Born in the barrio El Guanabano in the town of Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, in 1949 to Severo and Rosa Cruz, Victor Hernández Cruz and his family moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City in 1954. This part of the city teemed with immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, and Cruz was surrounded with new sights, smells, and sounds, some familiar and some strange. Learning English along with a new culture was both a challenge and a reward for the young Cruz, who made the intersections between his new home and his old the material for much of his writing. Although he dropped out of high school during his senior year, Cruz became a voracious reader and writer as a teenager, self-publishing his first book when he was only seventeen years old.
The 1960s were exciting times for emerging writers. Small presses sprung up everywhere and increasingly paid more attention to publishing the works of those from underrepresented and neglected populations. Along with writers such as Piri Thomas, a novelist, Cruz developed a reputation as a leading "Nuyorican" writer (the "Nuyo" stands for New York, and "rican" for Puerto Rican). Much of Cruz's poetry addresses life on the streets and the difficulty of negotiating one's ethnic identity and cultural heritage in an often hostile country. Like those he writes about, Cruz is a survivor. Although he writes in English, Cruz often leavens his poetry and prose with Spanish. Critics sometimes refer to this hybrid language as "Spanglish.’’ Like Cruz, many Puerto Ricans are of Indian (Taino) and African descent as well, and Cruz's writing appears frequently in African-American literature anthologies. He often refers to himself as Afro-Latin.
An essayist, novelist, and editor as well as a poet, Cruz remains one of the most prolific and visible spokesmen for minority literature in the United States. His works include Papa Got His Gun and Other Poems (1966), Snaps (1969), Mainland (1973), Tropicalization (1976), By Lingual Wholes (1982), Rhythm, Content [and] Flavor (1989), Red Beans (1991), and Panoramas (1997), all poetry or poetry and prose collections. Cruz has also published two novels: Down These Mean Streets in 1967, and Savior, Savior Hold My Hand in 1972. His short-story collection Low Writings came out in 1980. Cruz has taught at a number of high schools and universities and frequently gives public readings of his work. He has also successfully participated in poetry "slams," a public event in which poets compete both individually and in teams against one another.
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