Authors: Lorna Dee Cervantes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet

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.

Author Works Poetry: Emplumada, 1981 From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger, 1991 Drive: The First Quartet, 2006 Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems—A amor, amar, amat, allí, allá, acá, por vida, 2011 Sueño: New Poems, 2013 Bibliography Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. In an early evaluation of Cervantes’ poetry, Candelaria writes that Emplumada “discloses a talent that is fresh, forceful, and multifaceted” and places her work in the “Flor y Canto,” third and final phase of Chicano poetry (after “Movement” or protest poetry and the development of a “Chicano Poetics”). “Lorna Dee Cervantes.” In After Aztlán: Latino Poets of the Nineties, edited by Ray González. Boston: David R. Godine, 1993. Presents four poems by Cervantes. “Lorna Dee Cervantes.” In The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature, edited by Claire Buck. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992. Biographical profile and bibliography. “Lorna Dee Cervantes.” In Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. Presents Cervantes’s poem, “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races.” Crawford, John F. “Notes Toward a New Multicultural Criticism: Three Works by Women of Color.” In A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. One of the first analyses of Emplumada (along with Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, 1983, and Janice Mirikitani’s Awake in the River, 1978) sees the volume as “a fabulous narrative of development,” in which Cervantes is finding her own voice. McKenna, Teresa. “’An Utterance More Pure than Word’: Gender and the Corrido Tradition in Two Contemporary Chicano Poems.” In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristianne Miller. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Detailed analyses of Juan Gomez-Quinoñes’s “The Ballad of Billy Rivera” and Cervantes’ “Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington,” which also touches on several other key poems in Emplumada. Madsen, Deborah L. Understanding Contemporary Chicana Poetry. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. Excellent overview of Cervantes’ poetry in final chapter of this study finds that her work “is characterized by her angry use of language, her passionate expression of emotions, and a complex interweaving of imagery to represent a feminist view of Chicana life in contemporary America.” Sánchez, Marta Ester. “The Chicana as Scribe: Harmonizing Gender and Culture in Lorna Dee Cervantes’ ‘Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway.’” In Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to an Emerging Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Savin, Ada. “Bilingualism and Dialogism: Another Reading of Lorna Dee Cervantes’ Poetry.” In An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands, edited by Alfred Arteaga. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. Using the linguistic theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, Savin finds that Cervantes’ “poetic discourse is fragmented, divided, lying somewhere in the interspace between two cultures,” but Emplumada is “an eloquent literary expression of the Chicanos’ paradigmatic quest for self-definition.” Seator, Lynette. “Emplumada: Chicana Rites-of-Passage.” MELUS 11 (Summer, 1984): 23-38. Reads Cervantes’ first collection not only as “poetry that affirms Mexican-American identity” but also as “presentation of a woman in the process of coming of age” as well. Contains detailed analyses of many of the best poems in the collection, including “Lots: I” and “Lots: II,” “Caribou Girl,” “For Edward Long,” and “For Virginia Chavez.” Wallace, Patricia. “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove.” MELUS 18 (Fall, 1993): 3-19. In all three of these ethnic poets, Wallace shows, “the poet’s creative use of language seeks to overcome what appears to be fixed or closed…. Cervantes’ poems are often acts of assertion against restrictive social and linguistic structures.”

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