Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway

by Lorna Dee Cervantes

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

“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 in the first stanza is given living qualities itself; it is a “blind worm,” among other things. Women have stood in the “shadow” of men for generations (especially “borrachando,” or “getting drunk”), but the narrator has found a way to make a man “gentle” and faithful (like the male mockingbird). She has the example of her grandmother’s self-reliance and her mother’s warnings about men, and she has the balance of male and female qualities in her own person—strength and tenderness, self-reliance, and vulnerability. It is a powerful mix.

In the end, “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway” is a realistic poem with a strong feminist theme and a number of classical allusions. Cervantes portrays her three generations of women realistically but finds hope in their lives and possibilities in this urban world. The poem rises to a mythic level as Cervantes links both men and women to other worlds: men as faithful mockingbirds, for example, and women as characters in some medieval drama. (Readers can compare a number of classical precursors here, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses [c. 8 c.e., English trans., 1567] to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land [1922].) In a contemporary society filled with gender conflicts and environmental problems, the poem is no small accomplishment.

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