Victor Hernández Cruz

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Victor Hernández Cruz was born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, a small town about twenty miles from San Juan. The streets were unpaved, but he absorbed the native song and poetry as well as the poetic declamations of his grandfather and uncle. His family migrated to New York in 1954 and settled in the tenements of the lower East Side of Manhattan. He attended Benjamin Franklin High School and began to write verse. At the age of sixteen, he composed his first collection of poetry, Papo Got His Gun! and Other Poems. Cruz and his friends duplicated and distributed five hundred copies to local bookstores.

In 1967, the Evergreen Review helped launch Cruz’s career when the journal featured several of these poems. Thus, while still in high school, he became a published poet. In 1969, he released his second collection of poems, Snaps, and gained national attention. In the 1960’s, his neighborhood had become a center of intellectual and social ferment as part of the Civil Rights movement. Beat poetry, protest poetry, and feminist poetry mixed with political activism and music to form the social milieu. Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) were major influences, and Cruz was intrigued by the developing Nuyorican (New York/Puerto Rican) poetry movement, which often claims him.

In 1969, Cruz moved to Berkeley, California, to become poet-in-residence at the University of California. In 1973, he published a third collection of poems, Mainland, which chronicles his migrations from New York to California and back again. In Tropicalization, Cruz expands his Caribbean and Spanish sensibility. His next work, By Lingual Wholes, includes some poems printed in both Spanish and English, for in San Francisco he found many Latino artists who helped him develop from North American poet into a poet for both English- and Spanish-speaking peoples.

After the publication of Rhythm, Content, and Flavor, Cruz moved back to Aguas Buenas, where he was born. He came into close contact with the local oral traditions and was deeply affected by them. In 1991, he recorded these sensations in Red Beans, and next he began working on a book of poems in Spanish. Panoramas provides a sensuous blend of Puerto Rico’s Taino, Spanish, and African legacies in fantastic imagery that illuminates the Caribbean culture for the world. In 2001, Cruz published Maraca, a collection of new and selected poems spanning the years 1965 to 2000. Although he continues to travel, performing his poems from Madrid to San Francisco, he is the only well-known Puerto Rican poet writing in English who chose to return to live on the island of his birth.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,671 words.)