Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Ever Changing Border Between Sea and Sand

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderland’s/ La Frontera is a very interesting, paradoxical book. It is very much about the “topography of displacement,” as Sonia Saldívar-Hull puts it in the introduction (2), but there is more to it than just this. The heart of the book comes in the first chapter, where Anzaldúa writes, “I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean/ where the two overlap/ a gentle coming together/ at other times and places a violent crash” (23). Borderlands is very much concerned with the physical and psychological effects of cultural identity, or the loss of such.

While reading this I was reminded of a time during the summer when I was at the beach. Planted in the sand were a set of red and green flags, designated markers signifying where people were allowed to swim—outside of the flags was off limits. The space between the flags was very small though, and people were corralled within so much that the area resembled a municipal pool. I considered these people fools, resigning themselves to 100 feet of water when they were surrounded by a vast, virgin ocean. I understood that the flags had a purpose; they were within view of the lifeguard stand and facilitated the job of the lifeguards. I preferred to swim at my own risk, free of the discomfort caused by inevitably strangers careening into me.

Intermittently while swimming outside the flags, lifeguards would drive by on ATV’s and yell at anyone swimming to come out of the water. I’d oblige and then go back in as soon as they left. One day though, I watched as they instructed a person to leave and go swim in the designated area. The man in the water stood with his back turned to the guard, acting as if he didn’t hear a word he said. The guard grew agitated and started whistling at him, shouting, flailing his arms. He looked helpless to this man’s back. The balance of power had shifted to the man in the water simply because he remained defiant. Eventually he turned around and stared at the lifeguard. The guard told him to leave the water once more, yet he stood there, blank and unwavering. After a moment of tension, the guard just threw up his hands and drove away. It was such an odd thing to see, yet it made perfect sense. Though the lifeguard was there to protect people, he had no real authority over the water.

Water is a unique object in our world, it covers most of the earth yet we fail to have dominion over it. It is a transient and dynamic force, ever moving and changing. Anzaldúa writes, “The sea cannot be fenced,/ el mar does not stop at borders” (25). The water is much like her borderlands, a place described as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (25). This is an important concept to consider in conjunction with our oceans, because they cover more than two thirds of our planet. The majority of our world is essentially a borderland.

I think that this contributes to what Anzaldúa refers to as the “shadow beast.” She writes, “There is a rebel in me—the Shadow-Beast. It is a part of me that refuses to take orders from outside authorities. It refuses to take orders from my conscious will […] At the least hint of limitations on my time or space by others, it kicks out with both feet” (38). Humankind really lives in an uncertain state, a borderland. No matter what we do to create comfort, there is always a primordial fear that it will be taken away from us. This is why one of the primal archetypes common to humanity is the fear of the unknown. We are all migrants of some sort, perhaps just very far removed from the experience. Anzaldúa is dealing with this experience as an existent problem. While most of us were spared the problem of integration by our ancestors, she is experiencing it in the present. This experience though, is part of every human. Whether Irish immigrants coming to Ellis Island or nomadic natives crossing the Bering Strait, a large majority of humanity can relate to Anzaldúa. We all fear the unknown, the reality of living in a borderland—between here and there. That is why over the summer as I watched some stranger resist imposed authority I understood. There are some places we simply cannot have dominion over, no matter how much we will it.

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