Victor Hernández Cruz Cruz, Victor Hernández - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Victor Hernández Cruz 1949-

American poet.

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).

Biographical Information

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.”

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Papo Got His Gun! And Other Poems 1966

Snaps 1969

Mainland 1973

Tropicalization (poetry and prose) 1976

By Lingual Wholes (poetry and prose) 1982

Rhythm, Content & Flavor: New and Selected Poems 1989

Red Beans: Poems 1991

Panoramas 1997

Maraca: New & Selected Poems, 1966-2000 2001

Victor Hernández Cruz and Clarence Major with Walt Shepperd (interview date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruz, Victor Hernández, Clarence Major, and Walt Shepperd. “An Interview with Clarence Major and Victor Hernandez Cruz.” In New Black Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Afro-American Literature, edited by Abraham Chapman, pp. 545-52. New York: New American Library, 1972.

[In the following interview with Cruz and Major, originally published in 1969, Shepperd discusses the place of minority literature in the publishing industry and in educational curricula.]

Clarence Major, (see note in poetry section, p. 298) and Victor Hernandez Cruz (see note in poetry section, pp. 237-38) were among the writers participating in the Summer Institute on Black Excellence...

(The entire section is 2296 words.)

Nancy Sullivan (review date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Nancy. “Snap Judgments.” Poetry 116, no. 2 (May 1970): 120-25.

[In the following review of Snaps, Sullivan praises Cruz's use of language to depict the atmosphere of life in Spanish Harlem.]

Victor Hernandez Cruz is twenty. He was born in Puerto Rico, and has lived in New York City for fifteen years. The poems in Snaps remind me in their subject matter of the taped conversations made by Oscar Lewis for La Vida, his sociological-anthropological study of a group of poor, oppressed Puerto Ricans in New York and San Juan. Cruz has lived in the same miserable New York tenements Lewis explores, ridden the same clacking subways to...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Victor Hernández Cruz (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruz, Victor Hernández. “Mountains in the North: Hispanic Writing in the U.S.A.” Americas Review 14, Nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1986): 110-14.

[In the following essay, Cruz explores the influence of a rich cultural heritage on contemporary Puerto Rican American poetry, concluding, “It is the job of writers to perceive and explain the truth.”]

The earth is migration, everything is moving, changing interchanging, appearing, disappearing. National languages melt, sail into each other; languages are made of fragments, like bodies are made of fragments of something in the something. Who'd want to stand still, go to the edges where you see clear the horizon,...

(The entire section is 1985 words.)

Frances R. Aparicio (essay date 1989-90)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Aparicio, Frances R. “Salsa, Maracas, and Baile: Latin Popular Music in the Poetry of Victor Hernandez Cruz.” MELUS 16, no. 1 (Spring 1989-90): 43-58.

[In the following essay, Aparicio describes how Latin music and dance forms influence Cruz's poetry.]

“We easily turned 139th Street into a tropical barriada. All the stories in the area had Spanish signs in front. In the mornings you would hear the radios blaring those Latin rhythms in an eerie but reassuring echoey unison—and the smell of hundreds of pots of Café Bustelo filling the air. … the rhythm was very important to all of us. On 139th Street it would be...

(The entire section is 6740 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Red Beans. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 40 (6 September 1991): 99.

[In the following review, Publishers Weekly praises Cruz for blending Spanish and English to express a fresh perspective on American culture.]

The “red beans” of this collection of poems and prose [Red Beans: Poems] are a pun on “red beings”—characters who inhabit Hernandez Cruz's (Snaps) native Puerto Rico and hail from totally different cultures and ages. In the poet's inclusive imagination, Puerto Rican history connects with all history, so mythic figures live next door to Jibaro mountain folk. In the “Mithra” the appearance of the Persian...

(The entire section is 226 words.)

Frank Allen (review date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Frank. A review of Red Beans. Library Journal 116, no. 16 (1 October 1991): 100.

[In the following review, Allen praises Cruz's use of “Spanglish” in poetry and essays which speak in “a hybrid accent as spicy as salsa.”]

“Migration is the story of my body, it is the condition of this age,” says Cruz (b. 1949 in Puerto Rico) in Red Beans, a collection of his poems and story-essays that explore the difficult marriage between “Northern Americana” and the “Hispano-Criollo-Caribbean” culture. With a hybrid accent as spicy as salsa, this energetic poet advocates a “society of the Americas,” an enriched “racial and...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Anne C. Bromley (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bromley, Anne C. “The Poetics of Migration.” American Book Review 13, no. 6 (February-March 1992): 26-27.

[In the following review of Red Beans, Bromley describes Cruz's poetry as “the voice of a troubadour” speaking the hybrid language of a “society of the Americas.”]

American poets speak in voices that integrate and echo many languages and traditions, resulting in an extraordinarily various literature. Yet the contemporary canon as defined by mainstream anthologies, literary journals, and critical works does not, unfortunately, accurately reflect this variety. Published on the eve of the anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the “new”...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Nicolás Kanellos (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kanellos, Nicolás. A review of Red Beans. Americas Review 20, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 87.

[In the following review, Kanellos describes Cruz's poetry as a “celebration of the blending of European, African, and American cultures that have made up the New World Experience.”]

With Red Beans, his most recent publication, the prolific Nuyorican writer Victor Hernández Cruz now has two books in print. Cruz has been one of the U.S. Hispanic poets most recognized in “mainstream” creative writing circles and the major media (See Life magazine, April 1981). This latest effort was chosen one of the outstanding books of 1991 by Publishers...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Victor Hernández Cruz with Francisco Cabanillas (interview date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruz, Victor Hernández, and Francisco Cabanillas. “Spanish in English: An Interview with Victor Hernández Cruz.” Latino Studies Journal 6, no. 1 (January 1995): 49-61.

[In the following interview, Cruz discusses his poetry in terms of his use of language and the influence of Puerto Rican culture on his writing.]

Vivíamos en la reflexión
Del sol
Las ideas acumulando perfume.

V. H. C.

Victor Hernandez Cruz is a Puerto Rican poet who has spent a great deal of his life outside Puerto Rico, but has never been away from it. From Aguas Buenas to New York, from New York to California, and from California back to Aguas Buenas,...

(The entire section is 4750 words.)

Victor Hernández Cruz with Bill Moyers (interview date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruz, Victor Hernández, and Bill Moyers. “Victor Hernández Cruz.” In The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by Bill Moyers, pp. 99-108. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

[In the following interview, Moyers discusses Cruz's use of language and the influence of Puerto Rican culture on his poetry.]

Victor Hernández Cruz infuses his poetry with the rhythms, colors, and textures of Puerto Rico, his homeland, and the Lower East Side of New York City, where he grew up. He has reached out to the several communities that have shaped his work and involved their residents in artistic projects. He is a founding member of the Before Columbus Foundation, which...

(The entire section is 2531 words.)

Victor Hernández Cruz with Carmen Dolores Hernández (interview date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruz, Victor Hernández, and Carmen Dolores Hernández. “Victor Hernández Cruz.” In Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers, edited by Carmen Dolores Hernández, pp. 63-75. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

[In the following interview, Cruz discusses the significance of his Puerto Rican identity in his poetry.]

His country accent—in Spanish—defines him as a man who comes from the mountainous interior of Puerto Rico. His measured words reveal a profundity of thought, a dedication to study, and an awareness of language that sets him apart. Victor Hernández Cruz has always tried to find the sense and significance behind life experiences and...

(The entire section is 5989 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Panoramas. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 39 (22 September 1997): 77.

[In the following review, Publishers Weekly applauds Cruz's use of the rhythms of Latin music in his poetry.]

Celebrated for creating poetry that is a collision of the sounds, tensions and flavors of New York and Puerto Rico, Cruz [in Panoramas] achieves a musical vitality that surpasses any of his other volumes. Like a salsa band leader coaxing and challenging dancers to more and more complex steps, Cruz dares readers with dizzying polyrhythms, polymetric stanzas, back-stepping word structures and a sense of improvisation: “Humid women in plaza dance / Tongues...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Lawrence Olszewski (review date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Olszewski, Lawrence. A review of Panoramas. Library Journal 122, no. 16 (1 October 1997): 86.

[In the following review, Olszewski discusses Cruz's poetry in terms of the themes of bilingualism and cultural displacement.]

This book [Panoramas,], a poetic quintet offering both prose and poetry, develops a set of variations around the themes of displacement and bilingualism. The opening autobiographical essay, “Home Is Where the Music Is,” leads into the second segment, “The Age of Sea Shells Revisited,” the focus of which is the clash of cultures. The staccato rhythms of the third set, “Pana/Ramas,” conjure up the spirit of Cruz's Puerto...

(The entire section is 188 words.)

W. Nick Hill (review date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hill, W. Nick. A review of Panoramas. World Literature Today 72, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 619-20.

[In the following review, Hill describes Cruz's poetry in terms of his skillful juxtaposition of Spanish and English.]

Panoramas is the most varied collection of Victor Hernandez Cruz's writings to date, carrying out a project that may be as true of him as it is of what he observes in the essay “Writing Migrations”: “From the very beginning of his writing life … Marti began to swallow the whole panorama of the Americas.” Cruz's singing voice, which is still full, rich, and ready for the play of words in the panoramic sense of using English,...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Carmelo Esterrich (review date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Esterrich, Carmelo. “Home and the Ruins of Language: Victor Hernández Cruz and Miguel Algarin's Nuyorican Poetry.” MELUS 23, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 43-56.

[In the following review, Esterrich discusses the “Nuyorican” poetry of Cruz and Miguel Algarin as addressing issues of identity and language through a fusion of Puerto Rican and U.S. culture.]

I have a small fence
that surrounds my fair home
where I propose and propound
where I invent and discover.
Tengo una verjita,
que rodea mi lindo hogar,
donde propongo y pongo,
donde invento y encuentro.

—Miguel Algarin, “Dónde/Where”.

Y tampoco importa el...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Acosta-Belén, Edna. “The Literature of the Puerto Rican National Minority in the United States.” Bilingual Review 5, no. 1, 2 (January 1978): 107-16.

Discusses major writers of contemporary Puerto Rican literature.

Alexander, Elizabeth. “Living in Americas: Victor Hernández Cruz's Migration of Words.” Village Voice Literary Supplement 238, no. 100 (November 1991): 36.

Discusses Cruz's portrayal of hybrid ethnic culture in New York through combining Puerto Rican Slang and Black English in his poetry.

Amaya, Jose. “Marímba tango samba: Poetry of the Américas.” San...

(The entire section is 180 words.)