Our Favourite CRT: Gloria Anzaldúa

by | 29 Oct 2020

Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘The Coming of el Mundo Surdo’ in AnaLouise Keating (ed), The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Duke 2009)

How can we make sense of a global order that is founded upon the act of making “most of the world”[1] out of place, through the motions of the global economy and those divisions from which it has always fed from, their race, gender, class, ethnicity, culture, country of origin and so on? And, more to the point here, how can we even exist when we become aware of this widespread out of placeness? Queer, chicana, mestiza social theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa’s speaks of the power of Critical Race Theory to conceptualise this state of affairs, while building upon the strength of those differences and dislocations that assumingly pulls us apart. 

I was born in the northeast of Colombia, right on the border with Venezuela. Humid and hot all year around, violent and economically volatile, my hometown is one of those dots on maps that are so close to major points of reference – in this case the Colombo-Venezuelan international border – that they blend themselves into those contiguous, more relevant phenomena. Depending on the size and quality of the map, my hometown is a defined dot or, more likely, it merges, like ink into water, with la frontera. In every sense, I was born in a border town – a chaotic money-making hive – a place of transit, a nest for all sorts of seedy activities and, above all, an incredibly rich site in which to learn from the endless forms of postcolonial disorder on which it thrives.[2]

My city, home of around one million people today, is just at the southern end of a massive jungle known, rather wonderfully, as Catatumbo. Technically a basin created by the end of the Andes as they branch out from Colombia into Venezuela and encase Lake Maracaibo, the region of Catatumbo is both atmospherically unique and rich in natural resources. As heat and condensation from the lake are trapped by the mountains, the jungle there is thick, green-as-green, and boggy. But perhaps most famously of all, the constellation of tropical forces in this place generates constant lightning activity; lightning so extreme, and so persistent, that it feels like the sky is trying to take revenge on the naughty, destructive humans below, electrocuting us all with a messianic cacophony of thunders. Sadly, though perhaps predictably, global warming and recurrent droughts mean that this phenomenon may not be with us much longer. 

Embracing the poetics of this unique site, scientists have attributed this eerily persistent lightning activity to Catatumbo’s location in what they call the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone. Well-known to sailors as ‘the doldrums’or ‘the calms’ because of its monotonous, windless weather, the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone encircles the globe where the South and North meet. 

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss famously described the doldrums as a sort of mythical site, whose ‘oppressive atmosphere’ is ‘more than just an obvious sign of the nearness of the equator’. It epitomized instead “the moral climate in which two worlds have come face to face”.[3] The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone was a site in which men, “whose greed could no longer be satisfied by their own continent’, found their way to the ‘New World”.[4]

I have been thinking about these geo-historical connections and their impact on my own fractured sense of self for the past couple of years as part of a project on being out-of-place in socio-legal research. As far as I remember, the convoluted nature of Catatumbo and how it relates to endless waves of plunder that have followed the region’s mundane riches since colonial times – first gold, then oil, and over the recent decades coca leave crops and palm oil plantations – have dominated most of my thinking since I was a child. For this project I have been traying to make sense of the destruction that these global flows have brought to the Motilones Bari (the indigenous communities of Catatumbo) and to the African porters that were used to carry the conquistadores to this and other corners of ColombiaI have been also trying to make sense of the environmental destruction and the larger melange of socio-economic and racial relations that have resulted there and in similar places after 500 years of post/colonial rule. These events speak, to me, of an out-of-placeness that has become an endemic condition in that part of the world, as in many other places in the South, and more recently in parts of the North too. This tumultuousness, running beneath the feet and under skin of people, the natural environment and non-human animals in Catatumbo and beyond, is captured, I feel, in the idea of being trigueño.

Trigueño – the idea that people like me (according to my grandmother!) have a bit of indigenous, African and Spanish blood in themselves – is both part of many Latin Americans’ popular imaginary about themselves given the difficulty of knowing where they actually come from, and a label officially endorsed by many states to refer to the bulk of their citizens.[5] Trigueño is, in this sense, a sort of shorthand that speaks of the near impossibility of giving any unified account of many people’s rickety histories, of ever being ‘in place’ in a place like Colombia, even if you are indigenous, Afro-Colombian or assumedly ‘white’. It speaks, at the same time, of course, of official attempts at generating cohesion in a world in which privileges continue to be maldistributed across the colour line.[6] This is a forceful cohesion which, with whiteness still standing firmly up there, only generates flimsy mid-of-the road markers. 

James Baldwin put it clearly in his ‘Stranger in the Village’: “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”.[7] For those in my part of the planet, and in all those increasing number of real and metaphorical fronteras in the world, Baldwin’s insight is a well-known fact. From their fuzzy sense of their own (often stolen) history, the rapidly crumbling environment around them, their future decided by a new round of conditionalities imposed on their countries, they know indeed that they are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them. 

But their history is not a clean one, as it has been clear for Critical Race Theorists, including Baldwin, one of its progenitors, for a long time. The history they embody is one of el mundo zurdo, of the “left-handed world”, as Gloria Anzaldúa once put it.[8] It is a history that does not function, and never has functioned, according to straight lines or neat categories. That’s for the “right-handed world”. Their history is, instead, one of brokenness, mestizaje and survival. And again, as Critical Race Theorists have argued for a long time, this mundo zurdo is not destined to oblivion. It is in one that, if embraced and cared for, it is “what should be”.[9] There we can find that “ease and grace” to “walk the tightrope” that could take us to the other side of the abyss.[10]

Luis Eslava, University of Kent[11]

[1] Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (Columbia University Press, 2004).

[2] Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (eds.), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (Chicago University Press, 2006) 1. 

[3] Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (org. 1955; English trans. 1974; Penguin 1992), 74.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The category of ‘mestizo’ plays a similar function in other parts of Latin America. 

[6] I have in mind here W.E.B. De Bois’s expansive understanding of ‘the colour line’. See especially, ‘The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto’ in Herbert Aptheker (ed), Writings by Du Bois in Periodicals Edited by Others, Vol. 4: 1945-1961 (Kraus-Thomson, 1982).

[7] James Baldwin, ‘Stranger in the Village’ in Notes of native Son (Beacon Press, 1955).

[8] Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘The Coming of el Mundo Surdo’ in AnaLouise Keating (ed), The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Duke University Press, 2009), 49. [Anzaldúa intentionally uses ‘s’ instead of the formal ‘z’ in the title of her ‘The Coming…’ piece to highlight her south Texas, no Ibérico, Spanish pronunciation].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Parts of the text in this piece come from my forthcoming contribution to the edited collection resulting from the project, Out of Place: Power, Person and Difference in Socio-Legal Research, led by Lynette Chua and Mark Massoud. I would like to thank Silvana Tapia for introducing me to Gloria Anzaldúa.


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