Chicana Poets, and their Poetry

Chicana/Aztec Herstory

     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.
     According 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 ideals.
     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.

Chicana Poetry
Lorna Dee Cervantes
     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 close descendants.
 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 kill
slowly . . .
These bullets bury deeper than logic.
Racism is not intellectual.
I can not reason these scars away . . .
Every day I am deluged with reminders
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 such things.
     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. 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
give it back.         __

     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


     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 :
     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.

I who arrived as deliberate as Tuesday
without my hat and shoes
with one rude black tatoo
and purpose as thick as pumpkin. . .
One day I’ll write my name on everything
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 trumpet.
As real as pebble in the shoe.
A tiger tooth.  A definite voodoo.
Do not erase me.        __
S.  Cisneros

     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
     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.”

My folks planted the yerba buena
yesterday. . .
where sprigs of yerba buena swim greenly
in teapots of boiling water, fragrant haikus
in oceans of prose.
Cuando acabaron con el jardincito
they pulled each other up off their knees,
arranged a few stray leaves
and looked at me.       __
C.  Candelaria
    In another poem by Cisneros, “?Sin Raices Hay Flor?”, the author focuses more on the lack of known and understood history of the Chicano people.
  No history
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 her
suddenly-like and egg cracked sharply-
and out spilled the messy query
that left her wet with shiny tears
 Without a history
     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 culture.

        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 utilized.
        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 with.

This page last updated: 03/01/2018