Lorna Dee Cervantes Cervantes, Lorna Dee - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Emplumada 1981

From the Cables of Genocide: Poems of Love and Hunger 1991

Frances Whyatt (review date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Lynette Seator (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 6393 words.)

Cordelia Candelaria (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 2515 words.)

John F. Crawford (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4415 words.)

Patricia Wallace (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2704 words.)

Teresa McKenna (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5261 words.)

Ada Savin (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2963 words.)

Cordelia Chavez Candelaria (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3510 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.”...

(The entire section is 151 words.)