The autobiographical narrative that runs through Borderlands begins in the Rio Grande Valley, where Gloria Anzaldúa was born and grew up. She attended school in Hargill Texas, which is located very near the border with Mexico. The location of Hargill is circled on this map--which also shows the extent and the ecological diversity of the border regions.
Although Anzaldúa and her family lived in the United States, she wrote in Borderlands that she grew up in a “rural, peasant, isolated mexicanismo.” It was not until many years later, when she attended graduate school, that she came within "an arm’s distance” of “whites.”
There is no record of what Anzaldúa’s childhood home looked like, but photographer Lee Russell made a series of photographs documenting the homes of Mexican farmers in 1939, just three years before Anzaldúa was born—so these photos, which were taken very near Hargill, may give some idea of what she saw while growing up.
Although no one knows whether Aztlan ever physically existed, there is a long-standing legend that the Aztec people originally came from a region located in what is now North America. Some people think the area took up a good part of the American Southwest, and they see support in maps like this one, made by famed cartographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1810.
Even if there was no historic Aztlan, the concept of a cultural homeland that connects the Mexican-Indian heritage of Chicanos with the landscape of North America has attracted strong interest. Anzaldúa uses the idea of Aztlan in Borderlands to provide a mythic setting for parts of the story.
Borderlands is written in what Anzaldúa calls a “new mestiza language.” There are eight different language variants used in the book: standard English, colloquial English, Castilian Spanish (spoken in Spain), Mexican Spanish, Tejano or "Tex-Mex" Spanish, Chicano Spanish, a street slang called Pachuco or caló, and Aztec Nahuatl. By mixing Spanish and English together--and forcing readers to figure out whatever they don't recognize--Anzaldúa illustrates the ways that language divides and often confuses us.
For example, Spanish nouns have genders, while English nouns do not. That alone tells us the two languages reflect different ways of thinking about the world, and we see the same kind of difference in the customs and beliefs of North America and Mexico. But it's not just these linguistic differences that illuminate cultural differences--it's also the way languages are used. The two kinds of English in Borderlands (standard and colloquial) reflect cultural distinctions among American English-speakers. There is an even bigger difference between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish of Mexico. Plus! The three kinds of American Spanish (Tejano, Chicano, and Pachuco) included in Borderlands have significant differences, and Nahuatl is an ancient language quite unlike any of the others.
But even though these languages have many basic differences and started out in radically separate cultures--they have still mixed together over time. In fact, some of our familiar English words actually come from the Nahuatl: avocado, chili, chocolate, coyote, tomato . . .
Various versions of Nahuatl are still spoken in rural areas of Mexico, which are shown by the white spots on this map. The gray spots represent areas where Nahuatl is known to have been spoken in the past.
If you don't know much or any Spanish, Borderlands can look quite daunting. But every reader can get a great deal from the book. Just be willing to experience the ambiguities and mysteries of language: understand what you can and be patient with the rest. After a while you will begin to notice patterns, and you'll get better at interpreting Spanish passages from the context. Although Anzaldúa purposefully does not provide translations in most places (she wanted the English-only reader to struggle!), there are plenty of clues to meaning. It's a challenge, but a rewarding one.