Victor Hernández Cruz

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

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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 at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, New York, in 1969. Walt Shepperd, editor of The Nickel Review, a literary publication which published many contributions by Black writers, published this joint interview with Clarence Major and Victor Hernandez Cruz at this Institute in The Nickel Review, September 12, 1969.

[Shepperd:] Clarence, in your anthology The New Black Poetry, are you giving us, by your selection of poets, standards for the definition of a black aesthetic?

[Major:] What I've had to come to realize is that the question of a black aesthetic is something that's come down to an individual question. It seems to me that if there is a premise in an artist's work, be he black or white, that it comes out of his work, and therefore out of himself. I think that it's also true with the form. It has to be just that subjective. If there is an objective validity for the existence of a black aesthetic I think that it's in a formative stage right now. It hasn't yet been crystallized, and I don't know if it would be legitimate if it could be crystallized because there are so many forces at work.

If we could expand this question to include your book Victor, Snaps it seems, is poetry that the cat on the corner, particularly the young, can identify with easily. Do you see the emergence of an aesthetic of the streets, perhaps an aesthetic of the oppressed?

[Cruz:] The poems in Snaps were written in a period when that was more or less what I was coming out of. I used those experiences just like any poet has done in the past. I don't like to say that my work is a part of a new thing that can be identified or pinpointed so that now I can have an umbrella over me or something, because here I am in Cazenovia and I should be able to write poems about this. I feel that the writer—a black writer or a Puerto Rican writer—should have just as much right to talk about the universe and how it started as any other writer. I think that some of the people who are into this black writing thing really complicate it to the point where you've got to conform to it and if you don't you're supposed to be doing something unnatural. I think a writer should use his total spectrum and no matter what the situation, he should be able to come out with his own thing. I'm Puerto Rican, but when I was on the airplane coming over here there was no Puerto Ricans, there was just me up there in the air, and I could create out of that. I could create out of anything, and I think it's wrong to say that because you're a black or Puerto Rican writer you can't use the whole universe as your field.

[Major:] That's something that I really began working on with these people in Cazenovia. They're at this conference to try to learn how to put together a Black Studies course, to go back to their black students and teach Black Lit. And like they're sitting there man, really expecting to learn how the black experience and therefore Black Lit is special and different.

They're expecting to be let into some kind of deep dark secret. Like, “tell us what it is … we have to know … what is this special thing, this experience of yours that we can't penetrate … what is it?” They really are so convinced that these problems are real; all this shit is in their minds. They can quote Don Quixote and get through it right away. They never lived in Spain and it would be a very strange place for any of them, and yet they can get through Don Quixote on a human level. And I think they could get through a lot of Black Lit if they didn't have these social hang-ups that are created by outside forces.

Let's talk about those forces for a minute. Victor mentioned black writers complicating their own scene. But you've both had experience with the big publishing houses; don't they have rubber stamps for the book jackets that say “bitter,” “angry,” “oppressed”? Don't the publishing companies really push you into that bag anyway, or at least try to?

[Cruz:] Well a woman in Negro Digest mentioned that she couldn't understand why my book was published by Random House. But I don't know, publishing seems better than it used to be. Most people who are in publishing seem eager to get black writers. I would have the same approach to the publishers no matter who they were. Today, especially in poetry, one of the most important things is to get it out there. And anybody into poetry knows how hard it is to get it out there.

[Major:] Along the same line, about the psychology of publishers. I had lunch with an editor not too long ago and she's considering work by a young black poet, one of the poets in my anthology. He had submitted a manuscript of poems and she really dug them. She really thought they were great. But she couldn't possibly consider it or recommend them to her publisher because there's nothing there to indicate that they were written by a black poet. And they can't run a photo of him on each page. She said that: “We can't possibly run a photo of him on each page.” This is an editor, a person who can make decisions sitting right there and saying that kind of shit.

[Cruz:] This is the same kind of thing that happens with a black publishing company. They'll put you in a bag too. It will probably be quite some time before poets can stand on their own worth no matter what they're talking about. I think that Clarence's book All Night Visitors is a milestone for a different thing in black writing. In the past some of the black writers have dealt with sex, for example, in a much different way.

[Major:] In other words, its not a Christian book. That's why a lot of people won't be able to get through it.

[Cruz:] It's a book, man, it stands by itself, and you really couldn't go around trying to relate it to a course.

[Major:] The people at this conference are having a bitch of a time with it, by the way. It's required reading. Before I got here they were all like in the dorm whispering to each other. They were questioning my motives. Some of these people are 60 years old. Two of them are nuns. We finally got into a discussion of All Night Visitors. I ran it down and gave them my impression of it and they were really relieved. Some of them said, like, “I'm really glad you told me what you were trying to say because it really puzzled me. I just would never leave this lying around the house where my daughter could find it. And as a teacher I would never consider using it.” So then I got into this business about the reason they couldn't get to it. It's because of this whole thing of sex being dirty: because of what St. Paul left to the culture. And the only person who came up to me later and said something about it was a nun. She's not wearing her habit now. She said, “You know, you're right; we are too hung-up.”

Along the line of talking about leaving the books out for the daughters to see them, especially when these days the daughters have probably read them first, Victor's poetry seems to relate directly to what young people can see on the block. Are we reaching a point where we no longer need to append to a page of poetry that it was written by a 14-year-old girl as a rationale for its not meeting certain aesthetic standards? Are we reaching a point where perhaps a 14-year-old girl in the ghetto can capture in her poetry the images that hit us in the gut perhaps even better than did Langston Hughes with all his aesthetic excellence?

[Major:] I think those standards should really be questioned. I'm doing it myself. I'm really questioning a lot of accepted standards.

[Cruz:] I think that a lot of what's happening in American Literature is that people kind of know what to expect. And if somebody from Harlem writes a book they are expected to be a manchild in the promised land. People only really like something when they know exactly what's coming. But I write what I really want to do. I'm dealing more with Puerto Rican music and Puerto Rican rhythm and I'm using a lot of chants. I'm relying a lot on religion, the spiritualism that has always been in Caribbean culture. And I'm dealing with the African gods and how people use them, the whole thing of being possessed by spirits. What I'm getting into is getting away from something you see in a lot of black poetry, the thing it's much more important to get involved in life and what people are experiencing because that will be able to stand a lot longer time than an attack which may be over after a while. Poetry should be creating life instead of using it as some kind of vehicle for some already known object.

[Major:] Ideally a writer might actually set as a goal the day when he can stop writing.

Getting back to what you said about being somewhat uncomfortable running down strictly criticism and interpretation, you mentioned that it was a more meaningful experience to read your work. But doesn't the writer run the risk of being put on the shelf as an entertainer?

[Major:] One person really got to that at the conference. Most of the participants call me Clarence, but she said, “Mr. Major, I sense in you an uneasiness like we're imposing on you, and I don't want to bother you with a whole lot of stupid questions, but I know that somehow all of us are missing the point.” And this is what she meant. “I don't want to force you to have to perform, to do something you don't want to do because what's going on in you in terms of yourself as a writer is a very private process.” Then just for a moment we were quiet, and I think we really communicated.

I read my work, and that doesn't bother me, but it's afterwards, when people come up to ask dumb questions. Sometimes I can handle it, but I don't like to be nasty. Like when I was at the University of Rhode Island, I read sections of All Night Visitors. Afterward a teacher came up and said, “all those four letter words, it's unbelievable in a school situation. But after the shock wore off, it really became functional.”

[Cruz:] The problem I find is that I go to read my poems, and they want me to predict the future. Like what's going to happen this summer? And how should I know?

[Major:] What's happening there is that in this society if you've written a book it makes you an authority on everything.

[Cruz:] I don't know what the rest of America is doing, but these are things that have been very much kept in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and in the mountains too. It's a music, not a listening music; it's a dance music. If you talked to a group of Puerto Rican teen-agers, they'd be talking about the dance steps and how to do them. And that's really where it's at. It's not something you can sit around and talk about, it's something you've got to get up and do; the invitation to the dance.

You've both rejected the role of prophets here, saying that you're forced into that role too often, but I'm going to ask you to prophesy just a little. What will we see in the literature of the '70's?

[Cruz:] I can only think in terms of what I'm going to be doing. I think that the whole presentation of the writer will be changed. Like the thing about having a book out. I could dig getting more into leaflets. The writer needs to get more into his world, what comes out of his head: feelings and emotions. Actually the only thing we should keep is words: everything else should break down.

[Major:] I'd like to pick up on what Victor was saying, particularly about not generalizing. Yesterday Addison Gayle, a consultant to this program, asked me if it bothered me that James Baldwin sees the homosexual crisis as something intrinsic to the black experience. I told him that it didn't bother me because it wasn't my problem. What I mean to say with that example is that I wouldn't dare to predict the future. In the next ten years I'd really like to do something with the novel. I'd like to do something new with the novel as form, and getting rid of that name would be the first step.


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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.”

Nancy Sullivan (review date 1970)

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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 114th Street and the Bronx, eaten the same kind of rice and beans, felt-up similar girls, smoked pot and sold it as did the confused young men interviewed for La Vida. But Cruz's language is something else again. While Lewis honed and sterilized his subjects' conversations, Cruz allows the staccato crackle of English half-learned, so characteristic of his people, to enrich the poems through its touching dictional inadequacy. If poetry is arching toward the condition of silence as John Cage and Susan Sontag suggest, perhaps this mode of inarticulateness is a bend on that curve. See it at work in a poem called “How You Feel:”

the rats took over
the store downstairs
eddie called & said
a herd of dogs
chased him into
a woman's bathroom
the afternoon dying
with this poem
a quart of beer
& some cake
how you feel?

or here in this excerpt from “Their Poem:”

he gave Barbara a baby & she left him & married
now has a house in Brooklyn          & Perry Como records
she plays for her guests          she won't come around
because it's too dirty          her husband is stupid
bought a big car          he didn't know them white folks
like little ones          to put liberal magazines on the back seats
they even have pancakes for breakfast.

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. Cruz has no interest in metaphor, simile, or established forms as poetic devices. What have they ever done for him? Who needs a simile in describing a gang-bang? For Cruz, the instant, the moment the shutter snaps is it. Such a poetic procedure has its limitations, of course: spareness and monotony; but it also has this great advantage: the shock of reality. I think that Cruz is writing necessary poems in a period when many poems seem unnecessary. Let necessity lead him toward not away, toward with a Rolleiflex zooming in on his territory once his Brownie is broken. …

Principal Works

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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 (essay date 1986)

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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, explore the shape of the coast? Are poets not the antennas of the race? Then tune into the chatter, the murmur that arises from the collection. Add and subtract, submit it to your mathematics. Take and give. Enlarge, diminish. The Romans ate everything up and now we dance Latin to African music, so we don't exactly fall into the things through the words. Columbus thought he came to the land of India and he even took Cuba for Japan. Language is clarification of the inner, of the part that does not rot. Moving through a terrain, languages would sound out graduation scale—Italian, Spanish, Portuguese—and so move through the whole planet making a tapestry. Old geography lingers in the language of the conquistadores: names of rivers and fruits. Our Spanish—which has Latin and Italian—has Taíno, Siboney, Chichimeca. It has sounds coming out of it that amaze it and over the years it has been spiced, making it a rich instrument full of our history, our adventures, our desires, ourselves. The Caribbean is a place of great convergence; it mixes and uniforms diversities; it is a march of rhythm and style.

Those of us who have ventured off into writing should be in awe of the possibilities inherent in our tradition. Writing is behind the scenes; it is not like music and dance which engulf the masses. Poetry gets to the people in the form of lyrics within a bolero or a salsa tune. It is a valid form of expression, for it contains image and story line; it places old proverbs at the entrance of our contemporary ears. Poetry also lives in the oral tradition known as declamation. There is a warehouse of poems from the Spanish which are memorized and bellowed from the various corners of balconies and colors. The moon is in the tongue between the cheeks, the troubadours move between ceiba trees and plazas, their poetry full of the battles of love, romance, lost love, what to do within the pain of departure. Conversation, spontaneous chitchat constantly interchanging, is a poetry that arises all around us; it is poetry in flight, it is the magic of words bouncing off the pueblos, off the trees into the vines, it comes through the floor like an anaconda, it darts like lizards, it soars like garzas: this language of the Caribbean, this criollo encarnation. Full of passion and opinions, this is the language of our parents. We are the sons and daughters of campesinos, fishermen, farmers who cultivated café and tabaco, cutters of cane whose eyes contain the memory of ardent green vistas out of wooden windows within the hottest tropicality. They have pictures of the ocean tongues and the vibrant hugging of the coast upon a sofa within their retinas. They were spiritual mediums and santeros who worshipped natural forces tapped since time immemorial by African and indigenous societies.

As the children of these immigrants, we are at the center of a world debate; we can speak of the shift from agriculture to industry to technology and the toll it has taken upon the human equilibrium. Let us look at it with clear eyes in our trajectory from one language (Spanish) to another (English). What have we lost or gained? Claro, there is the beautiful lyricism, rhyming and blending of that great romance language exemplified even in the reading of books on mechanical operations in which the words are still sonorous despite the subject. Is there an inner flower which passions its fragance despite its being clothed in English words? I believe that this is happening in much U.S. Hispanic literature; the syntax of the English is being changed. This can be seen very prominently within the work of Alurista, a Chicano poet. In his recent work, the subject is the language itself; it is not that he merely plays with the language as some Anglo language experimenters do, for his poetry still contains social meanings directed towards personal and political change and awareness. We also find in the prose work of Rudolfo Anaya a natural Spanish pastoral style resounding through his English, a very relaxed, unharsh sentence. In both the English and the Spanish the poets and writers uphold a sensibility of Hispanitude.

We battle the sterility of Anglo culture, of television cliches; we labor at being ourselves in a land of weirdos, electric freaks who sit mesmerized in front of screens and buttons, only stopping to eat the farthest reaches of junk or to jerk off about some personal need to be understood, barking about having the freedom to do whatever nauseous things their life styles call for. You know that a pastime of the North American middle class now is to go out to fields and dress up in military fatigues and play war, shoot the commies or, better yet, shoot third-world guerrillas—shoot real guerrillas—, after that get back in the pick up and go down to Burger King and eat whatever that is. Meanwhile, the ozone layer is disappearing and, what's that song by Richie Havens “Here Comes The Sun”? Then they have that thing where they eat until they almost explode and then stick their fingers down their throat and vomit, solely to start the process again. It's an image culture: what you see is all there is. Jane Fonda in “Barbarella” was offering body; now that she has gained consciousness she is offering more body and even better build.

Did Richard Rodriguez fall down hard? Well there are those who jump quickly to attack him because he seemed to say the opposite of what was being fought for. Of course we must strive for an English that is standard and universal, a language that can be understood by as many people as possible, but why lose the Spanish process? We should change the English and give it spice, Hispanic mobility, all this can be done within the framework of understanding, whether the reader is Anglo or Latino.

U.S. Hispanics have not blended into Northern Americana because their roots stay fresh. Due to the close proximities of our Americans, rushes of tropical electricity keep coming up to inform the work and transform the North American literary landscape. The location and atmosphere of stories and poetry have been taken to places that until now North American authors were only able to write about in the position of tourists. The literature is full of border towns, farm workers, the lives of salsa musicians blowing through northern cities. The racial and cultural mixing of our cultures keeps us jumping through a huge spectrum of styles and philosophies. In terms of history, we can walk the planet with our genes, imagine ourselves in the Sevilla of the Arabs holding court with Ibn' El Arabi and Al'Ghazali, quickly switch over to the halls of Tenochtitlán, then once again wake up in our contemporary reality dancing Yoruba choreography in some club in Manhattan near a subway train. You can change the content and mix into the infinite. Worlds exist simultaneously, flashes of scenarios, linquistic stereo; they conflict, they debate, Spanish and English constantly breaking into each other like ocean waves. Your head scatters with adverbs over the horizon.

All art forms borrow from each other for the purpose of enrichment. Architects can draw from ancient and colonial styles to arrive at their contemporary geometries—structures which improve human living. Musicians are constantly blending and mixing the rhythms of the earth; Caribbean music is like Andalucía and the Ivory Coast. In New York's Latin Jazz fusion of the '40s and '50s there are cuts where Tito Puente jams with Charlie Parker; this is like a toning of temperaments, or adjusting reality to get the most out of it. It seems to be the center of the musician to translate, re-arrange, to give personal flavor to a variety of rhythms and melodies.

There are some words, so personal, so locked up in the oral and geographic area of a certain people that puns and stories have to be translated first into the standard language in order for them to be understood by speakers of the same language from another country, and passing them into another language is a labor of losing flavor, for there are things which remain within the mountains and can never be put into the textbook. If I said un maflón next to a Spaniard, he might look at me with a certain degree of curiosity and wonder what space I was coming from. Latinos speaking to each other have to constantly stop and review certain words. Sometimes when a word jumps over to the next country, it takes on an opposite meaning, or a word which you can yell in the plaza at the top of your voice, like popusa in El Salvador, moonlights as the private part of a woman in Guatemala. Anglos have difficulties in grasping the variety of our world and have a tendency to slip us all under the same blanket in a careless act of generalizing, which upholds their manner: “Oh,” they might say, “if you've read one Latino novel, you've read them all.” In a system that works on quotas, this dispatches a lot of talented voices. Latin American writers publish with a lot more facility than State-born Hispanics writing in English or Spanish. It is the habit of the establishment to enjoy things at a distance; package it with ease, throw the label magic realism on it—its gotta be magic, unreal sells well as exotica. Now, we know who these writers are and I for one have great respect for them and their work, but because the Anglos work on quotas, the tremendous visibility of the Latin American writers obscures the chances for US Hispanics of getting published by the same presses. It isn't the fault of these brilliant Latin American writers, but of the publicity mechanisms they get attached to. The society of the Americas is probably the most complex and diverse experiment in culture upon this earth and a full picture can only be obtained by allowing writers from many angles and countries to be exposed.

Unlike other groups who have had to erase their own cultural memories, Hispanics are moving forward, maintaining their own tradition and language. We will be the first group that does not melt; our ingredients are raw and the Anglo fire is not hot enough to dissolve them.

In the North of America it is a constant job just keeping ourselves from going looney-tunes, for this is a place where every stupidity is made available for the purpose of jamming the circuits. Explore, for example, the limited capacity of many in this electric culture to remember details of events: they are not able to tell stories. Computer screens have everybody dizzy, seeing dots in the air. Food preservatives are destroying taste buds. With all this going on, one must be on the watch: you gotta watch out that the next person doesn't jump and start acting out something he saw on television the previous night. It is the job of writers to perceive and explain the truth. To get to the essense of things in this society is a monumental task of awareness.

Further Reading

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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 Francisco Review of Books 16, no. 3 (1991): 16.

Praises Cruz's poems and essays in which he “experiments with the vast linguistic and cultural possiblities of ‘indo-afro-hispano’ poetry.”

Torrens, James S. “U.S. Latino Writers—The Searchers.” America 167, no. 2 (18 July 1992): 39.

Discusses the growing popularity of Latino American writers.

Additional coverage of Cruz's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 17; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 32; Black Writers, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; Hispanic Literature Criticism; and Hispanic Writers.

Frances R. Aparicio (essay date 1989-90)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6740

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 my lullaby. Conga drums and chants echoing through the streets and alleyways in the late afternoon. I would lie in bed with my bottle [baby bottle] and listen to the coros as I watched the light from the headlights of the cars that would come down the hill track across the wall of my bedroom. … The night had rhythm. So much so that when the music outside stopped, we'd say ‘What the Hell was that!’ There was something wrong. Like in those old Tarzan movies when he'd stop and notice that the drums stopped. That made a lot of sense to me. Soon after, our rhythmic security force would start up again and we could all go back to sleep. The rhythms protected us.”

(Colón, The Rhythms 10)

Willie Colón's reminiscences of his childhood in El Barrio in New York during the late 1950s and early '60s capture a moment in which a Puerto Rican ethnic identity is clearly revealed through images and symbols. As cultural anthropologists define it, ethnic identity is “the sum total of feelings on the part of group members about those values, symbols, and common histories that identify them as a distinct group” (Royce 18). Willie Colón's initial perceptions of rhythm and Latin music as a source of nurturance, comfort and protection constitute, like jazz and blues for Afro-Americans, an experience shared with the community. While these memories allude to the beginning Puertoricanization of that area—Colón mentions that Italians and Irish would engage in “white flight” every time six Puerto Ricans moved in—they also attest to the continuity and pervading presence of Afro-Latin rhythms, music, and dance forms in New York and, particularly, in the Bronx. Willie's remembrance predates Latin music's commercial boom and international fame; in fact, Colón himself, hired at 15 by Fania Productions, would be one of the principal musicians responsible for the Salsa Boom in the mid-1970s. Thus, it clearly traces the origins of this music to El Barrio (by this I do not intend to undermine the influence of Cuban musical forms in the development of Salsa).1 Appropriated by the North American music industry since the mid-'70s, Salsa is still very much alive, despite the eventual collapse of the Fania Boom project in the early '80s (Rondón 97-170).

That Willie Colón traces the genesis of Salsa to El Barrio is significant in light of this appropriation. Fania Productions was the leader in the commercial development of Salsa music. In order to “mainstream” it, Jerry Masucci produced a film, “Salsa” (1973), narrated by Geraldo Rivera, which misleadingly portrays the origins of this music as directly emerging out of the culture of African slaves in the United States. This image of Salsa as “American” (i.e., the United States) is complemented in the film by clippings of mambo dances, cha cha chá, rumbas, and congas from Hollywood films of the 1940s and '50s. As César Miguel Rondón has observed, in this film Salsa “had nothing to do with El Barrio, nor with the Caribbean peoples that lived in that region of the [U.S.] continent. Now Salsa was an American music, as American as Hollywood; one day it came from Africa and it magically appeared in movies, becoming fabulous and glamorous” (98; my translation).

Taking into account such decontextualization and cultural appropriation, Salsa music functions as an ethnic marker for Latinos in the United States. It is perceived by them as a cultural expression very much their own, indeed as an artistic product that finds its genesis in the everyday life of El Barrio. Thus, it is analogous to Nuyorican poetry.2 Both are defined by the urban conditions from which they arise, sharing a violent, raw language, and an anti-intellectual, anti-aesthetic stylistic posture. In poetry, this translates into a refusal to follow the lyrical modes of literature; in Salsa, the violence and diction of the lyrics, coupled with the harsh sounds of the brass section, challenge the lyrical style of traditional boleros. Both Salsa and Nuyorican poetry derive from syncretic forms of orality: the everyday speech and musical expressions of working class communities and of Blacks in the United States, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Caribbean. Despite the fact that Salsa, in its lyrics about women, expresses a retrograde and reactionary attitude toward sexual roles, in the wider context of cultural dominance both this music and Nuyorican poetry represent forms of cultural resistance to anglification. They also function as reaffirmations of a Latino ethnic identity and of the African roots in our community.3 While Salsa has syncretized jazz, blues, and rock into its repertoire, it has never given up its clave rhythm or its polyrhythmic Afro-Caribbean forms, not to mention its Spanish lyrics.

In a similar vein, most Nuyorican poetry, though written in English, embraces Black expressions, Spanglish, and a grammar and syntax that do not conform to the expectations of the standard written modes of language. In fact, the poetic discourse is based on popular and colloquial phrases, on oral forms of declamación, on references to popular music and, at times, on profane language. The English of Nuyorican poets and the jazzy sounds of Salsa, as objective indicators of ethnic identity, do not correspond to subjective identifications; in other words, neither by itself presupposes assimilation. In fact, Salsa's coupling with jazz—like the affinity of Nuyorican poetry to African-American poetry of the 1960s—illustrates the parallel development of both movements as artistic expressions of two oppressed minorities.

Music and poetry, as dynamic popular genres, are major symbols of ethnic identity for Puerto Ricans in the United States. Together they constitute an ethnic style which presupposes an ideology. According to Anya Peterson Royce, style, composed of “symbols, forms, and underlying value orientations” implies “an element of choice and flexibility.” As ingredients of an ethnic style, they are not totally bound by tradition, thus allowing for change (9). They “signal both the overt cultural contents and the underlying subjective values and standards by which performance is judged” (28). If, as Royce suggests, an essential characteristic of ethnic symbols is that they are “visible signs that promote action” (146), it follows that musical and poetic texts could be meaningful channels of cultural empowerment and ethnicity. (I differentiate cultural empowerment from the institutionalized power exercised by the system through economic and educational inequality.) It is obvious that Puerto Ricans are still marginalized and excluded from economic power. However, cultural empowerment for this ethnic group is facilitated, among other ways, through collective and individual acts of perception and performance: for the musicians, composing and performing music; for the poets, writing and reciting poetry; for the audience and the community, listening to music, dancing, and speaking in the vernacular: Spanish, or code-switching in their own English dialect.

Musicians and poets are both “significant symbolizers,” to employ George Herbert Mead's term. Through their works they “create and sustain predictability and eliminate discrepancy and misinformation” (Royce 145). Predictability, an anthropological and sociological concept, translates into poetry as that joy of recognition experienced by the in-group reader, a reassuring anagnórisis (self-recognition) of sorts that is essential to emotional survival during the experience of migratory displacement. The second function, “to eliminate discrepancy and misinformation,” has been clearly achieved through the demythifying strategies of United States minority literatures, that is, in the attempts by feminist, Afro-American, and Chicano writers to rewrite history and to question the myths established by the dominant culture and its official discourse. Ethnic poets, and musicians as well, have created syncretic metaphors, double readings, polysemic signifiers and interethnic signifieds to counterattack the metonymic strategies at work in the process of stereotype formation, those “fallacies of synecdoche” which mark Eurocentric thought in its relationship to marginal discourses (Tomlinson). Tato Laviera's title of his 1985 poetry collection, AmeRícan, is an excellent example of a polysemic signifier in which the complex, diverse cultural orientations are simultaneously embodied in the same word. It may be read as “American” and also as “Am-e-Rícan” (I am a Rican). The accented í, in particular, consciously marks the presence of Spanish morphemes in Laviera's poetic English. Incomplete knowledge about ethnic groups, a factor leading to pre-judice—judging before knowing—is challenged in ethnic literatures by a poetic language which is interlinguistic (Spanglish), interethnic and interdisciplinary. The polysemic and hybrid nature of Nuyorican poetry reclaims the complex bicultural dialectics that are erased by the homogenizing efforts of institutions. To effectively achieve the writing of the self, these poets offer new and hybrid signifiers as a semantic response to the cultural synecdoches with which others have inscribed them in history.

The presence of Salsa in Nuyorican poetry not only questions the definition of literature as an elitist Western paradigm of cultural expression; it is also a recognition of the differential role that so-called “naive knowledges” can play within the margins of erudite culture. This set of knowledges, considered inadequate by traditional historians, creates a dialectic “knowledge of struggles” which Foucault advocates in cultural criticism. The “local memories” evoked by Salsa lyrics—historical events as viewed by the working class and by the masses (in the Puerto Rican plenas); the games of love, desire and power that contemporary males and females play; the themes of abandonment, unrequited love, and disillusionment derived from Hispanic and Western tradition; life in El Barrio, violence, drugs, and AIDS—are all central issues examined in Salsa and Puerto Rican popular music. These contents appear, then, mediated by a literary discourse which recognizes their epistemological value as a source of anagnórisis and continuity for the in-group reader. As expressions of popular knowledge, music and poetry are channels for self-knowledge (for the in-group reader) and for the writing of the collective history of Latinos. This is, indeed, the epistemological basis for the musical intertexts in the poetry of Víctor Hernández Cruz.


Popular music embedded in literature consists of a complex set of texts and intertexts which may be defined by examining the literary context—the author's works in conjunction with the “frames of discourse” in force at the time (Mignolo)—and the sociocultural genesis of the musical references. Thus, a distinction is in order between the functions of music in insular Puerto Rican literature compared to that in Nuyorican poetry. The presence of popular music in the insular nueva narrativa puertorriqueña (Puerto Rican fiction written since the early '70s) tends to signal social conflict, unveiling race, class, and gender divisions which have been masked by myths of national identity, social harmony, and by a Eurocentric cultural veneer imposed by the structures of colonialism in the island. Taking into account the history of migration, displacement, enclave formations, and the struggle for survival of Puerto Ricans in the U.S., popular music functions, in their literary texts, as an ethnic symbol which reaffirms a hybrid identity and collective self. Unlike its function in insular literature, music in mainland Puerto Rican poetry, particularly Salsa, assumes a unifying, synthetic cultural value. Salsa is the music born in and of El Barrio. Its foremost musicians—Willie Colón, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Héctor Lavoe, among others—come from El Barrio. Yet its impact has extended well beyond the frontiers of Spanish Harlem, of New York, or the United States. The voices of anguish, violence, love, abandonment, and joy have also been heard in the urban barrios of the Caribbean and of Latin America. Salsódromos (Salsa dancing halls) in Lima, Perú, for example, are currently quite popular and numerous. It is significant that Salsa has been performed and produced by other Latinos in the United States, creating diverse regional styles within this country. For instance, the Los Angeles-based Salsa is clearly distinguishable from its New York-produced counterpart. The former is characterized by its syncretism with popular Mexican songs and boleros, while the New York and East Coast repertoires present Caribbean subtexts and predominantly urban themes around life in New York. In Chicago one also finds a hybrid tendency in local musical performances: “Cielito lindo,” the popular folkloric Mexican love ballad, instrumentalized as a merengue form; “La Bamba” as Salsa or guagancó. Thus, for the U.S. Latino, Salsa has become a channel for mediation and unity; it is also an expression of an interethnicity and panhispanism which has grown out of our own need for differentiation from the Other. It is a vehicle of cultural resistance needed to establish ethnic boundaries, to remember who we are and who we are not.

Popular Latin music is embedded in Nuyorican poetry at various levels: as re-creations of musical rhythms in words and verses (see, for example, Tato Laviera's reproductions of Luis Palés Matos' jitanjáforas in La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 1984); as a recurring background element in poems about El Barrio and about urban life in general; as references and dedications to Salsa musicians in which singer and composers are mythified as “culture heroes”; as images of knowledge, self-knowledge and acknowledgement. The first level of musical intertextuality implies an examination of poetic rhythms which duplicate musical forms: for example, units of three and two syllables which resemble the syncopated rhythmic organization of the clave; repetitions of syllables reproducing instrumental sounds; cadences, alliterations, and so on. In Tato Laviera's La Carreta Made a U-Turn, the third section entitled “Nuevo Rumbón” is filled with such strategies, creating a continuity with subtexts of Afro-Caribbean music.4 As a background element, music constantly appears as part of scenes of summer in the city: jamming sessions in the park, jazz at night, music at parties, and, as I shall discuss in Cruz's poetry, music in the context of drug use. There is also a tendency to mythify musicians and composers, particularly figures such as Celia Cruz and Ismael Rivera (in the case of Tato Laviera's poetry), and Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri in the poems of Víctor Hernández Cruz. Mythified as modern deities who take on the role of healers in a contemporary society (implying a view of music analogous to that of primitive societies), these composers and singers are also re-vindicated as important cultural heroes for the Latino communities in the United States. Rubén Blades' “Plástico” (Plastic), and Celia Cruz's relatively recent hit, “Latinos in the United States,” reveal the role that these composers have assumed in creating paradigms of unity among the Hispanic groups in this country and in Latin America. For Víctor Hernández Cruz, Ray Barretto has been the symbol of the Latino who “crossed over” but who returned, a path that Barretto's discography clearly reveals.5 Finally, perhaps at a most sophisticated level, musical intertexts and subtexts suggest that listening to music and dancing are ways of acquiring knowledge, not only about the world around us, and about the Latino culture, but also about our power and authority as a community which has been snatched away by mainstreaming currents. In other words, popular music in Nuyorican poetry reclaims the communal identity and authority of Latinos through the symbolic power of ethnicity and, more concretely, by resisting the economics of cultural appropriation.

Though extracted from its original medium (the sound and the live performance), the discourse of popular music in literature is mediated through poetic language. It is perceived visually through words, but not only words. The lyrics are full of melodic echoes, sonorous memories, bodily movements, and familiar rhythms. Recognition is key to the bicultural reader who shares the meanings of these ethnic symbols. Perceiving music is usually associated with memory and the unconscious: “Song is memory / Memory is song,” writes Víctor Hernández Cruz in “Geography of the Trinity Corona,” a poem about Hispanic multicultural genealogies and geographies (By Lingual Wholes). And memory, in turn, is described as “un club en el Bronx debajo del tren para guarachear” (“a dancing club in the Bronx under the train”). Music constitutes not only a subconscious (under the train) space, but a subliminal one, for it “involves stimuli that become effective subconsciously by repetition.” As such, it allows for continuity in time and space. Reading the lyrics of an old favorite Salsa tune in the poetry of Víctor Hernández Cruz is an experience that involves recognizing the past, as much as a recognition of the self, and of the collective self. It offers predictability, continuity and knowledge. It becomes, as well, a vehicle for self-knowledge and acknowledgement (as recognition of one's authority and that of the Puerto Rican community).


Latin popular music, and Salsa in particular, imbues Víctor Hernández Cruz's urban poems (Rosa). Snaps (1968), his first collection of poetry, already illustrates the central role that Salsa will play in Cruz's repertoire of poetic images and motifs. As Barry Wallenstein has already observed regarding Snaps, “Cruz's work, when read aloud, sounds like jazz poetry. And it is like a jazz poet that Cruz triumphs” (313). The underlying sense of beat and polyrhythms, informed by jazz or Latin music, gives structure to Cruz's minimal poems, his “city snaps” and “clips,” as Wallenstein describes them. Music appears in scenes of parties and as an integral part of drug experiences, both visually evoked as memories about growing up in the Bronx. In “Coming Down,” the poetic self evokes images of the neighbors in the area, subway trains and trips, drugs (implied by the title), music, and girls: “walking walking till 116th / up high stairs / a door / music.” Here the sequence of verses creates a visual diminuendo (the number of words is reduced from one verse to another, from four words to one final word, “music”). Simultaneously, one imagines the spatial experience of going up a narrow stairs having done drugs (up high stairs), opening a door, and being inundated with the sounds of music blasting from the inside.

Yet Latin music is much more than just another aspect of urban life. “Megalopolis,” a poem about traveling by car in the urban sprawl of the East Coast, concludes with an act of singing: “singing magic words of our ancestors” (93) is counterposed to the inauthentic discourse of advertising: “billboards of the highway are singing lies” (93). This ancestral song offers him a sense of continuity with his cultural past, differentiating him from that particular urban scape which he crosses and in which he sees himself only as a spectator, not as a participant.

Traveling is an experience dear to the poet, and it serves as a dynamic poetic motif related to the mythical search of the self as well as to the reality of (im)migration and displacement. Throughout Snaps one finds the constant movement of subways in New York City, the uptown/downtown and inside/outside references, and numerous indications to walking and driving in the city. Mainland (1973) begins with poems in and about New York, then the Midwest, California, the Southwest, ends in Puerto Rico, Cruz's native island, and then returns to New York City. According to Nicolás Kanellos, the return to Borinquen in the last section of Mainland

represents the culmination of the poet's search for the origin of that vitalizing energy which is the music that he loves and the poetry that he writes. He has returned to the mother, the source, the tropical cradle, and he has found God.


Though such reading may well be valid—a return to the native island is, at a mythical level, a return to the origins—the poetry of Cruz eludes an all-inclusive mythic-religious interpretation. If the ethnic identity of Latinos is reaffirmed in poetry vis à vis the appropriation of our cultural products by dominant and economic institutions, such return would suggest an imagined reappropriation of the immigrants' own culture, a re-centering of the self within the reality of urban life in New York. “The Man Who Came to the Last Floor,” the last poem in Mainland, reveals through the codes of a surrealist humor the underlying poetics of Cruz: a tropicalization of the American cultural urban scape from within, originated in the Latino community itself, as opposed to the tropicalizing efforts of Hollywood and the mass media in previous decades. The mango seeds which “accidentally” fall from up above onto a cop's head and which subsequently grow into a mango tree, were actually thrown by the Puerto Rican immigrant who came “to the last floor” and who, at the end, confessed he had never felt that he had left the island. Having experienced geographical, spatial, cultural and linguistic displacements, immigrants recenter themselves not only by living in areas ethnically defined, but by bringing along, and subersively “planting,” seeds, objects that afford them cultural continuity. Among these, one finds ethnic symbols such as food (mangoes) and music. That the Puerto Rican man “fell into song / and his head was in motion” when he “started flinging the / seeds of tropical fruits down to / the earth” (79), indicates the power of music as a catalyst in this planting of cultural “seeds.”

In By Lingual Wholes, Cruz's 1982 collection of poetry and prose, there is a short poem that reads: “Put Seeds into the Maraca / So That It Could Sound.” The image of seeds, then, becomes semantically polyvalent: from those contained in tropical fruits, such as mangoes, to “seeds” that produce music and, consequently, political and cultural awareness in the audience. In contemporary Salsa, Rubén Blades and Willie Colón's famous song “Siembra” (Sow) employs the image of planting seeds in overtly political terms, following an already clear tradition of “seeds” as a metaphor for the revolution (Cuba, Nicaragua) within the New Song Movement (La Nueva Trova) in Latin America.

While to an outside reader the “maraca” poem may suggest a didactic or moralistic aphorism, to many readers/listeners of the poet's generation these two verses constitute an English translation of an estribillo (refrain) made famous by Cheo Feliciano in the mid-'70s. From the song “El ratón” (“The Mouse”), the refrain says: “échale semilla a la maraca / para que suene.” While it refers on one level to the need for rhythm and sabor in music-making, this line was supercodified during those years and it was employed by the Latino youth to refer to marijuana smoking. Historically, then, “seeds” gain yet another semantic value: that of the marijuana plant and of drug-induced experiences. Thus, the recognition process which the in-group reader undergoes is not simply identifying lyrics and songs in a playful way, but a personal reading which invites a historical remembrance, a knowledge both of the self and of the community at the time. It becomes a musical experience repeated in the literary page which, in turn, establishes “predictability.”

While pondering about this short text, I asked myself: Why did the poet translate the verses into English; why didn't he leave them in the original? The title of the book, By Lingual Wholes, may partly explain this decision. Its bilingual texture exhibits a complex dynamic between English and Spanish that extends beyond the oppositional linguistic dialectic prevalent in the earliest bilingual poetry of United States Latinos. One dynamic level between English and Spanish in this book consists of imagery, verses or phrases which are in English but which have a Spanish sub-text. Literal translations of proverbs such as: “lo que no mata engorda” (“what doesn't kill you gets you fat”) constitute part of Cruz's imagery in English. Thus, the two verses: “Put seeds into the maraca / so that it could sound” illustrate this strategy, what could be deemed as the “tropicalization” or hispanification of American poetry at the surface structure. Beyond this linguistic description, the choice of English expands the semantic field of the utterance: by isolating it from its musical context and from the song in which it appears, the poet suggests that reading, as a creative act, involves the categories of whole/hole, totality/absence. The image itself, an empty maraca, is a metaphor for the preliminary possibilities of artistic creation. The seeds may be read as inspiration, sabor, or even the material resources needed for any aesthetic production. In the song interpreted by Cheo Feliciano, it certainly refers to the need for sentimiento and sabor in musicmaking, the essential criterion which makes or breaks a performer, according to many musicians. Either you have it, or you don't. This quality, expressed through the image of “seeds,” is clearly ethnic.

The semillas (seeds), then, become a central image out of which a constellation of various meanings emerge: ethnic identity, the musical rhythm and sabor of Salsa and fast dancing, the subversive and political powers of ethnicity, and the drug experiences. The powers of music are analogous to the visionary or “mystical” effects of hallucinations or drug-induced states. Cruz describes dancing to Ray Barretto's music, for instance, as an experience of self-unfolding (desdoblamiento), of coming out of oneself, of a trip beyond one's own consciousness, of a seeing oneself seeing:

you marching in space
you talking                    you
you already there
nothing stopping you
you are magic
espiritu libre
espiritu libre

(Snaps 74)

In “latin and soul,” the poetic voice asks where all this movement/dancing/traveling is leading to:

they should dance/dance
thru universes
                                        we are traveling
where are we going
if we only knew


The last two lines reveal that the object of knowledge is not as important as the searching for it: the acts of dancing or of traveling and displacement through space, whether exterior (travel), interior (drugs), or both (dancing). Perhaps there is no place to go, since for immigrants movement itself becomes a constant in life. “After the dancing” (Snaps) suggests that knowledge is congealed as the aftermath of the act of dancing—knowledge as trace, like the “coming down” in drug-induced states. The poem begins with the following verses: “we move / to the whispering / after the dancing” (49) and concludes with an empowerment implied in the syntactic change from an indirect to a direct object: “we move / the whispering / after the dancing” (50). Empowerment occurs as a result of the recognition—acknowledgement—of one's own power, a process which makes up the core of the poem: “do you sometimes wonder / if you let go / if the walls move / if the floor cracks / if the ceiling lights up / … if the judge say / your boogaloo is ammunition /” (49).

That “boogaloo” is viewed as “ammunition” proposes a new perspective on the powers of music. Though in other poems by Cruz, Latin music appears as a soothing, comforting alternative to urban violence, for the dominant culture and the outsider, Latin popular music may be disturbing, charged with violence, subversive: “stereo music / pucho & the latin / soul brothers / disturb / anglo-saxon / middle-class / loving / americans” (64). Disturbances created by any type of loud music disrupt an ideal order of tranquility sought by a middle-class sector who, indeed, flee to the suburbs escaping the noises and disruptions found in the inner city and in densely-populated areas. Yes, Latin popular music is disturbing. It throws the listeners into a state of apparent disorder, as perceived in the musical and acoustic elements, in the polyrhythmic structures, in the centrifugal textures of the lyrics, and, of course, in its dancing. From an order to a disorder, to chaos and violence, as Cruz described with surrealistic humor in “descarga en cueros,” a poem whose title translates into English “jamming with drums” as well as “jamming naked” (en cueros), both subversive in their implications. In this poem music, the source of all destruction, is alluded to as “the vibrations”:

at the bar people's drinks flew out they hands the vibrations knocked people to the floor / & the lights began to bust / & the floor to crack … the floor began to rock people fell off the balcony / t.p. was smiling / his face ready to rip / o.k. you win / hands in the air ready to fly / heads outside beyond the buildings.”

(Snaps 77)

The verse “o.k. you win” implies that a musical performance may be a contestatory struggle, a war in which the drumming rhythms are invested with a power to which people submit. The violence and destruction described in terms of a natural catastrophe, such as an earthquake, find their tenor in the dancing movements provoked by the drums, centrifugal movements, going out of oneself, which the poet hyperbolizes to the utmost extremes. Thus, in Cruz's poetry the potential for violence and destruction of Latin music, its “disturbing” quality, originates in the poetic strategy of making literal the fears of the Other, the middle-class, peace-loving American who understands neither the lyrics in Spanish nor the polyrhythmia, both of which, indeed, contest the traditional order of musical balance, harmony and lyrical beauty.

On the other hand, this movement towards disorder, chaos and violence also holds a transformational power with strong political and epistemological implications. Victor Hernández Cruz's poetry is consistently systematic in its presentation of music and dancing as forms of knowledge. His play with words such as sabor (taste)/saber (knowledge), a clear example of “differánce,” and verses such as “Think with your body / and dance with your mind” (Mainland 64) undermine the traditional boundaries between feeling, thinking and acting. For Cruz, feeling music, perceiving it, is truly a form of knowing. To dance with the mind suggests forms of thought that embrace our body's senses, intuitions and emotions as an integral part of reasoning. In the title “Listening to the Music of Arsenio Rodríguez is Moving Closer to Knowledge” (By Lingual Wholes), the act of listening to music is defined in the poem as an epistemological experience.6 With his particular surrealistic humor, the poet suggests that music possesses a transformational power. People dance to Arsenio's music and its effects are extreme; se liquidan (liquidate), they literally turn to water (a pun with the associated signified, matarse—to be killed, or destroyed—destruirse—). In the poem, a group of researchers comes into the room, asking questions such as “Where is everybody?” “Are the windows opened?” “Has it rained?”—questions that only address superficial phenomena from a logical, rational point of view.

Popular music evokes a sense of cultural empowerment in the listener/dancer/reader. Empowerment follows the knowledge and self-knowledge brought about by mystical and hallucinatory experiences and “trips” and by acts of “ac-knowledgement,” the moving closer to our knowledge about our own power and authority as a community in the development of a dynamic, ethnically and aesthetically complex, cultural expression.

In this respect, the image of the maraca seeds again holds epistemological and cultural repercussions throughout Cruz's work. In Tropicalization the poetic voice ponders:

Sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge at night
Looking at the electrical lights
Midtown a fire
I think of the many seeds inside a maraca
If each seed was like a light
All holding hands
Then the world would become a horse
Start to gallop
We can mount it
We can ride.


In an idealistic and hopeful posture more prevalent in his earlier poetry, Cruz envisions that the demographic reality of Latinos in the United States, combined with collective efforts (“light / All holding hands”), could translate into a sense of true empowerment, mounting and riding that “horse” which is the world and also the United States. In By Lingual Wholes, however, cultural empowerment assumes a less simplistic or idealistic expression. It becomes effective mostly in the sense of continuity and “predictability” that the musical intertext in poetic discourse may offer the in-group reader, as was discussed earlier in the case of the maraca poem.

Dancing (el baile) is another act of acquiring knowledge and self-knowledge. Though secular to our contemporary sensibility, Afro-Cuban dancing, and the basic rhythms of sones and rumbas, find their origins in African religious ceremonies and rituals. When Cruz talks about “la salsa de Dios,” or states that “when you dancing God can't be far,” the act of dancing recovers its religious genesis. Whether a mystical experience, as the poet implies about dancing to Ray Barretto's music (“Free Spirit”), or as a more secular act of reaffirmation of the Self and of our ethnic identity (By Lingual Wholes), dancing to Salsa becomes a vehicle for acknowledgement. For the masses and for working class communities, it is something they can truly call their own. Like the maraca seeds, composing, performing, and dancing to Salsa differentiates the Latino from the rest of North American society.

Throughout Caribbean history, popular music has served as a vehicle of empowerment for the Latino community. The merengue, for example, was banned in Puerto Rico at the end of the nineteenth century because of its apparent “lascivious” nature (see Hernández Cruz's short prose piece entitled “Merengue in History,” By Lingual Wholes). Despite consistent efforts by the Church and the government to ban so-called pagan, lascivious and primitive forms of music—such as la guaracha and la rumba—and to keep them from entering mainstream society, Afro-Caribbean dances and rhythms have historically survived as collective acts of ethnic reaffirmation, as ethnicity. In fact, it has already been suggested that playing the drums in Cuba under the structures of slavery was an act of cultural resistance (Duany 250). “Do it to them Mongo / do it to them Mongo,” says Miguel Piñero in “Reflections on Dirty Windowpanes” (Barradas 100-102), alluding to the power of drums associated with Santería and to the possibility of taking vengeance on the Other. The drums are called upon to wake up the community and to revitalize the Latino individual in the midst of New York's dirt, poverty and abandonment. When Piñero's poetic speaker addresses Mongo Santamaría and Machito, asking them to “bring it back to me Mongo / bring it back to me Machito,” the “it” clearly refers to the Latin roots in him, to his sense of being unique and different, of belonging to a particular community with its own musical, linguistic and cultural roots. That is, indeed, the same sense of comfort which Colón recalled, a comfort that comes from an acknowledgement of the power of his own community to create artistic and cultural products.

The tropical barriada on 139th Street that Willie Colón remembers was initially defined not only by an appropriation of a particul urban area or space, but mostly by a consistent, persistent ethnicity: drinking Café Bustelo, speaking Spanish and Spanglish, and listening to descargas throughout the night. When Hernández Cruz states in “Free Spirit,” a poem dedicated to Ray Barretto, that “the bronx is ours” and that “the piano plays our memories / our dreams / our loves” (Snaps 73), he attests to the continuity and survival of music as an ethnic symbol which holds the key to knowledge, self-knowledge and acknowledgement. Hernández Cruz, as do many other Nuyorican poets, recalls, reclaims, and recognizes the authority of the Latino community (indeed as collective author and audience) in the development of Salsa music, an authority that history has tried to snatch away from El Barrio. Moreover, both Salsa and Nuyorican poetry in the United States have had an impact well beyond the Latino community, as we witness an emerging “tropicalization” of American popular culture and literary discourse, a transformation that originates in the Latino writers and musicians themselves, out of which Víctor Hernández Cruz is a central figure. This phenomenon is yet another topic that merits further analysis.

I want to acknowledge the Ford Foundation and the National Research Council for having funded the initial research related to this work.


  1. For an historical analysis of the genesis and development of Salsa, cf. César Miguel Rondón, El libro de la Salsa: Crónica de la música del Caribe urbano; and Peter Manuel's Popular Musics of the Non-Western World, Chapter 2: “Latin America and the Caribbean.”

  2. The term “Nuyorican” is consciously employed here to refer to the group of Puerto Rican poets from New York who wrote in the late 1960s and during the '70s, and whose writings are marked precisely by an anti-academic and anti-intellectual discourse. This group includes Tato Laviera, Miguel Piñero, Miguel Algarín, Pedro Pietri and Sandra María Esteves, among others. Aware that the term does not hold positive connotations today, I employ it as an historical and generational marker, without any derogatory implications.

  3. Félix Padilla defines the concept of “Latino ethnic identity” as the sense of identification experienced among Hispanic groups who share common traits, such as language (Padilla 1-15). This “umbrella concept,” however, may change to a Mexican-American or Puerto Rican one, depending on what the situation calls for. Thus, the category of “Latino” is in itself a “situational ethnic identity.” I must clarify my reluctance to employ the term “Hispanic” throughout this essay, since it is another example of how language and identity markers have been imposed by one particular sector (the upper- and middle-class American of Hispanic descent) to the whole population. This has resulted not only in a homogenized view of Americans of Hispanic descent, but also in an erasure of crucial differences at a socio-economic level.

  4. Cf. my essay “Viejas rumbas: rumbos nuevos: el discurso musical in La Carreta Made a U-Turn de Tato Laviera,” to appear in Discurso literario.

  5. Ray Barretto's efforts to cross over into jazz (Eye of the Beholder), and the fact that five of his musicians abandoned the group in 1972 as protest against this mainstreaming, have marked Barretto as an example of a Latino musician who experimented with mainstream styles and later returned to “typical” Salsa arrangements, a return marked by the album Indestructible. In 1976 he won a Grammy award for his song “Guararé,” a good example of non-mainstream Salsa. Cf. McMurray and Jefferson's NPR-produced radio program, “Que viva la música …”

  6. Arsenio Rodríguez was a Cuban musician and composer, credited with having strengthened the African elements of the Cuban son, having founded the Cuban conjunto style, and adding the soloist to the son (what is now called the son montuno). Some also credit him with introducing the mambo rhythms into Cuban dance halls in the late 1930s (Clarke 1002).

Works Cited

Aparicio, Frances. “Viejas rumbas, rumbos nuevos: el discurso musical en La Carreta Made a U-Turn de Tato Laviera.” To appear in Discurso literario, 1990.

Barradas, Efraín and Rafael Rodríguez, eds. Herejes y mitificadores: muestra de poesía puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos. Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1980.

Clarke, Donald, ed. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. London: Penguin, 1989.

Colón, Willie. “The Rhythms.” In The Portable Lower East Side. New York, 1988, 9-12.

Duany, Jorge. “After the Revolution: The Search for Roots in Afro-Cuban Culture.” Latin American Research Review 23:1 (1988): 244-255.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

Hernández Cruz, Víctor. By Lingual Wholes. San Francisco: Momo's P, 1982.

———. Mainland. New York: Random House, 1973.

———. Snaps. New York: Vintage, 1969.

———. Tropicalization. Reed, Cannon & Johnson, 1976.

Kanellos, Nicolás. “Víctor Hernández Cruz y la Salsa de Dios.” Spanish-Speaking Outreach Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Summer, 1979.

Manuel, Peter. Popular Musics of the Non-Western World. London: Oxford U P, 1988.

McMurray, José and Karen Jefferson, Producers. “Ray Barretto: Que viva la música.Latino, National Public Radio, 1988.

Padilla, Félix. Latino Ethnic Consciousness: The Case of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1985.

Peterson Royce, Anya. Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1982.

Rondón, César Miguel. El libro de la Salsa: Crónica de la música del Caribe urbano. Caracas, Venezuela: Editorial Arte, 1980.

Rosa, Víctor. “Interview with Víctor Hernández Cruz.” The Bilingual Review 1:3 (Sept.-Dec. 1974-75): 281-87.

Singer, Roberta. “Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Latin Popular Music in New York City.” Latin American Music Review 4:2 (Fall-Winter 1983): 183-202.

Tomlinson, Gary. “Music, Magic, History, Value.” Lecture delivered at University of Michigan's Institute for the Humanities Series on Economies of Art: History and Theory, January 26, 1990, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Wallenstein, Barry. “The Poet in New York: Víctor Hernández Cruz,” The Bilingual Review 1:2 (1974-75): 312-19.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1991)

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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 god of light “upon the beaches / Of Cabo Rojo” transforms a multitude of bathers into the words of Chilam Balam—the Jaguar priest or scholar-sage of ancient Yucatec Indians. In his short essay on low riders—Latino versions of hot rods—Hernandez Cruz sees in customization a style of “Gothic mixed with Toltecas.” Although he writes in English, Hernandez Cruz spices his language with Spanish. “National languages melt, sail into each other,” he suggests in a provocative essay on Hispanic writing in the U.S., and through Latino presence in North America “the syntax of English is being changed.” Certainly this is true in his own work. The result is the successful expansion of a perspective born in the Carribean into a world view of striking vitality and importance.

Frank Allen (review date 1991)

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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 spiritual mixing” of diverse cultural values in which “the popular muse belongs to everybody.” (“The Caribbean is a place of great convergence,” he says.) Using the “person-to-person” voice of the campesino (it's been called “Spanglish”), Cruz discusses Old San Juan, Columbus, low riders, Hispanic-American writers, and colorful Puerto Rican people. Like a traveler discovering a New World, “flavorful and multi-meaningful,” this vigorous bilingual Latino troubadour's poems and essays are “a dance on the edges.”

Anne C. Bromley (review date 1992)

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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” world, Red Beans by Victor Hernández Cruz, The Concrete River by Luis J. Rodriguez, and Going Home Away Indian by Leo Romero offer distinctive poetic responses to and journeys through the mix of cultures made possible by this encounter.

In Red Beans, a collection of poetry and prose, Hernández Cruz embraces the mixed traditions within Puerto Rico: the “red beans” are a pun on “red beings,” the characters from Hernández Cruz's native Puerto Rico: indigenous (Taino and through them the whole of the pre-Columbian American world), Spanish (which includes Arabs, Gypsies, and Jews), and African (the Yorubas). “Migration is the story of my body,” he says, exploring the difficult marriage between “Northern Americana” and the “Hispano-Criollo-Caribbean” cultures when they clash on the streets of New York City. He remembers the town of Aguas Buenas in Puerto Rico, his place of birth, and the great Puerto Rican migration toward New York that moved his family from one island to another: “A world of awesome gray velocity, an air of metallic coldness, a cement much more cemented than any which we had previously observed. Another language which sounded like bla-bla-bla.” Yet through these “migratory entanglements” Hernández Cruz has found a poetry that keeps alive lyrics and rhythms that used to emanate from coastal Caribbean beaches and towns, traditions that extended into the mists of Spain and Africa.

Hernández Cruz brings poetry back in many ways to its earlier public functions. His are poems that remember, poems that declaim, poems that celebrate language as a pathway into and out of dreams. The poems of Red Beans are not private poems in the sense that a personal “I” figures as the controlling voice. It is instead the voice of a troubadour that emerges out of a poem such as “Corsica,” in which Hernández Cruz links Puerto Rico and Spain by way of plate tectonics:

Underneath with the geologic plates
Puerto Rico and Corsica
Are holding hands
Both hands with gold rings
Sweating each other's palm
The same moon is seen
From both islands
The light of the sun
Upon the mother
The seaman's stories of migration
Like whispering olives within
Red beans.

Although he writes in English, Hernández Cruz seasons this language with Spanish. In a provocative essay on Hispanic writing in the United States, he says, “National languages melt, spill into each other.” Spanish revitalizes English as a poetry that can “dance on the edges.” Broadcasting the kaleidoscopic qualities of Puerto Rican culture, he celebrates the variety with new hybrids: he writes about Salsa, guava, and all that embodies the organic, succulent, explosive energy that has infused the urban centers of the United States with the essences of the rural villages of the Caribbean. Red Beans celebrates a migratory poetics that is self-reflective, lyrical, lush, and often dead-pan humorous as Spanish and English dance a lambada through its pages.

Through his lyrical narratives (essays, stories, and manifestos on poetics), Hernández Cruz offers himself as an “informant” to readers who need to be reminded of the rich diversity of influences that comes to American poetry from sources other than the Anglo-European tradition. In truth, as consumers of American poetry, we are, in many ways, still colonized by that tradition. Hernández Cruz would ask us to be receptive to other traditions, other ways of regarding language, other ways of regarding art and its relationship to community and spirituality:

I wait with a gourd full
of gasoline
for a chip to fall from
The festival fireworks
to favor me
… And set me on fire. …

If, indeed, as Hernández Cruz suggests, migration is “the condition of this age,” then the voices that inhabit Red Beans, The Concrete River, and Going Home Away Indian speak a poetics belonging to a “society of the Americas.” In hybrid accents as spicy as a good salsa, these poets see the United States as a place of great convergence, where vigorous poems can declaim, dramatize, and dance.

Nicolás Kanellos (review date 1992)

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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 Weekly. Just three short years ago, Cruz had been suffering as the victim of a common affliction in mainstream publishing: his four previous books—three published by Random House—were out-of-print. Arte Público Press then issued a volume of selected works, titled Rhythm, Content & Flavor: New & Selected Poems in 1989, and now Coffee House has issued a substantial collection of mostly new works, including short prose pieces.

Red Beans is Cruz's contribution to the quincentenary celebration, and a celebration it is indeed of the blending of European, African and American cultures that have made up the New World experience. The mestizaje of languages, rhythms, religions, ideologies, oral and written cultures is not only what Cruz identifies as the substance of New World life, but also the very energy of his own poetry. Cruz's fluid verse and broad focus unites such disparate cultural elements as Hindu chant, Arab philosophy, Spanish-Christian mysticism and mission, Taíno symbology and language, African / African American music-poetry fusion and, of course, the Nuyorican experience and ethos which is a blending of all of these. Needless to say, in this whirlwind tour de force it is helpful for the reader to be bilingual and even an able decoder of Cruz's meta-language fused from English and Spanish and indigenous languages—plus his own symbolic system. But make no mistake, this is not a volume of erudition nor romantic evocation; 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 U.S. Hispanic culture.

With Red Beans, Cruz continues to consolidate his position as a leader of Hispanic, no, U.S. poetic experimentation. The volume does, however, suffer from excess and a lack of deft bilingual editing and proofing—especially of the Spanish used and the prose pieces. Despite these blemishes, Red Beans is engrossing reading and chanting, a repository of poems that should enrich anthologies and textbooks for years to come.

Victor Hernández Cruz with Francisco Cabanillas (interview date 1995)

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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, Cruz's work has been on the road, and his poetry is constantly in motion. After 35 years of “exile,” his poetry beckoned for his return; Cruz has gone back to the beginning.

Cruz moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1954, and returned from California to Puerto Rico in 1989. He has published six books of poetry: Papo Got His Gun (1966), Snaps (1969), Mainland (1973), Tropicalization (1976), By Lingual Wholes (1982), Rhythm, Content, & Flavor (1989), Red Beans (1991), and is now finishing a novel, Time Zone. I understand that he is also working on his first Spanish book, Mesa blanca.

This interview is the result of my meeting Victor Hernandez Cruz in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, in March 1994. Meeting Cruz in person for the first time, after knowing the poet for a number of years, was, to say the least, a peaceful and amicable experience. He provided me with useful bibliographical information, and agreed to this interview which we conducted by mail.

There are many things that I wanted to ask Cruz, so I limited the span of my interview to three very much related set of topics: poetry, language, and Puerto Rico. Every one of Cruz's books posits a new question about poetry, displays a distinct linguistic performance, and replays its mythology about the island.

Given the relationship between Cruz's poetry and his life—the fact that the biographical overtly conforms and informs the poetic—I want to start by addressing Cruz's current geo-poetic station: Aguas Buenas.

[Francisco:] It is inevitable to ask you this question first, as a preface to the rest of the interview: How has returning to Aguas Buenas/Puerto Rico affected you personally and poetically?

[Cruz:] There is a multiple of reasons why I wanted to return to the island of Puerto Rico. There were family reasons—my entire family has returned also, we've all done a complete circle back to the place of our origins. Also there is still the pre-Muñoz Marín (1951 elected governor) generation around, the pre-television people, the agricultural folks who are still alive and I wanted to be able to talk to them. I've come back to Aguas Buenas and I have talked to the old men who used to make cigars with my grandfather. In the context of Caribbean agricultural life the tobacconist are said to have experienced a prosperous period back in the forties, the old timers recall that they were all making money and that they used to dress all in white and wear beautiful sombreros, they gave me a good picture of my grandfather and the culture of the tobacco workshop (Chin-Chal).

My decision to come back to the island was both personal and cultural (well if those aspects could be separated), it was both family and language. I wanted to immerse myself in the Spanish of the Caribbean, hear it, smell it, taste it. I want to write in a language that has Arabian, Taino, African words deposited in it. A language that corresponds to the history of my body. A language full of the echoes of territorial invasions. By coming to Aguas Buenas I've come back into contact with the personal language of my family—this is an important bridge for a poet to cross: from provincial-regional jargon to public or standard language. The most important sensation of what Olga Nolla has called my ‘re-entry’ has been the physical, there is nothing better for the senses than to be in operation within a tropical climate. The island landscapes like Ravel's ‘Bolero’ are an important center of my new collection of poems called ‘Pana/Ramas’; landscape becomes an electrifying center from which flow out a river of concepts and metaphors. The spectrum of hearing has gained new dimensions with the diversity of island sound which emits especially at night like some kind of kaleidoscope of sound in the wind.


In one of the articles that you handed to me (“Las lenguas puertorriqueñas de Victor Hernandez Cruz”), Olga Nolla makes an interesting connection between your poetry and the work of other Puerto Rican writers who have not shared the Nuyorican experience as you have—you know that Puerto Ricans need not to live in New York in order to experience a degree of Nuyoricanness. She mentions that, unlike Ana Lydia Vega, Luis Rafael Sánchez, Magali García Ramis, José Luis Vega, and Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, your poetry seems to be moving away from the street language which cyphers their stories, poetry, and novels. Is it because, unlike your personal return, the language of your poetry is moving away from its origins?

Poetry and culture is always moving away from its origins. Languages are always in geographic flux—that is the history and beauty of the planet. This is especially true of Caribbean cultures, besides being made up of international ingredients, it has in turn gone out in waves of constant migration carrying its special way of blending and seeing the world. We could say that you need not be in Puerto Rico to experience degrees of Puerto Rican-ness. Much of Puerto Rican culture has been made in New York. Rafael Hernández composed our second national anthem in East Harlem. Pedro Flores another of our popular composers wrote many of his songs in New York. Many of our popular musicians have gone through important epoches of development and production in New York. Much of what was developed in New York has migrated to the island to become important milestones in our nation expression. More so than Nuyorican writers, the Spanish language writers from the island have written important works from and about the New York immigrant experience. Examples are Pedro Juan Soto's collection of stories, Spiks, Emilio Díaz Valcárcel's Harlem Todos Los Días, and Trópico En Manhattan by Guillermo Cotto Thorner among others. These are writers who lived the migration moving with their Spanish language through the streets of New York to make us feel the triumph and tragedies of that massive exodus.

I grew up in New York with English and the backdrop of the campesino Spanish which was available in the Puerto Rican barrio. The origins of my poetic language were street and immediate but there was a constant flow somewhere in the back of my mind of the sounds of poems declaimed in Spanish, the measuring of a décima, structures from the Spanish language which I heard oral poets recite during my youth which I was not yet utilizing in my English poetry. The more I begin to give expression and visibility to these elements, the more these mixtures round out the more it seems I am moving away from the original language of my poetry. The language of literature employed by Ana Lydia Vega and Luis Rafael Sánchez is a direct pipe-line to the spoken talk of the Caribbean flowing masses, it is one of their most important strengths, it too is made up of language mixtures from the cultivated Castilian to the lingo of runaway slaves—to the Tainos who disappeared but left us their words. Because the Caribbean is in constant flux the point of our cultural production or origins is never at a fixed place—the Caribbean is a style and it is everywhere.

Critics like Nicolas Kanellos (“Victor Hernandez Cruz and La Salsa de Dios”), and Frances Aparicio (“Salsa, Maracas, and Baile: Latin Popular Music in the Poetry of Victor Hernandez Cruz”) take further the connections that you overtly draw between poetry and music. Barry Wallenstein, referring to Snaps, states that when your poetry is read aloud it “sounds like jazz poetry.” Knowing that you endorse the movement from music to poetry, is there something else, besides the musicality, that music brings into your poetry? Is music ever a more versatile language than poetry?

Cadence is not just a measurement of space but implies to me a way of movement. A feeling and not just a metre. I get my concept/images to fall into a certain beat, that's how I hear the beginnings of a poem in my head. Music is always biological to me—it affects the nervous system. Poetry is the sensuality of reason—that is through our senses we have to construct a poetry that does the same thing to the mind that music does to the body. We all think rhythmically or in waves, a thought/image expands itself out till it fades into the next one. Poetry is think/feel or feel/think always through language. The beat is the heart of the language sound, the melody of the poem can be described as the concepts working out of the meaning of the words.

How do you define yourself in the context of the Nuyorican poets—of which your poetry is, according to Faythe Turner (Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the USA), “the most widely read”?

I don't really identify with the Nuyorican style or movement. It's not really a literary style or form of writing. It implies a generation of New York Puerto Ricans who write in English—in many different genre, using different techniques. Actually it is more akin to a sociological term. It is also a geographical specification—‘Nuyor’ which must come from New York. I've also heard the term Neo-Rican which might mean partially Puerto Rican. My last 18 years in the United States I spent them in San Francisco, California out of range of New York City by some 3,000 miles. I believe that my English poetry published in the United States is part of the North American literary landscape. I bring to it my particular Caribbean background—Poetry is a group of words come dance together, I don't know why they keep breaking it down into so many sub-groups and schools. Some poems are conceptually beautiful but demonstrate a horrible selection of words. So, I don't define myself within the context of any context but within the central actuality of ‘Poet’ and the task that that implies.

In an interview with Victor Rosa (“Interview with Victor Hernandez Cruz”), you refer to Pedro Pietri “as somebody everybody should read and learn from.” A bit before that, you stated that “he is a genius.” I can see a number of connections between your poetry and Pietri's, for instance, certain elements of the surreal, the absurd, and the ludic; however, Pietri's poetry is more cerebral and yours is more “magical.” Do you agree?

I think that because we are both churning words from the center of the Puerto Rican immigrant culture—there is bound to be a lot of instances where we make connections or correspondences, mostly I think in themes. We are particularly different in style. We are somewhat similar when we use the natural surrealism and humor of the popular Puerto Rican people: the working class, the agricultural folk, the campesino which is the class that migrated, a history that we both participated in.

You have stated before that your poetry belongs to the North American literary tradition because it is written in English. Where would Mesa blanca place you, and how?

Mesa Blanca/White Table is a long book length poem of some 120 pages in both English and Spanish. The English version came to me first while I was still in California—I decided to write a Spanish ‘representation’ here in Puerto Rico. The translations are not ‘versions’ but what I describe as ‘re-occurrences’—the air or the inspiration of each of the poetic movements happens again in a different set of sounds, the poem written in English many times shows no correspondence to its Spanish counterpart but I know they are about the same ether. Mesa Blanca/White Table has as a starting proposition the exploration of Puerto Rican spiritualism. The narrator has no fixed center or housing as if within a conscious human being—he, she or it is disembodied, it as consciousness could be observing from an installed gold tooth, from the wax of a candle or the belly button of a nymph—it is an independent eye that is in constant motion throughout the work in a kind of philosophical inquiry into the nature of matter and spirit. The Spanish portion of ‘Mesa Blanca’ once published would constitute my first book directly in Spanish and should begin to anchor me as an island writer.

There is a poem of yours that I like a lot, and have used in some of my classes. “The Man Who Came to the Last Floor” is a humorous narrative poem which tells the story of “a Puerto Rican man who / came to New York / He came with a whole shopping bag / full of seeds strange to the big / city …” Similarly, “A Tale of Bananas” and “For the Far-Out Experimental Writer,” among others, share this narrative pulsation. How far or close are we from your narrative project of Time Zones?

These poems were definitely groundwork leading up to the prose work of Time Zones. There is a thin line from the natural state of humor and laughter which is an important feature of island character, always we are on the verge of laughter due to some humorous occurrence. I have transported that spirit into the poems, adding to it a tinge of the illogical—phenomena which can only occur within a stretch of the imagination, but what we must understand is that island humor is more or less always on that stretch or flung out there. What I have added into the pulsation is the content. In Time Zones I use a narrator and a host of characters to go in and out of anecdotes within the setting of a small Puerto Rican town. I never mention a specific town, because in a way, by extension it could be a small town anywhere, a small agricultural setting into which industrialization has been introduced within the last 30 or 35 years; that in itself creates much tension and improvisation. In many indirect direct ways Time Zones is about this process of island industrialization. I was born in 1949 and I am a child of Operation Bootstrap.

In “For the Far-Out Experimental Writer,” you draw a character known as “el beatnik” who “was once in college but dropped out, to alter the state of prose.” It reminds me, although the comparison is perhaps capricious, of Iván Silén's project to “invade prose” through poetry so as to radically poeticize prose. Do you approach the relationship between poetry and prose as a poetic invasion?

Writing could just be poetic, that is sensual, it could be prose or it could be poetry. Poetry could also be cold and mechanical. What happens between beauty and writing depends upon the nature of the writer. Prose to me always has to be more perfect, that is the writer totally in control of the language to make it do precisely what was intended. Poetry is much more of a flash, an energy, a rush of fire which can actually put you out of control, possessed, in a way it is uneven and that uneven-ness gives for an element of surprise which is discovered in the process of doing. There is always suggestion in poetry, that is, the poem or the poet is not all there—it's something that rises from the resonance of the poem.

Since you spent a number of years with Chicanos/as in the West, and personally participated in the Nuyorican movement of the East, can you pin down a major difference between Chicano/a and Nuyorican literature?

There are both similarities and differences. The Chicano landscape is much more diffused and ingrained into the popular culture and history of the Southwest—portions of which once belonged to Mexico. A place like New Mexico is a world onto itself and has an infrastructure and sensorialness akin to a Latin American country. The origins of Chicano U.S. literature are very rural, whereas the origins of U.S. Puerto Rican literature are much more urban. I think here of Las Memorias de Bernardo Vega which was written in Spanish in New York describing life within the developing Hispanic community there in the 1920's. And Jesus Colon's A Puerto Rican In New York is a compilation of articles which were written in English and published in various leftwing newspapers. This factor in the nature of Chicano and Puerto Rican mainland writing is related to the nature of the coasts, the East developed earlier into an industrial and metropolitan area. Los Angeles, though a city, feels even to this day like a series of suburbs, inwardly a xenophobic province. It is this rural backdrop of Chicano literature and the urban-ness of Puerto Rican literature that constitute the major difference. The Spanish of the family setting and the mestizaje bridge us together. Puerto Rican culture is very much outside of the mainstream view, if it were not for musicians like Tito Puente, Hilton Ruiz and Dave Valentine who are giving us through Latin Jazz some visibility. Mexican American culture and cuisine is an integral part of growing up in many parts of the country—Mexican food is the choice of the Southwest. The Caribbean cultures are coming in with the music, ‘the rhythm’ is going to eat you.

Once you responded that art is “cooking good food and being able to eat it.” Suppose that I ask you today the same question, what is art?, would you use another metaphor or stick to this one?

In the sense that getting at good flavor is process and timing, the bringing together of many differing ingredients in proportion to their need, I would say that that is still the route of art.

In 1905 Ramón Frade painted “Our Daily Bread,” a depiction of a barefoot jíbaro walking down a hill with a bunch of plantains on his hands. As the story goes, Frade captured the jíbaro because all that was Puerto Rican was being swept away by “the winds.” How does your depiction of the jíbaro differ from Frade's?

This Jibaro thing is a very interesting phenomenon. The Jibaro element is supposedly the rural campesino of European stock. A reserved and self sufficient spirit dedicated traditionally to private farming in the interior mountains. The Jibaro composed for many artists and intellectuals the cultural and spiritual backbone of the country especially in the mid-19th century. The term Jibaro itself, though it comes from a South American indian tribe, how an indigenous word gets attached to a social group which constituted the more Hispanicized element in the island tapestry must be seen in the light that ever since Columbus came language was off geographically, thinking that he was in Asia everything was named what it wasn't, it was in that confusion that our societies originated, why not continue. This linguistic rigmarole is especially prevalent in Puerto Rico where even our great historians had trouble deciphering what was directly in front of them. Antonio S. Pedreira and Tomás Blanco both place the African element (which is actually our most pronounced ingredient when not racially then culturally, it would always show up if one were to scan through the population) in a very minor and even negative vein—Pedreira even went as far as to denigrate our racial mixture finding it as a means of diluting culture whereas I think that mixture is precisely what enriches our music, our food, our people. There has been great confusion about these issues, Puerto Rico as a general mass has been out of touch with itself for some time.

The Jibaro is pretty much the group in our society which migrated, they are the ones who had their agricultural base taken from under them during the industrialization of Operation Bootstrap. They are the ones who went to New York and with time became urban with a rural sub-conscious roaring in them like the subway. The youth of this transplanted group became the Nuyorican generation, a spirit of survival and energy that produced sparks of Caribbean culture in the snow, the music of Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barreto, the art of George Soto, the photography of Adal Maldonado. It is interesting to note that the youth of this group began to integrate the different elements of island society with a lot more facility than it was being done on the actual island. The children of the Jibaros began to embrace the African drum as well as the Spanish guitar so prevalent in the Johnny Albino trio music of their parents. This same wave that migrated has now re-migrated back like a boomerang to the island (especially in the early seventies where there was a tremendous back and forward air tunnel) and has been instrumental in the pulse towards Salsa as our national music. There is also now a trend to blend all the musica ingredients of our racial spectrum, the Taino güiro next to the African drum, the guitar sailing through the skins of the drum and on and on to weaving of Arabian and classical forms. Our society is becoming more uniformed as transportation from the interior mountains to the coast intensifies but more importantly as we lose our inhibitions and embrace our total Caribbean being. In Jibaro music and Jibaro blood there is African and Jibaro once again is an American indigenous word. Because of this complexity to me the Jibaro is anything that you can imagine.


Most critics that comment on your work—for instance, Julio Ortega's reaction to Red Beans—underscore the fact that your English becomes baroque because of your native Spanish. Can you tell us more about your personal philosophy of language?

There is an aspect of my use of language which is not directly or consciously controlled by me. As I was a child of the migration who went with the Spanish language inwardly intact into a storm of English and a blizzard of buildings—both languages developed a strange relationship with each other, so that while my head could be in Spanish cadence I am writing physically with the English language. This contrast between English and Spanish and even between rural-ness and urban-ness gives a special air and vitality not just to my poetry but to much of the Chicano and Puerto Rican literature of the U.S., which is also living this transitory state. We are the Indio moving into the European: mestizaje—we are the African moving through the Spaniard: Mulatto. We are the rural living in the cities. These layers of history and linguistics reside now in my work—as I said as a manifestation that is unconscious in operation and as a criteria of my aesthetic.

There is a poem in Red Beans, dedicated to William Carlos William (“An Essay on William Carlos William”), where you put forth a theory of literary language. “I love the quality of the / spoken thought / As it happens immediately / uttered into the air …” Is poetry a function of language or thought?

Poetry is as if a captured spontaneity—an improvisation which has a pre-established instrument to go through, we don't know what is going to manifest to the precise letter or to a conscious science but we do know it is coming through our poetic vehicle. A sensorialness attached to our reason which then filters sounds and concepts according to our interests, along the lines of our natures. Language like sex is the backbone of all reality.

Do you think that “Puerto Ricanness” is tied to one language? What was your reaction when not too far ago former governor Hernández Colón made Spanish the official language in Puerto Rico?

That goes to show you the colonial situation that we are in—that we constantly have to re-affirm or verify what is an actual reality—as if we were not perceiving it or as if we were in danger of losing it or are not in total control of it. Puerto Rican-ness is a historical composition, it is a cultural synthesis of indigenous, Spanish and African elements brewed on a Caribbean island. Imagine then all the sound tones, psychic wondering, dreams, color variety which can come from that fusion. The East Trade Breezes del Caribe and the taste of fruits in the mouth are important features of Puerto Rican-ness. One's sense of Puerto Rican-ness is always determined by one's cultural consciousness and appreciation. Spanish is the best language to feel Puerto Ricanness in for it has Taino words, Arab words, African words, it has the vocabulary of all the invasions. When we sing it through our minds and mouths we are hearing the trajectory of our bodies within history. Puerto Rican sensorialness, like all other groups on the planet now in flux, in political or cultural movement can take off to different geo-states and verbal sounds and become something that's neither there nor here—definitely somewhere else. Something combined and rhythmic, because it is a Caribbean spirit to constantly mix.

How do you see the evolution of the Spanish language in the United States, as well as in the countries closer to the States? Is the English language silencing Spanish? Is Spanglish equal both to Spanish and to English?

Just mentioning the names of streets and cities throughout the Southwest of the United States one is speaking Spanish. Spanish is invading North American English, it's all over the novels of Robert Stone and Elmore Leonard. In 1917 William Carlos William published a book of poems which he titled in Spanish, Al que quiere, within it all the titles of the poems were in Spanish and the text was in English. William Carlos who was half Puerto Rican was really one of the first U.S. writers to explore the possibilities of Spanglish as a language for literature. To appreciate this one should also read his experimental work Kora In Hell published in 1921. Literature not only absorbs the trends in bi-lingualism it is many times the point of its origin.


Puerto Rico is always present in your literature. You are always defining and redefining it. For the sake of argument, can you tell me what Puerto Rico is not?

Puerto Rico is not Ann Arbor, Michigan in February.

Is there one particular period in the history of the island that you appreciate the most, and why?

Yes, the present. Because we are much more consciously informed and accepting of our racial and cultural variety. I think here once again of Pedreira's Insularismo and of the essays of Tomás Blanco, two Puerto Rican historians who made errors of observation or deliberate cover-ups as to our true cultural historical nature, they both upheld a Hispanist's proposition above and against our African and mestizo elements. It seems that back in the thirties there were these blind spots, features which people didn't want to discuss. All of this is now out in the open and there are celebrations and festivals and research exploring all our roots throughout the year and in many different towns of the island; we are moving towards a bird's eye view of the kaleidoscope. The island's political status remains in a limbo. We are a colony of the United States. Puerto Rican writers have been at the foreground in upholding and describing our national Caribbean psychology. In all the arts we are moving closer and closer to our greatest potentials of expression of who we are and how we are living our epoch. It is for this reason that it is so important for me to be where I am now pointing my metaphoric language towards Spanish, to explore other caverns of myself and other selfs in this mosaic of problems and solutions, in this stress of confusion and tropical serenity. This is the best time to be alive swimming and writing within the salt of the two languages.

Victor Hernández Cruz with Bill Moyers (interview date 1995)

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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 seeks to make Americans aware of literature often overlooked by the establishment. Cruz has taught most recently at the University of California in San Diego.

[Moyers:] No one has been able to pigeonhole you. Your poetry contains the sounds of the street, Caribbean fiction, jazz, popular music, black English, Puerto Rico, New York, Africa, Asia—where do all these sounds come from?

[Cruz:] In one sense, it's the history of my body—the history of the migrations I have participated in. As a young child, my family left the small tropical town in the middle of Puerto Rico which had been home and migrated to New York City, one of the largest cities on the planet Earth. It was just like moving from one age into another.

The Caribbean is made up of many different peoples whose cultures overlay the cultures of the indigenous peoples who were originally there. So in my childhood world a lot of languages and cultural information came together all around me. Then the neighborhood where I grew up, near the Avenue D housing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was mostly African American and Puerto Rican, and there was a constant blend of these cultures on the street. So I naturally combine all these influences, and when I travel from New York to California I pick up still more forms of English and still more and different cultural information.

Were you exposed to poetry when you were a child?

Yes, to the oral tradition of Puerto Rican society. My grandfather Julio was a tobacconist in a small shop in Puerto Rico—he rolled the cigars. The tradition of a tobacconist was to tell stories, and tobacconists would sometimes have a reader come in to read aloud as they worked. They might hear a whole novel, a chapter a day.

The Caribbean is made up of many different peoples whose cultures overlay the cultures of the indigenous peoples who were originally there. So in my childhood world a lot of languages and cultural information came together all around me. Then the neighborhood where I grew up, near the Avenue D housing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was mostly African American and Puerto Rican, and there was a constant blend of these cultures on the street. So I naturally combine all these influences, and when I travel from New York to California I pick up still more forms of English and still more and different cultural information.


when they stop poems
in the mail & clap
their hands & dance to
when women become pregnant
by the side of poems
the strongest sounds making
the river go along
it is a great day
as poems fall down to
movie crowds in restaurants
in bars
when poems start to
knock down walls to
choke politicians
when poems scream &
begin to break the air
that is the time of
true poets that is
the time of greatness
a true poet aiming
poems & watching things
fall to the ground
it is a great day

Yes, I hear the sounds and rhythms of New York in “today is a day of great joy.” You were expecting poems to do a lot there.

When I was younger I felt that I had to get the city, the actual pavement, out of the way because I felt the physical setting of the city was hiding the mountains that I knew as a child, hiding the palm trees and the pineapple fields. I was reacting with deep hostility to the urban environment around me.

You had just come from the mountains of Puerto Rico to the concrete canyons of New York City.

Yes, and in the middle of winter!

Did you really expect poems to knock down walls and to choke politicians?

I think you have those illusions when you're younger, but because language is the natural force that it is, in fact it does have quite a lot of power. The first thing people do when they go crazy is to start talking to themselves. So the important task of poetry is to use the power to control language to grasp who we are inside—by which we can get hold of our lives.

You wrote, “going uptown to visit miriam” some twenty-five years ago. Read that one.


on the train
old ladies playing football
going for empty seats
very funny persons
the train riders
                                        are silly people
                                        i am a train rider
but no one knows where i am
going to take this train
to take this train
to take this train
the ladies                    read popular
paperback                    because they
are popular                    they get off
at 42 to change for the
westside line                    or off
59 for the department store
the train pulls in & out
the white walls                                        dark-
ness                    white walls                    dark-
ladies looking up                    i
wonder where they going
the dentist                    pick up
husband pick up wife
pick up kids
pick up? grass?
to library                    to museum
to laundromat                    to school
but no one knows where i am
going to take this train

Why do you repeat several lines from time to time?

Repetition is very important. I get that from the forms of bolero, the romantic love song of the Americas, in which there's always a chorus and there's always a line that gets repeated. That happens in salsa music, too—there's a question and then an answer. There's a call and response in Caribbean rhythms that comes from Africa. Because I grew up with all those calls and responses, all that repetition, I naturally used it in English forms.

Salsa is …

Salsa is how we've labeled the music of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Santo Domingo. We used to call it the rumba, the mambo, all forms that now meet in the Latin communities of New York and mix with jazz and rhythm and blues and come out as salsa. The root is in African Caribbean music.

In one of your poems you talk about the “singing magic words of our ancestors.”

“Magic words of our ancestors.” Yes. There was a form of epic poetry which was sung and danced in a round circle with musical instruments. This was literature in song form, poetry passed on from generation to generation.

One of your poems is entitled “Puerta Rica.” You end the name of your native island with the feminine a instead of the masculine o. Why?

Because puerta means door. It means rich door. Puerta is door and puerto is port. I was trying to throw light on the words puerto and rico which make up the European or Spanish invented name of our island. The original name was Borinquen. In this poem I wanted to dismantle the new name and investigate what it really means.


Free Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico free
Puerto Rico for $12.50
Puerto Rico on credit
Get some rich port
free sand and free soil
Free Puerto Rico now
Give away Puerto Rico
for nothing
Port Rich
Rich Port
Rich free
Port free
Puerto Rico for a
thousand dollars
Free Puerto Rico now
Free Puerto Rico then
Free Puerto Rico always
Puerto Rico on layaway
Puerto Rico as thing
Puerto Rico as word
Puerta Rica
Puerto Rico as blood
as water as gold
Puerto Rico as idea
inside of briefcases
Going to colleges
Puerto Rico patches
Puerto Rico buttons
Puerto Rico as flag
Puerto Rico as in the heart
as in the ocean
The sand as hot as
frying pan
Puerto Rico as lament
Puerto Rico as cement
Puerto Rico as my uncles
As Julia María
As Borinquen
Going from house to house
In the mountains
for more and more soft
Brown legs
Puerto Rico as the corner
where I stood
And when the sugar cane
trucks went thru town
All that fell down
all you could grab
Was free.
Puerto Rico as
As absent from your
center of discussion
Puerto Rico as amusement
Puerto Rico free
Puerto Rico as jail
Escape Puerta Rica
like the Maya
Invisible urbanites
take electric
Estudy new ways
not freeways
out of town

To the Europeans it was a rich port, but to you it was a rich door?

It was a rich door to me because out of that culture of conquest and slavery we have created a culture that has survived. We have survived the plantations, the hacienda, the forced labor, and all of that survival is in the music and the poetry of the Caribbean.

“Estudy new ways / not freeways / out of town.” That's a powerful image.

Yes. I think one of the centers of my poetry is agricultural or rural, and in my work there's always a tension between the rural and the urban or the preindustrial and the industrial. There's always a battle against the industrial contamination not only of our island but, by extension, the planet Earth.

I also keep asking whether there's a shared sensibility among all agricultural peoples, all the peasant societies of the planet. If you study the costumes and tools of Czechoslovakian peasants, of Eastern European and Russian peasants, of Guatemalan campesinos and Indonesian farm laborers, there seem to be connections among these world rural communities. I think these connections have always been there, but on top of them there is now a layer of industrialization and urbanhood that stifles the real organic spirit of the Earth. I'm in constant search for that spirit of the Earth in all of my poetry.

Trying to preserve it?

Trying to find it, trying to preserve it, and trying to use it in a literary way.

What about the poems you've done about hurricanes? You sometimes spell the word H-U-R-A-K-A-N.

Hurakan is the god of the wind, and hurakan is, of course, what the English word hurricane comes from. A lot of native words have gone into the English language—for example, barbecue came from cooking practices in native societies—they're always cooking out in the open, balbacoa, which we now know as barbecue.

In “Problems with Hurricanes” you connect mangoes and bananas, all such sweet things, with the terror and violence of a hurricane.


A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it's not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I'll tell you he said:
it's the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.
How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Death by drowning has honor
If the wind picked you up
and slammed you
Against a mountain boulder
This would not carry shame
to suffer a mango smashing
Your skull
or a plantain hitting your
Temple at 70 miles per hour
is the ultimate disgrace.
The campesino takes off his hat—
As a sign of respect
towards the fury of the wind
And says:
Don't worry about the noise
Don't worry about the water
Don't worry about the wind—
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful
sweet things.

Yes, I think of life that way. And sure enough, when Hugo came, my town had a green carpet. The leaves were scattered and breadfruits were rolling everywhere, plantains were everywhere—everybody got free fruit that day. But you can't take for granted the things that are sweet, and you can't keep them separate from what is painful and destructive.

What is it about the Caribbean that has most influenced your poetry?

The climate. The mountains. The contrasts. The tastes of many types of fruits. The coalitions of history that have created an international community. The racial blendings. The many ways people look. All the gestures of the human race, coming together. All the combinations—the different eyes, noses, mouths, lips, hair. The musics that have merged—a guitar next to a drum, Spanish medleys with African rhythms, the feel for all those rhythms simultaneously. This is Caribbean society. It's not so much multicultural as it is multiracial. It's three races, one culture. That is the Caribbean.

And what does poetry from the Caribbean bring to the mainland?

It brings a language which is still connected to agriculture and to nature in ways that North American poetry is not. Nature still survives in our part of the Americas, and the past is still around, too—Neolithic man with twentieth-century man.

The past shows up in our painting, in our music, and in our literature: the past which doesn't go away, the past which is going to be in the future. In Mexico, think of pyramids standing next to modern buildings. In Utuado, Puerto Rico, think of pictographs in the rocks. Think of the first books, the first letters, the first signs, the first pictures. Think of poetry in rocks. To see the true Puerto Rican literature you'd have to go out there and bring those rocks into the classroom: “Here, look at this sign, this symbol which was done thousands of years ago and which is still present.”

Aren't the people coming to the United States from the Caribbean leaving behind that past?

The Caribbean is always in transit. I try in my poetry to capture the past and hold it. I don't write so much about my own personal biography. I write about myself as a Caribbean man, a man within a larger tapestry; and I try to see the connections between everything—between myself and history. By explaining myself to myself, maybe other people can also see themselves.

I like that. “Explaining myself to myself.” That's what the poet does.

Very often. That's the purpose of the poet—to throw light on his or her individual situation within a human society.

You said the other day that “poetry is God's music.”

Yes, I think poetry is like a sixth sense because not all of it comes from the outside. We hear it deep inside, where we combine everything that we get from our five senses. The poem goes back outside and exposes portions of the world, connections between things. Poetry gives us revelations, flashes, which illuminate those things which were mysterious to us.

Through language we reveal the embroidery of our lives and our culture. It's like capturing what has been occulted. In its cadences language exposes us to its mysteries. It helps us understand where we are standing, our local place and how we got there.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5989

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 music behind sounds and language: his work can be thought of as a quest for a rhythm that combines the different beats of two societies, two cultures.

Of all the well-known New York-Puerto Rican poets, he is the only one who has come back to live for good on the island of his birth. He is content to be back in Aguas Buenas, the small mountain town where he was born. He is a far different person than he would have been if he had not left it, however. The thirty-four years spent in the United States have colored his thinking and his poetry. His art deals with differing contexts, with harmonies and dissonances, with incongruities and strident contrasts. Their impact is transmitted in a playful manner that comes across as surrealistic in tone and manner. The syncopated melodies of jazz, the slow cadence of the bolero, and the repetitive beats of salsa music all find room in his verses. It's all a question of rhythm, the poet seems to indicate repeatedly.

Victor Hernández Cruz is one of the best-known Puerto Rican poets in the United States. His ear for Latino musicality is also attuned to the simple, direct, rather colloquial style of quintessential American poets like William Carlos Williams, about whose work he wrote in a poem titled “An Essay on William Carlos Williams.” (I love the quality of the spoken thought / as it happens immediately / uttered into the air / Not held inside and rolled / around for some properly schemed moment …)

Each of his books of poems, beginning with Snaps, is a major commitment to the double scope of the poet's vision, a seeking of understanding of what it is to live between cultures, between rhythms, between languages.

Born in 1949 in Aguas Buenas, Victor Hernández Cruz moved New York with his family in 1954. He studied in New York public schools and then enrolled for some courses in Lehman College, taught by María Teresa Babín and Carmen Puigdollers, two Puerto Rican intellectuals. The greater part of his education, however, has been obtained through reading and through writing his poetry.

He has participated in several school programs directed toward Latino children and has taught at San Francisco State University, Lehman College, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at San Diego, teaching courses and workshops on literature. In 1989 he returned to Puerto Rico.

His poetry books are: Papo Got His Gun (a chapbook 1966); Snaps (1969); Mainland (1973); By Lingual Wholes (1982); Rhythm, Content & Flavor (an anthology; 1989), and Red Beans (1991). He is now working on a novel titled Time Zones.

With Virgil Suárez and Leroy Quintana he co-edited an anthology of Latino writing in the States, Paper Dance (1995).

Hernández Cruz was editor of Umbra, a New York Afro-American literary magazine to which several Latinos contributed. He has published articles and poems in The New York Review of Books, Ramparts, Evergreen Review, and Down There. He also publishes occasionally in The Village Voice and was one of twelve poets selected by Life magazine at the beginning of the 1980s as representative of North American poetry. He was also one of the eighteen participants selected by Bill Moyers for the eight-part TV series on PBS presented by Channel Thirteen/WNET in New York between June 23 and July 28, 1995, “The Language of Life,” featuring the lives and work of contemporary poets. The series was published in both audio cassette and book format (1995).

His poems can be found in anthologies such as Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the U.S.A., edited by Faythe Turner (1991); Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, edited by Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman (1994); Currents from the Dancing River: Contemporary Latino Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry, edited by Ray González (1994), and Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings, edited by Roberto Santiago (1995).


[Hernández:] You have spent the better part of your life in the States and now you live in Puerto Rico. Most of what you have written is in English. Do you consider yourself an American or a Puerto Rican writer?

[Cruz:] I consider myself an American writer because I write in English and not Spanish. It must sound like a wild contradiction, but my poetry is in English and thus part of the North American literary landscape. I am not saying that I, the person, is a North American. I live in Puerto Rico and lead a total personal and cultural life in Puerto Rican Spanish. I write in Spanish also, so that I am a Latin American writer as well, but I have published a lot more in English. My English poetry in the United States is full of my Puerto Rican psyche and island vistas. Poetry is first of all a sensation that conjures up images before it encounters a linguistic decision; it's a way of being in the world and arranging it, it could be in Chinese or Persian or Guaraní. Once you scribble it into a language you become part of a tradition. So what I am saying is that I wrote English poetry in the United States, and that body of writing I did there can only be North American literature. Joseph Conrad was Polish, but he is considered an English writer. Some of his sentences are weird, oddly put: that criss-crossing of languages adds to the beauty of his prose. Nabokov was Russian, and if you read his prose it feels like he is constantly diving into the dictionary for the most uncommon words, away from everyday usage. Yet his work is brilliant. This is not the case of U.S. Latino writers who grow up using the English as a Spoken Weapon; what we do is screw with the syntax.

Puerto Rico is a Spanish-speaking Caribbean country, and its literature is in the language brought by the Spanish that was transformed here into something that tastes like guava and has the rhythm of African drums. Spanish is a language that accepts words from many quarters and mixes them in: it has accepted words from the Hebrew, from the language of gypsies, from the Arab. It's a language that is the same as one's own body: it is mulatto. Among us are people who look like Arabs; others look like Indians; others are mulattos and Africans. And their words have been planted in this language. I find that very interesting. When I write in Spanish, especially when I write poetry, I feel that the questions coming out from my soul flow more easily. They seem more important, stronger; I express them more forcefully because Spanish is part of my body, of the history of who I am as a person, of the family I come from, and of the small town where I grew up, Aguas Buenas, which is about thirty minutes from San Juan.

But you still consider yourself an American writer.

I think I'm the only one of those who have lived over there who says he is American. The thing is I write in English because I know that language better. Now I'm getting to know Spanish a little more; I've been living here [in Puerto Rico] for six years. But I respect the Puerto Rican language very much. I understand that the Puerto Rican spirit has to express itself in that language, in that Spanish that is combined with all that I just talked about.

Of course, what Puerto Ricans write in English in the States has a direct relationship to us and to our island. They are Puerto Rican, but the literature that they write in English has to be part of American Literature, and we have to say so without fear because even there, they have the feeling that they are on the outside, that they don't belong to the mainstream. Every writer wants to be known, wants to get to publish what he writes and communicate, because writing is his life work; he has dedicated himself to it.

This situation is different on the island. A writer who grows up here, who writes in Spanish, doesn't feel that he is left out unless he comes from the boondocks and wants to get to the capital and know the people there. He may feel isolated. But even in that case, after he gets to where he wants to, he does not feel foreign. But the United States is an empire: fifty states, in most of which Puerto Rico could fit in several times. California is like a different civilization; New Mexico is like another country: it has the infrastructure of a Latin American country. U.S. society is complex and big, and each group backs its own culture. Each one fights for its culture to be included at some point of that kaleidoscope that makes up the United States. That's what the word multicultural means: one culture here, another one there and another and another. It's different from Caribbean culture. In the Caribbean there are new things that have come out of the combination of different cultures. We can also talk here of multiracial. But when I use that word over there I am referring to a very sensitive matter. Americans accept the word multicultural, and they can even give you funding for a program that develops an aspect of that, but they say to you: “Just don't put in your proposals the word ‘multiracial’ because you're not going to get funded.”

Their bigger problem seems to be this racial conflict.

They keep the races separate, even though there is now more mixing by marriage. There are places like New Orleans where people are more Caribbean-looking. That's the only area that had a Catholic background, as opposed to the pilgrims up North. These are the Anglo-Saxons, snobbish and proud. The United States has many divisive attitudes that are passed on from generation to generation. It's part of their national character.

Were you born in Aguas Buenas?

Yes, I'm from Aguas Buenas, I come from mountain stock, I am the product of intermarriage, the product of popular culture. I don't have one drop of Italian, French, or Dutch blood in me. In that sense I am a pure mixture of those three ingredients that are at the base of our society: those crazy soldiers, those Taínos, those Africans. Aguas Buenas is all like that. It has lived from tobacco, and it's not far from the coast. My family comes from all those mixes of blood.

How come they decided to migrate to the United States?

I really don't know. It wasn't something I myself chose. I was a 5-year-old boy, and I had to go with the adults. We were part of the situation created by the Commonwealth; I am a child of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. I think all that came with the industrialization of the island, especially the lack of jobs, pushed my parents to their decision. Of course, my father was a soldier, and in small towns a soldier was someone who has money, who can get married and have a family and get ahead.

When was your father a soldier?

My father was a soldier in World War II. It was important because we had some savings and could get out of the town, and he could get married to my mother. As I said, it was a tobacco town and everybody worked rolling tobacco. My mother and grandmother worked at that. They rolled tobacco near the plaza, where the Banco Popular stands today. Maybe my mother was rolling tobacco there, and two or three houses down, there was a small Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá playing, as a child, in his big house. He comes from my town and was raised on a house in Muñoz Rivera Street. I was born on Muñoz Rivera Street, but in a different situation; it was the section they call El Guanábano. I come from a barrio that has the name of a Taíno fruit: El Guanábano.

Maybe that's why you mention so many fruits in your poetry. In one poem you say that, during hurricanes, the worst danger comes from mangoes flying and from the possibility of getting killed by a bunch of bananas falling down on you.

A shower of mangoes upon your head, yes. Too much sweet pulp can kill you.

Was your family looking for the American Dream when they left for the States?

I don't think so, because my family never really became part of American society. My mother, who lives here now, came back. She doesn't speak English. She can say two or three words, because she worked over there in a factory, but not much more. My father also worked over there. They did not really want to become something else; they didn't want to change their ways or their language. They never changed their way of cooking. As children, we used to eat rice and beans and stewed codfish and all those things when it was snowing outside and the temperature was below zero and there we were, inside, eating all those things you eat in Puerto Rico.

In what part of New York were you brought up?

In the lower part of Manhattan, the Lower East Side. It's like another Barrio. It's called Loisaida by the Puerto Ricans.

I was told the name was given to it by Bimbo Rivas, the street poet.

Bimbo Rivas, it's possible. Loaisaida was different from the Barrio or Spanish Harlem because it was more open, it was downtown, near the Village, near the West Side. There were cafés and jazz joints and many other things, and I think even the libraries were better. Many students lived there, many artists who were unconventional. I knew all those people when I was 13 and 14 and I used to borrow their books, I started to educate myself that way.

Was that how you became interested in writing?

I started writing when I was more or less 14. It's something that goes beyond the person because language is very old and one is very young. Language was there before we were born, and it stays there after we die. And the only thing one can do is apprehend the language, feel it inside of us. I used to read a lot, I became very interested in books. I was fascinated by fantasy and wanted to write something that would come out the same as what I was reading. I began to take notes in a little notebook, I tried to write prose. Also, I had an uncle who was a poet, who recited décimas, and we always used to recite the poem The Bohemian's Toast the last day of the year. I tried to write poetry in the style of those Puerto Ricans who recited at parties and activities, only mine was in English. It was very difficult.

Was there any other person who had a direct influence on your desire to write?

Well, like all mountain people, in my family everybody sang a lot. My grandfather was famous in Aguas Buenas for his singing. They called him Julio, the Bohemian. He was a tobacco worker; all the men who worked in tobacco sang while working. They continued with that tradition in New York.

That's one side of the story, the one that has to do with the popular aspects of my poetry. The other one deals with my interest in language; that comes from books. I feel my poetry wants to strike a balance between what is popular and what is learned. It is a combination of which I also think in terms of the opposition between country and city, the rural milieu and the urban milieu. That tension extends into language.

You always maintained a Puerto Rican identity, with specific references to Puerto Rico in your literature. I have perceived that in writers from the island who have lived in the States there is a strong desire to keep on thinking of themselves as Puerto Ricans, in spite of the fact that they may even ignore the reality of Puerto Rico today, because the island has changed a great deal.

The thing is that they all have a sense of nostalgia, because they take with them the Puerto Rico of their childhood, the Puerto Rico of the stories that their family tells them. But that Puerto Rico changed. The same happened to those who went to Hawaii. I was in Hawaii once, and it was the most curious thing. I saw all these men, they were old men, and they dressed with guayaberas and they looked like jíbaros, Puerto Rican country types. When I approached them, I realized they were speaking in English. They didn't talk one word of Spanish, but their character, their personalities, their appearance were like those of typical Puerto Ricans. When they sang, however, they sang in perfect Spanish. They sang aguinaldos.

But the writer—the Puerto Rican writer—who lives in the States has the advantage of having access to many different cultural modalities. As island people, our literary tradition—even though, as you say in a poem, it comes from many traditions—has limitations, we are isolated. Do you think that being in contact with so many diverse, stimulating, and different cultural elements has an influence on writing?

Definitely yes. When I was young I used to go to museums all the time. I grew up seeing Picasso, especially Guernica. I used to look at that picture all the time, the same as Van Gogh, Velázquez, all those pictures that were in the Met's permanent collection and in the Museum of Modern Art. Other things I heard on the radio. I learned to like jazz from an early age because I was raised in a part of the city where there were a lot of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. There were relations among us, and I learned to like Afro-American music. I knew the music of Duke Ellington, Jack Coltrane, and other people like that when I was 14. I don't think I would have had those experiences in Puerto Rico, especially if we had stayed in Aguas Buenas.

Maybe not, because even San Juan wasn't as exposed then to that cultural diversity.

That is always interesting, but I also want to expand my understanding of Caribbean culture. It is one of the most universal cultures of the planet because even at its poorest and more country-like, it is a very rich culture.

Did the difference you felt as a Puerto Rican in the United States give you topics for your writing?

We felt the differences because there was a lot of racism then, and our teachers used to insult us for speaking Spanish among ourselves. It was forbidden. That was the language that we used at home, but they kept ordering us Speak English, speak English! And then there was television, which was all in English. There was a lot of pressure in that sense in New York. One always felt different. We ate different food from what we saw on television, we were different in the way we dressed, in everything.

And does your writing come—in any measure—from a desire to document or validate that difference?

That will come later, because to write is to write and to write is to think clearly and live calmly. One has to have a certain peace and quiet to sit down and write. Later, one finds a particular way. Some writers like a psychological atmosphere; others are more centered on sexual matters, and they write erotic literature. Others are taken up with politics, like Juan Antonio Corretjer, and others are immersed in the urban situation. One finds a way, a niche, and it comes after you are writing for some time. What I always want to do is fill in that space that I lost because of the migration. That's why I always wrote with images taken from Puerto Rican realities. I wrote about our fruits even though I was in a totally different place: papayas and pineapples in the snow, things that were always out of context. That happens a lot in my poetry and also that situation of coming from a small town where there were not even paved roads when I left. They were paving them when we left for the States. When I was small, I grew up with chickens and goats around me. I used to see the tobacco workers in their Panama hats, their white linen suits and all. There was a time when tobacco was selling well, and they earned more than teachers because the industry was flourishing. To see all this and then go to New York, which is one of the biggest and more advanced commercial urban centers of the world was like going from one era to another. It was like taking H. G. Wells's time machine and going zoom! My poetry is about that; I am still recuperating from something from which you can never recuperate.

So your move to the United States was a voyage in time as much—or more so—than a trip through space? That must have happened to many who migrated like you and who were from small towns or the country.

It had to be that way. The migrants were country folk because agriculture was the sector most affected when the industries and tourism started coming in. And our coffee, which was one of the best and was sold very widely, and our tobacco, which was also a strong product, and sugar cane, which gave all the world sugar for rum and for cakes, all those areas became depressed in economic terms. That's why the campesinos left.

Those papayas and pineapples in the snow of which you write about give your poetry a Surrealist air. That is intriguing because you may not have that intention. Puerto Rican readers may take those situations as real, but other readers may find those images surreal.

Well, I didn't have to go out of my way; that was normal for me, to see those things. They may think I had a lot of imagination, but I grew up hearing about Spiritualist happenings. In my own family, my people used to keep an altar, and strange things were always happening in our house.

Readers' perceptions can color literature, giving it a different intention than what the writer had in mind, responding according to their own experiences. You may be writing about concrete, real things that are pure fantasy to a reader.

Yes, I have also read the Surrealists, and I read people like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I want to tell you, however, that all of that is method, not content. They also had to search for their content. Like that William Carlos Williams book, Kora in Hell, published in 1921. It was there that Spanglish was first used as a literary language in the United States. It is interesting because his mother was from Mayagüez; he is half Puerto Rican. His mother belonged to the upper class, and he grew up eating rice and beans and hearing Puerto Rican sayings. He began to experiment in both languages. In 1917 he wrote a book titled Al que quiere. It is a book of poetry. All of the poems have Spanish subtitles, the text is in English. Another of his books, Yes, Mrs. Williams, is about his mother. I'm going to teach a course now, in California, and it is one of the books I'm going to use because it is like a Surrealist text. She talks and talks in it. She believed in Spiritualism and spoke in tongues that Williams and his brother couldn't understand. Sometimes he lets her talk for pages on end, and she tells of a Caribbean world, of the world of Mayagüez at the turn of the century. And that marks his poetics; he was attuned to the common American language unlike his friends, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. They were Eurocentric. T. S. Eliot went to Europe, and the other one was crazy and racist. But of the three, the only one who settled down—literally and figuratively speaking—in the land was William Carlos Williams. I think it was because of his mother's influence, because her broken English had an impact on him. The two books I mentioned are like a Cubist painting. That, by extension, is what is happening in Latino U.S. literature in English.

Later, William Carlos Williams had an influence over Allen Ginsberg. Williams wrote the introduction to Ginsberg's first book. He told him to cut part of the poem that made him famous and that defines the Beat Generation: Howl.

That's the first impulse to take language out of the academic sphere, make it walk the streets, write jazz poetry. William Carlos Williams was a pioneer in that sense.

A recurring theme in your work seems to be migration—all migration—as a metaphor for life.

It is a reflection on the world, on its uncertain situation. Cultures are forged in movement. They are refined that way; sometimes they lose force and then they renew themselves. They find new spirit and new energies, and that's the way human beings go forward. It has always been that way, since antiquity there has been a combination and intermixing of cultures, of languages, of literatures. To go against that is to go against nature, against oxygen. It is something organic that is very deep within every human being, within every culture and society. Of course, Caribbean people are experts on that. We are a bridge between Europe, the Americas, and the United States. That is the way we have to see it. And in this there are good things and bad things because North American civilization has terrible things in terms of commerce, but it also has wonderful things.

You published with Random House almost since the beginning of your career as a writer. Was it easy to obtain access to a mainstream publishing company?

I published a chapbook in 1966, Papo Got His Guns. I took that little book to a bookstore on 8th Street and put it beside books by Williams and Ginsberg. It sold fairly well. I used to go and collect my share of the profits. An editor from Evergreen Review, a literary magazine that used to publish good literature (Beckett, things written by members of the Beat Generation and some European avant garde), told me he wanted to publish my work. They reproduced part of that chapbook, and that gave me a national audience. I used to work with Herbert Kohl, who has written about education. He was director of the Poets in the Schools program. One of the secretaries who worked in the program had a friend who was editor at Random House. She give the editor a lot of my new poems. Since I had already published in Evergreen Review, the editor called me and asked me to prepare a book. I already had a contract in my hands, with Grove Press, but I decided to go with Random House.

New York was a more open place then, publishing houses were less commercial. If they found somebody who had a strong kind of art, who had a passion, they gave that person an opportunity. It wasn't like today, where everything is formula and novels have to be written in a certain way because, if not, they are not sold.

It seems that Latino literature is a big thing in the States right now.

Well, when you're living in New York, you realize that this happens every ten years. It happened during the seventies and then in the eighties when Time magazine came out with a cover article: The Decade of the Hispanics. Every ten years we come to be in fashion. We will be hot again in the year 2000. There are many Latinos who write very well.

When did you come back to Puerto Rico for the first time after having gone to live in the States with your family?

I lived in the West Coast of the United States for more than twenty years. I went to Berkeley, California, in 1968 to work with a school program called Other Ways. The purpose was to bring art to public schools. They organized poetry workshops. I was totally worn out, asphyxiated, in New York so I went to the West Coast. But I used to go back to New York a lot. On one occasion, I came to Puerto Rico. It was in 1971. It was the first time I had come back since I left at 5. It was the greatest shock of my life. I stayed for six months.

What happened?

I came without knowing anybody. My family was here, but I didn't want to see my family. I was young at that time, and the last person I wanted to see was my father, who was here. I stayed at a friend's house and later at a guest house on Ponce de León Avenue. I remember that I took my key and went out, and I met the singer, Pepe Sánchez, who had been in New York. He took me to San Juan and to different places. I was curious about everything, I spoke with everybody. Eventually, I went up to Aguas Buenas, and I stayed with an uncle who also worked in the tobacco industry. I didn't go through what many New York Puerto Ricans go through. I think one has to come prepared for some moments of rejection. You have to understand them and place them in context and go on if you want to establish yourself here. I returned six years ago to my town, where I have family. Since then I live there. I didn't settle down in San Juan, I didn't try to become part of a circle of writers and intellectuals and those people. I'm from the popular people of Aguas Buenas, and I went back to that.

But do you have contacts with the literary world here?

I have slowly established them. I have a book of poems in Spanish, Mesa blanca. It migrated from an English version. The Spanish is not a translation, it is a rendition. The spirit of the poem recurs in the other language. Sometimes the poem isn't even like the original, but I know it has a relation. Sometimes it is only the center of the poem or its root that is alike. It is totally different to write in Spanish; the psychology is different. In Spanish I feel a totally different orientation.

Mesa blanca is about the popular Spiritualist tradition in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. I know it first hand through my family. I am fascinated by that situation of being possessed by a spirit or by an entity. To me it's the same as being possessed by language. I am fascinated by the thought that conscience does not have a particular seat, a place from which voice comes forth. There is the possibility that perspective does not come from a brain and two eyes but from a golden ring or from a gold tooth. Conscience can come from out of the body, it can be disembodied. All that is in Mesa blanca.

Is it the first long poem you write in Spanish?

Yes, I have always written things in Spanish, but I never published them. This would be my first poetry book in Spanish. I also have an interview in Spanish in Boletín García Lorca, a review published in Madrid.

García Lorca seems to be a presence in your poetry. There is a playful, graceful air reminiscent of him, a touch of childish glee that underscores the seriousness of the themes and also contrasts with them.

When I read the poetry of William Carlos Williams and when I read Poet in New York by García Lorca, my poetic voice began to be more immediate. I decided that I was here [in New York] and that I wanted to use language that way and not try to keep on writing décimas in English because they were not turning out well. I accepted myself as a citizen of that city, as a person who loved its streets. I learned to walk on New York streets reading Poet in New York. That's when I brought my language back to reality. It was a big influence, very important for me. García Lorca's relationship with music was also important, especially his relation to flamenco. I am interested in poets who have a relationship with music. T. S. Eliot had it with classical music. I identify myself with Latin jazz.

That's the best of North American music, jazz, I am fascinated by its fragmentary improvisations. I hear a lot of jazz, and it gives me an idea of how to direct my poetic lines, where to stop, how to breathe within the context of the writing. It's like the way you play the saxophone. And the way the city moved was also important for me. Snaps attempts to catch that speed in its images; it's like, literally, snapping your fingers rhythmically. I felt the movement of the train, the movement of the city, how the city came unto you. It is a way to feel velocity. That also happens in Poet in New York, despite the fact that García Lorca was a poet from Granada, Spain.

I remember a very interesting phrase you wrote about how the Latinos of the United States would, maybe, never melt into that traditional melting pot into which all immigrants have disappeared.

I think it's because of the proximity to Latin America and the fact that we are a very strong culture.

But the Italians and Germans and all the others also had a strong culture.

We are nearer to our roots, and we can resupply constantly. One goes to certain parts of Los Angeles, and it seems like the Mexicans are just arriving, with their big hats and their vibrant colors. But the Mexicans were there before the Anglo-Saxons. The same thing happens in New York, especially with the Dominicans. The Puerto Ricans are now learning more English, but then the Dominicans and the Ecuadorians come, and they bring another dose of Spanish and the Puerto Ricans and the others who have been there for a long time make new contact with those energies, they renew their contacts with their roots. We are always a new group, and it will stay that way because of the proximity with Latin America.

And in relation to Chicanos or Mexican Americans: they were already there for many generations. We came as immigrants, but the Chicanos were in their country. We migrated with our Caribbean culture, our language, our music, and all these tempos and psychological states have entered the world of our literature. The Puerto Rican spirit is present in another language and is becoming an important branch on the tree of North American literature.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1997)

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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 out of mouth / At the men who jump in the shadows / Panama hats transmitting / Towards the radar / of the waist.” 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: “Machetes taking off like helicopters / Chopping off branches for timbale sticks.” But topics don't stop at the tropical; poems like “It's Miller Time” and “If You See Me in L.A. It's Because I'm Looking for the Airport” cover the ways in which life in the Americas can converge. Several lengthy narratives in the form of letters reveal Cruz's inspiration—from musical influences to his family's literary oral traditions. Seven poems presented in Spanish highlight Cruz's bilingual talent.

Lawrence Olszewski (review date 1997)

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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 Rican homeland, from which he emigrated as a lad. In the fourth section, the poet defends his Spanishness and ars poetica (“Poetry is a river in the language. Paddle and you will get there”) and recapitulates the theme of migration from his earlier Red Beans. The poems of the coda, “Primer Sonido,” are entirely in Spanish. A mood of gentle satire and witty wordplay (“The past in the smoke of the cigar, / Bringing the future information”) further bond the pieces. Cruz has a message, and his voice should be heard.

W. Nick Hill (review date 1998)

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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, Spanish, and the migrations between, has most often been the subject of its own expression—in poetry, that is. But Cruz writes from a secure position from which Panoramas becomes a natural mode of discourse, and it opens like the Narcissus poeticus to reveal pictures of his early life, and more of his intellectual commitment to the centrality of language as rhythmic community: “Poetry is most definitely emotion, and it is most definitely in motion.”

The collection opens with a nostalgic “return” to Puerto Rico in “Home Is Where the Music Is,” a form of conscious rebirth. From the dreamlike image of Puerto Rico to the jumble of sounds in New York that gave rise to unique Caribbean musics, Cruz's version of the archetypal story of migration continues his distinctive flair for the rich detail of memory: his grandfather Julio el Bohemio in his white suit and white Panama sombrero walking off toward town “gleaming clean like white chalk.”

Rebirth or, better, regeneration is a theme that informs “The Age of Seashells Revisited,” the first of four quite different sections of the book, which also include “Panoramas,” “Letters from the Island,” and “Primeros Sonidos.” These seashells are revisited because they come from the last part of Rhythm, Content & Flavor, called “Islandis: The Age of Seashells,” a play on Puerto Rico as Atlantis. The present poems are a careful selection, tightly edited and in some cases modified. This is particularly true for “The Lower East Side of Manhattan,” whose scope of vision is broader and whose images are more crisp than in its first appearance.

There is a palpable “politics of the book” at work in Panoramas, most easily explained by noting that the final section, “Primeros Sonidos,” comprises poems in Spanish, the last of which is “Loisaida,” the Nuyorican term for the Lower East Side. “Loisaida,” however, has to present a different perspective than does its companion poem in English, though both speak of the same geography of concrete and buildings. “Loisaida” even includes an allusion to Cruz's earlier ingenious bilingual pun (from “You Gotta Have Your Tips on Fire”), but “La ciudad no tiene son-risa” is only a memory of it. The turn signaled in this collection puts both Spanish and English in juxtaposition, marking a linguistic panorama more sharply defined and separate.

Cruz has always been open to the variety of accents in America, and particularly those of Chicanos, as his tribute to “Poema Chicano” shows. I believe his mission, at least as it appears in Panoramas, is to speak from a renovated sense of pan-Americanism, and, true to that vision, poetry is both rooted in and moving from particular landmarks like those to which he dedicates Panoramas, to a rock and a Ceiba tree, close to his birthplace in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico. From that space you hear Cruz singing his paean to nature: “All air of desire / A remembrance of / The flowered illusion, / Panoramas.”

Carmelo Esterrich (review date 1998)

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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 lenguaje de metaje tantos verbos y adjetivos que?
and neither does it matter the language of goalage so many verbs and adjectives what?

—Victor Hernández Cruz, “Grafo-Mundo”.

“Nuyorican”1 writing has always been caught in the critical cross-fire between two national spaces—Puerto Rico and the U.S.—and between their literary and linguistic borders.2 Because of this conflict, Nuyorican writers have created an apparent instability in their own writing as one of their literary concerns, trying either to carve out a space for their writing or to create a new space. It is in poetry that this crisis of space and language has been most deeply problematized, and yet where a possible alternative lies for these writers.

The question of belonging to one tradition or the other (or the decision not to belong to any one tradition) is, in this case, entangled with the concept of home that Nuyorican poets have developed. In many instances, that home is necessarily Puerto Rico—the Nuyorican poet positions him/herself as, in some way, coming from the island. What results from this positioning is a fusion of images that conflates the concept of home with the imagery of the island. The relation that the poets have with that home/island is ambivalent, a sort of love-hate relationship towards a space that nurtures and frustrates them at the same time. This ambivalence is sometimes translated as an idealizing project—home turns into a space of ecstasy and love, a tropical Arcadia.

Moreover, the poets have an equally important relationship with language. Their writing reveals the battle of choosing one language over the other, or of deciding to create a new language springing from both English and Spanish. The Nuyorican conflict within poetry includes both the representation of home and the selection of a language that recreates home and its corresponding identities.

It is the purpose of this essay to trace a certain tendency that two Nuyorican poets—Miguel Algarin and Victor Hernández Cruz—manifest towards home and language.3 While, on the one hand, the home/island appears in some cases to remain intact and unperturbed within an idealized imagery that reproduces a series of fantasies,4 language, on the other hand, is forced through phonetic, morphological and syntactical deformations that eventually produce a new language composed of the ruined remains of the two standard languages. This double gesture leads these Nuyorican poets into an apparent preservation of home combined with a brutal mutilation of the so-called “original” languages.

The relationship that exists between these poets and home can be better understood if we approach it through the psychoanalytic structure of incorporation. In post-Freudian psychoanalysis, the mechanism of incorporation, along with the concept of the “crypt”—originally formulated by Ferenczi but later developed by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok—denies or refuses to recognize a loss and creates a scenario or fantasy that veils that loss. Incorporation is usually set in opposition to introjection, which is a process through which the loss becomes filled with a substitute object. Incorporation, on the other hand, can be seen as a device to refuse substitution for that loss; incorporation is triggered when “mourning … cannot be admitted” (Abraham and Torok 9). The subject refuses to recognize the loss of his/her pleasure object, thus avoiding any feeling of mourning. What follows is the insertion of the object into a fantasy, in order to deny its loss. The fantasy is repeated again and again in an attempt to confirm the presence of the object, when what is really happening is the covering up of the fact that the object is lost forever. This process is, of course, kept secret, since the subject depends on that secrecy for the survival of the object within the fantasy, and also because the revelation of the process would indicate that a process of negation had occurred:

“[T]he only recourse that remains open to him [the subject] is to contradict the fact of his loss with a radical denial, by pretending to have nothing to lose. It will therefore be out of the question for him to betray to others the grief that has struck him. … Grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject. In this crypt reposes—alive, reconstituted from the memories of words, images, and feelings—the objective counterpart of the loss … as well as … traumatic incidents—real or imagined.”

(Abraham and Torok 8).

The loss carves out a “space” in which to hide the pleasure object. It is in this “crypt” that the lost object is put away and maintained intact—embalmed, as it were, since what is hidden cannot be allowed to change.

Is there a cryptic space in Nuyorican poetry? If so, where would one find it? I would argue that the crypt is, in fact, the poem itself: the construction that preserves the imperturbable concept of home intact. Jacques Derrida, in his introduction to Abraham and Torok's The Wolf-Man's Magic Word, states that the crypt “is … not a natural place, but the striking history of an artifice, an architecture, an artifact” (xiv), and that is precisely what the poem is: it is an artifice that serves as the cryptic space for the fantasy of home. The function of home—as a space of protection, intimacy and comfort—is not disturbed, even though its representation in Nuyorican poetry changes incessantly. The secret that is embedded in much Nuyorican poetry is the fact that the home labeled as “original” (the island) has been lost—either through exile or some other mechanism of cultural movement (such as transculturation, acculturation or assimilation). The fantasy that each poem creates will vary, even though the concept of home remains constant. In many poems, the fantasy is utopic,5 as Román de la Campa has already discussed in the poetry of Miguel Algarin and another Nuyorican poet, Pedro Pietri. The poems, then, frame a double gesture: the reappropriation of home within an utopic fantasy along with the total rejection of mourning that would lead to the recognition of the loss of that homey space. What is interesting is that, as I will argue later, the fantasy contains cracks, gaps in which the loss is revealed in extremely violent, though subtle imagery. This is precisely how one ultimately gains access to the secret in the crypt: through the poem's fractures.6

There are a series of images that Nuyorican poetry uses to represent the home. The fusion of the home/house with the island of Puerto Rico is possibly the most frequent fantasy. In “Aguadilla,” by Victor Hernández Cruz, the poet returns to Puerto Rico, to a house in that northwest town. The poem warns us from the beginning that “the last people who went spoke of / the house being invisible from the inside” (Mainland 69)—that is, the house does not have a clear visual demarcation that separates it from the rest of the area; it is a non-architectural space. The house seems to be transparent, implying, perhaps, that here home is the landscape itself. Later in the poem, the house becomes a conventional structure, but turns a rosy pink—a color, no doubt, for sublimation. Beyond these transformations, however, the concept of home—the function that it serves in the poem—remains the same: “We can go into the house and not go” (69). The verb “can” eliminates the possibility that they may be barred from entering the house; the “not go” may imply an indefinite stay (we can go into the house and not leave). The place is equally idealized in terms of the things that go on in or around the house: “It stayed dry in Aguadilla / Chopping bananas all afternoon / The stove was burning / And the soft yellow smell of banana” (69). The hearth, “the stove”—a central element in the conceptualization of home—appears in this poem and emits its tranquilizing warmth. Also, the tropical space is once again linked to the space of home; the island becomes home.

In the poetry of Victor Hernández Cruz there also exists an image of the island-home which is transferred to New York. The return home to Puerto Rico in “Los New Yorks” is celebrated through food:.

I am going home now
I am settling there with my fruits
Everything tastes good today
Even the ones that are grown here
Taste like they're from outer space.

(Mainland 11).

The play with “here” and “there” is very curious: although the poet returns home, there is still a factor of distance. home is still “there,” and fruits are produced “here” that resemble the ones produced “there.” Returning home is, however, a coming / going back that fuses “here” and “there,” regardless of physical distance. A section preceding the lines quoted above clarifies that fusion with a juxtaposition of the tropical home and New York: “I present you the tall skyscrapers / as merely huge palm trees with lights,” and “Snow falls / Coconut chips galore.” New York is made strange because of the insertions of tropical elements, but the home never ceases to be idealized and marvelous.

Miguel Algarin has two poems that construct very different fantasies but achieve a similar effect. “Posed Release” produces what I would label a chromatization of home. The title of the poem already denotes the poet's position: there is going to be a release, an emission, a message, but this release is going to be posed, that is, false, performed, invented:

Turquoise blue
Smacks my eye
Tomato red
Pinches my tongue
Apple green-leaf
Soft arouser
Light afternoon
Made particular
Through rays
That congeal
Shifting green into
Some liveable
It is time for
Green to be all green
Ultimate arrangement
Of self into,
And snugly,
Soothing meanings of
Blue dances in green
Devouring afternoons.

(Nuyorican Poetry 96).

What do these colors represent? What do the words that seem to represent colors really represent? What do they have in common, aside from being located in the same poem? It seems to me that there is an attempt at colorizing the home/island. Of course, each color does not represent (it cannot represent) one specific element. The poem has the agility to slip from one meaning to another: blue can represent the sky as well as the sea; green might represent either the tropical forest or a certain food (green plantains, or certain fruits like panas and jobos); red … perhaps blood, the flamboyán tree, or simply tomato sauce. But, without having to assign a color to a precise element, this chromatic cosmos can be discerned as a non-architectural construction (let us remember the title of the poem: “Posed Release”) of a fantastic space.

Once the construction is established in the poem, however, the poet tries “shifting green into / some liveable / Reality,” he attempts to make the fantasy tangible, extract it from the poem and insert it into reality, while keeping it comfortable, snuggle-y as well as “snugly.” Algarin locates himself in the position of a Creator forming a new island, but risks revealing the nature of the fantasy by proposing that the island of colors be brought into reality. The conflict arises because this new island is extremely idealized, as a tranquilizing space, “soothing,” where colors can stay equally magnificent and in perfect harmony, where “meanings of blue dances in green devouring afternoons,” where meaning slides almost freely from one word/color to another. The poet's desire to bring all this into “some liveable reality,” in fact, threatens to break down the fantasy and lets the secret enmeshed in it be uncovered—a glimpse of that loss that the Nuyorican poet tries to conceal.

Within a much more narrative poem, “San Juan / an arrest / Maguayo / a vision of Malo dancing” (Nuyorican Poetry 139-47), Algarin postulates a process of disenchantment/idealization with respect to the home/island. This time Puerto Rico is easily recognizable in the poem: the narration is the journey from the airport in San Juan to a neighborhood in Cabo Rojo, Maguayo, in the southwest region of the island. The first part of the poem portrays the Nuyoricans disillusioned when they arrive on the island because of the welcome they receive (a policeman stops them on the road). But once they drive away from San Juan, the mechanisms of idealization come back in full force:

gracias por las letrinas
that connect my shit to myself
without the sanitary mania that
now rules our lives …

(Nuyorican Poetry 144).

The island—in fact, Maguayo, the small town away from the capital—is transformed into the original land for the poet. The poet's evacuation structures a possible return to the lost land; shit is what connects the Nuyorican with home/island/land. Varying the line slightly: “that connects my shit to my Self.” Moreover, Maguayo becomes as pure as Nuyoricans are impure, sublimating the land even more: “Maguayo you were and are / the proof of our lost innocence, / of our impurity” (144). From the land the poet moves to the water at the beach, where the relationship with the island is translated as a seduction. The sea—as an extension of the island—seduces the poet: “the water is gentle, / the water seduces, / the water accommodates / itself around my balls / around the whole of my body.” The scenario of becoming one with each other concludes with an orgasm at the end of the poem: the idealization is consummated, creating a climax in the poet's joining with the water, and perpetuating the myth of the fusion of man and “land:” “… my sperm / swims right up into / the world's wide open SEAS.” The “seas”—especially in a bilingual poem—are also “si's” or yesses, shouts of affirmation. That affirmation, of course, covers over the fact that the fusion is artificial, that the poet unites himself with an artificially constructed home/island. The orgasm is not strictly a regeneration (Campa 61), but rather the desire for it.

As I have already suggested, the identification of home with the island of Puerto Rico, along with the seemingly blinding affirmation of an idealized space called home, is at fleeting moments revealed as a fabrication within the same poetry, an attempt to formalize a geographical and architectural utopia. These moments are usually accompanied by images threatening to the poet. While the “not go” in Victor Hernández Cruz's “Aguadilla” could be read as a standing welcome to the Tropical House, it really portrays the home as an unreachable space: we can go there but never actually arrive, “we can go into the house and not go.” “Los New Yorks”—the poem in which food becomes a metaphor for the nearness of home—ends with a threatening image:

We turn around to look for the house
But it is not there
All we see is green rhythm coming
to eat us.

(Mainland 69).

The tropical house now becomes haunting and cannibalistic. The same occurs at the end of Miguel Algarin's “Posed Release” where “Blue dances in green / Devouring afternoons.” The colors of home cease to be comforting and turn violent and overwhelming.

Thus, the idealization of home breaks down, the poem becoming an ultimately cracked crypt that loses its power to keep the House intact. No longer sealed away, home acquires a monstrous aspect and escapes from the poet's control. The fantasy of incorporation, then, never wholly works in these samples of Nuyorican poetry, since we are able to read the breakdown of the fantasy as fantasy in the poem itself.

If these poets attempt to keep the home intact—even though the crypt is fractured—they nonetheless manipulate and dismantle the language that represents home to the utmost degree. What is peculiar of these two poets is that their poetry locates itself between two languages, producing almost a bellicose interaction between Spanish and English.

In certain poems there is a hierarchy of languages, in which one language serves as a base for the other, Spanish being in many instances the base language for the poetry. In others, English is the base with Spanish words inserted throughout the poem. Frances Aparicio describes the Spanish vocabulary in primarily English-language poetry as a “conjuro” or an incantation:

These words are not only unique in their cultural denotations, but, more important, they function as “conjuros,” as ways of bringing back an original, primordial reality—Puerto Ricanness—from which these poets have been uprooted in a political and cultural way.

(“La vida es un Spanglish Disparatero” 149).

In other words, the poet tries to reinsert himself into the home through the invocation of Spanish words.

Beyond this attraction to single words (the “conjuros”), Aparicio sees this bilingual poetry as based on the language of “la gente,” the people, as “an antidote to the common prejudice against popular literature” (147). There is no doubt that the language used in many of these poems does stem from Nuyorican everyday speech, but Aparicio seems to center her argument on the importance of the origins of that language (i.e., speech). In making of poetry a liberating socio-political instrument, she finds a direct and tangible use for Nuyorican poetry because of its supposed oral referent: “In Nuyorican poetry, indeed, the word functions as a weapon in the political and social struggle of Puerto Ricans in New York” (148). This is no doubt true, but what it really does is emphasize the way this poetry can be used and indeed is being used by Nuyoricans and other mainland Puerto Ricans. There are many poets who fit this description (Tato Laviera is perhaps the clearest example within the Nuyorican poets), but there is another Nuyorican poetry that (regardless of the presumed social origin of poetic language in Nuyorican literature) does not propose a straightforward social or political function for poetry; neither is it ultimately interested in reproducing a series of specific oral utterances. A portion of Miguel Algarin's and much of Victor Hernández Cruz's poetry evinces a poetic and linguistic preoccupation in their desire to destroy language morphologically and syntactically. Efrain Barradas has already pointed out that this generation of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. “crea una obra, marcada por la vida en el gueto, pero que no puede ser calificada como obra folclórica sino culta, a pesar de su procedencia y del usual rechazo del mundo literario establecido” creates a body of work marked by the life of the ghetto, but these writings cannot be described as folkloric but rather learned, regardless of their origin and their typical rejection of the established literary world (14). I do not, and cannot, deny a political and social effect in this poetry, but I want to stress the important poetic games in these two Nuyorican poets, and how they gear us back to their relationship to home.

Victor Hernández Cruz explains his encounter with English in “Snaps of Immigration”:

At first English was nothing
but sound
Like trumpets doing yakity yak,
As we found meanings for the words
We noticed that many times the
Letters deceived the sound
What could we do It was the language of a
foreign land.

Beyond the possible hierarchy of languages,7 Hernández Cruz discovers that the “letter” deceives in English. In biographical terms, the poem presents the Puerto Rican eye (and ear) before written English; in more poetical terms, this discovery will lead the poet to realize that once what is heard is written down, the written word dominates, and the process from the written to the oral (and vice versa) is slippery and faulty. Much of Hernández Cruz's poetry becomes more interested in language itself than in reproducing the Nuyorican or even Puerto Rican speech. This poetry seems to be written in “the language of a foreign land” that here is neither the United States nor Puerto Rico.

It is this interest in the word—in the letter and the sound that the letter produces, and in the word's slippery relationship with meaning—that drives these writers to mix both languages in a creative way, not always placing them side by side, but rather deforming the structure of both languages. It is not about one language slowly intruding into the other, but about a linguistic massacre of both languages. As “Hearing Inside Out” proposes:

O uno habla con las cosas
O se esconde de ellas y ellas hablan solas
The translation through
a rear view mirror.
Things the with talk one her either
Alone talk hers—and plus

(By Lingual Wholes).

The process of “translation” that occurs here is not one of meaning but of words as words. The rear-view mirror flips the first line of the Spanish section, although not word for word (“her” is added); the second line of the “English” translation collapses the second and third lines of the Spanish poem, deleting and adding words to it, and in one instance, letting “Spanish” grammar intrude into an “English” word: “hers” / “ellas.” The translation is meaningless, although it forecasts the result of the linguistic collision of Spanish and English. The “cosas” of the Spanish section—those “things” that speak for themselves when one refuses to talk about them—are, indeed, words, the material with which these poems are constructed. Hernández Cruz points out in the Spanish part of the poem that we must speak with words, have a dialogue with them, because if one becomes afraid of them they will speak for themselves. It is with the distorting mirror of this poem that Hernández Cruz talks to words, by violently getting them out of order, out of context, out of sense.8

It is also with this mirror that he begins to create poetry from the remains of ruined languages. This language and this poetry refuse to be homogenized into the norms of any language, a process that Hernández Cruz describes in “Bi-Lingual Education” (By Lingual Wholes n.p.):

your tongue hanging out
like a carpet
where two ladies
are sprawled entwined
they come to eat you
in doubles
They chew you
till you are
a strong and perfect 1.

(By Lingual Wholes n.p.)

Victor Hernández Cruz is perhaps the one poet who most clearly has attempted this obvious linguistic dismantlement, especially in a series of prose poems in which both Spanish and English go through infinite transformations. The writing that James Joyce attempted in his last book, Finnegans Wake (1939), seems to be resurrected by this Nuyorican poet. The poems are seemingly in Spanish or English, but once the reading starts, the reader soon realizes that they are written in neither:

Pero la caja duro tres inviernos hasta que no pudo más y es tres que no es guitarra cubana por poco llego al cuatro guitarra Puertorriqueña y casi to lo que hablaba era en esa era en Ingles se rebala mucho en ese idioma y solo porque un recuerdo vino no solo porque tenia miedo presentarse si no en las caras de aquellas que pasaron Que-que tu no ves que estan escondidas detras las paginas detras las cajas Es asi que yo me recuerdo y sigo pasando este Grafo-Mundo.

(“Grafo-Mundo,” By Lingual Wholes n.p.).

To me myself them and others always then and now that day we was flying through above Atlantic Ocean clouds the place and the plain O also plain language plano feet or face was in perfect harmonious bolero wavy plena to someplace a few miles away from heaven this gathered from the way the adults spoke their eyes out from their sockets.

(“Airoplain,” Tropicalization 77-78).

The first aspect of these poems that springs to mind is their apparent attachment to speech. This idea, however, collapses immediately because of the multiple syntactical maneuverings that lay bare the writen nature of the pieces. Although one is able to identify certain Puerto Rican speech patterns (like “rebala” for resbala), the link back to speech has been lost; what constructs “Grafo-mundo”—literally, written world—and “Airoplain” are the written damaged remains of English and Spanish. These poems are a direct attack on syntax, generating a less univocal signification and degenerating both Spanish and English as we know them now. As he says earlier in “Grafo-mundo,” “y el disco lo dice serio también 'si se rompe se compone,” that is, from breaking it up, composition arises.

Hernández Cruz admits in “Grafo-mundo” that the box (“la caja,” that is, the TV) “era en Ingles se rebala mucho en ese idioma,” but it seems to be that not only English, but Spanish and especially Spanglish are equally slippery. This is a poetry that takes advantage of that linguistic slip, to produce a language that does not stop. As Hernández Cruz says in another instance: “This must be the Life of Skidsofrenos without breaks” (“Airoplain” 77), a slippery schizophrenia out of control.

“Airoplain”—mutilated from the title itself—ends with the following phrase: “You do your claves on the paper I will read you your secrets Civilization smells so different within the iron trees Sivilessensation spread yourself out of it listen to the beat abnormalize yourself compa.” To do the clave on paper is precisely what certain Nuyorican poetry attempts, to appropriate a culture to represent it in writing. But that is what others do (“You”); what Hernández Cruz tries to achieve (“I”), at least in these poems, is to read the secrets of Civilization or “Sivilessensation”—to reveal the shortcomings of a civilized essentialization. This poetry, from its conscious linguistic breakdown, tries to move away from any sort of (civilized) essence. Aparicio's call to “Puerto Ricanness”—as a framing cultural device and as what she calls the “original primordial reality” (149)—, although relevant to much U.S. Puerto Rican literature, fails to find substantiation in these poems. Rather, the motto of this poetry seems to be, simply, “abnormalize yourself compa,” that is, destructure your identity in writing, pulling it away from a univocal identity. The same idea seems to permeate in Algarin's poetry, as he proposes in “Happy New Year:” “pero coño maybe there's no time like short-circuit time” (Turner 199), a linguistic short that promotes writing in collapsed languages.

This multivalent restructuration is done, it seems to me, mainly through this slippery language, neither Spanish nor English, but what Algarin calls “Spanglish Nuyorican” (Nuyorican Poetry 149), that language-in-ruins that, in many ways, helps in the making of a malleable identity for the Nuyorican poet.

While the idea of home is kept as intact as possible—even though the poetry itself reveals, as I have shown, several fractures in that paradigm—, it seems that any conscious or unconscious desire of the poet to disassemble the home is channeled through language, destroying all its standardized norms, since the destruction of the home is forbidden within the poet's cryptic fantasy. This mutilation leaves the concept of home alone, while creating a ruined, consciously bastardized language, intentionally destroying all possible linguistic barriers and frontiers, molding a literature that constantly questions its linguistic ancestors, and perhaps proposing a home in language. This new home is not, however, pristine like the previous one, but rather unpredictable, unsafe, destructible, while fascinatingly creative and fluid.


  1. I use the word “Nuyorican” in a very specific social and historical context of Puerto Rican migrations to the United States. I am speaking in this essay about the literary movement created in New York in the sixties and seventies by Puerto Ricans who were either born in the city or moved there when they were very young. I do not mean to imply that all U.S. Puerto Rican literature today (or then) comes only from New York, nor that newer generations of Puerto Ricans living in New York continue this tradition.

  2. For this debate, see Efrain Barradas's introduction to Herejes y mitificadores; Juan Flores's, “Puerto Rican Literature in the United States: Stages and Perspectives;” and Marc Zimmerman's “U.S. Latinos: Their Culture and Literature.”

  3. Eugene Mohr, in his study The Nuyorican Experience, discards Victor Hernández Cruz's poetry as not “Nuyorican” enough to belong to this literary community: “He does not, despite common experiences, share the ideological and esthetic commitments of poets who are self-consciously Nuyorican, and he is not represented in the Algarin-Piñero anthology, the best indicator of who belongs and who doesn't … The pictorial brilliance of Hernández Cruz sometimes leads to almost pure verbal abstraction, miles apart form the Nuyorican poetry of feeling and statement” (104-05). Mohr seems to believe in a canonical Nuyorican group that exists under the umbrella of Algarin's anthology, and sets aside Hernández Cruz's poetry as too experimental and not sufficiently politically involved. I hope this essay points out the inaccuracy of this statement (published in the early 1980s). Fortunately, critics like Frances Aparicio have already started to insert Hernández Cruz back into the linguistic and literary tradition of Nuyorican literature.

  4. Along with the idealization of home, there is also a rejection of the home/island, as I will discuss later. But everytime there is an attempt to construct the home—wherever it may be—, the island's positive features come back as the primary images of the poets.

  5. This utopic construction is also an integral part of incorporation: “The fantasy of incorporation merely reveals a utopian wish; would that the memory of what was shocking never have been, or at a deeper level, not have been shocking” (Abraham and Torok 12).

  6. As Abraham and Torok clearly state in their essay, “As long as the crypt holds, there is no melancholia. It declares itself as soon as the walls become shaky” (14); that is, there is no way of detecting the mechanism of incorporation without the crypt cracking.

  7. Victor Hernández Cruz describes his linguistic process as “a trajectory from one language (Spanish) to another (English)” (“Mountains in the North” 88), but it seems to me that his poetry contradicts his statement, as I will argue later: it is a trajectory coming from both English and Spanish to the remains of their collision.

  8. Hernández Cruz stated in an interview that “in order to write, I have to kick this English, the language that I love, in the ass” (Rosa 286).

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicolas and Maria Torok. “Introjection—Incorporation: Mourning or Melancholia.” Psychoanalysis in France. Ed. S. Lebovici and D. Widlocher. New York: International Universities, 1980. 3-16.

Algarin, Miguel. On Call. Houston: Arte Público, 1980.

Algarin, Miguel. Time's Now/ Ya es Tiempo. Houston: Arte Público, 1985.

Algarin, Miguel. and Miguel Piñero, Eds. Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings. New York: Morrow, 1975.

Aparicio, Frances R. “La Vida Es un Spanglish Disparatero.” European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature. Ed. Genevieve Fabre. Houston: Arte Público, 1988. 147-60.

Barradas, Efrain. Introduction. Herejes y mitificadores: muestra de poesia puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos. Efrain Barradas y Rafael Rodriguez, Eds. Rio Piedras: Huracán, 1980. 11-30.

Campa, Román de la. “En la utopia redentora del lenguaje: Pedro Pietri y Miguel Algarin.” The Americas Review 16.2 (Summer 1988): 49-67.

Derrida, Jacques. “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.” Introduction. The Wolf Man's Magic Word. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. xi-xlviii.

Flores, Juan. “Puerto Rican Literature in the United States: Stages and Perspectives.” Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage. Ramón Gutiérrez and Genaro Padilla, Eds. Houston: Arte Público, 1993. 31-68.

Hernández Cruz, Victor. By Lingual Wholes. San Francisco: Momo's, 1982.

Hernández Cruz, Victor. Mainland. New York: Random House, 1973.

Hernández Cruz, Victor. “Mountains in the North.” Américas Review 18.1 (Spring 1990): 110-14.

Hernández Cruz, Victor. Red Beans. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1991.

Hernández Cruz, Victor. Tropicalization. Reed, Cannon & Johnson, 1976.

Mohr, Eugene V. The Nuyorican Experience: Literature and Puerto Rican Minority. Contributions in American Studies 62. Wesport, Ct: Greenwood, 1982.

Rosa, Victor. “Interview with Victor Hernández Cruz.” Bilingual Review 1.3 (Sept./Dec. 1975): 281-87.

Turner, Faythe. Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the USA: An Anthology. Seattle: Open Hand, 1991.

Zimmerman, Marc. Introduction. U.S. Latino Literature: an Essay and Annotated Bibliography. Chicago: MARCH/Abrazo, 1992. 9-47.

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