Cruz, Victor Hernández: 1949—
Victor Hernández Cruz: 1949—: Poet, essayist
Victor Hernández Cruz is an important modern poet in both of the localities where he has divided his time: Puerto Rico and New York. One of the founders of the Nuyorican (New York-Puerto Rican) cultural movement in the 1960s, he has, in the words of the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize committee, "long been the defining poet of that complex bridge between the Latino and mainland cultures of the U.S." Cruz writes in an accessible poetic language marked by linguistic mixtures, humor, and powerful imagery of Puerto Rico's tropical lands and New York's urban environment.
Victor Hernández Cruz was born with the assistance of a midwife in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, on February 6, 1949. His family often played and sang the island's traditional music, and he was introduced in an unusual way to the world of literature while still a child in small-town Puerto Rico. His grandfather was a cigar roller who, like others who practiced his trade, often passed the time by telling stories and reciting poetry—Spanish-language classics as well as folktales—while he worked. When Cruz was five, the family moved to New York's Lower East Side.
Poetry Influenced by Early Life
In many ways, as it was for most Puerto Rican migrants, the move to New York City came as a shock. During the family's first winter in New York, Cruz was quoted as saying in Contemporary Poets that he was locked in the house "until my mother made certain that it was okay to go out while white coconut meat fell frozen from the sky." Cruz later wrote in the poem "Home Is Where the Music Is" that he too wondered whether someone had " poured cement on the mountains." But the young Cruz reacted inquisitively to the incredible variety of cultures that surrounded him—the Lower East Side was home not only to Puerto Ricans, but to Jews, African Americans, and immigrants from many foreign countries. So Cruz in a sense learned not one English language but many, and he remained permanently sensitive to the ways in which displaced peoples make sense of their world through language.
Attending high school in New York, Cruz began to write poetry. He was quoted on the Academy of American Poets website as saying that he did it in order "to balance a lot of worlds together … the culture of my parents and the new and modern culture of New York, its architecture, its art, and its fervent intellectual thought." The late 1960s were a fervent time indeed in New York, with an awakening of U.S. Latino culture running parallel to the cultural and political flowering of African-American life in the city. Writers such as Piri Thomas illuminated urban Latino life for American readers of all backgrounds, and Cruz's poetry found a ready audience. He completed a book of poems, Papo Got His Gun, in 1966, and from 1967 to 1969 the teenaged Cruz edited a literary magazine, Umbra. His second book, Snaps, was published by Random House in 1969.
At a Glance . . .
Born on February 6, 1949, in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico; son of Severo Cruz and Rosa Hernández Cruz; divorced; children: Vitin Ajani and Rosa Luz.
Career: Poet, 1966–; Umbra, editor, 1967-69; University of California, Berkeley, guest lecturer, 1970; San Francisco State University, instructor, 1970s; University of California at San Diego, guest lecturer, 1993; University of Michigan, instructor, 1994.
Memberships: San Francisco Arts Commission, 1970s.
Selected awards: Creative Arts Public Service Award, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; New York Poetry Foundation award, 1989; Guggenheim award (Latin American and the Caribbean), 1991.
Address: Home— P.O. Box 1047, Aguas Buenas, PR 00703.
In the 1970s Cruz taught at the University of California at Berkeley and at San Francisco State College (now University), worked for the San Francisco Arts Commission, and produced two more volumes of poetry: Mainland and Tropicalization. He taught for some years at San Francisco State, but in some respects life in California never really agreed with Cruz. In the poem "If You See Me in L.A. It's Because I'm Looking for the Airport," he wrote: "The relationship of people to/Their TV is a perversion/In the pocket of some/Beverly Hills psychiatrist—/Lap cats forced to sit with/Owners dizzied from remote control."
Puns and Island Imagery Filled Works
Cruz won several major awards in the 1980s, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a New York Poetry Foundation award. The title of his 1982 volume By Lingual Wholes illustrated a major feature of Cruz's work—what one might call his serious uses of puns. Cruz's poems contain English, Spanish, and bilingual puns, all employed not simply for humorous ends but in order to show, as Cruz put it in his 1991 book Red Beans (referring not only to the food but to the partly Native American population of Puerto Rico), that "National languages melt, sail into each other."
As his reputation for linguistic wizardry spread, Cruz found himself in demand once again as a teacher and lecturer in the 1990s. He taught for a year at the University of Michigan, but in an essay in his book Panoramas he rued the experience, noting that "Trying to find rhymes in English, it's like trying to find banana leaves for pasteles in Ann Arbor, Michigan." Cruz wrote mostly in English rather than in Spanish. In a poem dedicated to his daughter, he wrote, "I think of the two languages/I write in both/In one I find something/That I can't find in the other."
In the mid-1990s Cruz decided to "take the path back/To the island of vegetation," as he described it in a poem in his volume Maraca. He moved back to his hometown of Aguas Buenas, although he continued to spend considerable time on the U.S. mainland. Many of his poems evoke the landscape, culture, and music of Puerto Rico, but Maraca is a collection encompassing both old and new works, and contains poems about subjects as diverse as the Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac ("Americano writer/In the midst of music") and "Problems with Hurricanes" ("How would your family/feel if they had to tell/The generations that you/got killed by a flying/Banana?").
Cruz's poetry was well suited to being read aloud. He won the title of Heavyweight Poetry Champion of the World at a competitive reading event held in Taos, New Mexico, in 1987, and often toured bookstores in support of his new publications. Cruz was also a finalist for the prestigious international Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. Cruz has said that "writing is making oneself up from what one has toward what one dreams," and in the wise but word-playing manner shown in that very statement, Victor Hernández Cruz had accomplished many of his own dreams and no doubt inspired a few others.
Papo Got His Gun, Calle Once, 1966.
Snaps, Random House, 1969.
Mainland, Random House, 1973.
Tropicalization, Reed, Cannon and Johnson, 1976. By Lingual Wholes, Momo's Press, 1982.
Rhythm, Content and Flavor: New and Selected Poems, Arte Público Press, 1988.
Red Beans, Coffee House Press, 1991.
Panoramas, Coffee House Press, 1997.
Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1991, p. 99; September 3, 2001, p. 83.
World Literature Today, Summer 1998, p. 619.
Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org (March 21, 2003).
Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 21, 2003).
"Home Is Where the Music Is," About.com, http://poetry.about.com/library/weekly.aa012098.htm (March 21, 2003).
"Victor Hernández Cruz - Biography," Griffin Poetry Prize, www.griffinpoetryprize.com/gpp2002/cruz.html (March 21, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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