Entre Guadalupe y Malinche: Tejanas in Literature and Art, edited by Inés Hernández-Ávila and Norma Elia Cantú, University of Texas Press, 473 pages
“This land was Mexican once/was Indian always/and is/and will be again.” That’s one of the stunning lines from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, a trailblazing work of U.S.-Mexico borderlands literature that wildly reassembles poetry, prose, English, Spanish, queer theory, border ethnography, and Chicano cultural studies into a text as beautiful and disorienting as the region it embodied. It’s a line that appears again in this new anthology by the University of Texas Press, which curates a collection of prose, poetry, and visual art by Tejanas — nearly all of whom are indebted to the artistic pathway for Tejanas that Anzaldúa carved out with her 1987 book. As evidenced by this collection, many remain inspired by her, over than a decade after her death in 2004.
Fittingly, this anthology begins with an essay by Anzaldúa, “Border Arte: Nepantla, el lugar de la frontera,” a largely English-language piece riffing on the cultural themes of nepantla, a Nahuatl word for the condition of being between cultures, states, or ways of living. It’s a leitmotif for the 50 writers and eight visual artists in this rich, if sometimes sprawling, collection of paintings, poems, and autobiographical narratives of Texan-Mexican-American women.
For a mixed-genre anthology, there’s a rather large amount of poetry, much of it quite good and refreshingly political. The latter is a quality looked down upon in poets in the United States — but elsewhere in Latin America and Europe, poetry has cultivated a broader following for its willingness to engage and incorporate contemporary events.
For instance, in “Growing Up in Laredo,” Raquel Valle-Sentíes uses her poem to depict a rowdy border town through a roll call of Spanglish phrases. The poem is narrated by a chorus of chatty teenage girls who look for romance and adventure on Saturday nights in a community so unapologetically norteño that in place of burritos and nachos, the snack shacks serve cabrito con frijoles borrachos [roasted goat with “drunken beans”]. Even mariachi is suspect; the locals prefer the raw country caterwaul of ranchera ballads.
Emmy Pérez performs a similar feat with a lyrical prose-poem paean to a more well-known border town, “El Paso of Native Americans who speak Spanglish ... El Paso of every city on the globe. El Paso of how I feel when I write and think about you, about justicia and writers unafraid ... El Paso where refineries flame in the middle of the street and greet us with filthy besos.”
Though the sample of visual artists and painters in this anthology is smaller, the reproduced full-color artwork is well curated. Foremost among these artists is Celeste De Luna, whose woodcuts and oil paintings feature headstrong women, mothers and daughters. In I don’t know why everyone says they’re endangered, because they’re all over the place at my house (2008), a young girl and her stick horse sit on the tailgate of a pickup truck (“Tejana” decal visible on the back window, of course), surrounded by Texas horned lizards that emanate tiny cartoon hearts. It’s dead serious and totally whimsical at the same time, the sort of art that takes a grade-school girl’s imagination and strivings as seriously as anything else in the world.
Another knockout painting, De Luna’s oil canvas titled Corazón de melón, features a young mom, every bit intimidating as she is nurturing, clutching her shirtless toddler daughter who looks at her mom as if she were a hero. Mother and daughter are flanked by a Day-Glo-radiant Virgen de Guadalupe and a ripe, cut cantaloupe to illustrate an ironic, domestic portrait of two females who, it seems, will never be confined to their roles inside a house, by any means.
On the flip side, paintings from Carmen Lomas Garza are positively Chicana Grandma Moses in their depictions of South Texas Tejano family life in the 1950s. Folksy, nostalgic, and utterly concerned with preserving local Río Grande Valley traditions, her paintings conjure up a tamalada (communal tamale preparation) and lovingly depict a curandera healing a sick woman in her well-appointed bedroom, as her young son looks on from the foot of the bed.
“The healing goes beyond attending to surface physical ailments; it is a soul healing,” write the editors of this anthology, whose work is also included. Co-editor Norma Elia Cantú, an English professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, is known in Tejana and Chicana literary circles for Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, a 1995 book that was recently reprinted by the University of New Mexico Press, because of its enduring popularity some 20 years after its first publication. Co-editor Inés Hernández-Ávila, a professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis, includes a narrative piece about her mixed roots as the daughter of a Mexican-American father and a Nez Perce (Nimi’ipuu) mother.
Though I wish there were a better organization of these pieces — perhaps by region in Texas, publication date, or even theme — the editors have brought together a truly impressive array of Tejana female artists, giving equal time to established names and rising stars.