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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Lorna Dee Cervantes (b. 1954)

[7084] Mirta Vidal, Cover of Chicanas Speak Out (1971), courtesy of Duke University.

Cervantes was born in San Francisco and is of Mexican descent. Sensitive to the racial and ethnic prejudice she might encounter growing up in San Jose, her parents insisted that she speak only English both in and outside the home. She graduated from San Jose State College and for many years supported herself by writing and publishing. Cervantes founded and published a journal, Mango, which featured the work of Latino poets; she also wrote two volumes of poetry. Currently, she teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is co-editor of Red Dirt, a cross-cultural poetry journal.

Both her Mexican heritage and her feminism inform Cervantes’s writing. Her poetry celebrates her Mexican heritage, but it is also harshly critical of machismo and male dominance in Chicano culture and celebratory of specifically female oral traditions. She sometimes implicitly compares Euro-American dominance of Chicano people and lands with Chicano men’s domination of women. Just as men and women are often at odds in her bilingual poems, English and Spanish words seem to battle on the page for space and prominence. Some poems imagine fantastical escapes from such conflict–an entirely female family, for example, or an uninhabited land. Images of birds and migration appear often in her work, particularly in her first book, Emplumada (1981), the title of which is a play on Spanish words connoting a bird’s plumage and a writer’s pen. In From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991), Cervantes uses symbols from nature to explore romantic and familial love. Her affinity for nature and landscape lend her work a unique delicacy and beauty that sometimes belie its political and social messages.

Teaching Tips

  • Students will probably find Cervantes’s poetry very accessible. Building the discussion around the idea of a dual identity will help them recognize the complicated aspects of her work. What does it mean for an American poet to write about a dual heritage? How does a poet like Cervantes explore what it means to be an American? Consider the ways in which this contemporary American poet incorporates Spanish in her work. Have your students choose one of Cervantes’s poems and translate the Spanish (they can use a Spanish/English dictionary or the internet) into English. Then have them rewrite the poem completely in English. How does this translation change the poem? What effects are lost? You might consider using “Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington” or “The Body as Braille” for this activity.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How do you interpret the uncle’s dream in “Uncle’s First Rabbit”? What is the effect of his first hunting experience? What is the tone of this poem?
  2. Comprehension: In “For Virginia Chavez,” Cervantes alludes to a string of famous poets, including Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, John Donne, the seventeenth-century poet, and popular Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Why would an author like Cervantes refer to canonical British writers? How is she continuing or transforming the work of those earlier authors?
  3. Comprehension: In “Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington,” Cervantes divides the poem into two parts, titled “Mexico” and “Washington.” What is the speaker’s attitude towards each place? What is the tone of the poem? Does it change? What images are associated with each place? What does that tell us about the speaker’s state of mind? What is the effect of the long title?
  4. Context: The theme of migration appears often in Cervantes’s poetry, and is frequently connected to the prominence of migration within Latino history. This theme might also be seen as a reflection of Cervantes’s personal migration between Mexican and American cultures. Trace Cervantes’s use of migration, as both symbol and theme, in the poems in this unit. (You might look specifically at “Uncle’s First Rabbit,” “Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington,” and “Emplumada.”) What generalizations can you make about her treatment of this theme? How is it represented in each of the poems?
  5. Context: The Black Arts movement is defined by a commitment to bringing the arts and community together, raising consciousness about black experience, using art to gain political and social equality for black Americans, and building a sense of pride and awareness of history in the black community. After reading Cervantes’s work, think about what a Chicano aesthetic might look like. What goals might it share with the Black Arts movement?
  6. Exploration: Like Cervantes, the Beats draw on ideas related to travel in their work. You might look specifically at Kerouac’s On the Road and Snyder’s “The Blue Sky.” How does Cervantes’s use of the concept of the “journey” differ from that of the Beats? What do her poems about migration have in common with works by the Beats, as well as by transcendent poets?
  7. Exploration: Birds are a common poetic symbol for the soul, in part because of their ability to move between the sky and the earth. In other poems, birds, usually songbirds, are symbols of the poet. Some important poems that use this trope are Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” and John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Images of birds appear throughout Cervantes’s work. How do you interpret this? How do these images change in different poems? What kinds of birds appear? What specific cultural dimension do these birds have?
  8. Exploration: Many of the poets in this unit have a keen sense of place; particular places and landscapes figure prominently in their poetry. Ginsberg, for example, writes about San Francisco and large urban areas, Harjo writes about landscapes central to Native American lore, and Wright’s poems are often about rural Ohio. Similarly, Cervantes envisions the landscapes of Mexico and America in her work. Why does the land seem so important to all these poets? Are there particular historical or cultural reasons that might make them feel tied to the land? How might an interest in the land relate to ideas of transcendence and liberation?

Selected Archive Items

[5615] Anonymous, Disturnell Map of Mexico (c. 1850), 
courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin. 
Although the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, disputes continued between the Mexican and United States governments concerning, among other issues, the border of Texas.

[6133] Anonymous, Young Hispanic Woman (c. 1969), 
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 
In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Chicana women protested definitions of womanhood and American identity that excluded Chicana heritage and life.

[6710] Judith F. Baca, La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra (2000), 
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, © Judith F. Baca, La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, Colorado, 2000. 
Judith Baca is an acclaimed muralist who believes that art can be a forum for social dialogue, as well as a tool for social change. In this sense her work shares much with the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Helena Maria Viramontes.

[7084] Mirta Vidal, Cover of Chicanas Speak Out (1971), 
courtesy of Duke University. 
Chicana authors, including Cherrie Moraga and Lorna Dee Cervantes, protested exclusive definitions of womanhood and American identity that did not include Chicana heritage and life.

[7605] Anonymous, Unidentified Woman Finishes Defiant Message (1973), 
courtesy of the Denver Public Library. 
A young woman with long hair, wearing bellbottoms, scrawls out a message which reads, “We are not beaten . . . and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. . . . What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.” The building pictured was damaged in an explosion that followed a shootout between Denver police and people of the Chicano community on March 16, 1973.

[8756] Eliot Young, Interview: “Exploring Borderlands” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media
Elliot Young, professor of history at Lewis and Clark College, discusses Chicano and Chicana literature.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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