as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 15, 2023
I press my hand to the steel curtain–
chainlink fence crowned with rolled barbed wire–
rippling from the sea where Tijuana touches San Diego
unrolling over mountains
this “Tortilla Curtain” turning into el rio Grande
flowing down to the flatlands
of the Magic Valley of South Texas
its mouth emptying into the Gulf.
1,950 mile-long open wound
dividing a pueblo, a culture,
running down the length of my body,
staking fence rods in my flesh,
splits me splits me
me raja me raja
This is my home
this thin edge of
But the skin of the earth is seamless.
The sea cannot be fenced,
el mar does not stop at borders
To show the white man what she thought of his arrogance,
Yemaya blew that wire fence down.
This week we continue our series “Lives of the Spirit” on some of the great spiritual activists of the twentieth century with the Chicana writer and queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa. It was she who felt that the Texas border as an “an open wound … running the length of my body.” And it was she who sought to take the experience of living at, growing in, being on “a border culture” where “the lifeblood of two worlds” merge “to form a third” to develop a new kind of spirituality. This she called “a new mestiza consciousness … a consciousness of the Borderlands.”
Because I, a mestiza,
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am in all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio
Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan
My soul caught between two, three, four worlds,
my head buzzes with the contradiction.
I am buzzing with all of the voices
that talk to me simultaneously.
That is the Spanish for you.
The word mestiza means to mix. Historically, it is a term that has referred to the children of parents who come from two different ethnicities: one European Spanish; the other indigenous. For Anzaldúa the word meant that, yes, but it also symbolized the wisdom that came from “straddling two or more cultures” and learning, from them, to “change … the way we perceive reality … [to create] a new consciousness.” For her this meant mixing customs, traditions, religions, words from the “Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian.” What might it mean for you? What mix of identities do you carry?
It is a central claim of our sermon series that a mystic is someone who finds something of the universal, the infinite, within the experience of the particular. Put another way, Anzaldúa understood a truth about what it means to be human in our age of dislocation and disruption. It is always to be living at the borders between one identity and another, between one country and another. When asked to describe herself she would name herself “A third world lesbian feminist with Marxist and mystic leanings.”
The borders between one identity and another, for Anzaldúa, the borders were both material and metaphorical.
The material, living in Texas, the material borders which Anzaldúa invoked, which she found inscribed into her very flesh, are familiar to many of us. She grew up in the Rio Grande Valley at a time when it was easy to cross from one country to another. The blood of some four cultures flowed through her veins: African, indigenous, Español, Anglo, there was something of each within her.
To show the white man what she thought of his arrogance,
Yemaya blew that wire fence down.
Yemaya is a divine being from the Yoruba peoples of present-day Nigeria. She made her way to the Western Hemisphere with the slave ships and serves as one of the Orishas–spirits–of Vodou, Santeria, and many other African inspired traditions that came from the encounter between the blood of one continent and another. Patron orisha of the waters–be they sweet streams and brooks or salt seas and oceans–she is slow to anger. Yet when roused she can unleash her rage with all the turbulence of a flooding river.
Yemaya blew that wire fence down.
In this era, this now, this time in which we live, Anzaldúa seems to suggest, all borders will ultimately crumble. The dividing lines will be erased and something new will be born.
The metaphorical, the borders which Anzaldúa named do not begin in the physical realm. They start within us. Once they take form inside our imaginations, we strive to give them material existence. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” her words.
To live in the Borderlands means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints.
The universal within the particular, there are more migrants living in the world today than at any other time in human history. In 2022, the United Nations counted 281 million people who resided outside of their country of origin. That is almost 4% of the human population, or 1 our of every 25 of us. Of the world’s migrants close to half are refugees–people who departed their homelands for reasons that were other than voluntarily, who fled violence, economic instability, or climate crisis.
Dislocation and disruption are defining characteristics of our age. We are all mixed up. Every city is the home of not one culture or ethnicity but many. Drive from one side of Houston to another and you will encounter signs in a dozen languages and find invitations to sample even more cuisines. Walk into any room and it is likely that many of the people you meet will be from some place other than here. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, California, New York, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, members of our congregation come from all over the United States. Pakistan, Mexico, Cuba, Germany, China, India, Uruguay, Brazil, members of our congregation come from all over the world.
We are all mixed up. Between my household and my parent’s household I count connections to four different spiritual or religious traditions: Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Ifa, and Unitarian Universalism. What about you? What religious and cultural traditions make up your families? Your groups of friends?
It is hard these days to find people whose families are all purely from one culture. The borderlands, the places where one culture rubs against the next, are seemingly everywhere. I was reminded of this last summer when I was in Oxford for a research seminar. There were about twenty of us. We came from all over–the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, South Korea, South Africa, Romania, it was quite a mix.
For reasons that are unclear, one of the largest contingents was a group of professors from universities affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints. These guys–and they were all men–were really devote and deeply immersed in Mormon culture. It would probably be fair to call them as super Mormons. I do not say that facetiously but rather because I cannot easily think of another way to describe them. They all traced their lineages back to the earliest generation of converts to the church. They lived in Utah. They were leaders in their congregations. They had chosen to teach to schools run by their faith community. They followed the religion’s strictures–no tea at teatime, no sherry with the faculty, thank you very much!
They were curious about Unitarian Universalism. And here I should probably mention that the seminar I was part of took place at Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. Though it now has no denominational affiliation, it was founded more than two hundred and fifty years ago as a seminary to train Unitarian ministers. It has the strongest collection on global Unitarian and Universalist theology in the world, something that the head research librarian always highlights when she meets with visiting scholars.
Our Mormon friends had had very little exposure to our religious tradition. So, naturally, they asked me to explain it. I spoke about Unitarian Universalism’s non-creedal nature, openness to religious pluralism, and practice of covenant to unite our congregations. I told them how we have decided that we need not think alike to love alike, as the phrase misattributed to the seventeenth century Transylvanian Unitarian theologian Frances David goes, and that as a religious community we are more concerned with how we treat each other and act in the world than we are about arguing over who has the correct belief system.
I got the response from them I often get from people who are believers in the one true God. “Well, that does not sound much like a religion at all,” they scoffed.
One of them was a bit more introspective. “Actually,” he said, “it sounds a bit like my family at Christmas. Not my brothers and sisters or my parents or anything like that but my children. They have all left the church,” he sighed sadly, “and married outside of it. When the whole family gets together, it now feels like the United Nations. My wife and I have a Jewish son-in-law, a daughter-in-law who was raised Hindu, and an adult child who has rejected the church’s teachings on gender and identifies as trans.”
His comparison of Unitarian Universalism to his family at Christmas was not meant as a compliment. Our friend was clearly quite distressed about the diversity within his familial life. I rather thought it was quite wonderful but had the wisdom to keep quite on that point rather than provoke an argument. The thing that it reminded me was that in our contemporary hour it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain cultural purity. The world is just too mixed up. Indeed, I want to suggest, and I will get to this a bit later, that many of the world’s conflicts come from trying to preserve cultural purity at a time when tonight for dinner I can have Indian, Italian, Nigerian, Cajun, Japanese, or, really, almost whatever I want. Whichever meal I decide upon, it is likely I will encounter someone from each of those–or other than those–communities as I go about my day. Is that not your experience? That we are constantly engaging with people whose cultures of origin are other than our own? Maybe you are in an interfaith or an interracial relationship. Maybe you have friends from a diversity of backgrounds. Maybe your co-workers come from a variety of countries. In these days, the borderlands, the places where one culture crosses into, mixes, with another are everywhere. Life for most of us is a bit like Anzaldúa described:
In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
One of the strengths of the Unitarian Universalist tradition is that we lean into the mixing of the world rather than away from it. Our movement has long been what scholars of religion call a “hybrid religion.” As I have shared with you before, Unitarian theology arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries amongst people living at the borderlands between Christian and Jewish or Christian and Muslim communities. These religious ancestors of ours believed that everyone was a child of God–regardless of religious persuasion–and that the path to peace was to recognize that we are all children of the same God. In celebrating this recognition, they drew not only from Christian sources but from the sources and traditions of their non-Christian neighbors.
They were, in some sense, practitioners of what Anzaldúa names spiritual mestizaje. Drawing on her experience as a queer bilingual person of color, she understood herself as someone engaged in the “transfer [of] ideas and information from one culture to another.” She took her own mixed nature are a testimony that “blending … proves that all blood is intricately woven together, and that we are spawned out of similar souls.”
We are spawned out of similar souls, it is worth saying something of Anzaldúa’s biography.
She was born in Harlingen, less than twenty miles from the United States Mexico border and barely thirty miles from the ocean. Her family had lived on those South Texas lands six generations. She was part Mexican, part indigenous, part Anglo, and a bit African, a reflection of the mixing that took place within those borderlands.
forerunner of a new race,
half and half–both woman and man, neither–
a new gender;
She knew she was queer from the earliest of her days. As a child, a hormonal imbalance caused her to go through puberty at only six years of age. She never felt fully comfortable with either the male or female gender. Reflecting on her earliest engagements with “the eyes of others” she found herself labeled, her words, “QUEER … [and] retreated into books and solitude.”
That might be a familiar experience to some of you. She took it as an invitation or an imperative, I am not quite sure, to invent herself out of all of the mix of identities she lived with. Her text, “being a tomboy and wearing boots, being unafraid of snakes and knives, showing my contempt for women’s roles, leaving home to go to college, not settling down and getting married, being a politica, siding with the Farmworkers,” she took the blend that she was and offered up her life as an attempt to create someting new, something that would heal the wounds that emerged when borders, when cultures, rubbed against each other. “We can no longer … disown the white parts, the male parts, the pathological parts, the queer parts, the vulnerable parts.” Embracing all of the elements of her identity was an opportunity, she believed, to “reshape … spiritual identity.”
Educated first in a public school system that forbade her from speaking in Spanish, she went to college at the University of Texas Pan American and then earned a Master’s degree from the University of Texas Austin. From there she moved to California where she took up the life of a full-time writer. Poet, essayist, manufacturer of literary fiction, her most famous text is Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza. It is credited as a foundational work within Chicana and Latinx studies, queer theory, disability studies, and feminism. In it, she sought to create a revolutionary spiritual freshness from the diversity that she was. Few books in the last decades have been as influential.
Perhaps this was because, for her, writing was a spiritual practice. She saw the role of the poet as similar to that of a shaman observing, “the role of the shaman is … to preserve and create cultural … identity by mediating the cultural heritage of the past and … present everyday situations.” It was “through metaphor,” she thought, that we “perserve ourselves.” It was through metaphor, she argued, that we “change ourselves.”
“The resistance to change in a person is in direct proportion to the number of dead metaphors that person carries,” she believed. She sought, through her writing practice, to create new metaphors, metaphors that would cast out false visions of purity, embrace blended diversity, and offer hope and healing. Here is a description of her writing as spiritual practice:
I sit here before my computer, Amiguita, my altar on top of the monitor with the Virgen de Coatlalopeuh candle and copal incense burning. My companion, a wooden serpent staff with feathers, is to my right while I ponder the ways metaphor and symbol concretize the spirit and etherealize the body.
The ways metaphor and symbol concretize the spirit and etherealize the body, an invitation to pay attention to these, and then create new metaphors and symbols, is one of the gifts this spiritual activist offers us. She invites into a practice that emerges by embracing, rather than rejecting, the blending of cultures that occur at the borderlands. Instead of seeking a purity that is impossible to find in a world that is all mixed up she encourages us to “live sin fronteras.”
What borderlands do you live at? What cultures or identities are in your life and family? How might you “live sin fronteras” and embrace the distinctive elements of you in your life? Is there healing to be found, for you, by doing so? Certainly, there was for Anzaldúa who sought to create a new synthesis from opening herself to the knowledge:
… the skin of the earth is seamless.
The sea cannot be fenced,
el mar does not stop at borders
It seems wise not to end the sermon quite there but rather with a comment about what we humans suffer–the pain and horrors we inflict upon each other–by refusing to embrace the truth I just named. How many of our conflicts, our disruptions, and dislocations are due to trying to preserve a fleeting purity in the face of human diversity? Here I think of the damage that is done by trying to maintain a certain kind of citizenship–and a certain set of borders–here in the United States by erecting physical boundaries on the metaphors we call the border between Texas and Mexico. And here I think of the horrific conflict, the humanitarian disaster, and tit for tat war crimes, unfolding in Gaza. How much of the conflict in Israel-Palestine can be attributed to a desire for powerful voices in both communities to remain pure? To have land and culture that is Jewish and not Palestinian? Or not Palestinian and not Jewish? Perhaps the path to peace lies through embracing the blending of cultures rather than rejecting it?
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
My speculations on the Middle Eastern conflict might be useless. It is hard right now to imagine that there will be a path towards peace or that Israel or Hamas will heed the United Nations call for a ceasefire. It seems likely that one of the worst ethnic cleanings in memory–and that is a phrase used by a United Nations expert–is underway.
But what Anzaldúa offers us–whether we are Chicana or not–is the opportunity to develop a new kind of spirituality from the reality of our age. We all live on borderlands. Borders are permeable. We can refuse to recognize this and futilely try to maintain barriers and fences. Or we can open ourselves to being crossroads, places for mixing and creating something new. What shall we choose?
“Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” Anzaldúa’s words end my sermon and offer the congregation the opportunity to say Amen.