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Book offers cultural, historical accounts from both sides of U.S.-Mexico border

June 08, 2011

For C. Alejandra Elenes, associate professor at ASU, the words may come easier than for most. What she puts into her work is from the heart and from her upbringing. She writes what she knows, and her most recent effort is no exception to the rule.

Elenes, who teaches in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, has authored “Transforming Borders: Chicana/o Popular Culture and Pedogogy” (Lexington Books) and co-authored with Dolores Delgado Bernal of the University of Utah, “Chicana Feminist Theorizing: Methodologies, Pedagogies and Practices,” a chapter in the third edition of Chicano School Failure and Success: Past, Present and Future. Both deal with issues relating to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“My interest in the border, borderland theories and the relationship between culture and knowledge is the result of my experience growing up in a bilingual, bicultural and transnational family,” says Elenes, who has spent her academic career conducting research, teaching and volunteering her services at ASU’s West campus since 1992. “I am the product of two cultures (Mexican and “American”), religions (Catholic and Protestant) and nations (Mexico and the U.S.).”

Her most recent book, “Transforming Borders,” is a significant contribution to transformative pedagogies scholarship, adding the voices of Chicanas feminist teachings, epistemologies and ontologies to the debate. The author looks at the significance of historical events, such as the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border, to understand the experiences of people of Mexican descent in the United States.

“What I hope this book can contribute is not only to add the voices of Chicanas and other people of color to this scholarship, but that in doing so, we operationalize the commitments to social justice by developing models that integrate and intersect race, class, gender, sexuality, power and privilege,” she says.

Elenes, who has served as a board member of the Arizona Association for Chicanos in Higher Education since 2004, admits the book plays to an academic audience, but also believes it contains lessons for all. “Any person who is interested in popular culture, especially narratives and stories of the people of Mexican descent, will be interested in the book and the histories of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malintzin/Malinche.

“I highlight in ‘Transforming Borders’ how stories change over time and according to who is telling the story,” she says. “I also point out that even though these stories have a long association with patriarchy, they have been reclaimed and re-imaged as feminist and women-centric images.”

Elenes was born in Mexico City and raised in Monterrey in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. Her father was of Mexican descent, while her mother is Anglo-German and from Milwaukee. After her parents’ divorce, she followed her mother back to the city on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan to pursue a graduate-level degree, earning her master's and doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her older brother and sister remained behind in Monterrey; she remembers travelling back and forth between Wisconsin and Mexico.

“My mom would speak to us in English, and we would answer in Spanish,” she says. “She made sure we celebrated Thanksgiving, even though it was not a holiday in Mexico. Even though my mom is Methodist, we were raised in the Spanish-speaking Catholic Church.

“We were always bridging two cultures, languages and religions,” says Elenes, who teaches undergraduate courses in race, class and hender; Latina/Chicana representation; pro-seminar theory and methods in women’s studies; and courses in the New College Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies and Social Justice and Human Rights programs.

“All my life I have crossed linguistic, natural and cultural borders; it was very easy for me to gravitate toward a theoretical framework and a philosophy that allows understanding identities as dynamic and always in the process of changing. This has influenced who I am and my interest in borderland theories as they do speak of my own experience.”

Elenes says the major contributions to Chicana feminist thought comes from an analysis of how Chicana feminist cultural workers have re-imagined La Llorona, La Virgen de Guadalupe and Malintzin/Malinche as feminist and women-centered representations. She points out that the innovative approach is in understanding these representations and re-imagining each as ways of teaching and learning in everyday life, ways of knowing and ways of being. In short, Chicana feminists have re-imagined the three figures in innovative ways; the book places these strategies as pedagogical.

She also proposes in “Transforming Borders” that the creation of the current U.S.-Mexico border in the 19th century shaped the destiny of both countries and also the formation of Mexican and Mexican American (Chicana/o) cultural identities. The border, she says, is a marker of what separates Mexico and the United States, or advanced capitalism separated from the developing world. For people of Mexican descent, the existence of the border is a reminder of the loss of territory to the United States; the historical wound continues to inscribe how people of Mexican descent construct their national identity on both sides of the fence.

“I offer a historical overview, centering on gender, of the formation of the border, contemporary immigration policy in the U.S. (including a discussion of Arizona SB 1070), and how the border region is part and parcel of the processes of globalization and transnationalism,” she notes.

In the classroom, Elenes focuses on showing students the importance of conducting analysis beyond binary thinking, beyond understanding the world only through the lens of opposites. She shares that there are many overlaps between different modes of thinking, ideologies and philosophies, while encouraging her students to embrace ambiguity, no matter how difficult.

“The most important lessons are many,” she says. “I want my students to learn where their ideologies and philosophies come from and to learn and critically assess their world view and know where it comes from.

“When we are able to reflect on our own thinking, we learn to defend it, and to not be offended if someone thinks differently from us,” says Elenes, who earned a 2006 book critics award from the American Educational Studies Association for her co-edited anthology “Chicana/Latina Education in Everyday Life: Feminista Perspectives on Pedagogy and Epistemology.”

“When we believe we know one truth and think we are right, we stop learning and understanding other points of view,” she continues. “This critical examination allows us to understand the role that gender, race, class and sexuality has in our society and in our lives.”