested and decolonization [could] emerge.” (5)

18Gloria Anzaldúa, too, used the pre-Columbian past as a strategy of decolonization, but she did not stop at Aztlán, which came to identify with Chicano nationalism, becoming “an androcentric site” (Kandiyoti 132) that denied internal differences of the Chicano nation, since her struggle concerned forms of oppression coming from American culture as well as from patriarchal Chicano culture that inscribed women only in certain roles. The struggle of the mestiza in Borderlands/La Frontera is, in fact, “above all a feminist one.” (106).

19The use of the past that Anzaldúa makes in Borderlands/La Frontera is complex, meaningful, never separated from the analysis of the present and the vision of the future. The past is recovered in terms of mythology but also of history and worked, adapted, made flexible to tell the most intimate things, to produce a vision for change, to reconstruct continuity against dismemberment and fragmentation, and to speak to future generations. Moreover, as it is evident in the fourth chapter, entitled “The Coatlicue State,” Anzaldúa blends figures and symbols of the pre-Columbian past with the psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious and the encounter with the Shadow, fitting into that line of thought known as “Modern Primitivism,” which brings together psychoanalysis and anthropological discourses in representations of the non-European other. (Contreras)

20As the borderlands are read as a wound engraved on the body of the mestiza as well on the tissue of the nation, the process of healing, for Anzaldúa, coincides with a transformation that first passes through the woman's body, an inner change necessary to activate a new policy and develop a new consciousness in Chicano and national community. Presiding over this change the writer calls the mythical figure at the origin of the Aztec pantheon: Coatlicue, the goddess of the Earth, the “Lady of the Serpent Skirt,” which contained the duality of male and female, light and shadow, life and death, a powerful mother figure from which she draws the strength for change.

21In fact, as Susanne Bost has noted, unlike the suffering woman who accepts the status quo of cultural scripts and gender politics, Anzaldúa took pain as the starting point for her theory of agency, “the shock that propagates change.” (103) In order to delineate the new mestiza and write her agenda, she must overcome the psychic block caused by her multiple positioning, the paralysis brought on by her resistance to know some truth about herself, and she must be able to encounter her pain, her wounds, and her fears.

22The central chapter of Borderlands/La Frontera, entitled “The Coatlicue State,” recounts this experience; by Coatlicue state Anzaldúa means the process of death and rebirth that she must suffer, in order to transform pain into an increase of consciousness. It is a complex chapter in which we find the first expression of her conception of pain, as well as the metaphorical apparatus used to describe it. That the theme of transformation presides over the chapter is evident by the two words at its incipit: “protean being.” (63) The first paragraph is a collection of fragments, between prose and poetry, evoking the practice of the ancient Aztec civilization of the human sacrifices thrown out of the temple. The woman protagonist of these fragments is offered in sacrifice: she falls from above into the darkness and silence of the night, “she bends to catch a feather of herself as she falls lost in the silence of the empty air [...] no moon glides across the nightsky nightsky night.” (63-64) Before she falls she sees herself reflected in obsidian, which sends her back the image of many faces. It is the fall to allow the confrontation with the soul, as the title of the next paragraph says (“Enfrentamientos con el alma”), that is a necessary precursor of change.

23The image of the mirror introduces us to the meaning of the Coatlicue state, which carries the apparently contradictory aspects of being object and subject of vision, of seeing and being seen. A glance can scrutinize, judge, and paralyze, but in a glance also lies knowledge, awareness. The fall in the Coatlicue state is dominated by the “agony of inadequacy,” that is, by being the object of a gaze that judges, splits, cracks identity, immobilizes, one the writer has experienced since childhood. There are many defense strategies that the self uses to escape it and the writer has used them all: she has repudiated parts of herself that others rejected; she has used rage to drive others away and isolate herself, she has reciprocated with contempt for those who have roused shame in her, she has internalized rage and contempt. What Anzaldúa says, even in this chapter that is the most personal of the book, does not concern only herself: her “I” slides continuously into “we”: “As a person I, as a people, we, Chicanos, blame ourselves, hate ourselves, terrorize ourselves. Most of this goes on unconsciously, we only know that we are hurting, we suspect that there is something ‘wrong’ with us, something fundamentally ‘wrong’.” (67) Coatlicue, Anzaldúa says, allows you to get out of the repetition of defensive schemes through an interruption of the flow of everyday life, through a slowdown that enables the psyche to assimilate previous experiences and process the changes: “Coatlicue states which disrupt the smooth flow (complacency) of life are exactly what propel the soul to do its work: make soul, increase consciousness of itself.” (68)

24As we said, the central symbol of the chapter is the mirror, to be precise, obsidian, the volcanic glass extensively used in Mesoamerica. Items made from this material had both utilitarian and ritual use; Aztecs used it also to predict the future. Seers stared into the mirror until they fell into a trance; on its dark reflective surface they saw clouds of smoke which would part to reveal a vision concerning the future of the tribe and the will of the gods. Anzaldúa’s fall into the Coatlicue state has much in common with this ancient practice: it is a kind of trance, a descent into the unconscious, a plunge into darkness and silence to bring out her own voice and her own vision of the future of the tribe (that is, of Chicanos, in their relation to Anglos). Anzaldúa’s choice of the symbol of obsidian is telling of her project in Borderlands/La Frontera, being a concentration of her poetics, that is, her simultaneous appeal to memory and imagination to heal the dis-memberment of the past and develop a vision of the future able to transform the entire American culture and society. Anzaldúa’s fall into the Coatlicue state can be read also as the entering into a labyrinth, with the fear of not being able to get out of it. At the end of her journey, in fact, Anzaldúa finds the mirror, that is, she is forced to confront her own face, those parts of herself she had long sought to avoid: “When I reach bottom, something forces me to push up, walk toward the mirror, confront the face in the mirror. But I dig in my heels and resist. I do not want to see what’s behind Coatlicue’s eyes, her hollow sockets [...] Behind the mask of ice I see my own eyes.” (70)

25From this encounter with herself derives an increase of consciousness, defined as a travesía, a crossing. Knowledge, for the writer, involves a process of dislocation, of crossing borders, that makes her again foreign in a new territory; but once that happens, you cannot stay in the place where you were and feel at ease, you are no longer the person you were and there is no turning back: “No hay más que cambiar.” (71)

26The chapter concludes with a description of the sensations of the body of the writer in the moment of transformation that we can read as a moment of restoration; it is a feeling of ownership of herself and of her body, against all the forces that are pushing her in different directions, described as an implosion, and a re-memberment: “a delicious caving into myself – imploding, the walls like matchsticks softly folding inward in slow motion [...] And suddenly I feel everything rushing to a center, a nucleus. All the lost pieces of myself come flying from the deserts and the mountains and the valleys, magnetized toward that center. Completa.” (73)

27That pain, in Anzaldúa’s conception, is not “world destroying,” incommunicable and meaningless, as theorized by Elaine Scarry, but able to produce sense and consciousness is confirmed in the sixth chapter entitled “Tlilli, Tlapalli. The Path of the Red and Black Ink”, in which the writer expresses her ideas on art and gives us a meta-literary analysis, describing Borderlands/La Frontera. For her vision of pain Anzaldúa is indebted to Aztec and Catholic traditions that are part of her legacy as a Chicana. As regards the former, the writer had already alluded, at the beginning of the fourth chapter, to the practice of blood sacrifice. In the Aztec worldview, in fact, the continuation of life required public sacrifice by humans to the gods, “exchanging life for life.” (Bost, 96) As Markam and Markam have explained, the essence of sacrifice was transformation, that is, the entering of man into the domain of the spirit. The ancient rituals of bloodletting, too, were practiced as a means of communication with the spiritual world. In her conception of writing Anzaldúa makes extensive references to Aztec culture. She compares herself to a shaman (a shape-changer, to nahual) and the act of writing to the shamanic state, involving the whole body, not just the mind. Writing is painful for Anzaldúa, because it invokes images from her unconscious, and because some of the images are residues of trauma, the writer admits of getting sick when she writes. But, in reconstructing the traumas behind the images, she makes sense of them and “once they have “meaning” they are changed, transformed. It is then that writing heals me, brings me great joy.” (92) On one hand, writing is so painful that the act of creation is likened to a blood sacrifice: “this work, these images, piercing tongue or ear lobes with cactus needle are my offerings, are my Aztecan blood sacrifices” (97); on the other hand, writing is the instrument of healing able to develop and give words to visions for transformation of American culture and society.

28According to Anzaldúa, the healing process involves a “massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness […] The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts.” (Borderlands 102) In resisting the either/or structure, Anzaldúa suggests a new way of thinking and a new way of acting, one that relies on relationship between those who previously have been firmly situated on opposite sides of the border. In fact, for the healing process she calls into question men of her race as well as white society for a public act of restitution, that is, the acknowledgment of the wounds inflicted upon mestizas and Chicanas/os. Anzaldúa’s invitation is towards the developing of a new consciousness, a new way of thinking and seeing able to go beyond the Manichean structure that traps us.

29The agenda Anzaldúa writes for the new mestiza in the last essay of the book is, in fact, what she did in Borderlands: the new mestiza must put history through a sieve, winnowing out the lies, make a conscious break with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions; communicate the rupture and document the struggle, re-interpret history and, using new symbols, shape new myths, strengthen tolerance for ambiguity and become an agent of transformation.

30The creation of a new mythos means changing the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave, creating a third space, a culture greater than the sum of its parts. As she reiterates in “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces”: “Diversity of perspectives expands and alters the dialogue, not in an add-on fashion but through a multiplicity that’s transformational, such as in mestiza consciousness.” (This Bridge We Call Home, 4)

31After the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa continued to explore issues related to wounding and healing, relying on another deity of the Aztec pantheon: Coyolxauhqui, Coatlicue’s eldest daughter, called “la diosa de la luna” (goddess of the moon). According to the legend, after her mother was made pregnant by a ball of feathers, Coyolxauhqui encouraged her four hundred brothers and sisters to kill Coatlicue; as they attacked their mother, the fetus, Huitzilopochtli, the God of War, sprang fully grown and armed from Coatlicue, tore Coyolxauhqui into over a thousand pieces, throwing her head into the sky, and killed her brothers and sisters. According to several feminist scholars, this legend marks a shift in Mexican history, from a gynocentric to an androcentric ordering of life, and represents a spoliation of female power. (Irene Lara, 41). Besides, the subsequent context of Spanish colonialism demonized and fragmented indigenous sacred deities such as Coatlicue and Coyolxauhqui. As a result, Anzaldúa’s appeal to the physically dismembered daughter of Coatlicue is a sign of her desire to suture the wounds inflicted by patriarchy and Eurocentrism. Coyolxauhqui is, for the writer, a “symbol for both the process of emotional psychical dismemberment, splitting body/mind/spirit/soul, and the creative work of putting all the pieces together in a new form, a partially unconscious work done in the night by the light of the moon.” (This Bridge We Call Home 546)

32In an interview with Irene Lara, in 2001, Anzaldúa explains what she means by “putting Coyolxauhqui together,” an imperative that resonates many times in the last phase of her career: “Coyolxauhqui and putting herself, our self, together is about healing the wounds, the work of striving for wholeness instead of being fragmented in little pieces. It’s also the work of reparation. Not just healing, but having the wounds acknowledged publicly, having the other parties say, ‘We did this wrong, we acknowledge it, forgive us.’ It’s about bringing that acknowledgment not just into consciousness but also into public words.” (49)

33In the last decades of Anzaldúa’s life, while the invitation of the writer to social activism becomes more pressing, the issue of pain gets more personal nuances, due to diabetes and its complications, that affected her life and movements and led her to define health not as the absence of disease but as “learning to live with disease, with dysfunction, with wounds, and working toward wholeness.” (Lara, 51) According to this statement, we note in Anzaldúa’s later writings a progressive shifting of the issue of illness from a metaphorical dimension to a real one, and an “invocation” for vulnerability as a necessary feeling for constructing spiritual/political communities able to struggle for personal growth and social justice.

34Because of the constant presence of pain and references to illness and to the healing process, Anzaldúa’s work has been recently analyzed under the lens of Disability Studies. In contrast to clinical, medical, or therapeutic perspectives on disability, they examine it as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon, focusing on the ways disability is defined and represented in society. As Jennifer C. James and Cynthia Wu explain, the deployment of disability in socio-political spheres shifts our attention from disability as a medical problem located in the individual to disability as a label that generates institutionalized exclusion.

35In 2003 Anzaldúa was asked if she considered herself disabled and if she minded to be read under the lens of Disability Studies. She answered that she did not identify herself as disabled or diabetics but that she was happy to be read in any of the disciplinary studies, since she abhorred academic censorship of any kind. However she warned against the danger of remaining locked into the binary able/disabled, us/them, considering the “disability” movement, like all identity-based movements, effective for short term political gains, but wondering about its attainment of long-term visions of social justice. According to Carrie McMaster, Anzaldúa’s struggles with her hormonal imbalance and diabetes played a crucial role in shaping her inclusive politics and reading her works as disability narratives would expand scholars’ understanding. Similarly, Suzanne Bost in her well-documented study on Illness and Body Politics in Chicana Feminist Literature, argues that the pain that framed much of Anzaldúa’s experience also framed her ideas and that, in order to understand her work, we must take seriously the perspective offered by pain and the avenues of thought down which it led her.

36What I find most significant in Anzaldúa’s later writings is her examination of the issue of vulnerability that becomes central to her poetics, and I think comes from the elaboration of particular personal and historical situations, such as the setting in of a chronic illness and the trauma caused in the nation by the 9/11 attacks.

37In this period the bridge, substituting the border/crossroads, becomes Anzaldúa’s favorite metaphor. The title of the Preface to This Bridge We Call Home, “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces”, is tellingly, stressing the need for change (“bridges represent thresholds to other realities, archetypal symbols of shifting consciousness, passageways that connote transitioning, crossing borders, and changing perspectives”) as well as the absence of safe space: “no bridge lasts forever.” This Bridge We Call Home was thought as a continuation of the dialogue opened by This Bridge Called My Back, including in the discussion women and men of different races, nationalities, classes and sexualities, rethinking the old ideas and germinating new theories. To the many women of color who were possessive of This Bridge Called My Back, and considered the opening of the dialogue of the later volume an intrusion in a safe space, Anzaldúa explains that there are no safe spaces, that even “home” can be unsafe and dangerous because it bears the likelihood of intimacy and thus thinner boundaries, and invites her readers to bridge, that is, “to open the gate to the stranger, within and without […] to attempt community […] to open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded. (3)

38But it is a risk that must be taken because, as her later writings seem to infer, the process of meaning making is enhanced by wounds, that is, it mostly resides in one’s own vulnerability.

39In “now let us shift…the path of conocimiento…inner work, public acts” Anzaldúa recounts the moment when she was diagnosed with diabetes, a disease that could cost her “her feet, her eyes, her creativity, the life of the writer she has worked so hard to build, life itself.” (550) Her first response to the news was denial, then anger and isolation; the physical and mental reactions of her body to disease are described in such details that “now let us shift…” can be read also as an “autopathography”, that is, an autobiographical narrative of illness and disability, according to Couser’s definition, threatening one’s sense of identity, and disrupting the apparent plot of one’s life, a narrative stimulated by the heightening of one’s awareness of one’s mortality: “You swallow, tasting the fear of your own death. You can no longer deny your own mortality […] Is this what it feels like to die?” (551, 555)

40The feeling of vulnerability experienced by the writer is the first step on the path of conocimiento that she indicates to everybody; pain gets out of a private dimension to act as a catalyst for the creation of spiritual/political communities. She is convinced, in fact, that pain, beside love, is the most powerful agent of transformation, and that is why she invites readers to use wounds as openings to others, overcoming the temptation to victimhood:

Using wounds as openings to become vulnerable and available (present) to others means staying in your body. Excessive dwelling on your wounds means leaving your body to live in your thoughts, where you re-enact your past hurts, a form of desconocimiento that gives energy to the past, where it’s held ransom. As victim you don’t have to take responsibility for making changes. But the cost of victimhood is that nothing in your life changes, especially not your attitudes, beliefs. Instead, why not use pain as a conduit to recognizing another’s suffering, even that of the one who inflicted the pain? (571-72)

41As regards vulnerability, I think that some similarities emerge from the confrontation of Anzaldúa’s poetics and Judith Butler’s reflections on “Violence, Mourning, Politics” after the 9/11 attacks.

42The latter had an inevitable impact in shaping Anzaldúa’s thoughts and feelings as they come out of her later writings, including an essay, the last one published during her lifetime, in which she revisits the events of 9/11 and their aftermath in U.S. foreign policy.

43Both the writer’s and the philosopher’s reflections are enhanced by an essential question raised by that tragic event: Anzaldúa tries to figure out “what good, if any, can come from death and destruction” (“Let us be the healing of the wound”, 309); Butler faces the sense of loss produced by the attacks, and immediately counteracted by the use of violence, and wonders: “If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?” (30) Anzaldúa, as we have seen, shares Butler’s subversion of the idea of grief as privatizing, as returning us to a solitary situation, and, in that sense, depoliticizing. Butler argues, instead, that grief furnishes “a sense of political community of a complex order and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.” (22) Feeling pain without trying to solve it through violence allows to recover one’s own sense of vulnerability whose perception and recognition can open the possibility of an ethical encounter. Anzaldúa, too, proposes to overcome the cracking of the perception of the world caused by devastating events, such as 9/11, through the recognition that “we are all wounded, but we can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others.” (“Let us be the healing of the wound”, 313)

44I would like to conclude with Butler’s appeal to the role of the Humanities, at the end of “Precarious life”, because she mentions two constitutive elements of human life—frailty and making sense—around which Anzaldúa kept constructing her visions for transformation and political action: “If the humanities has a future as cultural criticism, and cultural criticism has a task at the present moment, it is no doubt to return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty and at the limits of its capacity to make sense.” (151)

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Electronic reference

Mirella VALLONE, The Wound as Bridge: The Path of Conocimiento in Gloria Anzaldúa's WorkE-rea [Online], 12.1 | 2014, Online since 15 December 2014, connection on 30 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


Assistant Professor, University of Perugia (Italy),

Mirella Vallone is Assistant Professor of American Literature at the Department of Humanities, University of Perugia, Italy. She is the author of Quella rara intensità: Henry James tra narrativa e teatro, Edizioni Campus, 2003 and Ciò che si muove ai margini: identità e riscrittura della storia nazionale in Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa e Bharati Mukherjee, Aguaplano, 2013. She has translated into Italian and edited Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, La sovranità e la bontà di Dio, Morlacchi Editore, 2008, and has written articles on various contemporary American writers.

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