Chicana Poets, and their
A complete understanding of
Chicanas during the pre-colombian era is not something that is commonly found in
textbooks or accounts of history. In fact, historians have neglected any
extensive research on Chicanas. In Linda M. Billings’ article, “In Verbal
Murals: A Study of Chicana Herstory and Poetry”, she reverts back to Aztecs as a
way of explaining the long-lived struggle of Chicanas. Billings attacks
the void in knowledge about Chicanas and attempts to fill it through her
analysis of the conquered Aztec women and the gods they worshipped. This
article focuses on studying some contemporary Chicana poetry. In order to
prepare readers, the author has incorporated a brief history of Mexicanas and
Chicanas in the United States of America, which begins with the Aztecs.
Lacking sufficient documentation, the “herstory” of Mexicanas during the
pre-colombian era is minimal. Throughout history, Chicana women have been
dominated by men, cultures, and the world; with their voices and poems, these
women have developed a strong sense of self-identification and
celebration. Chicana PoetryLorna Dee Cervantes
to Billings, early worship of the god Quezacoat established the first social
order of the Aztecs in the pre-colombian era. In other words, the practice
of worshipping this god by the Aztecs is how historians were able to recognize a
social order. One of such may have been previously established, without
recognition, and then slowly died out.
The Aztec people were the dominant
society of their area by the 14th Century. Their lifestyles revolved
around religion and the worship of Aztec dieties. This structure provided
equality in sharing between men and women. Each individual worshiped in
the same ways and practiced a similar religion, regardless of
gender. “Women served as priestesses in the community as
well as being honored for their position as givers of life,” states
Billings. It is told that a woman who dies while giving birth was
revered. These women were compared to men who died in battle. In
today’s world, a woman’s role as bearer of child is hardly regarded this highly.
It’s almost as if women now days are simply expected to perform this fascinating
task. The Aztecs were certainly ahead of their time in their
Along with the
conquest of Mexico in 1519 by European colonizers, the Aztec community was
drastically altered. Spaniards brought with them diseases that
significantly reduced the indigenous population. Land was violently pulled
out from under the Aztecs, and conversion to Catholicism was enforced.
This conquest changed the lives of all Aztecs, yet women felt a stronger
loss. Now, with no social status, Aztec women served as slaves and whores
to the Spaniards. This conquest enforced the use of subordination of women
from one culture to another. It is my opinion that if more communities
were left to develop on their own during these times, the stance of women in
today’s world would be significantly different.
Linda Billings tells of one woman,
Malinalli Tenepal, who eventually became an icon for the feelings and struggles
of Aztec women brought on by the conquest. The story of Malinalli Tenepal
begins when her family sells her into slavery as a young girl. At the age
of fourteen, Malinalli was given to a prominent Spanish officer as a
“gift”. She lived her life pleasing him sexually, eventually bearing his
child. The officer then abandoned Tenepal when his wife returned to live
with him. How does a girl grow up seeing her mother being worshipped
for bearing children, and then when she gives birth herself the man casts her
away? This drastic change in culture must have had an incredibly negative
effect on young women during this age.
The fact that Malinalli’s story became a
symbol for the women during this time is disappointing, at the least. This
historical image sees these women as “the whore mother of a bastard race of
Mestizos.” A negative image such as this doesn’t make any exceptions to
the fact that these women had no alternative choice. Historians simply
chose to use this negative symbol to characterize the Aztec women. The men
during this period could do many things to gain power and acceptance in this new
society. Women, on the other hand, were only given one tool for survival,
their bodies. If the European conquerors “kept” an Aztec women, she could
claim some amount of social status; otherwise, she was merely a slave.
Linda Billings makes one very
important point in her article. The positions, values, and beliefs of
Aztec women during the pre-colombian era is heard by voice, not writing.
This is why the study of chicana poetry gives us a clearer understanding of
their struggle and strength.
Lorna Dee Cervantes is a well-known
Chicana poet. She grew up in San Jose, California and now teaches at the
University of Colorado at Boulder. Cervantes uses emotion and imagery in
her writings to effectively report the experience of the Chicana women.
Cervantes informs her readers that self-definition and self-invention are
consistent in much of the Chicana poetry that exists today. “Thus what has
developed was a poetry of performance whose strength and vivacity lay in its
oral qualities rather than its power on the printed page.” This parallels
what Linda Billings teaches in her article. The only true understanding of
the women in America during the pre-colombian era is
through verbal stories and poetry; much of which has been lost. Who better
to account for these women than those who actually lived through it or their
I believe in revolution
because everywhere the crosses are
burning . . .
there are snipers in the schools
(I know you don’t believe this . . .
But they are not shooting at you.) . .
I’m marked by the color of my skin.
The bullets are discrete and designed to
slowly . . .
These bullets bury deeper than
Racism is not intellectual.
I can not reason these scars away . .
Every day I am deluged with
that this is not
my land __
and this is my land . .
L.D. Cervantes I
chose to look at this particular poem by Lorna because it moves away from the
imagery she normally uses and allows her personal feelings to dominate a very
powerful poem. It seem that Cervantes is writing to whites, maybe one in
particluar. My reasoning behind this opinion is her wording, “ you don’t
believe this, but they’re not shooting at you”. Pressure against Chicanas
is everywhere, yet to those who come from different historical backgrounds
wouldn’t understand or acknowledge this pressure.
Another powerful moment in this poem is
the last three lines. Just as the land of the Aztecs was controlled by
European conquerors, it was originally their land. This confusion is one
that Cervantes wants her readers to consider. She understands what if
feels like to have something significant, (land), rules for her by some opposing
party. It is in her writing that Lorna attempts to convey this feeling to
readers. This parallels a class discussion on how women’s bodies have been
controlled throughout history. “. . . that this is not my land and this is
my land. . .”. This clearly voices a confusion about who has control over
ones’ personal property; personal property including body, mind, land and other
Their is an
interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes by Erika Krouse and Gregory Dobbin. She
is questioned about being a feminist, her indigenous language, and the feelings
that fill many of her poems.
http://www.colorado.edu/creativewriting/lornaint.html will connect you to a very
interesting and informational interview.
Emplumada was Lorna Dee Cervantes’
first published book of poetry. This publication, along with the second
volume From the Cables of Genocide, strongly established her as a voice of
Chicanas. A predominantly powerful image in Chicana poetry is the
relationship between female family members. The “grandmother image” as it
is known, shows up in a few of Cervantes’ poems.
. . . two fast
women living cheek to cheek,
still tasting the dog’s
breath of boys. . .
Their wordless tongues we stole
and tasted the power. . .
. . .We could take
something of life and not
In this poem, “ For Virginia
Chavez”, Cervantes utilizes the imagery of a home filled with women, (or just
women filling a home), and a dog as the presence of man. Though the dog’s,
with no voice, “their wordless tongues” could practice no power over the
residing females. The last few lines are saddening. The mere use of
dominance is something not often available to these Chicana women.
This is what Cervantes can finally “take . . . and not give back”. Much
like the Aztec women who served the Spaniards, control is that which is desired
and rarely attained.
Sandra Cisneros is also a
Chicana poet who grew up in poverty and was surrounded by six brothers.
This situation compelled Cisneros to books and poetry. She received her
M.A. from the writing program at the University of Iowa. Her first book,
The House on Mango Street, is considered “ an elegant literary p0iece, somewhere
between fiction and poetry,” by the author of the website, Voices from the Gaps;
women writers of color which can be viewed at : I who arrived as deliberate as
without my hat and shoes
with one rude black tatoo
and purpose as thick as pumpkin. . .
One day I’ll write my name on
as certain as a trail of bread. . .
You’ll see. You’ll see.
I will not out so easily
I was here. As loud as
As real as pebble in the shoe.
A tiger tooth. A definite
Do not erase
Like Lorna Dee Cervantes,
Cisneros focuses on implementing and being proud of her Chicana identity.
She paints the picture of a proud and unique individual; even hoping to stand
out in her racist environment.
This poem, “Tho So-and-So’s”,
begins with a proud tone. I pictured a young, rebellious girl on her first
day at a new school. In the second stanza, however, Cisneros changes her
tone a bit. She begins to identify herself as a burden to those around
her; “. . .As real as pebble in the shoe, . . .A definite voodoo”. It’s
almost as if the author is jabbing at the dominant behavior of society; she is
demanding attention that she and other Chicanas deserve. Her
self-identification gives her and Chicanas everywhere some identity to
celebrate. Uniqueness and strength characterize this ideal woman.
Cordelia Candelaria My folks planted the yerba buena
yesterday. . .
where sprigs of yerba buena swim
in teapots of boiling water, fragrant
in oceans of prose.
Cuando acabaron con el jardincito
they pulled each other up off their
arranged a few stray leaves
and looked at
This Chicana poet, Cordelia Candelaria,
uses a technique in writing not strongly used. She brings to life the
cyclical image of life through vegetation and generations of family. As a
garden planted long ago can succeed throughout the years, so as a
gene-characteristic is able to thrive through family members. Linda
Billings describes Candelaria’s technique as symbolizing “human survival and
spiritual and cultural endurance.”
another poem by Cisneros, “?Sin Raices Hay Flor?”, the author focuses more on
the lack of known and understood history of the Chicano people.
So she tried to buy one
paying dearly for fringed rugs
she hung like relic tapestries
next to Queen Anne chairs from Sears. .
One unkind day her story broke upon
suddenly-like and egg cracked
and out spilled the messy query
that left her wet with shiny tears
Without a history
hay Candelaria writes of “buying” a history
through actions such as hanging rugs characteristic of Chicanos around the
house, (not making these rugs, but rather buying them from the dominant
society). Candelaria compares the revelation of the Chicana past to the
sudden cracking of an egg. This reveals surprise and towards the end of
this poem, sadness is expressed; “. . . that left her with shiny tears”.
This poem is not written with piercing and powerful words, yet it accomplishes
that very effect. Assimilation to a society is unconcious, in this poem,
which is very interesting. Imagine a race oppressed for so long that the
offspring don’t even recognize the alterations imposed upon their
On the evening
of October 30th, I went to hear Pat Mora read at Antigone Books. Right off
the bat I felt a connection between her views and writtings to our class
discussions. Pat began by speaking of the "contact zone" here in Arizona,
being so close to the Mexico boarder. This discussion grabbed those of us in the
audience who were able to understand the enlgish/spanish language that was
Mora announced that she
would not be reading from any of her childrens' books, such as TOMAS Y LA SENORA
DE LA BIBLIOTECHA. This book was inspired by a boy named Tomas
Rivera. This boy's family took to selling articles found in the dumps to
make money. Tomas found a compelling interest in books and reading.
A librarian (La Senora de la Bibliotecha), encouraged his interest and inspired
his life. Tomas lived
to become the
Chancelor at U.C. Riverside and then died a few years ago. This childrens book
doesn't go into the details of Tomas' life, but Mora's
story of Tomas makes it clear the reason she chose to write a book
for children about such an individual.
Mora then read from her
book, AGUA SANTA (holy water). She speaks of her aunt Lobo (wolf).
The poem is about her aunt Lobos strength and personality. The line
"toungue ticking at men" was repeated throughout the poem. Pat tells a
story of being home alone with aunt Lobo and how she would make her hide from
the "bad men" looming outside the house. Aunt Lobo would go to the extreme of
dressing as a man and talking deeply by the door to give a seeming presence of
man in the house.
Next, Pat Mora shares
with us her memory of her aunt Chole. Chole was legally blind for 17 years
and at 90 years old, Mora describes her as a "triumph of female
resourcefulness". The story behing Chole is the love of a lifetime that
was never met. Chole was in love with a radio d.j. named "Jose" who calls
himself "Pepe". "Pepe" dedicates his show to Chole and the two speak over the
phone, but never meet.
AUNT CARMEN'S BOOK OF
PRACTICAL SAINTS is fiction, states Mora.
This book is arranged by months of the year,
each with its' own Saint. Pat Mora speaks of St. Anthony (Apadua) and Santa
Librada, both intriguing with wonderful stories, yet Mora's poem about St. Mary
Magdeline compelled me. Having read of St. Mary Magdeline in class gave
added clarity to Mora's interpretation. Mora describes Magdeline as a
"great sinner with a capital 's'". One line that caught my ear was about
how women "are not tangled in the myth that flesh is lethal until ment write of
you". I remember feeling that those who wrote about Mary Magdeline did so
negatively, Mora changed that. She reads about Magdelines' "fire" and how
that fire needs to be brought to places that are afraid of it. "Christ
understood the depth of your fire, admired your fire, there's sanctity in
fire". I loved this because it clashed with the common portrayal of this
Saint, who many considered a prostitute.
Although many factors have
contributed to continuing the historical subordination of the Chicana women,
these poets and writers provide a true retrospect. It is through these
poets that the Chicanas can be identified and appreciated. Much talent
successfully makes the voices of the Chicana women one to be reckoned
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