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Contemporary Chicana Poetry : A CRITICAL APPROACH TO AN EMERGING LITERATURE by Marta Ester Sanchez (University of California: $32.50; 377 pp.)

December 29, 1985|Jack Schmitt | Schmitt is a professor of Latin American literature at Cal State Long Beach whose latest work is a translation of Pablo Neruda's "Art of Birds" (University of Texas Press, 1985). and

Many residents of Southern California remember the excitement generated by Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" (1978). Few are aware that Valdez is just one of an entire generation of writers of Mexican descent who have produced, since their emergence in the 1960s and 1970s, an impressive body of literature.

In this landmark, in-depth study on Chicana writers, Marta Ester Sanchez focuses on the poetic texts of Alma Villanueva, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Lucha Corpi and Bernice Zamora, four women whose lives and works give an idea of the wide range of sociocultural positionings that make up the label Chicana, which refers here to women of Mexican heritage who live and write in the United States.

Sanchez, who views the works of these women "as strategies for articulating a sense of self arising from their conflicting social situation as women and as minority writers," shows how the tensions and conflicts evident in Chicana poetry reflect the dilemmas of the poets' dual relationship to American and Mexican societies (an English-speaking Anglo-American tradition, and a Spanish-speaking Mexican-Chicano tradition), and of their identities as Chicanas and women caught between the struggle of the Chicano ethnic group for cultural determination, on the one hand, and on the other, the women's movement, primarily white and middle class.

I would agree with Sanchez that gender and culture are embedded in language, and she offers numerous, excellent examples to illustrate her point. But she is also given to making unqualified inferences or generalizations that cannot be substantiated. Two examples will suffice. When Bernice Zamora refers to her abuelos ' mountain in her poem "Andando," Sanchez infers that Zamora's choice of the masculine form "indicates that she sees the culture as masculine." But abuelos means "grandparents" as well as grandfathers, just as my hermanos can mean my brothers and sisters or my hijos my sons and daughters.

Sanchez states that she is "careful not to propose an ideal model by which to judge the success or failure of their poetic texts," but in dodging the bullet of qualitative criteria, she avoids judging the relative merits of these poems as poems , and there are definitely differences among the works she studies. All four of them are "outstanding Chicanas," whereas Robinson Jeffers is judged to be "a minor poet in the canons of American literary taste," "a minor regional author."

The fact that Sanchez gives too much attention to the sociocultural, as opposed to the formal aspects of the works she analyzes, leads to a number of problems. If poems are judged for their successful resolution of conflict or for their effectiveness as social criticism, then Lucha Corpi's poetry would have to be judged less successful; but it is precisely because of the sublimation of her sexuality and passion, the irresolution of her conflicts, that her poetry communicates such an anguished and poignant sense of loss, of loneliness and abandonment. Corpi would have to be considered a major woman poet in her native Mexico, and it is unfortunate that the translations of her work are often clumsy (an observation tactfully relegated to a footnote). Although the poems of Corpi, written in Spanish and steeped as they are in Mexican history, culture, myth and folklore, require the lengthy and interesting exegeses they are given by Sanchez, the poems of Villanueva and Cervantes, simple in structure and transparent in meaning, are often smothered in unnecessarily lengthy textual explications.

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