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Considered one of the leaders of the Nuyorican movement—a branch of Hispanic literature derived from Puerto Rican culture and language—Victor Hernandez Cruz is known for his collections of poetry and prose that examine the status of Puerto Ricans in America and the reality of life in Spanish Harlem. He imbues his work with a combination of Spanish and English (“Spanglish”) diction and syntax, nature imagery, historical references, and the rhythm of Latin American popular music.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Writing during the Emerging Nuyorican Movement
Cruz was born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, on February 6,1949, to Severo and Rosa Cruz. Because of the difficult economic conditions in Puerto Rico, his family migrated to New York City in 1955 and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in one of the areas designated as ”el barrio,” or Spanish Harlem. Following the divorce of his parents soon after the move, Cruz’s mother worked to support the family. When he was about fourteen years old, Cruz began to write verse, and at seventeen he composed his first collection of poetry titled Papo Got His Gun! and Other Poems (1966). Cruz’s career got an early boost when an avant-garde New York magazine, the Evergreen Review, featured several poems from the collection. Six months before he was to have graduated high school in 1967, Cruz quit school. The following year, he cofounded the East Harlem Gut Theater, a Puerto Rican collective of actors, musicians, and writers that closed after a year. Cruz joined Umbra magazine in 1967 as an editor.
Cruz began writing within a growing and active group of Puerto Rican Americans that is often referred to as Nuyoricans. Combining ”New York” and ”Puerto Rican,” the term Nuyorican refers generally to second-and third-generation Puerto Rican artists, with a concentrated population in the Northeast United States, especially Spanish Harlem. Cruz’s work helped establish the Nuyorican identity.
Teaching and Writing in California
Cruz moved to California in 1968, where he soon made contact with other authors. He accepted a job teaching a group of junior high school boys in a Berkeley experimental public school that same year and began work on his first major work, Snaps (1969). He was in California at the same time the influential Beat movement was transforming into the countercultural hippie movement, and the larger American anti-Vietnam War movement was growing. The Beat poets produced experimental writing that placed high value on stream of consciousness and performance elements and was led by poet Allen Ginsberg. Cruz remained in the California area through the end of the decade, taught a poetry workshop at the University of California at Berkeley in 1972, and served as an instructor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State College. He received a Creative Artists Program Service (CAPS) grant in 1974, through which he composed his third volume of poetry.
In 1975 Cruz married Elisa Ivette, and the couple had a son, Vitin Ajani, later that year. He became a contributing editor for Revista Chicano Riquena in 1976. That same year he began an association with the
San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program, working with schools, senior citizen centers, prisons, and city festivals. The job supported him while he completed his third book, Tropicalization (1976). In 1979 Cruz took part in the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam. Cruz’s second child, Rosa, was born in 1980, and in 1982 he published a collection of prose and poetry titled By Lingual Wholes. That same year, Cruz’s first novel was published and, since the early 1980s, he has concentrated on fiction more than poetry. Drawing from a wide range of historical events and characters to explore his Puerto Rican heritage, Cruz incorporates African, Native American, and Spanish cultural motifs in both of these works.
Works in Literary Context
More than anything else, the first generation of Nuyorican writers was one that was dominated by poets, many of whom had come out of an oral tradition and had honed their art through public readings; thus the creation of the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe was a natural outcome of the need to create a specific space for the performance of poetry. Among the consummate per formers of Nuyorican poetry were Cruz, Tato Laviera, Miguel Pinero, and Miguel Algarin. Like his fellow poets, Cruz’s initiation into poetry was through popular music and street culture; his first poems have often been considered to be jazz poetry in a bilingual mode, except that English dominated in the bilingualism and thus opened the way for his first book to be published by a mainstream publishing house, Snaps: Poems.
Musical Style and Spanglish
In Snaps were the themes and styles that would dominate and flourish in Cruz’s subsequent books; in all of his poetry sound, music, and performance are central. He also experiments with bilingual-ism as oral poetry and written symbols of oral speech and he searches for identity through these sounds and symbols. His next two books were odysseys that take the reader back to Puerto Rico and primordial Indian and African music and poetry (Mainland, 1973) and across the United States and back to New York, where the poet finds the city transformed by its Caribbean peoples into their very own cultural home (Tropicalization, 1976). By Lingual Wholes (1982) is a consuming and total exploration of the various linguistic possibilities in the repertoire of a bilingual poet.
Like Beat poetry, Cruz’s writing focuses on the oral quality of a poem, often including musical elements or switching between English and Spanishlanguages.Healsoempha-sizesspeechpatternsbyalteringgrammarandsyntax. Tropicalization, for instance, uses humor and energetic language as well as more experimental structures in order to capture the spiritual side of barrio life, and By Lingual Wholes and Red Beans combine Spanish and English diction and syntax to create Spanglish, a language that also relies on the rhythm of Latin American music.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have acknowledged Cruz’s growth as a poet from Snaps to Red Beans, lauding the increasing depth of his language, humor, and imagery. His early work, and especially the snapshot technique used in Snaps, was derided by most reviewers as monotonous and derivative, though some approved of its unconventional form and realistic portrayals of street life. Regarding his later verse, commentators have praised both the wider thematic scope and increased stylistic experimentation, particularly Cruz’s use of Spanglish, popular Latin American musical rhythms, and his handling of nature imagery and wit. Cruz’s non-fiction has also been lauded for its reflections on the author’s Hispanic heritage. Nonetheless, some commentators argue that Cruz’s nonfiction overlooks the concerns of Hispanic women.
Red Beans Publishers Weekly called Cruz’s collection of poetry a ”successful expansion of a perspective born in the Caribbean into a worldview of striking vitality and importance.” Anne C. Bromley at American Book Review says that Cruz’s poems serve ”public functions,” explain ing that ”his are poems that remember, poems that declaim, poems that celebrate language as a pathway into and out of dreams.” And Nicolas Kanellos faults Red Beans for being sometimes confusing from ”a lack of deft bilingual editing and proofing” but still a ”celebration” of the ”blending of European, African, and American cultures that have made up the New World experience.”
- Dick, Bruce Allen. A Poet’s Truth: Conversations with Latino/Latina Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003.
- Ickstadt, Heinz, ed. Crossing Borders: Inter- and Intra-Cultural Exchanges in a Multicultural Society. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1997.
- Sheppard, Walt. ”An Interview with Clarence Major and Victor Hernandez Cruz.” In New Black Voices. Edited by Abraham Chapman. New York: New American Library, 1972, pp. 545-552.
- ”A Review of Red Beans.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 40 (1991): 99.
- Aparicio, Frances R. ”Salsa, Maracas, and Baile: Latin Popular Music in the Poetry of Victor Hernandez Cruz.” MELUS 16, no. 1 (1989-1990): 43-58.
- Bromely, Anne C. ”The Poetics of Migration. American Book Review 13, no. 6 (1992): 26-27.
- Eserrich, Carmelo. ”Home and the Ruins of Language: Victor Hernandez Cruz and Miguel Algarin’s Nuyorican Poetry. MELUS 23, no. 3 (1998): 43-56.
- Kanellos, Nicolas. ”A Review of Red Beans.” Americas Review 20, no. 1 (1992): 87.
- Rosa, Victor. ”Interview with Victor Hernandez Cruz.” Bilingual Review 2 (1975): 281-87.
- Wallenstein, Barry. ”The Poet in New York: Victor Hernandez Cruz.” Bilingual Review 1 (1974):312-319.
- org site. Victor Hernandez Cruz. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http:www.poets.org/ poet.php/prmPID/681.
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