A guest post by Ph.D student Donna Maria Alexander on discovering her passion for Chicana poetry…
I first encountered the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana, Native American (Chumash), feminist, activist poet, and Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana, lesbian, feminist, activist theorist and poet, as a final year undergraduate student (BA English and Geography). I was researching an assignment for a
module on Race and Representation in 20th American Culture when I stumbled across Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in a War Between the Races.” As I read this poem, my vision of America became undone and reconstituted with a more complex understanding of issues of race, gender, class and imperialism.
The majority of my studies in American literature in terms of race had focused on African American literature, from slavery to the civil rights movement. In support of my blossoming interest the module lecturer (now one of my doctoral supervisors) recommended several texts including Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa. Through this reading I developed a strong interest in representations of political, geographical and emotional issues in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Chicana poets. Anzaldúa’s well- known description of this area became the cornerstone of my investigation:
The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds forming a third country – a border culture. Borders are set up to define places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip among a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary (25).
In these lines people become cause and effect, imbricated totally within the mechanics of Cervantes’ and Anzaldúa’s poetry introduced me to 500 years of conquest and displacement and an entire canon of literature that had not previously come under my radar as a student. Of course I knew that Columbus’ arrival to the “New World” didn’t bring the splendour and kindness that people had been originally led to believe; I knew about the onslaught of conquest, partitioning subjugation that produced the America of today. However, I had not at that point been guided by education or my own curiosity to explore this any further. In “Poem For the Young White Man” Cervantes states
Every day I am deluged with reminders
that this is not
and this is my land (36-37).
These lines express in very simple terms the complexity of imperialism experienced by Chicana/os: the confusion of displacement and nationhood paired with the desire for peace while being immersed in socio-political conflict. This tension of simultaneous belonging and exile is a compelling feature of much Chicana literary and artistic expression. The Chicana, lesbian, feminist theorist and writer, Gloria Anzaldúa states
This land was Mexican once,
was Indian always
And will be again (25).
Again we see a tension between what was, what is and what should be, according to these two writers. In addition to this, both Cervantes and Anzaldúa’s quotes display some poetic techniques that appear to be deliberate to the subject matter at hand. For example, the line breaks in both poems express a resistance to imperialism and its resultant hegemony over Chicana/os in the U.S., while the irregular layout of Anzaldúa’s quote reflects on the complexity of the socio-political situation in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.
In “Poem For the Young White Man” the phrase “my land” is given a line of its own, thus separating it from the negative “not” in the preceding line (36). So, the issue of ownership is highlighted and then reinforced by the line that follows: “and this is my land” (37). The “and” here links the two lines, while the repetition of “my land” as well as the internal rhyme with “and” strengthens Cervantes’ ideological hold over her own identity and position within the U.S. just as the final line of Anzaldúa’s quote denotes a positive movement towards indigenous autonomy of place and self.
Given that poetry, to quote Scott Griffin, “is able to deliver, with just a few lines, the full range of human emotions,” I undertook doctoral research on the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa due to the elaborate interstices and overlaps of the emotional topography of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that they construct through poetry. In return I have gained a (re)education in the history, politics, geography and literature of the Americas that in the words of Paul Jay have “multiple points of emergence that converge, clash, and reform themselves along the borders of various cultural zones” (182).
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2007. Print.
Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981. Print.
Griffin, Scott. “Poetry: Why it is Important.” Youtube. Youtube. 5 March 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
Jay, Paul. “The Myth of ‘America’ and the Politics of Location: Modernity Border Studies, and the Literature of the Americas.” Arizona Quarterly 54.2 (1998): 165-92. Print.
Donna Maria Alexander is a doctoral candidate in the School of English and Department of Hispanic Studies, University College Cork. She is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. Her core research focuses on contemporary Chicana poetry. Her broader research interests include American literature, film and television, feminism, and geography. Before undertaking her doctoral studies in 2010, Donna completed a BA in English and Geography and a MA in American Literature and Film. She has articles published in FIAR and American Studies Today and blogs at Américas Studies. Her Twitter handle is @americasstudies.