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Lorna Dee Cervantes is a Chicana—or female Mexican American—poet whose works are characterized by simplicity of language and boldness of imagery. Her poetry offers commentary on class and sex roles and evokes the cultural clashes faced by many Mexican Americans.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Start in Poetry
Lorna Dee Cervantes was born into an economically deprived family of Mexican and American heritage on August 6, 1954, in the Mission District of San Francisco. Her parents separated when she was five, and she moved with her mother and brother to San Jose to live with her grandmother. As a child, she discovered the world of books in the houses which her mother cleaned. First she read Shakespeare, then the English Romantic poets. By the time she was twelve, she was reading Byron, Keats, and Shelley over and over aloud, getting a feel for the cadence of the English language.
At home her fascination with the rhythmic possibilities of language were further enhanced through the music of her brother, Steve Cervantes, who later became a professional musician. She began writing poetry when she was eight years old. She published some of her earliest poems in her high school’s newspaper; these poems were eventually published in a magazine after Cervantes had established her career as a writer.
In 1974, Cervantes gave her first poetry reading at the Quinto Festival de los Teatros Chicanos in Mexico City, Mexico. The poem she read that day, ”Barco de refugiados” (”Refugee Ship”), was published in El Heraldo, a Mexico City newspaper. The following year, several of her poems appeared in the Revista Chicano-Riquena, and she began contributing verse to other periodicals as well.
That same year, Cervantes began to devote her full attention to writing and to helping other writers. She learned the trade of printing and, with her savings, bought herself an offset printing press. One of her projects was Mango, a literary review which she edited. Through her association with the Centro Cultural de la Gente (People’s Cultural Center) of San Jose and through Mango Publications she soon began to publish chapbooks of the work of Chicano writers. By 1978, she was beginning to gain national recognition. That year she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The following year she spent nine months at the Fine Arts Workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she completed the manuscript for Emplumada (1981).
Since the publication of Emplumada, Cervantes has undergone major transformations in her life. In 1982, her mother was brutally killed in San Jose. In a 1986 interview she said, ”I had no more poetry left. I thought I had given it up forever.” However, after a long period of grief and introspection, she resumed control of her life. She finished her B.A. from California State University at San Jose in 1984, and in 1990, she finished a Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studied philosophy and aesthetics. She then went on to teach creative writing at the University of Colorado in Denver and to edit Red Dirt, a magazine of multicultural literature. Although she remains active as an editor and mentor for other writers, she has published only one other collection, From the Cables of Genocide (1991).
Works in Literary Context
Cervantes has the distinction of being one of only a few Mexican-American poets to have been published by a major publishing company. The predominant themes in her poetry include cultural and social conflict, oppression of women and minorities, and alienation from one’s roots. Cervantes’s poetry is well crafted and has the distinction of using highly lyrical language while at the same time being direct and powerful.
Alienation and Social Conflict
Cervantes’ work, according to Marta Ester Sanchez in Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to an Emerging Literature, is characterized by ”two conflicting but central positions.” In Cervantes’s poetry, the critic finds both a ”desire for an idealized, utopian world” and ”a realistic perspective that sees a world fraught with social problems.” The tension created between these two perspectives is a central element in understanding Cervantes’s work.
Some commentators note that the alienation Cervantes feels as a Chicana in an Anglo society is evident in pieces such as ”Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races” and ”Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Town-send, Washington.” Marta Ester Sanchez notes that in the first poem, Cervantes explains her feelings at having a ”subordinate place in society as Chicana, as woman, and as poet.” In the second, which deals with the theme of migration and opposing societal values, Roberta Fernandez concludes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Cervantes ”comes to terms with herself, finding resolution for the many conflicts in her life and in her role as poet.”
Marta Ester Sanchez asserts that Cervantes writes in two different modes: ”the narrative, discursive, ‘hard’ mode to communicate the real, divisive world she knows as a Chicana; the lyrical, imagistic, ‘soft’ mode to evoke contemplative and meditative moods.” Critics have noted that she is able to combine these two modes, using lyrical language to communicate such real-world difficulties as poverty, sexism, and cultural conflict. As one commentator notes, ”Cervantes’s poetry is very well crafted and has the distinction of using highly lyrical language while at the same time being direct and powerful.”
Works in Critical Context
Cervantes has produced two well-received collections of poetry, and she is considered by some to be Mexico’s premier poet. Critics applaud her emotionally-charged and evocative verse as well as her support for women and minorities. She has been recognized for her contribution to Mexican-American poetry by the Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation Writer’s Award for outstanding Chicana literature.
Most of the commentary on Cervantes’s work focuses on her first collection, Emplumada (1981), the best-selling title in the University of Pittsburgh’s prestigious poetry series. This work established her as an up-and-coming poet whose power could be found in a combination of energy and intelligence. As Frances Whyatt writes, ”when she’s at her best the poems give off an infectious energy remarkably free from artifice and intellectuality, and yet deceptively intelligent.”
In discussing the poems in this collection, Cordelia Candelaria points out that Cervantes uses a distinctive narrator in her poems to achieve ”the intimacy reminiscent of Confessional Poetry,” a movement originating in the 1950s in which poets revealed difficulties from their own lives. As Whyatt puts it, Cervantes views ”her own life as a journalist might, as a base from which to record nature and events in a particular landscape.” Patricia Wallace emphasizes the importance for Cervantes of witnessing ”the pressures of particular, historical reality.” The work of a poet like Cervantes, Wallace writes, ”cannot be separated from the conditions of race, sex and class” which inform all of her writings. Marta Ester Sanchez emphasizes the importance of Cervantes’s ethnic background, arguing that as a poet, Cervantes acts ”as a mediator between the Chicano community and the larger English-speaking audience.”
- Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992.
- Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
- Ikas, Karin. Chicana Ways: Conversations with Ten Chicana Writers. Reno, Nev.: University of Nevada Press, 2002.
- Madsen, Deborah L. Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
- Sanchez, Marta Ester. Contemporary Chicana Poetry. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1985.
- Brinson-Curiel, Barbara. ”Our Own Words: Emplumada.” Tecolote (December 1982): 8.
- ”Cervantes, Lorna Dee (1954-).” DISCovering Multicultural America. Detroit: Gale, 2003. ‘ ‘Freeway 280.” EXPLORING Poetry. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Gonzalez, Ray. ‘ ‘ I Trust Only What I Have Built with My Own Hands: An Interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes.” Bloomsbury Review (Sept-Oct 1997): 3,8.
- Monda, Bernadette. Interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes.” Third Woman (1984): 103-107.
- Rodriguez y Gibson, Eliza. ‘ ‘ Love, Hunger, and Grace: Loss and Belonging in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Joy Harjo.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers (2002): 106-114.
- Seator, Lynette. “Emplumada: Chicana Rites-of-Passages.” MELUS (Summer 1984): 23-38.
- Wallace, Patricia. Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove.” MELUS (Fall 1993): 3-19.
- Whyatt, Frances. A review of Emplumada.” American Book Review (July/August 1982): 11-12.
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