Bernice Zamora Essay - Critical Essays

Zamora, Bernice


Bernice Zamora 1938–

(Born Bernice Ortiz) American poet.

The following entry provides an overview of Zamora's career through 1986.

A leading figure in contemporary Chicano poetry, Zamora is chiefly known for her widely acclaimed collection of verse, Restless Serpents (1976). Commentators have cited the work as a seminal exploration of such topics as Chicano culture, womanhood, the conflicts between men and women, and the power of poetry. Noting the significance of the volume's "tight, carefully crafted poems," Lorna Dee Cervantes has stated that Zamora "proves herself to be one of the most (if not the most) outstanding Chicana poets today."

Biographical Information

Born in Aguilar, a village in the mountainous coal-mining region of Colorado, Zamora grew up in the ethnically diverse city of Pueblo. She was raised in a Spanish-speaking home in which Chicano cultural and Roman Catholic religious traditions figured prominently. When Zamora began attending catechism classes as a child, her teachers discovered that she could read some English and advised her parents to confine her education to that language—a recommendation that Zamora, in retrospect, has resented. Following her graduation from high school, she married and began a family, returning to academic life in the mid-1960s. At that time, she enrolled at Southern Colorado University and eventually obtained an undergraduate degree in English. Continuing her studies at Colorado State University, Zamora received her graduate degree in 1972. She obtained a divorce in 1974 and relocated to California, matriculating at Stanford where she ultimately earned her doctorate in 1986. In 1976, together with José Antonio Burciaga, she published Restless Serpents. Informed by the rich tradition of Chicano verse, this volume has been described by Joe Olvera as her "major aesthetic statement on life and its inconsistencies." Zamora became seriously ill in 1980 and refrained from publishing and reciting new material, although she continued to write poetry, plays, and theoretical works. When she resumed her public poetry readings, she claimed that "public recitation" was a "cultural necessity for a Chicana poet" and "the best way to present poetry." Zamora has also worked on the journal De Colores and has helped edit the Chicano literary anthology Flor y canto IV and V (1980).

Major Works

Restless Serpents focuses largely on the struggle to obliterate boundaries between various kinds of groups. In such poems as "Let the Giants Cackle," Zamora attacks the Anglo community's indifference toward Chicano cultural traditions and the Spanish language. Noting how many Chicanos have been forced to learn English, she writes in this poem: "Words, words, English words—/ turds of the golden goose—/ words we picked up, wiped off, / cleaned up, prepared and served / as canapes to the lordly lords." In other pieces, such as "Sonnet, Freely Adapted" and "California," Zamora builds on and manipulates texts by William Shakespeare and Robinson Jeffers, respectively, in an attempt to delineate the degree to which the male patriarchy dominates Chicano—and Western—culture and devalues the contributions of women. Gender conflict and the search for equality are also central to Zamora's verse. In "Gata Poem" ("Cat Poem"), for example, the author exposes, with increasing vehemance, the myth of machismo in Chicano culture, while steadily elevating women to a position of equality with men. Other poems employ phallic symbols, drawing a parallel between the physical and emotional violation of women by men, exposing, as Olvera has noted, "the naked truth about the warring sexes." Critics have also observed the prominence of sexual and religious imagery, rituals, and language throughout Restless Serpents. "Penitents," for instance, compares sadomasochistic rites to traditional Roman Catholic customs related to Christ's suffering and death. Commentators generally agree that the snake is the most forceful symbol in Zamora's work; the serpent, an androgynous image, is associated with cult practices of the Aztecs and recalls the historic and mythic origins of the Chicano people as well as the power of evil. In "Stone Serpents," for example, the snake appears as a graven idol carved into a castle's sustaining pillars, suggesting that an oppressive, patriarchal socioeconomic system supports the world's manifold injustices. The final poem of the book, "Restless Serpents," draws upon religious imagery in its discussion of the creative process as a ritualized act of faith. Here the serpent takes on a bisexual significance, representing Zamora's effective blending of masculine and feminine elements in her verse.

Critical Reception

Although Zamora has only published a single volume of poetry, her work has engendered considerable critical discussion. In general, reviewers have praised her verse for its lyrical beauty, evocative power, and complexity of thought and feeling. Many commentators, such as Bruce-Novoa and Marta E. Sánchez, have asserted that Zamora's strength lies chiefly in her severe imagery. Others, like Cordelia Candelaria, have commended the author for introducing "indispensable feminist and feminine threads to the still largely androcentric tapestry of contemporary American literature." Although she recognizes the feminist elements of her poetry, Zamora has stated that she published Restless Serpents for a Chicano community that has been "accused of not being a literate, thinking group," adding that she hopes her verse will help minority students, particularly Chicano youth, "to feel part of the world."

Principal Works

Restless Serpents [with José Antonio Burciaga] (poetry) 1976
Flor y canto IV and V: An Anthology of Chicano Literature [editor, with José Armas] (anthology) 1980

∗This collection contains two separates volumes—the first being Zamora's Restless Serpents and the second containing Burciaga's verse.


Bruce-Novoa (review date Spring-Summer 1977)

SOURCE: A review of Restless Serpents, in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. V, No. 10, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 152-54.

[Juan D. Bruce-Novoa, who frequently writes under just his surname, is a distinguished Hispanic poet and critic. In the following review, he offers a laudatory assessment of Restless Serpents, noting thematic and stylistic aspects of the collection.]

[In Bernice Zamora's Restless Serpents, the] restless serpent is sign, heart, and being of a world fraught with meaning always just beyond our rational grasp, a little too ambiguous to be nailed down, too unsettling to be comfortably defined and forgotten; in others words: poetry, language that creates itself as the surface upon, by and in which the ineffable can manifest itself in the world.

What attracts me in Zamora's poetry is that in spite of the directness of the voice and its worldly substance, something escapes, like the mystery of the penitent rituals in those sacred moradas, or the identity of the caretaker of the pool of drowning seasoned dead, or the faces of our interrogators in the anteroom of some lost temple, or the underlying logic which unites the chopping of wood, the praying of a rosary, and a young girl entering an outhouse, and demands the death of a goat in the morning. These and more escape, but how firmly they remain fixed in the mind is measure of Zamora's success.

Zamora's world is best summed up in "On living in Aztlán."

We come and we go
But within limits,
Fixed by a law
Which is not ours;
We have in common
the experience of love
-after Guillevec

It is a world of limitations and definitions imposed from the outside, often by strangers, but at times—much too often it seems—by those close to us; and in our prison, we love each other, and love unites us. Yet, this significant poem, while it displays the essential elements of Zamora's poetry, falls short of its true dynamics in the way it calmly separates the...

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Bernice Zamora with Bruce-Novoa (interview date September 1978)

SOURCE: An interview in Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview, by Bruce-Novoa, University of Texas Press, 1980, pp. 203-18.

[In the following interview, which was originally conducted via correspondence in September 1978, Zamora discusses various aspects of her life and work as well as the current state of Chicano literature.]

A prolific poet, Bernice Zamora had published widely in journals before the publication of Restless Serpents (1976), yet, as José Montoya indicates in his interview [also in Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview], it is a sad commentary on the male bias which predominates in the Chicano literary establishment—a mere reflection of...

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Joe Olvera (review date October 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Restless Serpents, in The American Book Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, October, 1979, p. 20.

[In the following review of Restless Serpents, Olvera elucidates the work's major themes—religion, sexuality, love, and gender warfare—concluding that Zamora's poetry reflects the reality of the human condition.]

The first time I met Bernice Zamora, I was totally impressed with her vibrant, "welcome-to-the-fold" personality and mentality. Her fine form emanated auras of bright colors as she modulated and entertained the struggling writers under her care. At the time, she was a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, while teaching some...

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Marta E. Sánchez (essay date Fall 1980)

SOURCE: "Inter-Sexual and Intertextual Codes in the Poetry of Bernice Zamora," in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 55-68.

[In the following essay, Sánchez examines Zamora's focus on relationships between men and women in "Sonnet, Freely Adapted," "California," and "Gata Poem." She also discusses intertextual aspects of these works, noting how they have been influenced by and respond to other texts.]

In Restless Serpents, her first collection of poems, Bernice Zamora presents us with a poetry of conflict. Most of these poems attempt to redefine relationships between men and women, and the conflict which propels them, as sexual. Sexual dilemmas motivate...

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Cordelia Candelaria (essay date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: "Another Reading of Three Poems by Zamora," in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 102-04.

[Candelaria is an American educator, poet, and critic who frequently writes about Chicano and Hispanic literature and culture. In the following essay, a response to Marta E. Sánchez's reading of "California," she offers additional insights into the poem, viewing it "as a lyrical completion of Jeffers's ('Roan Stallion'), not as a feminist departure from it."]

Marta E. Sánchez's article, "Inter-Sexual and Intertextual Codes in the Poetry of Bernice Zamora," in the Summer 1980 issue of MELUS was a welcome example of solid criticism on Chicano poetry. While her...

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Bernice Zamora with Wolfgang Binder (interview date 12 May 1982)

SOURCE: An interview in Partial Autobiographies: Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets, edited by Wolfgang Binder, Verlag Palm & Enke Erlangen, 1985, pp. 221-29.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in May 1982, Zamora discusses the origin of her poetic vocation, her major literary influences, and her contribution to twen-tieth-century Chicano literature.]

[Binder]: When were you born and where?

[Zamora]: I was born in Aguilar, Colorado, a little village at the foot of twin mountains called Spanish Peaks in Southern Colorado, on January 20, 1938.

Which members of your family had immigrated to the US?...

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Bruce-Novoa (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Rituals of Devastation and Resurrection: Bernice Zamora," in his Chicano Poetry: A Response to Chaos, University of Texas Press, 1982, pp. 160-84.

[In the excerpt below, Bruce-Novoa examines the snake image and the importance of ritual in Restless Serpents, stating that Zamora's poetry "traces the move from sacred to profane structuring of society and attempts to find relief from the concomitant loss of meaning and alienation which that change produces."]

Having been born into a family that can trace its presence in Southern Colorado and New Mexico back some two centuries; having grown up among rural, traditional people who practiced the centuries-old...

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Marta E. Sánchez (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Dramatization of a Shifting Poetic Consciousness: Bernice Zamora's Restless Serpents," in Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to an Emerging Literature, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 214-68.

[In the following excerpt, Sánchez identifies Zamora's cultural and literary influences, particularly that of American poet Robinson Jeffers, contending that Zamora's verse reveals the conflict between three opposing identities: woman, Chicana, and poet.]

You insult me
When you say I'm schizophrenic.
My divisions are


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José David Saldívar (essay date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: "Towards a Chicano Poetics: The Making of the Chicano Subject, 1969–1982," in Confluencia, Vol. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 10-17.

[In the following excerpt, Saldívar offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of "So Not to Be Mottled."]

While a Chicano poetics must be holistic, must include the constitutive material nature of the culture relative to the individual, it must be distinguished from orthodox social theory. I begin [then] … with the self-evident claim that conventional social theory is not often concerned with the ethnopoetic or feminist consciousness of the historically situated author and/or reader of a text. This failure of social theory to deal with...

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Cordelia Candelaria (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Chicano Poetry, Phase III: The Flowering of Flor y Canto," in Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 137-74.

[In the excerpt below, Candelaria offers cultural and intertextual readings of the poems collected in Restless Serpents.]

Although Bernice Zamora has been publishing in alternative periodicals since 1970, her first book, Restless Serpents, did not appear until 1976. The warmth of the reception for her book has not been diminished by the absence of a sequel, though it would be received with great interest. "Her poetry is strong and sure of itself," writes [Joe Olvera in American Book Review 2, no. 2...

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Further Reading


"Contemporary Chicana Poetry." Nuestro (March 1986): 35-9.

Feature article based on an interview with Marta Ester Sánchez upon the publication of her Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to an Emerging Literature. Sánchez comments on Zamora's work as well as that of Lucha Corpi, Alma Villanueva, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. Selections of Zamora's poetry are included.

Ordóñez, Elizabeth J. "The Concept of Cultural Identity in Chicana Poetry." Third Woman 2 (1984): 75-82.

Examines the search for cultural heroes and a cultural identity in the...

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