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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lorna Dee Cervantes
(b. 1954)

This northern California native typifies the young Chicano writers who began appearing in the mid-1970s, ten years after the Chicano Movement began. Younger authors, having access to Chicano literature in school and in the community, could recast and adjust images and concepts Chicano Movement writers offered as self-defining, and the forms they utilized. The new writers, without rejecting the importance of cultural identity, emphasized questions of style and form, bringing polish and control to the ideologically overloaded earlier poetry. Age, however, was not the only difference. Women, excluded from the first decade of Chicano publishing, found outlets for their work. A new female, often feminist, voice forced the Chicano image into a more balanced perspective, with a mixture of cultural concern and gender-based criticism. And although Cervantes resisted academics for a number of years during which she attempted to survive strictly as a writer and publisher—she founded her own press and poetry magazine, Mango—like many of her generation, she now combines university life with writing. She presently teaches in the Creative Writing Program of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Cervantes’ work exemplifies these characteristics. Influenced by Carlos Castaneda, Cervantes sees life as a struggle with the enemy/guide, incarnations of the spiritual forces in Nature that can destroy if not brought into harmony and control, but once mastered, help one reach fulfillment. At the personal level, men are the enemy; at the ethnic level, machismo and male dominance threaten familial unity; at the social level, it is Anglo-American society and racial prejudice; and at the artistic level, English and words themselves must be mastered. Cervantes defines her terms through poems about male/female struggle within the context of class and cultural struggle. Men are trained to exploit their environment, which leads them to abuse women, a situation that forces women to become self-reliant. Cervantes’ feminism seems to culminate in “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” the image of the multi-generation, all-women family, surviving in the midst of social alienation and menaced by the male adversary.

Yet, ethnic unity, necessary to combat anti-Chicano prejudice, demands sexual harmony, so the author synthesizes from the older generations the wisdom of female oral tradition: a balance of strength and tenderness, of openness and caution, of sincerity and reserve. Castaneda’s lesson—struggle with the enemy to turn it into your assistant—is applied to men and Nature. She learns to live with them, although never completely at ease. Survival depends on constant vigilance against betrayal, because despite the façade of peace, society and Nature are essentially a battle. Her manner of self-defense is to develop a harmonious identity through personal symbols in Nature—birds—related to a chosen cultural emphasis—the Native American element in her Mexican American past. Then she blends them into the image of her art in the metaphor of the pen through an interlingual play on words—pluma in Spanish means pen and feather, so to be emplumada is to be feathered like a bird or an Indian, or to be armed with a pen like a writer. That she too can rework the rhetoric of warrior-like struggle is clear in “Poem for the Young White Man,” reminiscent of the stringent Movement poetry. However, she is most successful when she eschews the easy clichés of political rhetoric to pursue her vision of the spirit of nature hidden under the surface of everyday existence, one which struggles to express itself through the tenuous harmony of lovers and writers. The last half of Emplumada and the entire second book, From the Cables of Genocide, explore and construct female-male relationships to feed a society starved for love. “Bananas” is a favorite of Cervantes and her audiences. Through the image of fruit, Cervantes creates a vast web of international sociopolitical forces at play and war. Yet she always keeps close contact with concrete reality in individual terms.

Juan Bruce-Novoa
University of California at Irvine

In the Heath Anthology
Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway (1981)
Poem for the Young White Man . . . (1981)
Bananas (1990)
Macho (1991)

Other Works
Emplumada (1981)
From the Cables of Genocide: Poems of Love and Hunger (1991)

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PBS's Fooling with Words (with Bill Moyers)
Offers three poems and a link to a video reading by Cervantes.

Poems, interviews and writings of Lorna Dee Cervantes
An excellent portal to Cervantes on the web.

The Academy of American Poets
Web exhibit with a biography and the text and audio reading of Freeway 280.

Voices from the Gaps
Offers a biography, criticism, a bibliography of primary and secondary works, and links.

Secondary Sources