Taken from the collection Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ explores Anzaldua’s own heritage and her mixed race identity. It was published in 1987 and includes prose and verse. Anzaldua is an important Chicana writer and theorist who through this work explores themes of identity, conflict, heritage and borders.
Summary of To Live in the Borderlands
At the beginning of the poem, the poet starts by using the line that later became the title. She lists out words someone of mixed race might be called. These are all offensive in some form or another and suggest the power of labels. She expresses her belief that one can’t live by one single label or identity to survive in the borderland.
The poet goes on, explaining the complexities of living with the weight of five races on her back. She understands the fact that she can’t discount or ignore one part of her personal history, whether that part be black or white. The poet also touches on the struggle marginalized groups have, and have had, with alcoholism and suicide and the need to fight back against one’s more dangerous impulses.
‘To Live in the Borderland’ concludes with the poet expressing her belief that one must “be a crossroads” and exist between and within all worlds from which one was born.
Read the full poem here.
Poetic Techniques in To Live in the Borderlands
‘To Live in the Borderlands’ by Gloria Anzaldua is an eight stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. They range in number from three up to eight lines per stanza. There is no specific rhyme scheme that unifies ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ but the poet does make use of several poetic techniques that create a feeling of rhyme and rhythm.
The most prominent technique Anzaldua uses is seen through her choice to combine English and Spanish. Her speaker, who is likely the poet herself, switches back and forth between these two languages without warning. This was done in order to reemphasize the larger themes of the work and the idea that one can exist between two cultures, in a borderland, without wholly subscribing to either side.
She also makes use of alliteration, enjambment, repetition, and metaphor. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “to turn to” in line six of the first stanza and “burra, buey” in line three of the third stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are multiple examples within this work, but some of the most prominent include the transitions between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines four and five of the second stanza.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In the case of ‘To Live in the Borderlands,’ the poet uses a refrain. This is a phrase that repeats within multiple stanzas. The opening line “to live in the borderlands means…” it is utilized word for word, and with some variation, in every stanza of the poem.
This piece is also filled with examples of metaphors. These are comparisons that don’t use “like” or “as” and say that one thing is another. For example, in the fifth stanza, she calls alcohol “golden elixir”. There are also examples of similes, or comparisons using “like” or “as”.
Structure of To Live in the Borderlands
In most versions of this text, the first line of ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ is separate from the follow five. The following sections are indented in, as they are in each stanza. This serves as a clear opening and a way to reemphasize the larger themes of the poem, as seen through the refrain. The refrain is repeated word for word at the beginning of four stanzas and is repeated another three times with variations.
The first lines of ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ begins with the speaker using the line that later became the title. The first line of each stanza forms the basis for a question, what does it mean to live in the borderlands? The bulk of the stanza, whether that’s two or six lines, provide an answer.
Analysis of To Live in the Borderlands
In the first stanza of ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ begins with the poet telling the reader that one is not “hispana,” or Hispanic, or “mestiza” or “mulata.” Mestiza refers to a woman of mixed race, specifically Spanish and Indigenous. “Mulata” is used, usually offensively, to refer to someone of mixed black and white descent. Each of the labels on this list is used as a single descriptor of a particular person and can easily be turned into an insult. But, the poet is pointing out that if one lives in the borderlands they can’t subscribe to any single category.
Someone in the borderland has to be more than just “caught in the crossfire between camps”. This is a metaphor referring to a mental space someone of mixed heritage must navigate between one side of their family and the other. The next lines allude to confusion, disorientation and displacement. The speaker references her own inability to understand who she really is and where she’s from. There is a stress present in her life as she tries to “carry” all her heritage at once.
In the next stanza the speaker expands on the ideas of the first. She considers what it means to have different parts of one’s lineage suppressed, such as the “india” portion in her own life. She juxtaposes the repression of her people with her own juggling of identity. The speaker pulls from real life to briefly mention another name one might be called “rajetas.” This is a Spanish word that in its original form referenced a multicoloured cloth. But, one can see how this might be twisted into an insult thrown at someone of mixed race.
The lines in this stanza, as well as those which proceeded it and follow it, read as thoughts in progress. The poem borders on a stream of consciousness style of narration in which the speaker moves fluidly through their own thoughts. In this case, the speaker is slightly more focused though, considering her own situation and broadening it to speak more universally.
The last lines of the stanza speak on how detrimental it is to deny part of one’s own heritage, whether that be the black part or the white part.
The next stanza of ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ is five lines. It begins with the Spanish phrase “Cuando vives en la frontera” that translates to “When you live at the border”. This is clearly a reiteration of the title refrain that threads its way through the whole poem. These lines lay out some of the other obstacles someone of mixed heritage is going to encounter. They include having people “walk through you” as if they don’t recognize you as a full person. Anzaldua utilizes personification to depict the “wind” stealing one’s voice. This is an allusion to being unable to adequately or successfully articulate one’s own thoughts.
The speaker uses the words “burra” and “buey” as examples of what one might be called by others. They translate loosely to “dumb” and “ox”. “You” are the one who becomes the “scapegoat” for all others. In a continuation of the themes of merging identities, the poet presents another image. This time of “a new gender” someone who is both woman and man.
Moving forward through the stanzas, Anzaldua again reiterates the refrain “To live in the Borderlands means to…” This time she briefly uses food to represent culture and tradition, as well as identity. Different parts of one’s heritage converge and she uses the line “speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent”. This is meant to reference the complexities of one’s own cultural influences. It is followed by a more serious line speaking about “la migra” or migration service at “border checkpoints” and racial profiling.
The fifth stanza speaks to other dangers that are specifically tied to certain groups. These include alcoholism and suicide. The tone becomes much darker in these lines as the speaker addresses one’s need to “fight hard” against the “gold elixir” that is alcohol and the “gun barrel” and throat “crushing” rope.
The inclusion of this stanza in amongst more probing, existential ones that consider one’s place in the world, is interesting. It reminds a reader that one’s own cultural identity or sense of identity is more than skin deep. It can affect people in a variety of ways.
The sixth stanza of ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ is the longest. In this stanza, she addresses how in the borderlands one has to come to terms with the fact that “you are the battleground”. It is within one’s own body and mind that the battles are fought. Often in these situations, “enemies” are also “kin” and visa versa. Sometimes, the places that should be refuges, such as one’s home, ends up being a place where one feels like a stranger.
At home, in this particular scenario, it felt as though things had been settled and one side won out over the other. This leads to feelings of loss, death and the need to continue fighting back.
The seventh stanza contains more violent imagery. Through similes and metaphors, the speaker explains how the world wants to consume and transform “you” until you roll out “smelling like white bread but dead”. The poet utilizes mill imagery in order to depict a mental stripping down and removal of one’s identity and heritage. This is the process the world, those who use words like “mulata” and “halfbreed” would like to impose on people like the poet who have ancestors that come from different backgrounds.
There is a very poignant contrast in this stanza between the “white teeth” of the machine and “your olive-red skin”. The fourth line is without punctuation and is also enjambed. This forces a reader to move through it quickly. It also helps to emphasize the violence and sudden, imposed transformation alluded to through the extended mill metaphor.
The internal rhyme in line five is very effective. It sounds like a conclusion, but it isn’t. With the semicolon, the reader is led into the final stanza of three lines.
The eighth stanza of ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ is simple. It contrasts quite beautifully with those that came before it. It’s only three lines long. It also has the real answer to the speaker’s drawn-out enquiry into what one needs to do to survive in a borderland. “You must” she states, “live sin fronteras,” or, without borders. You must “be a crossroads” in order to survive. It’s only through embracing all aspects of one’s life that that life will be a success.