Writing Poetry About Borderlands to Bring Down Walls and Build Connections
Illustrator: David Bacon
Where in the world do you find 11-year-olds in high-water sweatpants and Roblox shirts sharing space with savvy 14-year-olds with the latest fashions, jaded affects, and acerbic senses of humor? Middle school. Middle school is a strange no-man’s-land between childhood and adolescence. It’s a time full of transitions — all of 6th grade is about coming in and all of 8th grade is preparing to leave again.
Beyond moving buildings and school levels, it’s also the time when kids hit puberty and sprout up in height, grow out of their clothes more quickly than they can get new ones, and continue the journey of figuring out who they are. They move between social groups and try on different personas. Am I an athlete? Am I a scholar? Am I a cool kid, nerdy kid, band kid, art kid? Am I bullied? Am I the bully? They cross these lines many times in their self-explorations.
One year I decided to open my 8th-grade co-taught language arts class by having students read the poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” by Gloria Anzaldúa, a Queer Chicana feminist theorist and scholar (see poem on p. 45). I had read the poem in grad school and had been floored by Anzaldúa’s words. As a white person, she opened my eyes to a perspective of being multiracial and multi-ethnic, with lines like “To live in the Borderlands means knowing/ that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years/ is no longer speaking to you.” And as a nonbinary person (though this was many years ago, and I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to articulate my identity), I saw myself reflected in her lines about a queered experience of gender, “half and half — both woman and man, neither — a new gender.” When I first read this poem, I didn’t know yet what to do with it, but I knew that it spoke to me on a deep level.
During an Oregon Writing Project summer institute I worked with Coco Vernon, a middle school language arts teacher, to develop a writing lesson around Anzaldúa’s poem. Students would explore what borderlands mean in a variety of contexts and ultimately write their own poems. We imagined students writing about being on the cusp of adolescence, or having moved from elementary to middle school, or maybe about bridging social groups. This was also in the first year of Trump’s presidency, and a year when calls of “Build the wall!” rang out on TV, radio, across the internet, and in the hallways of my middle school. We thought this could be a way to disrupt the idea of borders as inherent, eternal, and fundamental boundaries. We wanted students to start thinking about the ways all of us cross many borders, and all of us have borders that cross over us, in the way the U.S.-Mexico border has moved and changed over time. We all have ways we exist across, and between, or at the edges. Following that summer, I used our co-created unit to begin the school year with my 8th-grade language arts class.
Coco had curated a gallery walk to open the unit. She selected a number of images to help prime the students for this idea of borders and the ways that duality can exist on many levels. She had an image of a drag queen half done up in makeup; an image of Clark Kent transforming into Superman; the painting “Tree of Hope, Remain Strong,” by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; a photograph of Lan Su Chinese Garden situated in downtown Portland, juxtaposed with skyscrapers; a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico border; and “The Problem We All Live With” by Norman Rockwell. We also included images from magazines, a picture of a sushi burrito, and maps showing the history of territory borders in the United States. As students examined the images, I asked them to record observations, make connections between images, and pose questions in a three-column note sheet.
Then we read the following quote by Enrique Lamadrid, a folklorist from New Mexico:
We continually negotiate our identity, every day of our lives, every time we open our mouths. My name is Enrique Lamadrid. I’m from New Mexico. Every time I open my mouth, I have to decide whether to talk to people in Spanish or English. When I was growing up, to some people I was Rick, to other people Enrique. It’s a dual identity, but it’s not cut in the middle. Both of these ends meet, and there is a unity to all of that. All of us have experienced that, I’m sure.
My co-teacher Shelley and I then asked students to do a quick-write on the prompt: “In what ways do you constantly negotiate your identity? In what ways do you feel an in-betweenness? Are there borders that exist in your life? Do you cross them? Intersect them? Merge them?”
Students discussed their answers with partners and then shared out with the whole class. Some borders they described were on and off the football field, how they acted at school vs. at home, moving from Mom’s house to Dad’s house.
After they’d had this time to work with the idea of borderlands in a few different ways, I passed out the poem. We read it together twice — first, I read it aloud, and then students read aloud, stanza by stanza.
As I often do before reading bilingual poems with my students, I reminded them: “I’m going to do the best I can with the Spanish parts, but I may mess it up. If you are like me and speak only English, I ask that you do your best to read those parts.” I had had experiences before in which monolingual students would freeze up upon encountering a word in another language, and throw up their hands saying, “I can’t read this!” or “Well, whatever that word is!” I wanted monolingual students to do their best and to take it seriously instead of simply proclaiming they couldn’t. Bilingual and multilingual students face the task of reading words from other languages all the time; the least we can do as monolingual English speakers is make a genuine attempt.
In a perfect world I would co-read these poems with students who speak Spanish, but at the beginning of the school year it often hasn’t worked well. I teach many students with reading and writing disabilities; some multilingual students have reading disabilities that impact both their Spanish and English. Some students have only ever had reading and writing instruction in English, and aren’t yet Spanish readers. In addition, in my predominantly white, predominantly English-speaking school, I have found that my Spanish-speaking students don’t always feel safe reading and speaking Spanish in front of their classmates. As the year goes on, we develop relationships, trust, and a community where they can know their multilingualism will be celebrated, not disrespected. My hope is that starting out the year with a multilingual poem helps them to know that multilingualism is something that is valued in our class.
After we read the poem, I asked, “So what do you notice about the structure? Share with your partner, and then we’ll share out as a whole group.”
This is a challenging poem for middle school students, but I wanted to try this anyway. Maybe I’m not supposed to say this as a teacher, but I think it’s OK if students read a text and don’t really “get” all of it. I think it’s OK if they still don’t “get” all of it even after they’ve worked with it several times, as long as they get some of it, as long as they have some footholds, places to grab on to. That’s part of what makes some poems and stories so great — we get a little more each time we go back. And they can transform for us the older we become and the more life experience we have. Maybe they would only “get” some of it as 8th graders, but maybe it would linger for some of them. Maybe they’d encounter this poem again in high school or college and chip off a little more of it to put in their pockets.
When we came back together as a whole group, I took notes on a Google slide added to our class slides that I used for targets and directions, to collect our knowledge together. “What did you and your partner notice about the structure of the poem?” I asked.
“There’s more than one language,” said Derek.
“There’s a line that repeats at the beginning of each paragraph,” said Gretchen.
“Stanza,” I replied. “In poetry those chunks, or paragraphs, are called stanzas.” I like to slip in vocabulary this way, where we can use it in a discussion, instead of as a list of definitions to memorize.
“It repeats at the beginning of each stanza,” Gretchen corrected.
“And what is that line?” I asked. I like students to get as specific as possible. It helps to have specific lines or words from the poem up on our list, so that students can find that specific spot in the poem later on.
“To live in the borderlands means . . .” she replied.
“Wait, no, it changes!” said Lana. Excellent! I thought. They’re already beginning to grasp some of the ebbs and flows of this poem. It starts out with “to live,” but then changes to “Living in” and then simply “In the borderlands,” and then ends with “To survive the borderland.” “Oh, and there’s this one, the one that starts with ‘Cuando . . .’ in another language, maybe that means ‘To live in the borderlands’ in Spanish?” wondered Grace.
“Does anyone know?” I asked. I knew from having Alonzo in class the previous year that he did speak Spanish and would know, but he stayed silent and avoided my eyes. I let the question hang — sometimes it’s OK if the monolingual speakers have questions. (I will add that some of the key Spanish words were translated to English at the bottom of the poem.) When teaching other bilingual poems I have sometimes spent time with students using Google translate to look up words and construct meaning together when we had no one in the class who spoke Spanish, which I think can be a fruitful exercise as long as we understand and grapple with the limits of Google translate. In this moment, I wanted to keep the momentum of the lesson moving.
We continued to analyze the structure of the poem, and students noticed that many metaphors were used. We then moved on to analyze the content of the poem. This was more challenging for them, as Anzaldúa writes in a beautifully abstract way. My first attempt to have them read through the whole thing with their partner, take notes, and share out as a class, like we did with analyzing structure, fell flat on its face.
“What did you and your partner notice about content?” I prompted. Crickets. Silence. And not the kind of silence where you know they’re just afraid to speak, but the kind of silence where you know they don’t have any answers, the kind where you know you’ve got some backing up to do.
“OK, new idea,” I said. “Let’s number the stanzas. I’m going to assign each table a stanza, and your task will be to determine what the content or job of that stanza is. Then we’ll share out as a group.” A small chunk of complex text can be a lot more manageable than the whole thing, and each stanza in this poem addressed a different theme or aspect or way of experiencing borders within one’s self. The next share out went much better.
“In our stanza she talks about food,” said Sky. “Chili in the borscht, and whole wheat tortillas.”
“Ours was about violence, I think?” offered Dan. “It talked about guns and a rope crushing your throat. It seems like it’s about violence.”
“This stanza was about how other people might treat you,” shared Hunter. “Because it says here ‘people walk through you’ — like maybe you’re being ignored, no one sees you.”
We continued on and made a big list of all the ways the border showed up for Anzaldúa — in food, accents, heritage and family history, vices, how seen and treated by others, and life experiences. I added these notes to the class Google slide.
“Eventually you’ll be writing your own poem!” I said. I was naively excited and wasn’t prepared for the backlash.
“What!” shouted Derek. “I can’t write a poem like this!” Oops, I thought. Too soon. Sometimes you have to gently warm kids up to the idea that they’ll be writing. And at this stage in the game they weren’t ready yet.
“Not yet!” I said. “Don’t worry, we’ll get there, it’s coming down the road.” I hoped they’d trust me that I would make sure by the time it was time for them to write that they’d feel ready to write.
We then read two more poems, “Gentrification Is When,” by Cathy Arellano, and my own borderland poem “To live between poor and doing fine” about my experiences moving from my lower-income childhood to a more middle-income adulthood.
I love pairing the “Gentrification Is When” poem with “To live in the Borderlands means you” because structurally they’re quite different but Arellano’s poem gets at a similar experience of duality. Her poem has couplets where each line shows a juxtaposition created by gentrification, like “you stroll carefree through my neighborhood/ i’m arrested while driving through yours.” Having stanzas made up of just one couplet can also make the task of writing a poem more accessible.
Sharing my own poem was important not only to provide another model of a poem, but to start the relationship-building process with my students early. I was co-teaching this class with Shelley, another language arts teacher, but we were in her room, so I was already on an uneven footing. I wanted to make a connection with students right off the bat. I was taking a risk with this poem too, and wanted to make clear right away that this could be a place where they might take risks, where they might want to show parts of themselves that they didn’t show all the time. My poem about growing up poor would make me stick out in our affluent school. I also knew that it would be an important point of connection for the kids who were there, in my classroom, who were also growing up poor. Mine includes the stanza:
To live between poor and doing fine means you
Put on your nice clothes but always feel shabby inside
Like everyone can see the worn spots, the holes, the rips
Dents, rust, and duct tape
Holding you together
After reading the two models, I asked students to look at what was similar to Anzaldúa’s poem, and what was also different. Then it was time to brainstorm.
Depending on what “borderland” someone chooses, the content will be quite different. Shelley and I gave some general ideas for categories, pulling from the content list we had compiled as a class from all three poems we’d read: food, life experiences, memories, emotions. But we also had to visit with many students individually to help them generate ideas.
“My borderland is “being a good reader who can’t write,” said Mason. He was a charming, bright student who had a disability. “But I don’t know what to brainstorm . . . food and memories don’t really match with mine.”
“Let’s think about the aspects of both that are the same,” I said. “Both deal with pages, and words. Can you think about how pages and words are different when you’re writing versus when you’re reading?” I asked.
“When I’m reading the words are like . . . I know them well, like they’re friends and family. But when I’m writing, it’s like they all run away and hide,” he said.
“Oh my gosh, Mason, write that down right now, that’s a line of a poem!” I exclaimed.
“Can I just start writing?” asked Gretchen. “I know what I want to write about, and I think I’ve done enough brainstorming.”
“Yes, of course!” I said, remembering when most of them had looked horrified a few days before when I told them they’d be writing their own poems. “If anyone else is ready to start writing, don’t let me hold you back, start writing!”
We spent another couple of days in class writing, giving students small chunks of time to write and revise in between other beginning-of-the-year projects and activities. My co-teacher and I read bits of students’ work as they asked, and helped students along who were stuck.
Then it was time to share. This was the first big writing project of 8th grade and the first time these students would be sharing their writing with each other. I hoped they would be brave and kind. I knew hope wasn’t enough, so we took time to share our expectations for feedback on this first round of writing. “We are only giving positive feedback right now — we have to love each other up! I know a lot of you are feeling nervous about reading your poem to the class. We will support each other through this,” I said.
Derek shared about going from the football field to the classroom, and I suddenly saw him in a new light. “The difference between a sport player on vs. off the field is that you can drop your shoulder and just crack someone, get back up and get ready for the next play, vs. you running down the hallway, hitting someone, and being late to your next class because you stayed to help them pick up all their stuff.” I wanted to laugh, because I was thinking of all the times he’d been late to class, and the times I’d seen him run into kids in the hallway. I had sort of thought he was just clumsy, but now I would picture him in a football uniform anytime I’d see him in the hallway.
Lashonna shared about the realities of living in two different households: “To live between the borders/ Means I’m the/ Oldest in one household and/ The youngest in the other./ To live between the borders/ Means that one/ Parent is strict and/ The other one isn’t.” As she read, many other students nodded in recognition, seeing their own experience in her words.
Jason, a small quiet student who had cerebral palsy and was also often bullied at school, floored us all with his vulnerability: “At home I’m joking and laughing/ at school I never talk/ At home I’m comfortable and happy/ at school I’m not.” You could have heard a pin drop in the room as he read.
Students wrote about chronic illnesses, divorced parents, about juggling the different facets of themselves between being in a classroom and being with friends. None of it was what I expected and all of it was so much better, more real, and more interesting that anything I could have anticipated.
I first wrote this piece before the pandemic, before school shifted online, before the widespread social uprising for Black Lives Matter. Some of the nuance of how I would teach this would be different now. What new borders do we see now? I think of all the demarcations of space that became commonplace in public spaces during this pandemic — stickers to show six feet apart in the checkout line in grocery stores, circles on the ground at outdoor events to show designated spaces for “pods,” how crossing state lines could change if masks were required or not, and even the boundaries and borders of our own relationships, who we hugged and took masks off around and who we didn’t. I think of the invisible borders of white supremacy that crisscross all over our communities: who is “supposed” to be in which neighborhood, who is “allowed” to do what and where, who “belongs” where. What has the past year taught us about the violence of borders — the violence that happens when we cross borders — when we move beyond what is expected and accepted for our identities, how we become vulnerable when we cross borders. And the violence when borders cross over us, dividing us internally, cutting us up, leaving parts behind.
Our class took on a different tone after we shared those poems. We had shown each other parts of ourselves that often went unseen — about our home lives, our passions, our struggles. We could see each other as layered, containing multitudes, instead of the two-dimensional caricatures we can sometimes be reduced to. Together, we had made the journey from not knowing each other to starting to see each other, and we’d started the year.
To live in the Borderlands means you
By Gloria Anzaldúa
are neither hispana india negra española
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;
To live in the Borderlands means knowing
that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
that mexicanas call you rajetas,
that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half — both woman and man,
a new gender;
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;
Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to
resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,
the pull of the gun barrel,
the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;
In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
the border disputes have been settled
the volley of shots have shattered the truce
you are wounded, lost in action
dead, fighting back;
To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
gabacha — a Chicano term for a white woman
rajetas — literally, “split,” that is, having betrayed your word
burra — donkey
buey — oxen
sin fronteras — without borders
From Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Copyright © 1987, 1999, 2007, 2012 by Gloria Anzaldúa. Reprinted by permission of Aunt Lute Books. www.auntlute.com