Nepantla #1: Definitions

David Bowles
2 min readJan 6, 2017

Recently, J David Osborne had a sort of epiphany about how to categorize Broken River Books titles: they all center on duality of some sort, whether thematic, stylistic, etc. “The books are Broken River books,” he concluded. “Two worlds, two styles, the river separating them no longer.”

Author and archaeologist Scott Nicolay immediately recognized what JDO was intuiting: the books inhabit what Gloria Anzaldúa (amazing queer Chicana philosopher from my neck of the woods in the Río Grande Valley of South Texas) termed nepantla, a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning “in the middle” or “in between.” In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa defines nepantla as the threshold regions between different spheres of existence:

“Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla [is terra incognita], and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement–an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling.”

It’s fitting that Anzaldúa uses nepantla to describe this positioning of the self. After the Spanish Conquest — through submission, conversion, and outright rape — the indigenous population of Mexico was forcibly blended with its European overlords to create the mestizos and the beginnings of the modern Mexican identity. These mestizos (some of whom to this day cry out viva México, hijos de la chingada or long live Mexico, you children of rape on Independence Day) were the first to inhabit that particular nepantla, caught between the smoldering ruins of Tenochtitlan and the whitewashed walls of Madrid.

But amazing (if painful) insight can arise from inhabiting nepantla, straddling two (or more) often diametrically opposed ways of being: “Living between cultures results in ‘seeing’ double, first from the perspective of one culture, then from the perspective of another. Seeing from two or more perspectives simultaneously renders those cultures transparent. Removed from that culture’s center you glimpse the sea in which you’ve been immersed but to which you were oblivious, no longer seeing the world the way you were enculturated to see it.”

Vital to those of us in this liminal space is the realization that we should not abandon it per se, but should instead embrace even more intersectional thresholds, shattering imposed, normalizing notions of identity and “decolonizing” ourselves as we carve out new niches in nepantla and give rise to novel mestizajes.

In the next few columns, I’ll be arguing that the authors of Broken River Books are attempting precisely that.



David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. President of the Texas Institute of Letters.