Bridging the Gap: Autohistoria-teoría and the Late Antique Imagination
Peter Anthony Mena
University of San Diego
I want to express my deepest gratitude for having been selected to receive HTI’s annual book award; thanks to all of the HTI familia for this very special honor. When I think of the list of previous recipients of this award, I can only feel moved and simultaneously undeserving of this honor. It feels as if it was not long ago that I, as a doctoral student, watched several recipients receive this award—never anticipating that I too, would one day receive this monumental honor. What I can anticipate now is that this will be one of the greatest distinctions of my career and of my life. I also want to express a deep appreciation for my colleagues, friends, and mentors, who have taken time and given energy (particularly in this moment when time and energy are precious and heavily taxed resources) to engage with my work. As many of us affiliated with HTI are well aware of, scholarship is not done in a vacuum; we work en conjunto with one another. Always. My ideas have continued to be sharpened and shaped by the thoughtful and engaging responses given here by Professors Hidalgo, Rivera-Pagán, and Upson-Saia. I cannot, in the space here, respond to all of their thoughtful and provocative insights, but I will respond to where I see resonances in their ideas and hope to offer some further connective thoughts .
What a moment to be attentive to the idea of space and its literary, political, and material manifestations and articulations. As we sit in Zoom rooms—attending conferences, meetings, classes, book award talks, even—we are forced to reckon with what space is, how it is idealized, politicized, contested, and even undermined. We are forced to reckon with both the real and imagined contours of space, as well as with questions about our need to do such a reckoning: what does it mean to call a virtual platform a room as I have just done?; and what are we to understand about our roles and who we are in these spaces? My book is an attempt to think about many aspects of identity, but it is most explicitly attuned to the entanglements of space and identity—the ways in which they are in constant and continuous processes of co-production of one another: space producing identity while simultaneously being produced by it. It was this attention to space, the articulation of the desert in late ancient hagiographies, that allowed me to pause and question the role of space and its attendant identity-making in the literary imagination of ancient Christians.
As space theorist Edward Soja has called her, Gloria Anzaldúa is one of the leading theoreticians of space and therefore her Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza gave me ample and fruitful ground to stand on as I began to consider how space might be functioning in ancient texts. What Anzaldúa gives us in her ground-breaking work is an identity in flux, in process, never whole, and yet rendered whole via its process. And so, her new mestiza, as she names this identity, resonated with me and my reading of an ascetic subject made visible in ancient hagiographies. Still, this term, mestiza or mestizaje has, as Jacqueline Hidalgo reminds us, its own storied and contested history. Rightly so, mestizaje is critiqued for its perceived collapsing of the particularity of identities into a monolith and its concomitant erasure of (especially!) Afro- and Asian-Latinxs as well as Indigeneity. Again, as Hidalgo notes, previous HTI book award winner, Néstor Medina, articulates this problem in his book, Mestizaje: Remapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina/o Catholicism. He writes: “There is a sense, however, in which [Anzaldúa’s] postmodern approach betrays her proposal in some significant ways…there is a sense of inevitability in her notion of new mestizaje.” Medina goes on to note how Anzaldúa uses the image of Coatlicue—the Nahuatl sacred feminine which creates and destroys—as a cosmic force—or, similar to José Vasconcelos, a “divine energy” that animates mestizaje as an idealized goal.
Again, while I am in agreement that mestizaje must be nuanced and contoured to resist the lure of erasure in the service of hybridity and mixture, I don’t read Anzaldúa participating in the latter. Instead, I read her differently than Medina. I want to quote a passage from Anzaldúa that resonates with what I think she is attempting to activate with her usage of mestizaje. I quote her at length because while she plays with the idea of mestizaje throughout her work, what she offers in the following lengthy passage gives me pause in critiquing Anzaldúa as having a problematic or romanticized notion of mestizaje. And indeed, as Hidalgo notes, I share a critical and unromantic notion of mestizaje that I believe is exemplified by the desert saint in the literature of late-ancient Christians. Anzaldúa writes:
The dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance. By taking away our self-determination, it has made us weak and empty. As a people we have resisted and we have taken expedient positions, but we have never been allowed to develop unencumbered—we have never been allowed to be fully ourselves. The whites in power want us people of color to barricade ourselves behind our separate tribal walls so they can pick us off one at a time with their hidden weapons; so they can whitewash and distort history. Ignorance splits people, creates prejudices. A misinformed people is a subjugated people.
Before the Chicano and undocumented worker and the Mexican from the other side can come together, before the Chicano can have unity with the Native American and other groups, we need to know the history of their struggle and they need to know ours. Our mothers, our sisters and brothers, the guys who hang out on street corners, the children in the playground, each of us must know our Indian lineage, our afro-mestizaje, our history of resistance.
To the immigrant mexicano and the recent arrivals we must teach our history. The 80 million mexicanos and the Latinos from Central and South America must know of our struggles. Each one of us must know basic facts about Nicaragua, Chile and the rest of Latin America. The Latinoist movement (Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Spanish-speaking people working together to combat racial discrimination in the marketplace) is good but it is not enough. Other than a common culture we will have nothing to hold us together. We need to meet on a broader communal ground.
The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian—our psyches resemble the border towns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
What I read Anzaldúa doing in this passage is not simply erasing or collapsing multiple identities into one, but rather, she recognizes and situates several racialized identities within their own, often overlapping, historical processes. I read Anzaldúa as pushing for what she calls a “mestiza consciousness” through education and awareness. I read Anzaldúa calling for a collective awakening far before the term woke entered the current zeitgeist with all its meanings and significations.
Anzaldúa, more than any other thinker I have encountered, is not encumbered by linear time and chronology. Her ruminations on her writing as autohistoria-teoría, make me think that we, as readers of Anzaldúa, are not yet able to see her vision because of how radical it truly is. I remain open to the idea that I am missing something or not still seeing what critics of Anzaldúa’s mestizaje are pointing to. Still, I read in Anzaldúa a hope that is not rooted in a politics of sameness but rather one demonstrative of the capacity to find community in our diverse humanness.
Professor Hidalgo’s third and final choque that she names is one I am deeply invested in: considering further bridges between Latinx Studies and the various disciplines that make up the study of Late Ancient religions of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world. And this question resonates with much of what Luis Rivera-Pagán and Kristi Upson-Saia offer in their remarks as well. Both Hidalgo and Rivera-Pagán remind me of the spaces within academia in which my work is welcomed as well as those in which it is not. I still recall a very early conference presentation in the first years of my doctoral program when I read a paper that was a far more cursory exposition of what inevitably became my chapter on St. Jerome’s Life of Paul the Hermit. At the conclusion of my presentation, one audience member (perhaps similarly to how we might imagine Jaroslav Pelikan responding) did not approve of what I had done. He went on to list his perception of issues of historicity, authenticity, and even made an odd suggestion that someone like Jerome—a 4th-century Christian writer—could never, would never (!), anticipate that his writings be framed through the lens of a queer Chicana thinker, to which I could only reply in agreement. It wasn’t lost on me then, and it still is not lost on me now, that a turn to literary theory in the study of late antiquity was only (sometimes) permissible if the theorists utilized have last names like: Foucault, Irigaray, Lacan, Derrida, or Butler.
I was fortunate enough to be mentored by historian of Christianity, Virginia Burrus. She was able to see that my reading of late ancient hagiographies paired with the writings of a Chicana poet and thinker, would be a fruitful and novel endeavor. As I say in the acknowledgements of my book, I am deeply indebted to Burrus, not simply for her mentorship, support, and all that I learned from her, but also because she nourished the ideas in my mind and helped me see them to fruition. Of course, Anzaldúa is as apt a thinker to pair with late ancient textual analysis as any of the European or US American thinkers I name above. But in academia, as many of us know, there remain investments in maintaining strict borders. What counts as history versus what doesn’t should lead us to a host of other valuable questions, about the kinds of assumptions and worldviews that are held by those who maintain these borders. Still, I am grateful to have found and also carved out generative academic spaces for myself.
I love Professor Rivera-Pagán’s use of Albert Einstein’s reaction to the group of Hungarian physicists’ cautions that his work could inadvertently lead to arming the Nazi regime with nuclear weapons. I like it because it primarily reminds me of the unknown and unimagined possibilities of the reach of one’s scholarly work. Secondly, I love the story because it reminds us of the importance of scholarship done en conjunto and the need for more diverse voices and worldviews in the trade of ideas, histories, methodologies, and theories—the thing we call academia. I would be remiss to leave unnamed the fact that beyond my book, much of my scholarship continues to rely on the voices of Chicanx, Latinx, queer, women, and other minoritized voices in what we consider to be the enterprise of creating knowledge. I have continued to rely on these voices because of their absence from scholarly canons and endeavors beyond the idiosyncratic niche corners of the academy to which they/we have far too often been relegated. What I hope to continue seeing in the study of Christian Late Antiquity (a discipline that is my own particular and primary academic home) is an ongoing development and use of other theories, methods, and epistemologies from non-white backgrounds or origins. The academy must wake up, as Anzaldúa calls for, and realize that there are far more ways of knowing and be-ing than it has allowed for.
This leads me to thinking, alongside Professor Upson-Saia, about theory and what it offers historians and especially historians of antiquity—with fewer sources and great lacunae in those we do have. I completely agree with Upson-Saia’s observations on the uses of theory as well as how it can be used well and used poorly. Because of how theory helps us to see through fractures and fissures—or perhaps better said, like the kaleidoscope Upson-Saia describes, it can help us to see the fractures and fissures in interesting ways—theory remains a useful tool for reading ancient literature anew—regardless of the push by some scholars of antiquity who wish to see the application of literary, poststructuralist, postcolonial, and other cultural theoretical interventions, diminish in their application to the various studies of the ancient world. I also agree that theory can use ancient literature and figures as props for a reflection on a contemporary moment. In my own courses related to the study of early Christianities, I go to some lengths to try and distance myself from such presentist applications of theory (I often tell my students to be cognizant of the anachronisms implied when suggesting that, for example, one particular ancient moment is just like our current moment, as if we can neatly map one context onto another). Of course, the historical moments that animate the thoughts and writings of ancient writers are separated by the gulfs of space and time from the one animating Anzaldúa’s. But, as Upson-Saia notes, theory gives us a different language from which we might extract other meanings from our histories. In response to the question of why Anzaldúa, I’ve said a bit about this already; I am attuned to and desire the incorporation of more minoritized voices in the study of Christian late antiquity. Anzaldúa, to my mind, gives us a new language for thinking about the relationships between space and identity. And as I think about the ancient Roman Empire—with its own iteration of manifest destiny (now I am intentionally being anachronistic)—there are indeed parallels for how we might consider space conditioning identity and vice versa.
But similar to Upson-Saia’s larger points about the goals of history and the historian, I share with her a desire to “understand the nuances of [ancient peoples’] experiences and their relationships with one another. I want a deeper sense of their interests, hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, joys…and how these factors inform how they see the world, what they think and what they do. I want to know more intimately how they are shaped by and shape their societal, communal, and material contexts.” I also share with her the belief that the act and process of doing history is far more than the recovery of an unbiased, accurate (dare I say, more truthful?!) story of the past, using only the sources and materials available to us from that same past. Or at least I think it should be. For me too, history is indeed a humanistic enterprise.
The bridge between Chicanx studies, Latinx studies, Queer studies (and certainly others that Anzaldúa’s thought is representative of), and the history of Late Antiquity might be the shared human experiences that span centuries.
The ongoing histories of othering, histories of power, privilege, and oppression, histories of resilience and community—these histories have occurred, continue to occur, in various spaces and at various times, but something integral about being human resonates loudly between these moments regardless of the particularity and contextual contours that differentiate them. Of course, the particularities of difference must not be lost. But seeing one moment through another might help us understand each differently. Anzaldúa developed an important way of knowing and thinking through her concept of autohistoria-teoría. Anzaldúa describes the concept of autohistoria-teoría as “cultural and personal biographies with memoir, history, storytelling, myth and other forms of theorizing paired with lived experiences.” For Anzaldúa, this deep understanding of our stories—the stories we tell ourselves as we reflect on ourselves and all the histories of which we are heirs—are a method to thinking outside of the oppressive mechanism of most history-writing. As Ana Louise Keating and Kakali Bhattacharya have written, “[m]ore than writing self into existence, a move made by many minoritized scholars, autohistoria-teoría represents a hybridized space of creativity and bridge building, in which we use our life stories to develop deep critical, spiritual, and analytical insights, to boldly theorize experiences and insights against the broader landscape of specific sociocultural discourses.” For me, the method of autohistoria-teoría has been not only useful, but vital for minoritized scholars to find their voices in the work they do. Additionally, and importantly, it is not just a method for using our own knowledge and personal histories to tell stories about the past, but also Anzaldúa’s story—her life, her mythos, her autohistoria—also become woven into the tapestry of my retelling of the history of Christianity in late antiquity. It is the case that Anzaldúa’s stories as a queer, Chicanx, person from south Texas, have resonated deeply with me and helped me know and tell my own story as queer, Chicanx person from west Texas. It is with this knowing and being that I have not only been able to, but also wanted to, tell the stories of late ancient Christians and the spaces they inhabited.
I know that I have not responded to all the fruitful queries and provocations that Professors Hidalgo, Rivera-Pagán, and Upson-Saia have offered me. As previously said, I will continue to ruminate and consider deeply all of their wonderful insights and interpretations of my work. But what I offer here are some connective considerations on the role of history, theory, and identity in the work so many of us do. I am again, incredibly grateful for this engagement with my work and for the great honor of this award.