Her well known book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, was inspired by her own life experiences and incorporates the feelings of social and cultural marginalisation that she experienced throughout her life.
Gloria was born in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. She was a descendant of many of the prominent Spanish explorers and settlers to come to the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and also had indigenous descent. The surname Anzaldúa is of Basque (Spanish) origin.
Her family moved to Texas when she was eleven, where they experienced much discrimination. Her father passed away two years later. Despite this, Gloria continued in education and obtained a B.A. in English, Art, and Secondary Education from Pan American University, and an M.A. in English and Education from the University of Texas at Austin
Gloria was born with an endocrine condition, which resulted in her growth being stunted aged 12 and menstruation beginning at just three months of age. Her mother dressed her in special girdles to conceal her early onset womanly shape and would place cloths inside her underwear daily. At the age of 38, Gloria opted for a hysterectomy due to ovarian abnormalities. Reflecting upon her illness, she stated: ‘I was born a queer.’
Following her studies, Gloria worked as a preschool and special education teacher. In 1977, she moved to California, where she supported herself through her writing, lectures, and occasional teaching stints about feminism, Chicano studies, and creative writing at San Francisco State University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, Florida Atlantic University, and other universities.
Gloria co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) with Cherríe Moraga. She also edited Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color (1990), and co-edited This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (2002). She wrote the semi-autobiographical Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). She was close to completing the book manuscript, Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality before her death in 2004.
Her autobiographical essay, ‘La Prieta’, was published in English (with some Spanish) in This Bridge Called My Back, and in Spanish (with some English) in Esta puente, mi espalda: Voces de mujeres tercermundistas en los Estados Unidos.
She made contributions to ideas of feminism and contributed to the field of cultural theory/Chicana and queer theory. One of her major contributions was her introduction of the term ‘mestizaje’, meaning a state of being beyond binary (‘either-or’) conception, into academic writing and discussion. In her theoretical works, she called for a ‘new mestiza’, to challenge the binary thinking in the Western world.
She stressed that having to identify as a labelled gender was detrimental to creativity and made a person seem as though their purpose was to produce goods that matched a particular label. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria expanded on this thinking, explored the oppression of Chicana lesbians and talked about the gendered expectations of behaviour that normalise women’s deference to male authority within her community.
Growing up, Gloria felt that she possessed a multi-sexuality: she experienced an ‘intense sexuality’ towards those close to her, animals, and even trees. In later life, she was attracted to and had relationships with both men and women.
Gloria received a number of awards during her life, including:
- Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award (1986) – This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour
- Lambda Lesbian Small Book Press Award (1991)
- Lesbian Rights Award (1991)
- Sappho Award of Distinction (1992)
- National Endowment for the Arts Fiction Award (1991)
- American Studies Association Lifetime Achievement Award (Bode-Pearson Prize – 2001)
In 2012, she was listed as one of the 31 LGBT history ‘icons’ by the organisers of LGBT History Month.
Gloria died on May 15, 2004, at her home in California. At the time of her death, she was working toward the completion of her dissertation to receive her doctorate in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. It was awarded posthumously in 2005.