Anzaldúa, Latinx theory, and Late Ancient Studies
Kristi Upson-Saia, Occidental College (Los Angeles)
It is an honor to participate in this forum honoring Dr. Peter Mena and his book, Place and Identity in the Lives of Antony, Paul, and Mary of Egypt. As a former colleague (Dr. Mena and I taught together at Occidental College several years ago), I bring the hearty congratulations of the Oxy family. As a fellow historian of ancient Mediterranean religion, I commend Dr. Mena for a rich, intellectually-stimulating, and compelling book. It is an example and portent of the productive ways in which knowledge in our field can flourish when we center Chicanx scholars and theory. I short, it is my sincere pleasure to celebrate this book.
As I was re-reading the book for this event, I again marveled at the many new observations and insights Dr. Mena is able to extract from the Lives of Antony, Paul, and Mary when the late antique narratives were put in conversation with the queer Chican@ feminist theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa. In my brief remarks today, I would like to offer two responses. First, I would like to think about theory generally, and to reflect on why Gloria Anzaldúa is such a potent theorist with which to think. And second, I would like to offer a few more specific comments on Dr. Mena’s analysis of late ancient desert ascetics. In each part, I’ll pose a set of questions to which Dr. Mena might respond or perhaps for later scholars to pick up.
The theoretical purchase of Gloria Anzaldúa and Latinx thinkers
We all have intuitions about when theory works and when it does not. We have all encountered theory-heavy scholarship that fails: in which theory is plastered onto sources and arguments in ways that feel unproductive, distracting, or even distorting of our sources and the people we study. And yet we have also encountered scholarship that is enlivened by theory: the theory attunes us to previously unrecognized details, the theory opens up new ways of thinking or widens our perspectives about our sources or the people we study. We all know the experience of reading excellent scholarship, made more excellent because of the chosen theoretical lens or frame.
Rereading this book, I was struck again by how well the theory works, especially in the hands of a skilled scholar like Dr. Mena. It provided me an occasion to spend some time thinking about what it means for theory to work well and, in particular, it gave me time to clarify in my own mind the relationship between theory and what I take to be the goals of historical work. As an historian, my goal is first and foremost to deepen and enrich my understanding of people of the past. I want to understand the nuances of their experiences and their relationships with one another. I want a deeper sense of their interests, hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, joys, etc., and how these factors inform how they see the world, what they think and what they do. I want to know more intimately how people of the past are shaped by and shape their societal, communal, and material contexts. In short, for me “doing history” is a deeply humanistic enterprise.
Given these goals, productive theoretical frames serve as a bridge across the distance between us and people of the past. Good theorists facilitate our understanding of and connection with people of the past (even if and when–or most importantly if and when–we don’t share the same experiences or interests). It is in this way, I think, that Gloria Anzaldúa proves to be such a productive companion to the historian, helping to bridge the distance between scholars and people of the past and helping to forge connection across time. She too is interested in engaging a deeply humanistic enterprise and she sharpens our sensibilities regarding the specificity, complexity, messiness, and variety of the human experience. And, when we read her alongside sources from late antiquity, she attunes us to see the specificity, complexity, messiness, and variety of the premodern people we study.
When I was struggling to articulate how Anzaldúa triggered new insights from late ancient sources, I found kept returning to two metaphors. First, her theory opens up late ancient sources like a flower that is blooming and emitting a fragrance I’ve never smelled before. In other words, her theory activated our late ancient sources such that I sensed them in a new way. Second, looking at late ancient sources through Anzaldúa’s theoretical frame is like looking through a kaleidoscope, multiplying our perceptions of the people we are studying. In both of these ways, she is a valuable ally to the historian.
We are indebted to Dr. Mena for inviting Gloria Anzaldúa to be an interlocutor with scholars in late ancient studies. And, even more so, we are indebted to him for paving the way forward: showing us how to deftly and respectfully mobilize theorists like Anzaldúa to better understand people of the past.
I am interested to learn if Dr. Mena understands Anzaldúa to be activating pre-modern sources—or enhancing scholarship of late antiquity—in other ways. And I am also interested to hear his thoughts about the potential for employing Chicanx or Latinx scholars in the field of late ancient studies. Are there topics or issues or aspects of human experience Anzaldúa or Latinx feminist thinkers are especially well-poised to help us unpack? Are there research questions or projects Dr. Mena would encourage graduate students and scholars pursue?
Remarks on Dr. Mena’s Anzaldúan analysis of late ancient desert ascetic narratives
In chapter 3 of his book, Dr. Mena interrogates the desert asceticism of the famed ascetic Antony. With the help of Anzaldúa’s reflections on the internal tensions, fractures, and clashes of mestiza consciousness—and as related to space, place, and especially homeland—Dr Mena explores the tensions Antony is said to experience as he is torn away from his land of upbringing and his familial commitments to his orphan sister, and drawn to a spiritual life in his new homeland: the desert. In his analysis, Dr. Mena homes in on one aspect of Antony’s mestiza consciousness: rejection. Dr. Mena guides us through a careful analysis of how Antony’s rejection of and movement away from family and home are necessary for the creation of his new desert ascetic identity. In other words, even as Antony feels connections to what he has left behind, his rejection of home and family are the conditions of possibility for his new identity formation or, in Dr. Mena’s words, “the rejection of homeland creates a subject available for transformation…” (p. 37). Dr. Mena’s reading of Antony’s identity through this Anzaldúan frame of rejection is compelling and insightful.
As Dr. Mena introduced Anzaldúa’s insights related to rejection, identity, place in the story of Antony, it also opened up for me new questions about another character in the Life of Antony: his sister, who (in my past readings) seemed to be a prop who is introduced into the story merely to make some sort of meaning out of Antony’s experience, and then left behind. When reading the narrative again paired with Anzaldúa, however, I wondered how we might think about the formation of ascetic identity depending on which side of rejection one stands: whether the ascetic is doing the rejecting or being rejected. Anzaldúa herself—as Dr. Mena explains (p. 30)—reflects not only on the conditions of subjectivity created by actively rejecting and leaving behind, but also by being the object of rejection. Being turned over to a monastery by Antony as he left for the desert, Antony’s sister’s ascetic identity began as a result of being rejected by a family member. I wondered how Anzaldúa might help us think about rejection forming her mestiza consciousness.
Beyond the Life of Antony, many ancient sources tell us about children whose families brought them to monasteries to be raised, whether they, like Antony’s sister, were orphans or their families were simply unable to support them. And in fact, a few chapters later in Dr. Mena’s book, we come across just one such character: the ascetic Zosimas in the Life of Mary, who was “taken from his parents’ arms as a child and left with the monastery in which he resided for 53 years” (p. 89). Late in life, Zosimas travels to a monastery near the Jordan River, and then he travels even deeper still into the innermost reaches of the desert. When Zosimas encounters the ascetic Mary there (whom he believes to be a male ascetic), his reaction is extreme: he runs after her, he weeps, and he wails. The end of the chase takes place at a dry riverbed, and here Dr. Mena makes an astute observation. Dr. Mena writes: “As Zosimas runs through a river that is no longer and could never have been, he does so in pursuit of what he has longed for: a father that is no longer and could never have been” (p. 93). Again, I wonder if Anzaldúa’s reflections on being the object of rejection might help us understand this particular ascetic exchange, as well as more generally how being the object of rejection might be shaping the quality of Zosimas’ journey or pursuit (seeking some specific quality of holiness or spiritual relationship or religious reconciliation, etc. etc.). It seems to me that in this scene we witness a different form of mestiza consciousness in Zosimas, one charged with desire for reintegration with another pseudo-family figure.
In this chapter, Dr. Mena engages a robust analysis of Mary’s ascetic identity shaped by rejection (as she is barred from entering a church by divine power, a rejection that seems to amplify her desire for that which she cannot grasp) and she engages Zosimas by relating with him through her tale. Dr. Mena’s analysis of Mary’s rejection is sharp and incisive. Might that analysis help us also understand the ascetic formation and the mestiza consciousness of ascetics like Zosimas and Antony’s sister whose relationship to asceticism was grounded from the start by rejection. And, still more, if we might understand different features, aspects, or elements to the ascetic identity and mestiza consciousness of ascetics depending on which side of rejection they stand.
I will end my remarks with some reflections on a provocative passage from Anzaldúa that piqued my interest, a passage in which she describes hers as a “life on the borders, a life in the shadows” (p. 56). Throughout the book, Dr. Mena explores meanings and identities activated by borders, borderlands, or frontiers. When reading this passage from Anzaldúa, though, I wondered what more, if anything, Anzaldúa might have said about shadows and if those reflections have potential to further open up our late ancient sources.
Dr. Mena cites this passage from Anzaldúa early in the book, so the frame of shadows was reverberating in my head as I read later chapters. And because the Greek and Latin terms for shadow have several related meanings—including the protective shade cast by shadows and the spectral shades or ghosts of the deceased—I was primed to be thinking about shadows, shades, and ghosts when I encountered Dr. Mena’s chapter on the Life of Paul. In this Life, Antony journeys to meet the first desert ascetic, Paul, in his mountain cave dwelling. The story describes Paul’s cave as having “a large hall, open to the sky, but shaded (contexterat) by the branches of an ancient palm,” (p. 70). I wondered: what might it mean that the author draws attention to the shadows or shade of the place where the ascetic Paul lives? Might there be something significant about the nature of shade: as a thing that is always in flux, depending on the movement of the sun’s rays? Or that it is the absence or obfuscation of the sun, such that it is the negation of a thing with substantial matter? And—keeping in mind Dr. Mena’s project of thinking through how desert ascetics are constituted by the spaces and places in which they reside—how might Anzaldúa help us unpack further the relationship between the shadows and shade of this particular place and the identity of the ascetic Paul who lives under it?
Still more, Dr. Mena also discusses a later scene of the Life of Paul, whereupon the death of Paul, the ascetic Antony moves into Paul’s cave. Mena writes: “Now Antony sees that his place in this life is to occupy the space immediately next to the older ascetic’s remains. Remaining here, Antony would die in close proximity to his teacher, both eventually dissolving into skeletal remains and becoming parts of the land on which they remain” (p. 79). This scene elicited for me the meaning of “shade” as the ghost of the deceased. And just as the shade of the palm tree fell atop the presence of the living Paul, in this later scene of the narrative Antony positions his body to occupy the place of his teacher’s presence. Shadows and shades—in their various forms in this narrative—are overlaid atop one another. Might Anzaldúa’s concept of shadows help us disentangle this merging and mingling of human bodies and features of the landscape? And, even more generally, how might Anzaldúa’s discussion of shadows help us analyze other aspects of the narrative, or other elements of early Christian sources?
It is my pleasure to be a part of this celebration of Dr. Mena’s extraordinary project and I add my congratulations to a richly deserved honor of the Hispanic Theological Initiative annual book price. Dr. Mena has written an intellectually stimulating book that has proven how our sources—and the field of late ancient studies—can be enriched by the theory of Gloria Anzaldúa and Latinx theorists. He should be applauded not only for his masterful execution and analysis, but for paving the way for future scholars to follow in his footsteps.