Lorna Dee Cervantes (b. 1954)
Contributing Editor: Juan Bruce-Novoa
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students may object to the strident tone of "Poem for the Young White Man." Even Chicanos can get turned off by it. The feminism has the same effect on the men. Why is she so hostile toward males, they ask. Some now say that she is passé, radicalism being a thing of the sixties. I prepare the students with information on feminist issues, especially on the single-parent families, wife abuse, and child abuse. I also prepare them by talking about racial and ethnic strife as a form of warfare, seen as genocide by minority groups.
I use Bernice Zamora's poetry as an introduction. Her alienation from the male rituals in "Penitents" produces the all-female family in "Beneath . . . ." The sense of living in one's own land, but under other's rules (Zamora's "On Living in Aztlán"), explains the bitterness of "Poem for the Young White Man." And both of the poets eventually find a solution in their relation to nature through animal imagery; yet just like Zamora in "Pico Blanco," Cervantes maintains an uneasy relationship with the machoworld with which women still contend.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The historical theme of the disappearance of the nuclear family in the United States is primary here. There is also the effect of urban renewal on ethnic and poor communities whose neighborhoods were often the targets for projects that dislodged people from an area. In "Crow" there is the theme of finding a link in nature to counter urban alienation.
On the personal level, Cervantes's family history is reflected autobiographically in "Beneath . . . ."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Cervantes uses the form of the narrative poem, with a few key metaphors. Her confessional mode is reminiscent of Robert Lowell's. Her style is conversational, direct, unpretentious, but there is a constant sharp edge to her verses, a menacing warning against overstepping one's welcome.
Although her audience was and is generally "third worldist" and Chicano, these poems show a range of different target audiences. "Beneath . . ." is a feminist poem, appealing greatly to women. When it was first published, there was little discussion of the issue of female heads of households in Chicano circles because few wanted to admit to the problem in the Chicano community. Now the discussion is much more common.
"Poem for . . ." had great appeal in the closing days of the radical movement, but has since faded to a smaller audience of older Chicanos who have heard the radical poetry to the point of exhaustion. However, mainstream liberals like "Poem for . . ." because it speaks as they assume all minorities should speak, harshly, bitterly, and violently. Young Chicanos are once again picking up the strident tone, faced as they are with the economic decline that has exacerbated social problems, especially in urban schools.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I compare her to Margaret Atwood in their sense of women being submerged and needing to surface by finding their own traditions. They both have a capacity for stringent statement when pushed by violent circumstances. Both have strong links to nature, in which their ancestors cultivated, not only food, but their culture. Comparisons with Bernice Zamora are suggested above.
Carlos Castaneda's theory of the enemy is significant for Cervantes. It explains how the "Young White Man" is tempting the author into violence.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Students are asked to consider the significance of mainstream construction projects on local communities; from here they are asked to ponder the cycle of change and its victims.
2. Write on the links between "Beneath . . ." and "Poem for . . . ."
3. Write on Cervantes's view of the world as a threat to existence and what she offers as a response.
The best article is my "Bernice Zamora and Lorna Dee Cervantes," Revista lberoamericana 51, 132-33 (July-Dec. 1985): 565-73. See also Cordelia Candelaria's Chicano Poetry and Martin Sonchez's Contemporary Chicana Poetry.