By Mariana Alessandri, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Mexican American Studies Affiliate Faculty at UTRGV
For Latinx philosophers like myself, the field of philosophy oftentimes feels broken. In the world of Humanities, statistically speaking, philosophy is the field with the lowest number of Latinx individuals. It is very much still a field dominated by the voices of Anglo men. Gloria Anzaldúa, however, gives me an idea about how we might go about fixing this issue. Her voice inspires me and other Latinx to speak out, and our voices will populate the discipline of philosophy until they no longer sound foreign.
Although she did not formally study philosophy, Anzaldúa called herself a philosopher, a “feminist-visionary-spiritual-activist-poet-philosopher” to be specific. The first time I read Anzaldúa was in a philosophy class in graduate school at American University. In Borderlands/la Frontera, she wrote about language and about the illegitimacy of her border tongue and border body.
Her words hit close to home.
I am a Chilean-American who up to age 10 had assumed I was Puerto Rican because I lived in New York and spoke something like Spanish called Castellano. I grew up in a peninsula that was made up of Hasidic Jews and Irish immigrants. Growing up, there was not one Chilean around. Although there were a few Latinx individuals, all of them were Americanized. Like many, I was not taught Spanish at home. My fully bilingual parents withheld it from me at the order of an ignorant elementary school teacher. I had a nanny who was Guatemalan. Although she spoke to me in Spanish, I would answer— as I came to find out is very typical of native of the Rio Grande Valley— in English. It took living in Mexico and Spain as an adult before I could consider myself fluent in Spanish. Up until that philosophy class, I had never read about anyone who felt like half-and-half, incomplete in two worlds and complete in none. Ten years after reading Anzaldúa for the first time, I am now living and teaching in the Valley and raising my own children in Spanish.
Although my Anzaldúa moment first happened in that philosophy class at American when I read her chapter on linguistic terrorism and decided that I had to fight to keep the little Spanish I had and to learn more, it has continued throughout my career. As a graduate student, I taught Borderlands at Penn State, which is neither predominantly Latinx nor Spanish or Spanglish-speaking. Needless to say, my Penn students did not like Anzaldúa. They took offense to her language choices and her tone, which they interpreted as angry. Things are different in the Valley. To my students here, Anzaldúa’s words are not hostile but welcoming. Valley students tend to identify with her code-switching and her vivid descriptions of feeling torn in half and orphaned by Mexico and the US. As a philosopher and an educator, there is no greater joy than reading Anzaldúa with students capable of understanding her context.
Today, I am one of the ever-growing number of teachers at UTRGV who would rather teach nowhere else in the world and who feels absolutely privileged to talk to a new generation of thinkers, philosophers even. Whether my students choose to formally pursue philosophy or not, they are helping to fix my broken discipline. Given the demographics, it’s obvious why the themes and subjects that get taught over and over in philosophy classes continue to fail to reach or to inspire Latinx students.
For me, teaching philosophy in the Valley means interrogating what counts as philosophy and reevaluating what a philosopher looks like. When Anzaldúa calls herself a philosopher she is neither exaggerating nor using figurative language. Although she never obtained a philosophy degree she interrupted and changed the discipline.
As far as I am concerned, Anzaldúa’s gift to the Valley was this: to show how important it is for Valley residents to find their varied and multiplicitous voices and to contribute them in some way to our society. If my students follow suit in their fields, they too will interrupt and change their field by contributing their voices to a conversation that has too long been going on without them.
Dr. Alessandri will present at the “Unfolding Social Issues” panel to be held Tuesday, February 27, 2018, from 5 PM – 6:30 PM at the Visitor Center at UTRGV in Edinburg. Among other things, she will draw links between Anzaldúa’s experience studying in the Valley and that of modern-day students who she says, like Anzaldúa, continue to be asked to “fold themselves linguistically in our classrooms.” During her presentation, she will also offer some solutions as to how teachers and students can work together to change this.