Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ghost Stories in the Borderlands: Explorations of Fantasmas with Gloria Anzaldúa as a Guide

Another of the big research projects I worked on this semester.  I was really inspired by the way Gloria Anzaldúa writes and very much wanted this project to reflect that mixture of academic theory and personal and creative that she did so very well.  Overall, I am pretty pleased with the results, some of which will be familiar.

The form says
Choose one:
White (Non-Hispanic)

Choose one.

The mind whirls with what I will choose this time.

I cannot tell you when, where or how old I was the first time I stared at whatever form it was asking me this question and decided
“fuck it”
and checked both applicable boxes.
But I remember that moment.

It is a moment that has been repeated many times over,
but I swear I remember the very first one. 
I remember it in my bones.  
I remember how I felt; I remember my conviction, and my defiance.
And I remember when my conviction wavered. 
“Choose one. Multiple answers will not be counted.” 

I remember choosing White. 
I remember, less often, choosing “Hispanic.” 
Once or twice Other or “Mixed.”

I have filled out this form so many times in my life and every time is a re-run of the first;
anxiety, annoyance, anger, amusement.

Amusement that these form writers cannot conceive of me.
Anger that they demand I choose between what their small minds can fathom.
Anxiety that I will simply be left uncounted.
Annoyance that I have to think through so much just to check a box truthfully.

I remember the first time I saw a form that didn’t ask me to choose one.
Eyes widening.  Small smile. FINALLY.

Such a little thing. 
But I am always acutely aware of the people around me who fly through this thing that stops me dead in my tracks.

Such a little thing, to cause such turmoil.
Such a small thing to think about all these years.
Such a little thing, but these are borderlands too.
Those forms confront my difference.
Those forms demand an answer.
Those forms divide me, cut me up into parts.

How much for the one quarter of Mexican blood and bones?
How much for the Spanish?
How much for la india?

How much for the-who-knows-how-much Irish?

How much for the over fifty percent German?

How much for the Norwegian?
The Scottish?
The English?

Hell, there are Smiths everywhere, who knows for sure just where I came from?

Always an image in my mind’s eye of my naked body with that black pen plastic surgeons use to show people where and how they will be cutting them; black ink dividing me into my respective pieces or at least the ones I know.

Black lines
reappearing anytime I overhear the Spanish I don’t speak,
or the insults it is imagined won’t offend a white person.

Colonizer and colonized.
Both. Together.
I feel them glaring warily at each other over the borders of blood and bones inside me.[1]

The borderlands are a blurred together place; a place where worlds interact and overlap.    While on a map borders are solid black lines, this representation does not reflect the reality of the borderlands.  This is because borders are constructed.  The borders I find myself grappling with in trying to fill out a form honestly are a reflection of this construction.  The nature of the “immigration debate” within the United States is another reflection; wherein people who have lived in the same place for generations are deemed “immigrant” and “illegal” when literal borders are redrawn and cultural borders exclude “them” from being an “us.” 
     Yet, construction does not make the borderlands less real for the people who live there.  Borders create material effects on those who live within and upon them.  Borders delineate the boundaries of identity; they only make sense if they divide what something “is” from what that same something “is not.”  Thus, the United States is the United States in part because it is not Mexico.  Mexicans within and a part of the United States blur that boundary; challenge that (White) United States identity.  And yet, despite the lines on a map, Mexicans are within the borders of the United States, and White Americans (corporations) are within the borders of Mexico. 
     Although boundaries are constructed to keep these two groups separate, they are not separate.  That is the nature of the borderlands.  That is why (in part) Gloria Anzaldúa uses the United States and Mexico border as symbol for the myriad borderlands we as human beings must negotiate every day; because it is “a place 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” (Borderlands/La Frontera 25).  The borderlands will make hybrids of us, she says, and suggests that instead of fighting that process that we embrace it and allow it to heal us our divisions by coming to a mestiza consciousness (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 101-102).  Like the Spanglish Anzaldúa speaks: pieces of Spanish, pieces of English, pieces of Nahuatl, brought together into a new something; “greater than the sum of its parts” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 101).
     This coming together is also one of the functions of the magical realism present in Johnson’s Fantasmas, and it is no mere coincidence that these “type” of tales are also commonly referred to as “border stories” (Sellman).  As a technique of story-telling, magical realism lives in the borderlands; a place in which “[writers] make connections between the material and spiritual world” (Johnson xi) in rejection of the “white rationality” that is touted by mainstream society as desired and true (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 58).  In particular, the collection of stories in Fantasmas occupies a borderlands space “between worlds,” as well as within the literal border towns of American Chicano/as.  In this essay, I argue that selected stories from Fantasmas use their “borderland” location to articulate new ways of understanding and being within the world.

Dead People Know Everything Anyways[2]

Dia de los Muertos
Also Samhain to me

Days that the Veil between the worlds grows thin
As so many cultures knew
As the Ancestors demand we remember
If we can hear them
If we listen

The smell of sage floats through the air
Candles flickering
Illuminating so much more than their small flames should
Like stars in the sky

Fotos, food, and flowers
Holiday(s) you never taught me to celebrate
A day I honor you anyway
And the ever increasing others on your side of the veil

      “Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes” is a story about a young girl’s experiences with the dead and Dia de los Muertos.  Told in the first person by Río Olivares, we learn that there are many borderlands within and put upon her body.  She is adopted, possibly mixed race, her father is gay, she attends an elementary school which is predominantly white, and she communicates with the dead.  “Ever since I was little, like before kindergarten, I heard whispering like wind in my ear. I finally figured out it was Uncle Jeff” (Calderón 176).  Keeping Río company and helping her through her dreams, Uncle Jeff is a very real part of her life.  Thus when she is instructed to create an altar to a member of her family who has passed on she knows just who to choose.
     Río’s understanding of the holiday her white teacher is trying to teach the children about is an emblem of another borderland Río occupies.  At the teacher’s poor pronunciation of Dia de los Muertos “Cici Ramírez and I cracked up, but not loud. We both pretend we don’t speak Spanish. But we do, and the way Miss Wilson said it was hecka stupid” (Calderón 176).  Here we see the borderlands at work on multiple fronts.  First, on Cici and Río, Mexican-American girls navigating a white world where they have learned to speak Spanish is to be “Other” and thus they avoid doing so.  The borderlands are also at work, though, on the white people who taught these girls that to speak Spanish is to be Other.  Miss Wilson knows something of Dia de los Muertos, even if she cannot pronounce the words correctly, and is attempting to instill her students with respect for the holy days and cultural traditions of other communities.
     However, Miss Wilson has a more difficult time treating Río’s family with respect.  Foundationally, the structure for the project was problematic as it assumed a “traditional” nuclear family biologically related to the student.  Yet this model is not the norm in the twenty-first century United States.  When Río asks if she may create an altar dedicated to her Uncle Jeff, Miss Wilson says she may since Río is part of an “alternative” family (Calderón 177).  The suggestion in this choice of words is two-fold, first, that if a student had a “traditional” family Miss Wilson would not have allowed that student to honor someone outside of that model, and second, this choice of words thoroughly constructs Río’s family as Other; as outside of the norm.  The inclusion of this scene in the short story thus serves as an indication of another purposeful borderland.
These multiple borderlands imagine a world in which we are not disconnected from our dead, where family has multiple meanings and where a “third space” is beginning to develop from overlapping cultures.  The moral of this third space is one of remembering the interconnectedness between people and building community across difference, as Río’s Aunty T. says, even “people we don’t like have good ideas” (Calderón 177).  This story is also one of the most realistic stories in the collection, making its portrayal all the more potent as a space of cultural (re)imagination.  That this is also the concluding story suggests that it’s “moral” is one which the editor of the collection wishes to be fresh in the mind of the reader, placing that moral as exceptionally important.
We’re not supposed to remember such otherworldly events[3]

I know what it feels like
The breath of the dead on the back of your neck
a chill along your spine.

I know what it feels like
to feel the life force in the world around you
your place within it all.

My feet flex their roots
The roots burrow into the Earth
They feel life itself
That energy
living things together create

Gone across the veil
I see the Earth swallow you up
Roots, branches, leaves and dirt
The last embrace of the Mother
And new things sprout and grow from you.

     “Tía” vividly reminds us that the spirit world is not so separated from the living world as we commonly like to believe.  As the first story in the Fantasmas collection “Tía” sets the mood for the book and as such, like “Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes,” occupies a place of importance.  This place of importance suggests that the themes or moral of Tía are deserving of particular scrutiny, which is why I have chosen to examine it.  In this tale we witness the borders between the living and the dead melt away to nothing, as one woman and then another care for an old woman who is the embodiment of the whole Universe (Tafolla 4)
     At the conclusion of the story the old woman has been reduced to nothing more than “an armful;” eyes, heartbeat and breath.  Even so she influences the human beings around her to fulfill her desires: keeping candles lit to La Virgen and cooking atole.   And as the new occupant of Tía’s house comes to understand that “if she could keep [Tía] alive, she could keep the universe alive” (Tafolla 4), the reader comes to understand that Tía represents much more than simply a “monstrous” character in a scary story; the old woman is also the universe.  Like offerings to the gods or Ancestors, in exchange for fulfilling her duty to the old woman (“Tía”)/the universe, the unnamed newest occupant of the house is granted a “sense of peace” that deepens along with her connection with the universe/Tía (Tafolla 4)
     In mainstream (read: white supremacist capitalist patriarchal) United States society much is made of individualism and the pursuit of individual dreams, desires and achievements.  Images of the “self-made man” and “Protestant work ethic” abound as positive representations of “what it means to be an American.”  This individualistic ideal clashes with the ideals at work in “Tía,” which revolve around duty and obligation to others.  These two worlds, and their ideals, grate against each other painfully while reading this tale, potentially reducing it to little more than a horror story.  After all, the new occupant of Tía’s house is a graduate student who eventually “quit[s] working on the dissertation and began writing in her journal” (Tafolla 3)
     In other words, the newcomer sets aside what has presumably been a personal passion and has certainly been a lot of work, to light candles to La Virgen, cook atole, and write in her journal; to spend much of her life serving Tía.  In the strongly individualist United States these events carry with them the fear of being swallowed up by the unknown, by a natural world condemned Biblically as unholy, and by Death.  The revulsion which emerges in the reader is aided by the previous portions of the story which play on these themes with the added element of the loss of youth and vitality as personified in the Niece, and progressive loss of the able body as personified in the Aunt.  These too, are fears which pop up again and again in the U.S. cultural imaginary.
     They are also fears which are a part of Anzaldúa’s text.  “The one who watches, the one who whispers in a slither of serpents. Something is trying to tell me. That voice at the edge of things” (72).  What Sandra Cisneros calls “those ghosts inside that haunt me” (  They are the voices from the past, voices we have never heard living, voices from beyond our corporeal reality; “an otherworld Serpent” which will eventually consume us all (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 56 - 57).  And though it may well be that “the destiny of humankind is to be devoured by the Serpent” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 56), we also fear that destiny; as evidenced by the myriad cultural images demonizing snakes, darkness, and death.  Tía’s story in particular faces the reader with these fears, and then asks us to reconsider them. 
     One of the most unsettling aspects of the story “Tía” is that the unnamed graduate student finds peace through her service to Tía/the Universe.  This aspect of the story is, as are so many things one finds in the borderlands, in contradiction.  The idea of subsuming one’s own goals to that of another is anathema to touted “American” ideals.  Thus, for the American reader, it is tempting to interpret the peace the graduate student finds as nothing more than a lulling into complacence to be taken advantage of.  In other words, that the Aunt is merely bending the graduate student to her will.  However, an alternative reading of the story is that in caring for the Universe, Earth and Ancestors (all of which Tía represents), the unnamed graduate student actually does find an “authentic” happiness and peace of mind.
     I draw this reading from several pieces of the text.  “There were three constants in life: the atole, the vela to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the in-and-out of breathing that she heard more and more clearly each day, heard with something more than her ears, more than her heart, heard maybe with the life spirit that kept her going(Tafolla 4) [emphasis mine].  Of note in this and other passages regarding the “sense of peace” the unnamed graduate student feels is that there is no confrontation; there is no moment when la Tía reveals her diabolical plan, or attempts to frighten the new woman into submission or acceptance.  Instead, the awareness described here, of knowledge that comes not from one’s brain or even from the immediate sensory centers such as one’s ears, but awareness articulated through one’s very soul, is a concept Anzaldúa names la facultad
     La facultad is the assertion that those who interact negatively with power the most are more sensitive to the world around them.  It is the idea that “those who are pushed out of the tribe for being different are likely to become more sensitized,” “to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 60).  It is the ability to “walk into a house and…know whether it is empty or occupied…[to] sense the emotions someone near is emitting – whether friendly or threatening” (61).  This is an ability that we see developing in the graduate student throughout Tía.  It begins within her dreams because sleeping plunges us into the unconscious, a place more easily accessed by and sensitive to the world beyond our corporeal senses.  Thus, reading this story with la facultad in mind, the peace the graduate student finds is rendered authentic as a by-product of her growing awareness of “a less literal and more psychic sense of reality” (61).
The mestiza consciousness space opening up here is that of compromised “white rationality” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 58) which allows to open our unconscious to that “more psychic sense of reality” (61) as well as to understanding other people on a more fundamental and compassionate level.  “Tía” is such a challenging story because it unsettles the borders erected around the ideal of the Western individual.  And it is a space where that Western ideal grates against the Chicano ideal of “the community…is more important than the welfare of the individual” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 40).  Ultimately the unnamed graduate student is consumed by her service to Tía/the Universe; yet this is not a simple “win” for the Chicano ideal over the Western ideal because all of the central players of the story are women.  The construction of the story is one of a Universe embodied in a woman, served by women.  Thus the patriarchal Chicano social order is unsettled as well and a third space that centers women and la facultad emerges.

“It was as if her very bones wanted to be there[4]

How can a place you have never been
be familiar?

How can rolling hills half the world away
look like home?

that aren’t mine.

And feelings
I shouldn’t feel.

Yet, it is so.

     The first time Marjorie came to San Miguel de Allende in Elva Hart’s “Beyond Eternity,” it felt familiar to her.  “It was as if her very bones wanted to be there. She felt immediately at home with the people, the climate, and the town. She felt as if she could finally breathe a sigh of relief and never have to go anywhere again” (Hart 46).  This attachment leads her to buy an old hacienda to fix up when she retires, which at the beginning of our story she has finally done.  From the first night alone in her project house Marjorie has vivid dreams which are also familiar for no discernable reason.  First, she dreams of peones working the field outside and a young pregnant woman running out of the house with gunshots ringing out, and later, a dream of making love more intensely than she has ever experienced. 
     Marjorie quickly discovers that her neighbors believe the house to be haunted and begins an investigation, contacting the old owner for any information he may have on the house’s history.  Through this investigation she learns about a story which is part history, part local legend, of the owner of the hacienda generations before and his married servant, Adelita.  Discovered to have become pregnant while he was away on business, her husband shoots Adelita and Hernán (the hacienda owner) never fully recovers.  It is the hacienda owner’s grandson who sold the house, and who has unfinished business with his grandfather that may have in part left the house haunted with the memories Marjorie has been dreaming.
     Once again we see the permeability of the living world; that “spirits never leave us…[but] stay here with us, and because of that…we speak with them” (Limón 114).  That conversation, between the living and the dead, eventually culminates in a brief love affair between Marjorie and Macias, Hernán’s grandson.  As in Tía, eventually the “veil” between the physical and spiritual worlds is lifted and the spiritual world is able to openly influence the physical to do its bidding.  However, unlike in Tía, this state is not a permanent one, though Marjorie believed it was “a vortex from which she might never return” (Hart 57).  Here, the intervention of the spirit world into that of the living is speculated to be to enable Adelita and Hernán to say goodbye to each other, to make “love in the flesh one last night” (Hart 58).
     Although this particular third space cannot be maintained, its creation is no less meaningful.  It enabled Marjorie and Macias to experience something both said they never had before, and to feel youthful, happy, and full of life.  At the same time this rupture between worlds allowed Hernán and Adelita to resolve that which could not be resolved in their lifetimes: a proper goodbye.  Like in “Tía” and “Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes,” we see the way in which the awareness of and sensitivity to the spirit world grating against the world of the living creates a space for growth, self-knowledge, and     –please excuse the cliché– inner peace. 
     These “between” spaces work within the essence of Anzaldúa’s articulation of the new space of mestiza consciousness.  She says, “At some point…we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 100).  The “third space” created in the cuentos de fantasma, or through magical realism more generally, is precisely that “both shores at once.”  And the popularity of the “ghost story” across many divergent cultures suggests that where these worlds grate against each other is something which human beings are fixated upon.  The nature of the stories in this particular study indicates not just a morbid fascination with death to explain this fact, but perhaps a longing to bridge the supposedly unbridgeable gaps of our lives, to recuperate our shadow selves and “accept the doppelganger in our psyche” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 108).
“Learning to live with la Coatlicue”[5]

Skin crawls at the scenes before me
Knife blade
A woman’s voice I’ve never heard
In my ears

Must put the book down
Must get the images out of my mind
Of the woman I did know
Of the woman who died like this
Who dies again before my closed eyes

Calm the heart
Slow the breath
It did not happen to me
Not in this lifetime

The shadow places are too dark
The tears are too hot
The sobs too uncontrollable
Bury it
Bury it

     The recuperation of the “shadow self” is, Anzaldúa asserts, a task especially necessary for the Anglo, if we are to heal the “intra-cultural split” (108).  She says that white people’s “dual consciousness splits off parts of yourself, transferring the ‘negative’ parts onto us” (108).  I argue that this split is yet another borderland, one which effects all those who interact with it, and yet, as Anzaldúa argues, that it is only white people who are able to fix it.  A third space, a liminal space, between the borders of the shadow self and the known self of white folks would require not just personal but systemic change.  One of the most potent vehicles for such change is the reclamation of history.
     “You erase our history and our experience because it makes you feel guilty – you’d rather forget your brutish acts” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 108).  This erasure, the erasure of the histories of people of color, queer people, trans people, working class people, and even white middle class women, is so systemic in what is considered “proper” Western history, that to bring these histories to light would utterly revise what mainstream white United States culture disseminates as “history.”  Broken treaties, brutality, and lies, among so much more, would become a conscious legacy.  That act, the act of reclaiming this history, is absolutely vital to healing the intra-cultural split, as some have already gleaned(Zinn).  It is here, where we as white people desiring solidarity with people of color “begin to fill in the spaces of silence between us” (Anzaldúa and Moraga, Between the Lines: On Culture, Class, and Homophobia).
     Yet, as white people “put their house in order” so to speak, Chicana/os have had to devise clever ways of passing on information about events which would cast a poor light on those in charge.  Once again, the cuento de fantasma operates between worlds to create something new, as we see in “The Devil in the Valley” by David Rice.  This story is the lone example in this study of a “ghost story” without any ghosts as my reading of it concludes that the “Devil” of the story is not a supernatural demon, but simply an evil white man (quite literally a “white devil:” “Pero his skin is not red, it’s white” (Rice 34)).  The purpose of the story in this reading is thus two-fold; first, as a warning to the listener what Anglos are capable of, and second, a remembrance, the preservation of true history.
     Putting true history into a story about the appearance of the Devil, a tale easily dismissed by Anglos as “pagan superstition,” protects that history from discovery and erasure by those in power.  This is a similar strategy to Black American slaves who encoded special meaning into their spirituals.  The songs sounded innocent enough to the white slave masters but encouraged resistance, solidarity, and even passed messages along to aid in escape (Lawrence-McIntyre)
     Like those spirituals, “The Devil in the Valley” speaks of solidarity; Chicano working class solidarity against the white “bosses,” and the price that organizers sometimes pay for their interference.  These are the histories which Anglos too must recuperate, if we are to heal our own (quite literal) inner demons as Anzaldúa instructs.  Thus the third space created in this story is one which allows whites who desire to do that inner work to enter into solidarity with the people and stories that whites in power have tried to eradicate, and preserves those stories against threat even if whites willing to do that work never appear.
     Thus we see the myriad ways in which story-telling can embody, create, and recreate Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderlands in practical, spiritual and at times truly unsettling ways.  In the spirit of Anzaldúa’s mestiza consciousness Rob Johnson asserts in his Foreword to Fantasmas that the stories he has collected “all make the same strong claim: that the supernatural must be seen as a part of reality, not as separate from it” (xi).  The analysis of the selected stories discussed in this essay in the context of the theorizing of the borderlands reflects that same aim.  The “ghosts haunting us everyday”[6] are myriad and come out of the borders which we “grate” upon; it is therefore imperative that we acknowledge and integrate those ghosts, for a new way forward.

And Coatlicue
pulls her pieces together
to face a newly dawning day

[1] All poetry is original unless otherwise noted. Sometimes original poems will be preceded by a title which is a quote from one of the central texts of this project.
[2] (Calderón 179)
[3] (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 58)
[4] (Hart 46)
[5] (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 95)
[6] (

Works Cited:

Anzaldúa, Gloria and Cherríe Moraga. "Between the Lines: On Culture, Class, and Homophobia." This Bridge Called Our Backs. New York, NY: Kitchen Table Press, 1981, 1983. 103 - 159.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987, 1999.

Calderón, Luna. "Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes." Johnson, Rob. Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Review Press, 2001. 185.

Hart, Elva Treviño. "Beyond Eternity." Johnson, Rob. Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2001. 45 - 58.

Johnson, Rob. Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2001.

Lawrence-McIntyre, Charshee Charlotte. "The Double Meanings of the Spirituals." Journal of Black Studies 17.4 (1987): 379 - 401.

Limón, Graciela. Song of the Hummingbird. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1996. "Sandra Cisneros." 1998. Novel Guide. 16 December 2010 .

Rice, David. "The Devil in the Valley." Johnson, Rob. Fantasmas: Supernatural Tales by Mexican American Authors. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2001. 27 - 34.

Sellman, Tamara Kaye. "Rob Johnson and the Haunted Valley of Fantasmas." 27 3 2003. Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism. 16 12 2010 .

Tafolla, Carmen. "Tía." Johnson, Rob. Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2001. 1 - 4.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York, NY: HarpersCollins Publishers, 1980; 2003.