Last quarter I took an English course titled “Something Other Than Other”: Mixed-Race Narratives in the Contemporary Novel, which focused on representations of mixed-race identities in contemporary novels and films. This is my mid-term essay:

ENGL 342

12 February 2007

The Mixed-Race Mestiza of the Contemporary Novel

In her essay, La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a new Consciousness, Gloria Anzaldúa discusses the identity issues surrounding a Mexican women of Spanish and indigenous origins by use of the term mestiza. Anzaldúa defines mestiza as “an ‘alien’ consciousness … of the Borderlands” as a result from biological, cultural, ideological, and racial cross-breeding of Mexican, indigenous, and white (139). Because the mestiza is “[c]radeled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems” she struggles with her identity, is plagued by insecurity and indecisiveness, and remains unable to deny one culture because it is a part of her just as much as the other (Anzaldúa 140). To cope with her cultural conflict the mestiza learns she must stop trying to block opposition by a “counterstance,” and instead break down the borders that once held her in a state of internal war “by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (Anzaldúa 141). By adopting the mestiza consciousness she has become flexible, accepting new perspectives that embraces all and rejects nothing (Anzaldúa 141). She is in continual transformation, deconstructing and re-constructing her conscious self, so as to embody all sides as a truly pluralistic individual (Anzaldúa 142).

Although Anzaldúa’s mestiza identity is very specific in that she only discusses it in terms of the Mexican woman of Spanish and indigenous origins, several contemporary novelists have attempted to broaden the understanding of the mestiza by applying it to any mixed-race individual who faces the dilemma of conflicting cultures and ambivalence. In this expanded sense of the term, the mestiza serves as a metaphor for all mixed-race individuals who discover a new consciousness by “uniting of all that is separate” and thus synthesize all sides of the self (Anzaldúa 141). The contemporary novels My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki and Caucasia by Danzy Senna are two such cases in which a broadened definition of the mestiza is applied. Neither of the main characters in My Year of Meats nor Caucasia is of the Spanish and indigenous descent, yet they both experience the struggles and transformations of the mestiza. Ozeki and Senna refigure Anzaldúa’s concept of the mestiza identity in their novels as an all-encompassing metaphor for mixed-race individuals, a way to transform their idea of self.

In the novel My Year of Meats Ruth L. Ozeki employs the mestiza concept in the identity development of her mixed-race character Jane Takagi-Little. Ozeki’s Jane is a half-white, half-Japanese American woman who describes herself as racially half and “neither here nor there” (314). Her feelings of ambiguity echo those of Anzaldúa’s mestiza who is ungrounded in her identity and “continually walk[s] out of one culture and into another, because [she] is in all cultures at the same time” (Anzaldúa 139). In her frustration, Jane takes a counterstance as a threatened mestiza in response to the attacks on her dualistic or doubled self from either the white or Japanese and declares “I… am… a… fucking… AMERICAN!” (Ozeki 11). She moves toward a mestiza consciousness when she accepts that she is both white and Japanese and develops a tolerance for the contradicting American and Japanese cultures, values, and prejudices. This tolerance is most evident when she obediently lets the Japanese ‘My American Wife!’ producers muddle the truth in her documentaries of Americans based on their preconceived notions and ideals. Jane, however, soon straddles the two cultures and learns to use her “plural personality” or ability to relate to both Americans and Japanese to her advantage when coordinating and directing episodes of ‘My American Wife!’ (Anzaldúa 141). As a documentarian with a dual perspective Jane has the opportunity to correct cross-cultural misunderstandings and contribute to the “breaking down of [cultural] paradigms”—the work of the mestiza (Anzaldúa 141). Jane, although half-white and half-Japanese, is a metaphorical mestiza in the sense that she feels, reacts, and acts analogous to Anzaldúa’s mestiza.

Similarly, Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia applies Anzaldúa’s mestiza concept to the identity transformation of her mixed-race character Birdie Lee. Senna’s Birdie is a half-white, half-black ‘mullata’ child uncertain as to who she is and where she belongs. Because of her hybridity she “undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, and inner war,” just as Anzaldúa’s mestiza (140). Birdie’s ambivalence for both black and white cultures gives her an “anxiety, a gnawing in [her] bowels, a fear” (Senna 64). She often finds herself sitting in a corner chewing on her hair in what Anzaldúa calls “mental and emotional states of perplexity … psychic restlessness” (140). Because of the opposing messages and incompatibility of black and white cultures, Birdie tries twice to hold the concepts or ideas of both cultures in rigid boundaries: She first adopts the language, hairstyles, and clothing of other black children, denying her white side, then later re-labels herself and mimics white children, thus denying her black side. However, like Anzaldúa’s mestiza, she continually finds that because of the contradiction between her two cultures “the borders and walls that are supposed to keep the undesirable ideas out are entrenched habits and patterns of behavior … the enemy within” (Anzaldúa 140). Birdie, although half-black and half-white, is a metaphorical mestiza because she experiences similar hardships to those of Anzaldúa’s mestiza, and because she is waiting for day she would move “effortlessly between the two [cultures]” with a mestiza consciousness (Senna 337).

Contemporary novelists Ruth L. Ozeki and Danzy Senna attempt to expand Anzaldúa’s very specific concept of the mestiza identity in their novels and refigure it as an inclusive metaphor for any and all mixed-race individuals. Ozeki broadens the mestiza concept to include mixed-race individuals of half-white, half-Japaese descent in My Year of Meats. Danzy Senna adds mixed-race individuals of half-black, half-white origins to the mestiza concept. This inclusiveness essentially allows for all racially mixed individuals—not just those of Spanish and indigenous origins—to recognize and use the mestiza way to understand the psychological changes they may be going through, and recognize the importance of learning to “juggle cultures” and “operat[e] in a pluralistic mode” (Anzaldúa 141). It offers a new consciousness for those of mixed-race that will change “the way [they] perceive reality, the way [they] see [them]selves, and the way [they] behave” (Anzaldúa 141). It presents a solution to the identity crisis common for mixed-race individuals; a way to find the self.