Healing from Awakened Dreams: Anzaldúa as Individual and Collective Witness

  • Cassie Premo Steele


Healing from the effects of traumatic history begins with reconstructing and witnessing, as we have seen with regard to Sexton’s and Lorde’s writing. Now we will examine Anzaldúa’s writing, which shows how witnessing is necessary on both individual and collective levels. As we saw in chapter 3, Anzaldúa’s writing demonstrates the ways in which traumatic history continues to affect the inheritors of that history both individually and collectively. In this chapter we will first examine the individual level of witnessing through a close reading of Anzaldúa’s poem, “that dark shining thing,” in which memories are turned from problems into solutions in the presence of a witness who mutually experiences these reconstructions. Then, we will explore Anzaldúa’s poem, “Matriz sin tumba o [Womb without tomb],” as an enactment of collective witnessing. In this poem, Anzaldúa serves as a shaman, one who witnesses to the destruction of a culture, in order to bring about healing for the people.


Traumatic History Traumatic Memory Creative Force Traumatic Violence Autobiographical Essay 
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  1. 1.
    See Anzaldúa’s interview with Ann Louise Keating, “Writing, Politics, and las Lesberadas: Platicando con Gloria Anzaldúa,” Frontiers 14:1 (1993): 105–130, p. 112. Cited in text as Anzaldúa 1991.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
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    See her “Embodied Memory, Transcendence, and Telling: Recounting Trauma, Re-establishing the Self,” New Literary History 26 (1995): 169–195, p. 176.Google Scholar
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    The term “soul” here is used with reference to one of Anzaldúa’s influences, James Hillman, particularly in his Re-visioning Psychology (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    In his seminal work on collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs writes, “One witness we can always call on is ourself” (22). While this is true for ordinary experience, what makes traumatic experience different is precisely the absence of an internal witness during the event itself. See Collective Memory, trans. Francis J. Ditter, Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).Google Scholar
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    “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995): 61–75, p. 66.Google Scholar
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    Ana Louise Keating reads this poem as one that “graphically illustrates the highly emotional, terrifying nature of this encounter with the self-become-other(ed)” in her “(De)Centering the Margins?” in Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U. S. Women of Color, ed. Sandra Kumamoto Stanley (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998): 23–43, p. 32.Google Scholar
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    Lawrence Langer notes that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies tend to carry the most anguish over issues of guilt, what one did and did not do that caused one’s survival in the face of others’ deaths. See Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Culbertson, p. 177. The connection between trauma and shamanism is also made by Joan Halifax in Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979), p. 5.Google Scholar
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    All citations in this paragraph are from “La Prieta,” in This Bridge Called My Back, ed. Anzaldúa and Moraga (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1981): 198–209.Google Scholar
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    Anzaldúa herself never uses the term “hysterectomy” but Ana Castillo does, in “Un Tapiz: The Poetics of Conscientización,” in The Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (New York: Plume, 1995): 163–179, p. 172.Google Scholar
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    See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of an Archetype, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 77.Google Scholar
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    For more on Tlazolteotl, see Todorov, The Conquest of America, trans. Richard Howard (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), p. 231; and Markman and Markman, The Flayed God: The Mythology of Mesoamerica (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), pp. 166–167.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    For more on these aspects of Tlazolteotl, see Gene S. Stuart, The Mighty Aztecs (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1981), p. 137; and Tey Diana Rebolledo, Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analysis of Chicana Literature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), pp. 51 and 68.Google Scholar
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    From J. E. Circot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd ed., trans. from the Spanish by Jack Sage (New York: Philosophical Library, 1971), p. 233.Google Scholar
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    The origins of shamanism are addressed by Mircea Eliade in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. William R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 333.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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