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Irene Reti

House of Nepantla

For Gloria Anzaldúa

 I. A Writer’s Dream

“Nepantla becomes the place you live in most of the time—home.”
—Gloria Anzaldúa

Introduction to This Bridge We Call Home

Querida Gloria,
In 1992, I moved into the upstairs of your house in Santa Cruz, California, a writer’s dream—a loft, woodstove, skylights, a deck, and best of all, a view of the Monterey Bay. Your books This Bridge Called My Back and Borderlands shaped my feminism, particularly my understanding of women of color. Your work also catalyzed my identity as a Jewish woman. My parents, Holocaust refugees, kept their pasts and their Jewish heritage a secret, even from me, until I was seventeen years old. Your writing inspired me to understand my own struggles with assimilation. Carrying this admiration for your books intensified my usual shyness. For the first week, I almost avoided you.

Some of this shyness ebbed a few afternoons later, when you came out of your house holding a dozen seed packets. “Can you use some of these?” you inquired. I was about to plant a garden. “My mother gave these to me and I’ve been saving them.” You began shuffling the seed packets like a pack of cards. “Here’s corn, and squash and beans, and tomatoes. Oh, and here are some sunflowers . . .” I laughed and accepted. Soon we were taking walks along the ocean, discussing our writing, our lives.

We walked this journey into memory and history on parallel paths for ten years: me, upstairs researching and composing a memoir; you writing stories and essays. Heirs to separate histories, where was the border between us, between Chicana and Jew? Your concept of nepantla, of liminality, in-between-ness, offered the perfect metaphor for our house. You wrote, “Living between cultures results in “seeing” double, first from the perspective of one culture, then from the perspective of another.” But what happens when two women from different cultures inhabit the same space? Perhaps our house itself began to see double, formed a vortex of intense creativity, or, as you wrote, “a zone of possibility.”

Did nepantla shimmer between our cups of decaf as we wrote at the local coffeehouse, or reside somewhere in the floorboards that separated my feet from your head as we moved through our days? Those separations were not trivial; they defined our house. I am the light-skinned woman in my family; you the dark one in yours, la prieta. I was raised middle-class in Los Angeles, the daughter of a civil engineer; you picked cotton in rural South Texas. Eighteen years separated us, yet our mothers were the same age and equally as tough. I wonder whether our neighbors knew what transpired within the walls of that wood-shingled house with blue trim.

Two women writers lived in a house by the sea, a house laden with books. Sometimes I thought that structure would explode from the very power of us. I am not only a writer, but also the publisher of HerBooks feminist press, my closet was a stockroom of published titles. But those walls were more than just material walls. They contained our tears, our breathing, our dreams, our love and our isolation. They contained our spirits. And they spoke the common language of writing.

Here we flourished, two women who cared more about writing than home maintenance. The rose bushes and blueberries wilted; the decks rotted like an old ship. So? We would not be remembered for our housekeeping. Our hands tended keyboards, while the weeds grew ever higher, created a playground for my cats, whom you came to love. When I went on vacation you became Cat Mama. Two black cats made cameo appearances in your writing. Here we lived, two women who spoke the common language of writing, who respected the privacy writing demands. Out of respect for that privacy essential to creativity we never dropped by unannounced, but instead called each other on the phone, or even sent email. What should I have called you then, certainly not landlady, but you were not quite a housemate either.

You called me your comadre in writing. (You had several others who held the same place in your heart over the years.) You became a key editor of my memoir. I read drafts of your stories, helped you strategize about contracts, editors, and publishers. We journeyed to the same writing colonies. For my birthdays, you gifted me with special blank journals. One year your inscription read, “Para mi comadre Irene. Otro librito para otro proyecto.” Next to the inscription you drew a bird woman with open arms like wings. I looked at this drawing and realized it was you.
            Once a week we made the short trip downtown to our favorite coffeehouse, where we rushed to a table as soon as a student left, and wrote, you relishing a decaf while I consumed the sweets that you, as a diabetic, could not enjoy. Sometimes before we worked you read the astrology column to me in a voice full of portent and drama, accompanied by significant looks. Sometimes we talked before we wrote. We told each other when we were lonely, when our bodies hurt, when the writing was not going well. Sometimes we arrived ecstatic over the publication of a book, or simply savored the joy of the writing itself.

I knew the diabetes wore at your strength and spirit. When I didn’t hear your voice below my bedroom talking on the phone, or when I noticed your mail still sitting in the mailbox, I worried. I tried to push away visions of you passed out on the floor of your house from a hypoglycemic attack. But you were strong and determined. Sometimes I looked out my window and saw you hacking the bamboo plant that threatened to take over the backyard. One day when we cleaned out the garage, I tired after a few hours and retreated inside to rest. You told me you were going to go inside and take your insulin and rest, but a little while later I heard you downstairs, still working, fiercely stubborn. We both struggled to take care of ourselves, to slow down. Diabetes became your spiritual teacher. The borders of history and personal life crossed and criss-crossed, propelled us deeper into nepantla.

II. What We Knew

Querida Gloria,

If a house is a body, then we inhabited different chambers of the same body for ten years. The night I decided to move out with Lori (we had been together five years and were already married) and buy a house of my own eight miles away, you knew. You called me as I lay awake at 6:00 a.m., trying to figure out how to tell you. The phone rang and you asked: “What’s going on?” You knew things.

But I knew things about you too. Something revealed your sadness, a tone in the air, something missing in your voice talking on the phone below me. I heard you cough more and more as the diabetes worsened. Yes, I knew things too. I knew I would be the one to find you. You confessed you were waking up in near insulin shock, blood sugar levels dangerously low. Somehow your body knew to wake you. You would stagger to the refrigerator for orange juice, or pop some candy in your mouth. As you told me this, I had a visceral vision of you lying dead in your bed. That day I told you I would come check on you if I didn’t hear you stirring around below me, or if you didn’t get the mail. You didn’t protest. But still, I moved away.

III. Waiting, May 11, 2004

Querida Gloria,

I’m late, so why aren’t you here? You are never late. My backpack is heavy with textbooks and the old laptop you are always telling me I should replace. The strap cuts into my arm as I take the pack off, slices a bloody welt into my skin. It’s after 6:00. My eyes travel the corridor of the café to the open door, looking for you, weighted down with your black bag filled with books, computer. Maybe you’ll bring me one of your empanadas tonight, carefully wrapped in a napkin, or even a slightly sour apple from the tree in the back of your writing studio. It’s been two weeks since we last met here. Did you tell me you were going out of town this week for a speaking gig? While I wait for my bus I call you. The next day I phone you from work. You don’t call. Four days more pass until I decide to go to your house.

IV. May 15, 2004

Querida Gloria,

Cecil Brunner’s roses climb along my old balcony in pink glory. Sea lions converse on their solitary rock off Lighthouse Point. Evening fog tightens its soft noose. How can anything be wrong here?

The key sticks in the door. I feel like a burglar. I head down the hallway in claustrophobic gloom, check the study, the reading room, the new addition with its high ceilings, skylights, wall-to-wall bookcases, whirlpool tub, a writer’s dream of a studio you built with income from your speaking gigs and royalties. I glance in the bedroom. Empty. The house feels peaceful.

I return to the kitchen. I am rattling and cursing the stuck key in the lock when Lori re-enters the room. She can barely speak. “I think I saw her face,” she whispers, “in the bedroom. I shined a light in there.” She takes me back down the hallway and points a light at what I can see is your face in bed, pale, absolutely still. You look so peaceful, almost as if you are meditating.

I tiptoe into the dark bedroom. Your still form lies on the right side of the bed. At four foot eleven you are so small. I touch your cold, outstretched hand, look into your open eyes. I sound your name twice, my voice a shofar trying to summon you back.

911. “My friend is either in a coma from insulin shock or dead,” I tell the operator. How can I be so calm? Screaming fire engine, shocked neighbors, ambulance, police shatter the peace of your death. They photograph your bedroom as if this were a crime scene, examine your body. The police question me and Lori, and soon decide your death was natural, that we are not murderers. When I used the key to enter your house I never thought I could become a suspect. Do I hear you laughing mischievously? You were the one who loved mystery novels, horror movies, and cop shows, not me, not me.

In this sacred and devastating moment, Lori holds me and we sing in Hebrew and English. “All the world is just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge. And the main thing is not to fear, not to fear at all.” They carry your body out the door.

V. Tu Familia

Querida Gloria,

Tu familia doesn’t understand why you moved two thousand miles from that hot valley on the border, so far from the constricted life you had there, you a lesbian, a rebel. Pero siempre you missed el desierto, the nopalitos and iguanas. You arranged animales, snakes and lizards on your altars, and complained about the beans in Santa Cruz. You always wrote about that place; your spirit never really left it.

Your books and papers must be saved. I am trying to explain this to your brother, who knows almost nothing about your life, your work. I lead him to your bookshelves of published writing. His voice is gentle like yours, and though he is six feet tall he reminds me of you.

Tu familia, in South Texas for six generations. I know they are thinking, how could we, your friends in this weird university town in California, let you die alone? What kind of amigas are we anyway? So inconceivable in their minds that you could lie in your house for as long as four days without anyone noticing. In el valle there are no walls. The cousins, tias y tios, traipse in and out all day long. You had to barricade yourself in a room when you went to visit your mother for a week at Thanksgiving so you could write. But you went to visit at least once a year. You taught them to make tamales the lowfat way, and urged them not to eat sugar, because so many of them were diabetics too. You always brought some tamales home for me, so I ate a little of South Texas every year. By your bed, I found a piece of paper with phone numbers: Your brothers Carito and Nune. Your sister Tildie. Your mother, Amalia. Now my life is intertwined with theirs.

VII. The Virgin Tree, Fall 2004

Querida Gloria,

You meditated under this lone cypress tree by the ocean, El Arbol de la Vida. You mourned when half of its limbs were torn off one winter, but marveled at the new outline of the Virgin de Guadalupe engraved in the bark. I place your picture in a woody nook of that beloved tree, along with a bouquet of roses mixed from my garden and yours, your picture without your name on it. I want you for once to get to just be a woman who walked by the ocean, not Anzaldúa, the icon. The flowers last for months, drying and untouched. Your picture slowly fades, your image absorbed by the flesh of the tree itself.

How many times did we walk along these cliffs? What did we talk about— anthologies we were each editing, publishers who were late in paying you, the Prieta stories you were working on, the memoir I was writing, your mother, my mother, the income taxes? Now I search my memory, trying to recover those words as if they were inscribed on the asphalt of West Cliff, but they have washed into the sea.

VIII. The House, Winter 2005

Querida Gloria,

Comadre, writing this on your kitchen table as the archivist from the University of Texas library looks through your treasure troves. Soon, soon, all these boxes that Kit Quan, AnaLouise Keating and I have organized and then nurtured for so many months will be on their way back to Austin, to Texas, the land you were in exile from.

Out in the garden the bushes I planted five years ago sprawl, a tangled landscape of roses, jade plants, rosemary, lavender, and lilies battling for every available space. Vines of nasturtium strangle everything in fleshy tendrils. This morning I cut a path to the front door, wrestled with the geranium, which once polite and restrained, had colonized the front walk. Enormous calla lilies leaned over to drool water on my jeans. I wonder if these plants miss us, comadre?

Where is the mezuzah to touch when I cross this threshold, enter the liminal space of your dying, nepantla, this holy house of loss still empty ten months after your death? Spider weaves her web across the French doors you no longer open. The microwave, the popcorn popper, the television set, the purple couches with maroon pillows that hurt my back but were comfortable for you because you were shorter— I look at all these things I passed on to you. A piece of me lives here. When I turn into the driveway, I am convinced I still live upstairs. Vertigo. My body is magnetically held captive by this house. This is some extended wake, comadre, that began with an ambulance and the mortuary, a funeral in the Texas heat, and continues in probate, in this organization of your papers, the appraisal, the inspection, the negotiation, the sale of your house. Your spirit must be restless to shed this leaky skin, wonder when we, your comadres, will let you move on?

Summer 2017

Querida Gloria,

Thirteen Mays have passed since you died. Even the house we lived in is dismembered, its rotting walls and substandard wiring torn apart for the sale; what replaced it is a sterile and suburban distortion of where we once lived. What remains of the original structure is your writing studio.
On the news now they talk about erecting walls and strengthening borders, deporting Iraqis and Africans and “bad hombres.” I remember your anguish and depression after 9/11. You knew the world changed forever when those towers fell.
Thirteen years now, mi comadre, and in this Trumpian era your words are even more prophetic, a cry, a call to us to create a world beyond national borders. You told us we are nos/otras, contained in each other. Back then, I believed a better world was emerging. Sometimes I cannot write because I am afraid to feel, afraid to keep accounts, to open my eyes. Is this the nepantla you prophesized, a time of great confusion, anxiety, loss of control?
Your words sustain so many of us. Recently, your comadre, AnaLouise Keating, edited and published your dissertation, which you had almost finished when you died. The resulting book, Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality arrived in the mail. This afternoon I opened your book and read:
Nepantla, a psychological, liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future. Nepantla is the space in-between, the locus and sign of transition…

…Levantate, rise up in testimony. Let’s begin by admitting that as a nation we’re killing the dream of this country (a true democracy) by making war and depriving many of life and basic human rights.

…Like the moon rising over the scintillating blue waters, let’s be resilient, let’s persevere and prevail with grace. It is precisely during these in-between times that we must create the dream (el sueño) of the sixth world…May we allow spirit to sustain and guide us from the path of dissolution. May we do work that matters.

Mil gracias, mi comadre. We will persevere.


Photo by Andrea Lawgren

Irene Reti is a writer, publisher, oral historian, and photographer. She is the author of several books with GLBT, feminist, and Jewish themes, including Kabbalah of Stone, a novel of Jewish history and magic set during the expulsion from Spain and Keeper of Memory: A Memoir which delves into the emotional territory of a child growing with secrets about her parents’ Jewish past. She has also published photobooks, including Crane Songs: A Story of Dis-Placement and House of Nepantla: Living with Gloria Anzaldúa, from which this essay is excerpted. Reti directs the oral history program at UC Santa Cruz. 

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