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.