Cervantes, Lorna Dee

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Nationality: American. Born: San Francisco, 6 August 1954. Education: San Jose State University, California, B.A. 1984; University of California, Santa Cruz, 1985–88. Career: Instructor of creative writing, University of Colorado, Boulder. Founder, Mango Publications, and editor, Mango literary review; founder and editor, Red Dirt magazine. Has been active in the American Indian and Chicano movements since the 1970s. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1978, 1989; American Book award, 1982, for Emplumada; Hudson D. Walker fellowship, Fine Arts Work Center, Province-town; Pushcart prize. Address: Department of English, University of Colorado, Box 226, Boulder, Colorado 80309–0226, U.S.A.



Emplumada. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

From the Cables of Genocide: Poems of Love and Hunger. Houston, Arte Publico Press, 1991.

Recording: An Evening of Chicano Poetry, Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, 1986.


Critical Studies: "Soothing Restless Serpents: The Dreaded Creation and Other Inspirations in Chicana Poetry" by Tey Diana Rebolledo, in Third Woman (Berkeley, California), 2(1), 1984; "Notes toward a New Multicultural Criticism: Three Works by Women of Color" by John F. Crawford, in A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1987; "Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective" by Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, in Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, edited by Maria Herrera-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes, Houston, Arte Publico, 1988; "Lorna Dee Cervantes's Dialogic Imagination," in Annales du Centre de Recherches sur l'Amerique Anglophone (Cedex, France), 18, 1993, and "Bilingualism and Dialogism: Another Reading of Lorna Dee Cervantes's Poetry," in An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands, edited by Alfred Arteaga, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1994, both by Ada Savin; "Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove" by Patricia Wallace, in MELUS (Amherst, Massachusetts), 18(3), fall 1993; "'An Utterance More Pure Than Word': Gender and the Corrido Tradition in Two Contemporary Chicano Poems" by Teresa McKenna, in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994.

*  *  *

In the 1970s Lorna Dee Cervantes became part of the new Chicano movement, which at the time was largely male. Interested in the conundrums of race and race relations—in part because her heritage was both Native American and Mexican—Cervantes became a publisher. In the mid-1970s she founded Mango Publications, a small press designed to publish the work of Chicano and Chicana writers. One outlet for this work was the little magazine Mango. Receiving grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, she maintained her publications projects while she polished the craft of writing poetry. By the time Emplumada, her first collection, appeared in 1981, she was widely published in little and Chicano magazines. When her collection won the 1982 American Book award, she was guaranteed prominence in the increasingly multicultural U.S. arts scene.

After Cervantes graduated from San Jose State University in 1984, she studied for four years as a graduate student in the history of consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Itself a unique contribution to the interdisciplinary movement, this graduate program allowed students to combine specializations in the study of history, culture, literature, art, and politics. It led Cervantes into a number of avenues for her work, including the editing of Red Dirt, a magazine of multicultural literature, and teaching creative writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Often anthologized, the poems of Cervantes make an explicit statement about race and sexuality. In Emplumada she uses untranslated Spanish words and phrases within the English, giving readers the message that no single language can express all of the feelings and knowledge of living in the United States. The title of the book, translated as a combination of "feathered" and "pen flourish," strikes many readers as both exotic and metaphorically persuasive. The poet's claim to be creating a new language is a message as old as print. Long before the political and educational struggles over bilingualism, Cervantes's poems gave body to the ideas of the movement. Linguists call her practice "code-switching"; writers and readers appreciate her deft use of a blend of languages, each operative within the Americas.

Cervantes's second collection, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems of Love and Hunger, was published in 1991. Many of the themes from her first book reappear, but the new density of the metaphoric texture shows that Cervantes is no longer interested in creating too direct, or too simple, a commentary. Whereas several of the Emplumada poems—"Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway" and "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War between Races"—set the tone for the keen expression of the Chicano movement, her later poetry focuses more intently on male-female relationships. Sexuality and its various powers seem to have usurped the battlefield of racial conflict. In "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway" Cervantes had prefigured her later themes. Here the "soft" woman laments the loss of her lover, even as her magnificently eloquent mother tells her to live for herself. The poem pictures the matriarchs of the family, stanza by stanza, voicing their wisdom to the young protagonist. It is the grandmother who "trusts only what she builds/with her own hands." But she also has lived too many years with a man who has been waiting to kill her. Untold, but insistently paralleled, the concluding chapter of the protagonist's life haunts the reader. Playing against the stereotype of women's need to learn from their female ancestors in order to find wisdom, Cervantes creates a tapestry of affirmation and denial that shows the complex negotiations necessary for women within a culture on the other side of American prosperity. Economics is the unwritten player in many of Cervantes's poems.

In From the Cables of Genocide "Macho" gives a sharp, humorous twist to the male subject, ostensibly "a man of gristle and flint" whose "lure" is "potent." Intellectualism cannot subvert the physical realities of a human life, and in her later poem "Bananas" Cervantes brings together both pervasive themes. This five-part poem moves from Estonia, where a man takes his children to the Dollar Market to look at bananas (so dear he could never buy one for them to taste) to Boulder (with her Dia de los Muertos celebration) to Kwajalein (a Pacific atoll) to Colombia, where the carnage of the 1928 United Fruit Company strike (and the "bananas, black on the stumps, char into odor") centers the poet's memory: "The murdered Mestizos have long been cleared/and begin their new duties as fertilizer for the plantations./Feathers fall over the newly spaded soil: turquoise,/scarlet, azure, quetzal, and yellow litters/the graves like gold claws of bananas." The metaphor of Cervantes's Emplumada returns to force the reader to see beneath the brilliance of the exotic culture into its harsh mounds of death.

—Linda Wagner-Martin