Victor Hernández Cruz 1949-
Cruz is a leading poet of the “Neo-rican” (or Neorican or Nuyorican) movement in American literature, characterized by writers of Puerto Rican descent who have lived primarily in the United States and whose works utilize “Spanglish”—an idiomatic English inflected with Spanish and Black English. Cruz's poems address themes of cultural fusion based on his experience as a Puerto Rican born immigrant to New York City and expressed through the rhythms of Latin and African-American music, particularly salsa and jazz. Cruz's major collections of poetry include Snaps (1969), Tropicalization (1976), Red Beans: Poems (1991), and Panoramas (1997).
Cruz was born February 6, 1949, in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico. In 1954 he immigrated with his family to the United States, where he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area of New York City dubbed el barrio for its high concentration of Spanish-speaking minorities. Cruz's parents divorced when he was young, and his mother struggled to support the family on her own. Cruz began writing at age fourteen and self-published his first poetry collection, Papo Got His Gun! And Other Poems (1966), at the age of seventeen, using a mimeograph machine to produce copies which were distributed to local businesses and sold for seventy-five cents each. Cruz attended Ben Franklin High School but left six months before he was to have graduated. Soon after, he co-founded the East Harlem Gut Theater, a short-lived Puerto Rican collective which produced street performances. In 1967, Cruz became an editor of Umbra magazine, which folded two years later. During the 1960s and 1970s Cruz's poetry was frequently published in small literary magazines as well as many anthologies of poetry. Snaps, a collection of poetry, was the nineteen-year-old Cruz's first book to be released by a major publisher. In 1969, he moved from New York to Berkeley, California, where he worked as a teacher in an experimental public school. In 1970 he taught as a guest lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley and in 1973 began teaching as an instructor at San Francisco State University. He has since moved back and forth between California, New York, and Puerto Rico. Cruz once stated, “It is the job of writers to perceive and explain the truth. To get to the essence of things in this society is a monumental task of awareness.”
The central theme of Cruz’s poetry is the experience of cultural fusion as a Puerto Rican immigrant to the United States. This theme is expressed through use of language which combines elements of English, Spanish, and African-American Slang, as well as through the rhythms of his poetry, which draw from salsa and jazz music. Papo Got His Gun! addresses themes of identity, life, and death, from the perspective of a teenager living in el barrio. The title of his first major collection of poetry—Snaps—refers to the finger-snapping of dance and musical rhythms, as well as the snapshots of life in el barrio depicted through his poetic imagery. Mainland (1973) begins with poems set in New York City, then moves out, as Cruz himself did, to the Midwest, California, the Southwest, and Puerto Rico, before returning to New York. Tropicalization expresses Cruz's desire to infuse the cold northern landscape of New York with the tropical ethos of Puerto Rican culture. By Lingual Wholes (1982), a collection of poetry and prose, addresses Cruz's social and political concerns with an added sense of humor. Red Beans was released on the eve of the 500-year anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. The title Red Beans is a pun on “red beings,” as in the Puerto Ricans descended from a mix of indigenous, Spanish, and African ancestry. This collection of poetry and essays focuses on the rich heritage of Puerto Rican and Caribbean culture. In this collection, Cruz also makes reference to the brutal history of colonization beginning with Columbus's “discovery” of the New World, as well as the strong influence of Puerto Rican culture on modern America. Panoramas also includes both poetry and prose. The poems of Panoramas continue Cruz's exploration of the rhythms of Latin and African-American music and dance in a fusion of Spanish and English languages. His recurrent themes of biculturalism, Puerto Rican heritage, and the fusion of cultures which characterizes the United States are further addressed in the volume.
Cruz is one of the foremost poets of the Neo-rican movement. Critics generally agree that the strength of his poetry lies in his imaginative use of “Spanglish” and rhythms from Latin music to address themes of cultural fusion in the Puerto Rican barrio and the heritage of Puerto Rican culture and history. Cruz has been praised for his imagination and originality by such celebrated writers as Allen Ginsberg and Ishmael Reed. Although of a younger generation, Cruz is often associated with the Beat poets, based on his use of jazz rhythms in his poetry. He is also sometimes referred to as a surrealist poet, in a style reminiscent of Federico Garcia Lorca. Snaps received widespread critical acclaim. Critics comment that Snaps retains the high energy of the poems of Papo Got His Gun!, while demonstrating greater control. Nancy Sullivan in 1970 described the snappy quality of Snaps in terms of both the visual imagery and the language rhythms in Cruz's poetry: “Cruz's visual images are like snapshots—spontaneous, hurried photographs, often a little out of focus, as though taken with a $2.98 Brownie camera; his sound patterns are abrupt like the snapping of fingers to the beat of a marimba. Cruz's language is a sub-language used to detect life (la vida) in a sub-culture, the sepia ghetto of Spanish Harlem.” But critics have also characterized Snaps as repetitive, unoriginal, monotonous, and weighted down by social commentary. Nonetheless, Cruz's realistic portrayals of life in el barrio, and his fresh use of a hybrid Spanish-English language have been lauded by many critics. Critics praised Mainland as a mature work which builds on the strengths of Snaps. In Mainland, Cruz's poetic landscape spans across the United States, utilizing a greater range of detail and imagery to depict life in the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, as well as New York. Tropicalization continues Cruz's cultural fusion of language and rhythms with a greater ease of style and a greater sense of humor about the hardships of life in el barrio. While addressing similar themes and utilizing a style similar to Snaps and Mainland, Tropicalization was received by critics as more original and imaginative in range than the earlier volumes. Red Beans has been critically acclaimed as stylistically and thematically powerful in its evocation of Puerto Rican culture as a vibrant fusion of indigenous, African, Spanish, and European heritages. In a review of Red Beans Nicolás Kanellos asserted, “Cruz is a hard-hitting revisionist of the colonial past while conducting a gut-level intuited consideration of what in essence is Puerto Rican and Hispanic culture.” Critics praised Panoramas as a continuation of Cruz's characteristic style and recurring themes. Publishers Weekly celebrated the fine-tuned usage of musical rhythms in Panoramas, stating that in it Cruz “achieves a musical vitality that surpasses any of his other volumes,” adding, “While the verses pulse with a cross-cultural harmony of Caribbean and Lower East Side beats, the language approximates the emotional sphere of themes in rumba lyrics.”