Academic journal article MELUS

Transgressing Borders: Puerto Rican and Latina Mestizaje

Academic journal article MELUS

Transgressing Borders: Puerto Rican and Latina Mestizaje

Article excerpt

Judith Ortiz Cofer describes her semi-autobiographical heroine in Silent Dancing as a "cultural chameleon" (Silent Dancing 17). She was born in Puerto Rico and spent her childhood traveling between the island and the United States, switching language, behavior, and cultural context with each move. Even within her Paterson, New Jersey community, she "crossed a border of two countries" by leaving her Puerto Rican-style home and going to her Italian- and Irish-dominated Catholic school (Silent Dancing 125-26). Her ability to translate herself in this way suggests that the narrator, like a chameleon, has a fluid identity that varies with context. By choosing the chameleon as her metaphor, Ortiz Cofer addresses culture in terms of color: the chameleon adapts by changing the hue of its skin. Like other Puerto Rican and Latina/o writers, she uses racial models to describe cultural multiplicity.(1)

The paradigm most often used to describe this multichromatic dynamic is mestizaje. This essay will analyze the work of Rosario Ferre, Ana Lydia Vega, Aurora Levins Morales, and Ortiz Cofer--two writers from each side of the U.S.-Puerto Rican divide--showing how mestizaje problematizes conventions of race, nation, and gender, drawing attention to fluidity within identity rather than singularity.(2) Mestizaje is the Latin American term for the racial and cultural mixture that was produced by the conquest of the so-called "New World," in which European colonizers mixed with the darker-skinned colonized subjects. Originally the term was used to describe the mixture of Spanish and native heritage, but mestizaje has incorporated additional racial elements. Chicana/o theorists in the United States have drawn attention to the Anglo-American additions to their racial and cultural mixture, but they often elide the African lineage in mestizaje. Gloria Anzaldua, one of the most well-known theorists of "mestiza consciousness," does call for Chicana/os to know not only their Indian ancestry but their "afro-mestizaje" too (86). In this rhetoric, however, the African component is separable from mestizaje, an additive, while I would argue that it is inseparable, always present in mestizaje.

Certain usages efface the blackness within mestiza brownness because mestizaje blurs black and white opposition and often obscures the distinction between racial categories. Carol Boyce Davies's study of women's writing in the African diaspora, Black Women, Writing and Identity, borrows formulations of mestiza consciousness for analyzing black women's identities. Yet Davies qualifies her relationship to the mestiza dynamic:

   Still, I am conscious of the way in which "mestizo" or "mestiza" can be
   used as oppressive separation in Latin American communities in order to
   distance one from darker-skinned peoples and others who identify as
   "African," "Afro-," or "Black." The point is that all of these terms carry
   their internal contradictions. (16)

Mestizaje is a paradigm for the "internal contradictions" within identity. Mestiza theory highlights the fusion of differences and provides models for analyzing transracial border-crossings. As an inclusive concept, mestizaje encompasses the multiple cultural, racial, and national elements that meet within peoples of the Americas and highlights the mixtures, negotiations, and frictions that define American history. The diverse color spectrum in Puerto Rico, which results from the Spanish colonization of Arawak and Carib natives and the importation of African slaves, ranges from black to white. While Mexican usage of mestizaje might elide the Africanist presence, this presence is more difficult to forget in the Puerto Rican "diaspora," where African slavery existed on a larger scale. In this essay, I use mestizaje to emphasize the shared complexities between island and mainland identities because the term itself is a bridge, revealing the intimacy between seemingly unlike components. …

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