Last reviewed: June 2017
August 6, 1954
San Francisco, California
Although Lorna Dee Cervantes (sur-VAHN-teez) grew up in an urban, working-class barrio, she was raised to speak English because of her family’s fear of racism. As a result, gender issues and ethnicity and language issues play major roles in her poetry. In keeping with such themes, Cervantes describes herself as a Chicana poet, with all the ethnic, gender, and language markers expressed or implied. Furthermore, she means that description to be subversive. If societies label subgroups and individuals, when a group or individual self-defines, it is an exercise of power, defying the society, which leads to self-determination, an act historically denied to women and members of minority ethnic groups.
Cervantes notes that women and Chicanos’ common experiences and challenges are in the first case due to machismo and patriarchy, and in the second due to racial prejudice and economic exploitation. This unites either group but alienates it from other groups. While the visionary power of poetry can invoke an idealized, utopian world, the real world is beset by social problems, making social revolution necessary. Poetry serves Cervantes as a form of resistance, another means of subversion. She employs narrative poems to represent the real world of conflicts and lyrical poetry for contemplation and meditation. The former deal most specifically with ethnicity and gender, particularly male-female sexual relationships. The lyrical poems frequently bemoan the necessity of social commitment and responsibility.
Language serves Cervantes as a power strategy. For example, she juxtaposes versions of her poems in English and Spanish. She does not translate poems, as one poem is not the same as the other: Each develops independently in its own language. She also employs interlingualism—that is, Spanish within English plus barrio dialect—in order to establish her version of literary style rather than follow canonical traditions and customs.
Cervantes’ use of autobiography as a poetic strategy has offended some members of her family, who feel that she discloses too many personal details. Her intention, however, is to record and translate the experiences of the historical and collective ethnic and gender communities to larger audiences, rather than to emphasize her family’s experiences. Furthermore, she sees herself as a mediator between the Chicano community (a largely oral culture) and the English-speaking audience (a largely print culture). In fact, she portrays herself as a scribe in her poem “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway.” Her grandmother is represented as Queen and her mother as Knight.
Cervantes earned an undergraduate degree from San Jose State University in 1984 and a doctorate from University of California, Santa Cruz, in the history of consciousness in 1990. She has taught creative writing at the Universities of Colorado at Denver and at Boulder.
Cervantes received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and one from the Fine Arts Works Center. She also won a Pushcart Prize, a Provincetown Fellowship, a London Meadow Fellowship, and a Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Foundation Writers Award (1995). She was named Outstanding Chicana Scholar by the National Association of Chicano Scholars. She has served as a judge for the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award and as a panelist for Arizona State Arts Commission.