Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway” has several thematic threads running through it. On the most obvious level, the poem is a celebration of three generations of Latinas, particularly the grandmother who built the house and still lives in it as “Queen.” The mother gets credit as well, and her “wisdom,” while it is ignored in the end, is an important part of the world the speaker has inherited. The granddaughter has chosen to emulate her grandmother: She dresses like her and, in the end, opts for a life with men. The important difference is that she has developed her own masculine traits along the way and is able to do “light man-work” around the house, for example. She is, in short, a unified person who has both male and female strengths, is both—in the language of the poem—“hard” and “soft.” Her grandmother, who built the house after her husband left, is the role model here. The narrator’s philosophy, summed up in the simple “if you’re good to them/ they’ll be good to you back,” comes from a position of strength. Women have been the bulwark of the family in the past, Cervantes is saying, and they can achieve a sexual identity and happiness in the present and the future.

The main metaphorical opposition in the poem is between the freeway and the natural imagery of the house with its geraniums, kitten, and birds, and it is easy to see this opposition as a reinforcement of Cervantes’ main theme. After all, the freeway...

(The entire section is 467 words.)