Freaky Friday: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Alien Nation: Queering Altered States

Editor’s note: Today’s Freaky Friday brings us again to the psychedelic borderlands, where University of Florida Professor of Women’s Studies and English Tace Hedrick talks about the mushroom trips of Gloria Anzaldúa– and their connections to her queer mestiza cosmology.

Gloria Anzaldúa,1942-2004

Chicana lesbian feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa (1942-2004) is best known for her 1987 Borderlands/ la frontera: Towards a New Mestiza Consciousness, a text combining diary entries, essays, and poetry. It is a sometimes bilingual meditation on how to survive being mestiza (mixed-race European and indigenous), queer, feminist and New Age in a white supremacist patriarchal world. The text is something of a bible for post-Second Wave feminists, yet as radical as it is, in her interviews Anzaldúa was even more open about how her sexuality and her New Age consciousness worked in concert with her indigenous heritage. Anzaldúa felt herself to be intensely “alien,” and that term was more than a metaphor for her, as she notes in Interviews/Entrevistas:

We only want to know the consciousness part of ourselves because we don’t want to think that there’s this alien being in the middle of our psyche….The movie Alien affected me greatly because I really identified with it….My sympathies were…with the alien. I think that’s how the soul is: it’s treated like an alien because we don’t know what it is (39-40).

In Borderlands and subsequent texts, Anzaldúa connected queers with indigenous souls and mestiza bodies—and linked all three to the figure of the alien and the metaphor of alienation. She gave a central place in this framework to the healing force of the (seemingly inherent) spirituality of indigenous peoples—a spirituality that she acknowledged was sometimes linked to the consumption of psychoactive plants.

Indeed, what brought the apparently unrelated subjects of queerness, mestizaje, and indigenous spirituality together for Anzaldúa was a belief in the therapeutic value of what many in the 1960s and ‘70s called “altered states”: transcendent or cosmic psychic experiences arrived at via a number of different routes. Although she did not use the term, a connecting thread throughout her queer re-visionings, conflations, and borrowings of various and sometimes opposing conceptual frameworks was the invocation of what psychologist Abraham Maslow (following William James’ discussions in his 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience) called “peak experiences.”

Say "Yes" to Peak Experiences

In his 1962 Towards a Psychology of Being, Maslow argued that while peak experiences are numinous, they can also be found in everyday life, not just in structured religious rituals.  They tend to be unifying and ego-transcending and give people a sense of wholeness and integration; they are therapeutic insofar as they increase both creativity and autonomy.  Thus they should be consciously pursued.  Interest in the idea of altered states also belongs in part to “transpersonal anthropology,” a subset of what has been called the “third way” of psychoanalysis—the path between behavioral and Freudian.  This tradition stretches back to William James, but it draws as well on anthropology and comparative religion scholars’ accounts (like those of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Elieade) of healing rituals, including those that are drug-related, shamanistic, religious, or psychic.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, such accounts helped popularize the notion of altered states as aids to psychic healing.

Altered states were clearly important to Anzaldúa.  Certain drugs were one way of achieving an altered state, but there were other ways as well; all provided her with insights she felt she needed to experience. For example, in a 1982 interview with Linda Smuckler, she made this assertion about the cause of her menstrual periods, which according to her began very early and were long and painful:

I was born with a hormone imbalance. But I have another theory….I think that when I was three months old…the spirit in my body left, so that I died for a little bit, and another spirit entered my body….an extraterrestrial spirit….[it was a male extraterrestrial, and so] he didn’t like my body (Interviews 34).

The Body is a Teaacher

But, she went on to assert, it was through this painful and otherworldly experience that she learned “certain things” she needed to know: “The only way for me to do it was to have this other spirit in my body….in a way it explains this whole feeling of alienation–and the blood–because he couldn’t deal with the body” (35). Beginning in the 1970s–when she went away for college, specifically–other experiences would also help to teach Anzaldúa things she needed to know.  These experiences included experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms, which she made sure to emphasize was, for her, not a recreational practice.  As she recounted it, she had written a piece called “‘Resisting the Spirit’ based on an out-of-body experience I had in Austin. Like a lot of other people at that time I was experimenting with drugs, but I was using them to gain access to other realities” (Interviews 19).  As an aside in the same interview, Anzaldúa noted that the mushrooms she took were

…called niñitos–“the little children”–and also called “the flesh of the gods.”  The Aztecs used them for healing and ritual: when a person would come to the shaman or the curandera for healing or advice, they’d both take mushrooms and the voice of the mushroom or their inner self would tell them what was wrong…. I was tripping on mushrooms (Interviews 36).

Anzaldúa, like many other Chicanas/os and Anglos, was deeply influenced by transpersonal psychology and anthropology, the more psychedelic aspects of which had been inadvertently set in motion by, among other things, mycologist R.G. Wasson’s 1950s work on contemporary Mexican mushroom rituals.  Elsewhere in her interview, Anzaldúa explains further that by eating mushrooms, she was trying to understand, among other things, what the apparition of a “thin man” meant for her:

So that time in Austin [1974-75] was pretty weird….I started doing mushrooms. Some of the things I’d felt were verified. When you’re doing drugs, colors are different and things don’t seem to be as solid. You make connections…you see behind the curtain  (Interviews 106).

What sets Anzaldúa apart from most 1970s and ‘80s New Age enthusiasts is her racialization and queering of altered states via such experiences as Aztec ritual drug use or alien possession.  She saw the spiritual creativity that hallucinogens, for example, opened up as belonging inherently to those queer persons who could gain access to both the “feminine and masculine sides” of the psyche: “You don’t have to be queer to have [creative life force]. All I’m saying is that if you’re queer you probably have it…. [But] drugs can open it up, can give you access to this other realm” (Interviews 124).  She paralleled the queer male/female duality with mestizo/a persons who could gain access through the “blood” to both sides of their heritage, particularly the indigenous side.  As a queer mestiza she believed that, via altered states, she could gain access to that doubled union of dualities she herself embodied.  Coming full circle, her belief that indigenous heritage had been suppressed not just socially but psychologically meant that such experiences as alien possession or hallucinogenic mushroom rituals (to name just a few) could revive a repressed (indigenous) spiritual and healing knowledge that she called the new mestizaconsciousness. Although Anzaldúa was not much of a drug user, it is clear that she believed that many different kinds of altered psychic states, including those gained by ingesting hallucinogens, could openers the consciousness not just to suppressed creativity but more importantly to other kinds of suppressed and/or “alien” knowledges which could serve to heal modernity’s psychic wounds.

Occupy the Alien