Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837
Victor Hernández Cruz (krewz) moved with his family to Lower East Side Manhattan from a small town in Puerto Rico when he was five years old. His parents soon divorced. In an autobiographical essay, “The Bolero of the Red Translation,” in Red Beans, he begins, “Migration is the story of my body, it is the condition of this age.” He describes his move from a tropical world “in a bowl surrounded by green mountains wherein a million mysteries resided” to a world of “awesome gray velocity” where people spoke a “language which sounded like bla-bla-bla.” He identifies himself with Spanish and English, and with Native (Taino Indian) and African (notably Yoruba) cultures. “Poetry falls everywhere,” Cruz writes. “It is the most available art form.” He was writing poems by the time he was fourteen, but he dropped out of high school in 1967, just six months before graduation. By then, he had already produced his first collection, a mimeographed book entitled Papo Got His Gun! and Other Poems, which he distributed to local bookstores and sold for seventy-five cents a copy. It was discovered by an editor of the Evergreen Review, who reprinted several of the poems. The book, which Cruz elsewhere describes as “the poetry of youthful fire,” concerns teenagers coming to grips with the reality of life and death in the barrio of Spanish Harlem.
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After leaving high school, Cruz became involved with the East Harlem Gut Theater, a collective effort of Puerto Rican artists and actors, and he helped edit the literary magazine Umbra between 1967 and 1969. By 1968, his poems had appeared in such noted magazines as Ramparts and in Black Fire, an anthology edited by African American poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). In 1968, in the midst of the protests against the war in Vietnam, he moved to Berkeley, where he met such influential writers as Octavio Paz, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and Ernesto Cardenal. He was not yet twenty when Random House published Snaps, which brought him national recognition. The title refers to his use of spontaneous, abrupt “snapshot imagery” in the poems. He taught briefly at an experimental school in Berkeley and divided his time between the East and West Coasts.
In Mainland, which has been described as “a poetic odyssey through the United States that eventually leads back to the source, the mother of his music and poetry: Borinquen” (the Indian term for Puerto Rico), Cruz sustains his commitment, as one critic phrases it, to “the power of poetry and music to strengthen people and bring about social change.” He married in 1975; he and his wife had a son and a daughter but later divorced. In 1975, Cruz also began a stint as editor of Revista Chicano Riquena. In 1976 appeared Tropicalization, a collection of poems and prose, which has been described as an effort to “tropicalize” the United States with Latin American sensibility and energy. Bilingual diction is common in this book, which has been noted for showing more wit and humor, more innovation, and greater vitality than his previous work. It reflects on his return visits to Puerto Rico, which helped him to “recharge” his Spanish. Cruz likens its impact to a “greenhouse effect” on the “Northern latitudes.” Of this book, he says, “I took the English syntax to the point of destruction.”
By Lingual Wholes Cruz has described as “an attempt to write a language that was neither Spanish nor English” (what some commentators refer to as “Spanglish”). Throughout his work, Cruz has interrogated, challenged, and disturbed the Anglo order of things, often by infusing the rhythms of Latin song and dance in his poems. One critic notes a “pulsating” salsa beat in Tropicalization but a slower and more melodic bolero rhythm in By Lingual Wholes.
Rhythm, Content, and Flavor, published in 1989, brought together selected poems from four earlier books (beginning with Snaps) and added twenty new poems in a section entitled “Islandis: The Age of Seashells,” which concerns a prominent theme in his work: Puerto Rico as the source of music and wisdom. Red Beans was acclaimed by some critics as his best book. Nature imagery and metaphor that, like his humor, draw on the surreal are more prominent than ever in this collection of thirty-six poems and thirteen short essays in prose. In “The Bolero of the Red Translation,” he offers definitions of poetry and comments on his role as a bilingual poet. The poems and prose record his debt to such varied influences as William Carlos Williams (whose mother was Puerto Rican) and salsa music. The poems and essays of Panoramas celebrate the Caribbean, with its blend of Taino, African, and Spanish cultures. The 2001 collection Maraca includes previously unpublished poems from four decades, beginning in the mid-1960’s. It was named a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
Victor Hernández Cruz is a poet of the folk, a voice some associate with pop culture, a performance poet, and a poet of community. Significantly, he works on the borders of two languages, Germanic English and Latin Spanish.