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Gloria Anzaldua, 61; Feminist Academic Edited ‘This Bridge Called My Back’

Times Staff Writer

Gloria E. Anzaldua, who transcended the hardships of her early years as a migrant laborer to become a leading radical feminist and cultural theorist, died at her Santa Cruz home Sunday of complications related to diabetes. She was 61.

One of the first openly lesbian Chicana authors, Anzaldua attracted considerable critical notice over the last 20 years for writings that merged scholarly research, folk tales, autobiography, poetry and political comment. She was a lecturer for many years at UC Santa Cruz and was about to turn in her doctoral dissertation there when she died.

She was best known as co-editor, with Cherrie Moraga, of the 1981 anthology “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” which drew attention to the contributions of minority women to the feminist movement and led to a surge in writing by Latinas.

She also wrote “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” published in 1987. A mixture of poetry, prose, fiction and history, it has been described as a work of “creative autobiography” and was chosen as one of the 38 best books of 1987 by the Library Journal.

The author’s intensely personal style broke the conventions of scholarly writing and kept her outside the mainstream of academia, a position that Anzaldua, who published widely in alternative journals, did not seem to regret.

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“Writers like myself are considered low theorists, and writings like ‘Borderlands’ are considered ‘low theory’ because it’s accessible,” she once said. “People can understand it. It’s got narrative, it’s got poetry and I do the unforgivable -- I mix genres.”

Her complex set of identities -- she once defined herself as a “third-world lesbian feminist with Marxist and mystic leanings” -- informed all her writing, yet she “resented labels and would fly out of any box in which others sought to trap her,” said Randy Conner, a longtime friend.

Anzaldua was born on a ranch settlement called Jesus Maria of the Valley of South Texas, where her family owned a plot of land.

They lost the land in a swindle and were plunged into poverty when she was young.

Her grandmother was a curandera, or healer, who so deeply imbued Anzaldua with an appreciation of the mystical that Anzaldua would say “Excuse me” even when she bumped into an inanimate object such as a chair.

Neither of her parents studied beyond grade school and did not envision an extensive education for Anzaldua, the oldest of four children. Good “Chicanitas,” she once explained, “don’t go to school. They drop out in the 6th, 7th, 8th grade ... [and] cook, clean and sew.” But Anzaldua learned English at 9 and became a passionate reader who sneaked books into bed. By her early teens, she was reading Nietzsche. Books became her passport to “a different way of being,” beyond the strictures of her culture. Health problems as a child also contributed to her sense of difference and sensitized her to all sorts of marginalized people.

When she was 15, her father died in an accident, making it necessary for Anzaldua to help support her family as a migrant worker in fields from Texas to Arkansas. She was active in the farmworkers movement in the 1960s.

After graduating from high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, art and secondary education at Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas, in 1969.

She taught preschool and migrant education courses before earning a master’s in English and education from the University of Texas at Austin in 1973.

In 1975, when the University of Texas turned down as unsuitable her graduate dissertation work on Chicano and feminist studies, she transferred to UC Santa Cruz, where she became immersed in cultural studies and the ideas of feminist writers such as Susan Griffin and Merlin Stone.

In the late 1970s she met Moraga, another Chicana lesbian scholar. After commiserating over their feelings of exclusion by the white feminist writers’ movement, they began to collect poetry, essays and stories by women of color. The result was “This Bridge Called My Back,” which demonstrated that “theory takes many forms, including poetry, personal narrative and letters,” according to AnaLouise Keating, a Texas Woman’s University professor who collaborated with Anzaldua on a recent book.

According to the reference book “Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage,” the book was a landmark event in feminist publishing because it was the first systematic collection of writings against racism by minority women that reflected “full engagement with lesbian concerns and voices, and the non-tokenistic presence of lesbian writers.” It included Anzaldua’s provocative essay “La Prieta” (“The Dark One”), an autobiographical piece that openly addressed her lesbianism and outlined her vision of a political alliance that joined Third World women, lesbians, feminists and non-chauvinistic men of all races and ethnicities, a bridging of cultures that became a central theme in all her work.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Anzaldua taught at San Francisco State University, UC Santa Cruz and Norwich University in Vermont. She conceived “Borderlands” while living in Vermont, where there were so few minorities that Anzaldua felt like a foreigner, even though her family had been in the United States for seven generations.

“Borderlands” included essays on what it meant to be a mestiza (a woman of Native American, Spanish and Mexican descent), histories of Mexicans living on the border, and stories and poems about her childhood, her lesbianism and Aztec myths. She mixed English and Spanish in the same sentence to reflect the polarities of her culture.

Although some critics faulted “Borderlands” for relying too heavily on personal history, others considered it her masterpiece. Hector A. Torres of the University of New Mexico, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, called the book “a far-reaching work” that combined genres and languages “in order to weave an autobiography resonating with the many voices of Anzaldua’s lived, imagined and ‘read’ experience.”

Anzaldua is survived by her mother, Amalia; a sister, Hilda; two brothers, Urbano and Oscar; and uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.


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