Bernice Zamora Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."