Cervantes, Lorna Dee
Lorna Dee Cervantes 1954-
American poet, editor, and publisher.
Cervantes is one of the major Mexican-American poets whose works have achieved national recognition since the 1970s. She identifies herself as “a Chicana writer, a feminist writer, and a political writer.” These three personas are expressed through her poetry as she examines themes of cultural alienation, the disenfranchisement of women, and the brutal circumstances of urban poverty. Her poems frequently juxtapose Anglo culture with Mexican culture, illustrating the pain and loss that results from her sense of cultural alienation. Her emergent identity as a Chicana poet is frequently explored in her poems as a means of synthesizing her dual cultural identity. Through her poetry, Cervantes boldly articulates the struggles and challenges at the heart of the Chicana experience.
Cervantes was born on August 6, 1954, in the Mission District of San Francisco, California, to Mexican and Native-American parents. When she was five years old, her parents were separated (later divorced), and she moved with her mother and brother to live with her grandmother in San José, California. Her mother discouraged her speaking Spanish and allowed only English to be spoken in their home, hoping to protect her children against discrimination based on their ethnic identity. The loss of heritage experienced by Cervantes as a result of the inability to speak Spanish left her with a sense of sorrow and anger that would later fuel her strongest poetry. As a young child she began reading the works of Shakespeare and the English Romantic poets, borrowed from the bookshelves of the upper-class homes in which her mother worked as a domestic. By age eight she was writing her own poetry. In 1974, during the Quinto Festival de lo Teatros Chicanos in Mexico City, Mexico, she was asked at the last minute to give a poetry reading in order to help fill up the program scheduled for Teatro de la Gente (Theater of the People), a theater grouping which her brother was an actor. From this point, her career as a public poet began to take off, starting with the publication of “Barco de refugiados”(“Refugee Ship”), which she had read at the festival, in the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo. In 1976 Cervantes started a small press, Mango Publications, dedicated to publishing works by Chicano and Chicana writers, for which she received a Pushcart Prize for Best of the Small Presses. She founded Mango, a literary review of works by Chicano and Chicana writers, and served as editor of Red Dirt, a cross-cultural journal. By the late 1970s she had achieved national recognition as an emerging Chicana poet, receiving a Fellowship Grant for Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and again in 1989. Her first book of poems, Emplumada for which she received the 1982 American Book Award was published in 1981. In 1982 Cervantes experienced personal tragedy when her mother was brutally killed, an event which left her emotionally devastated. She received a B.A. from California State University at San Jose in 1984 and pursued graduate study from 1985 to 1988 at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness program. In 1991 she published her second book of poetry, From the Cables of Genocide. Cervantes is also the recipient of a Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities Fellowship. She is currently director of the creative writing program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Cervantes is emotionally direct in her poetry, consciously writing in a style accessible to the average reader. With an eye for detail, she brings to her work images of vibrant beauty as well as encroaching menace. The title of her first volume, Emplumada, expresses a desire to achieve cultural synthesis while preserving a Chicana identity. She explains on the first page that emplumado means “feathered” in Spanish and plumada means “pen flourish.” Cervantes thus ties the bilingual poet’s concern with language to such feather mythical creatures as the Quetzalcotl, the Aztec god of the wind. Emplumada offers up painful images from Cervantes’s own family history, the harsh realities of the lives of Mexican Americans living in urban poverty, and the despondency that comes from being caught between two cultures. The poems of this volume describe deeply tragic images of spousal abuse, urban violence, and the loss of traditional culture. “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” her most celebrated poem, is about a young woman who struggles with her sense of identity, torn between the traditional wisdom of her grandmother and the cynical perspective of her mother. By the end of the poem she has partially resolved this conflict by incorporating the traditional wisdom of her grandmother into her poetry. “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War between Races,” expresses her struggles with racial conflict in terms of her role as a Chicana poet. “Visions of Mexico while at a Writing Symposium in Part Townsend, Washington” is divided into two sections, “Mexico” and “Washington,” and expresses her emerging sense of identity as a Chicana writer through her experiences of Mexico as a homeland and the Northern United States as a cultures alien to her own. “Uncle’s First Rabbit” addresses the issues of violence against women in the Mexican-American community, relating the speaker’s memory of his mother losing her unborn child as a result of being beaten by his father. From the Cables of Love and Genocide, which won the Paterson Prize for Poetry and the Latino Literature Award, examines the poet’s struggles in terms of such themes as love, resistance, and oppression.
Cervantes is, according to Alurista, Mexico’s premier poet, “probably the best Chicana poet active today.” Since her first public reading in 1974, Cervantes has come to be recognized as a charismatic public reader of her own poetry and an active supporter of Chicano/Chicana and Native American writers. Critics consider Emplumada, to be a consistently moving coming-of-age piece, and have lauded From the Cables of Love and Genocide as a mature work. They applaud her evocative and emotionally charged poetic imagery, as well as her active support of both feminism and minority rights. Cervantes received recognition for her outstanding contribution to Mexican American letters in 1995, when she won the Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation Writer’s Award for outstanding Chicana literature.
SOURCE: A review of Emplumada, in American Book Review, Vol. 4, No.5 July/August, 1982, pp.11-12
[In the following review, Whyatt considers Cervantes's poetry both simple and complex and maturely descriptive.]
Freeways, cactus, factory towns, rattlesnakes, heat, the dusty land of big sky: California and the American Southwest; this is Lorna Dee Cervantes' personal “barrio,” her community of nature, poverty, animistic gods, eccentric amigos, racism and first love. As such, Emplumada (meaning “feathered” or “pen”) is a highly picaresque, image-packed regional guide, specific to the experiences of a young Chicana/American poet whose work, though rooted in contemporary American poetry, reflects the unique voice of her heritage.
Last year's winner of the Pitt Series, Cervantes' first book establishes her as a poet to watch; when she's at her best the poems give off an infectious energy remarkably free from artifice and intellectuality, and yet deceptively intelligent. She writes autobiographically—almost always in the first person—viewing her own life as a journalist might, as a base from which to record nature and events in a particular landscape. In that sense, the poems are extroverted, unlike confessional poetry wherein external images are internalized as a metaphor for the poet's feelings. What the reader knows about the internal workings of Cervantes' mind...
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
SOURCE: “Emplumada: Chicana Rites-of-Passage,” in MELUS, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 23-38.
[In the following essay, Seator examines Emplumada as a work that emphasizes the nature of Chicana womanhood through showing the turbulent rites of passage involved in the process.]
Emplumada, the first published collection by Lorna Dee Cervantes, is poetry that defines a Mexican-American identity and so carries an “ethnic” denomination. As ethnic poetry it is art that does not dwell in the region of purely detached art, “art for art's sake,” but that necessarily attempts to establish its integrity in a particular territory and time. However, for Cervantes, the role of the ethnic writer intent on affirming a personal and group identity within a clearly defined temporal and spatial context is complicated by the fact that her sense of self as a woman does not conform to the traditions of her ethnic heritage. Together, the poems of Emplumada tell the story of a coming-of-age in which time-honored “great expectations” are necessarily altered. The rites-of-passage of a Mexican-American woman will not fit the formula of the nineteenth-century Bildüngsroman, nor will her rites be consonant with stereotypic sex roles in Chicano coming-of-age novels. As long as the achievement of an identity through a temporal process in which the child struggles to adulthood is...
(The entire section is 6393 words.)
SOURCE: “The Flowering of Flor y Canto and ‘The Circle of Poetry,’” in Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 156-201.
[In the following excerpt, Candelaria discussesEmplumada and analyses Cervantes's use of Aztec and nature imagery.]
[THE FLOWERING OF FLOR Y CANTO]
Another poet who adds significantly to flor y canto is Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana who invigorates her skillful verses with the rich resonance of womanhood, a state of being she perceives as large and expansive enough to circumscribe the diversity of human experience. Concerned with capturing the manifold quality of personal experience, including its most private aspects, Cervantes textures her work with vivid details from everyday life. Her verse also reveals a powerfully evoked chicanismo comprehended as both a literal part of her self-identity and as an external source of metaphor.
Because of the consistent fineness of her work and because the subject of her poetry is inclusive and wide-ranging, Lorna Dee Cervantes fits comfortably within the Phase III category of writers. Alurista has described her as “probably the best Chicana poet active today,”1 a tribute to the consistency of quality evident throughout her career from her earliest work to its culmination in Emplumada, her first published volume....
(The entire section is 2515 words.)
SOURCE: “Notes toward a New Multicultural Criticism:Three Works by Women of Color,” in A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero, University of Georgia Press, 1987, pp. 168-95.
[In the following excerpt, Crawford analyses specific poems from Emplumada, demonstrating the strength of Cervantes's themes of resisting adversity, facing helplessness in the face of tragedy, and recapturing confidence through communication.]
Although Chicano literature has emerged only since the 1960s, it has a remarkable consciousness of its own origins. An early textbook, Literatura chicana: Texto y contexto (1972), could already state that it was “composed with the Chicano reader in mind” and trace a cultural heritage including “antecedent Mexican texts [and] pre-Hispanic selections.”1 By 1980, the critic Bruce-Novoa had proposed a paradigm of Chicano poetry as a response to the overall problematic of Chicano history. Such a poetry contained
a nostalgia for a prior unity, either lost, forgotten, or in the process of disappearing; a lamenting of alienating oppression in the present, a situation which must be corrected lest Chicano culture disappear; and a hope for a future regrouping in a homeland (Aztlan) reclaimed from the United States, and around cultural/historical...
(The entire section is 4415 words.)
SOURCE: “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 3-19.
[In the following essay, Wallace explores the ways in which Cervantes's poetry in Emplumada emphasizes her belief that human lives are closely defined by race, gender, and class with occasional opportunities to transcend these limitations.]
When Emerson, in the 1840s, imagined an ideal American poet, he confessed his difficulties even with the models of Milton and Homer; the one he found “too literary” and the other “too literal and historical” (Whicher 239). As with other of his pronouncements, Emerson leaves this one suggestively unexplained. I take him to mean that his ideal poet will be equally faithful both to what we call art and to what we call history, and that even in great poets, these fidelities are not easily reconciled.…
It was never in the planning, in the life we thought we'd live together, two fast women living cheek to cheek, still tasting the dog's breath of boys in our testy new awakening. We were never the way they had it planned. Their wordless tongues we stole and tasted the power that comes of that. We were never what they wanted but we were bold.
These lines are the opening of “For Virginia Chavez,” from Lorna Dee Cervantes's powerful and...
(The entire section is 2704 words.)
SOURCE: “‘An Utterance More Pure Than Word’: Gender and the Corrido Tradition in Two Contemporary Chicano Poems,” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristianne Miller, University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 184-207.
[In the following exceprt, McKenna examines the phenomenon of Chicana poetry and the manner in which Cervantes fits into that role while defying patriarchal tradition.]
The corrido tradition has long been constructed by primarily male Chicano scholars as a male-dominated genre that takes as its root a narrative of Chicano/Mexicano history centered on social conflict. As Américo Paredes has studied this narrative ballad form, the poem originates from the conflict arising out of the encroachment of Anglo Americans into the South Texas valley in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the response of the resident Spanish/Mexican population that had established its presence in that territory since the Spanish settlement in the eighteenth century. …
The strength and influence of the master story of cultural conflict, as Limón cautions, remains essentially male, despite efforts by scholars to account for a female presence in the corrido narrative through a reading of the story's gaps. The resonances of a female voice are never accounted for fully or explained in dialectical relationship to the dominant song of the...
(The entire section is 5261 words.)
SOURCE: “Bilingualism and Dialogism: Another Reading of Lorna Dee Cervantes's Poetry,” Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands, edited by Alfred Artega, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 215-23.
[In the following essay, Savin examines bilingualism in the work of Cervantes and the ways in which her use of dialogue involves the reader on many levels.]
The “consistent fineness” of Lorna Dee Cervantes's poetry has aroused a wide response among literary critics.1 Thus Marta Sánchez considers the opposition between the militant Chicana and the lyrical poet to be the major paradigm underlying the poems' inner tension, a view which fails to account for the diverse intersecting voices in Cervantes's poetry. And Cordelia Candelaria's otherwise insightful analysis of the Emplumada poems similarly falls short of providing a cohesive analysis of the manifold threads that are interwoven into the author's poetic persona.
This essay will attempt to provide a different angle of approach to bilingual or interlingual (Chicano) poetry drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic interpretation of language and literature. An examination of Cervantes's work within this theoretical framework will hopefully throw a more encompassing light on her poetry. By the same token it could open up the whole field of bi- or interlingual (Chicano) literature, to a wider ranging...
(The entire section is 2963 words.)
SOURCE: “Rethinking the ‘Eyes’ of Chicano Poetry, or Reading the Multiple Centers of Chicana Poetics,” in Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, edited by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, University of Notre Dame Press, 1999, pp.113-29.
[In the following excerpt, Candelaria discussesEmplumada, From the Cables of Genocide, and individual poems of Cervantes in order to examine her growth as a poet.]
A post-World War II California native, Cervantes (b. 1954) is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her first published volume, Emplumada (1981), continues as one of the most critically acclaimed, late Chicano Renaissance titles, and her From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991) has received similar notice.1 Her work was included in volume two of the prestigious fourth and fifth editions of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1994 and 1998), making her one of only three Mexican Americans among the one hundred-plus authors. Her consistent participation in alternative publishing (for example, the Flor y Canto anthologies, Mango, Quarry West, and recently Red Dirt) also contributes to her established place in Chicana/o letters, a niche enhanced by her visiting writer invitations to the University of...
(The entire section is 3510 words.)
Herrera-Sobek, María. An introduction to Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature, edited by María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Virmaontes, pp. 1-42, University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Analyzes Cervantes's poetic imagery, focusing on her characterization of the street life of the underclass Chicana.
Ratner, Rochelle. “Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes.” Library Journal 106, No. 11 (June 1981): 1225.
Praises the craft and lyricism of Cervantes's poetry.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Chicana Literature: From a Chicana Feminist Perspective.” Americas Review 15, No. 3-4 (Fall 1987): pp. 139-45.
Tenders the idea that the Chicana's experience and power comes from not belonging to the dominant culture; her class, race, and gender define her. Briefly examines Cervantes and her poetic notions.
Additional coverage of Cervantes’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 82; Hispanic Literature Criticism Supplement, Vol. 1; and Hispanic Writers, Vol. 1.
(The entire section is 151 words.)