Late-Twentieth-Century Latino and African American Literature
Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Chicano movement was developed to promote the civil rights of Mexican Americans. It flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The increasing visibility of Mexican Americans in the fabric of American life, as well as the success of the women’s movement of the 1960s and beyond, produced changes in the American literary landscape. Prior to the 1960s, the majority of the literature that was being published and taught in classrooms was written by Caucasian men. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, however, people began to recognize a need for literature written by a more diverse group of authors that would better reflect the general population of the United States. Publishing companies responded by accepting more poems and stories written by women and minorities. College courses began to spotlight these previously ignored groups.
During this period, Chicano literature also entered a new phase. Literature by Mexican Americans became more politicized, speaking to Mexican American readers, urging them to stand up and fight for their rights. The poetry of several female (Chicana) poets spoke directly to Mexican American women, giving them a new way of looking at themselves. An interest in Chicana and other multicultural literature in the 1970s, similar to the interest in feminist and African American works, inspired college-level studies. As a result, publishers began to accept poetry and stories from the viewpoint of men and women of various ethnicities. This in turn encouraged Mexican American poets such as Cervantes to submit their poetry to magazines and publishing houses.
Cervantes has stated in an interview with Sonia V. Gonzalez in MELUS that there were several writers who strongly influenced her writing. One of the most significant influences on her work while writing the poems contained in her first collection Emplumada, was the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Cervantes discovered Neruda’s poems when she was fifteen. Her brother had brought home a copy of Neruda’s ‘‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’’ and given it to her. She claims that it was the first poetry she read that spoke to her cultural experience. Most of the other poets she had read prior to Neruda were British and American poets from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Neruda (1904–1973) was an internationally acclaimed writer and the 1971 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing covered a wide range of topics from very sensual love poems to political treatises. He is often referred to as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. Neruda’s ‘‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’’ is part of the poet’s tenth book of poems, Canto General, which was published in Mexico in 1950. This collection attempts to present the history of Spanish-speaking Central and South America in poetic form. ‘‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’’ makes up the second section and contains twelve poems. Neruda was in political exile in Mexico when he wrote these poems.
Other prominent Hispanic authors of the 1970s and 1980s include Pat Mora, a prolific writer who has published poetry for adults and children. Mora’s Chants (1984) and Borders (1986) both won Southwest Books Awards. Another very successful writer is Denise Chavez, whose popular 1986 novel The Last of the Menu Girls received the Puerto del Sol Fiction Award. The first Mexican American to hold the position of chancellor at the University of California at Riverside, Toma´s Rivera was also a prominent poet and author. His most famous book was And the Earth Did Not Part (1971), which was awarded the First Quinto Sol Literary Award. Another first went to Oscar Hijuelos. He was the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given to him for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published in 1989.
Cervantes has also mentioned that she was inspired by the works of African American women who became popular during the early 1970s. She includes poet Maya Angelou, whose first work that Cervantes read was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970. Angelou’s collection of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (1971), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Angelou recited her poem ‘‘On the Pulse of Morning’’ at U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Another poet Cervantes would include in that group is Sonia Sanchez. As a teacher, playwright, and poet, Sanchez helped to develop one of the first black studies courses at San Francisco State University. Her first collection of poems, Homecoming was published in 1969. Her most recent collection, Homegirls and Handgrenades (2007), won the National Book Award. One other black female author who influenced Cervantes was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000). Her famous works include A Street in Bronzeville (1945), her first published collection of poems, which brought her immediate fame. Following this was Annie Allen (1950) and We Real Cool (1966), among other publications.
California Freeway 280
The 280 Interstate highway in California extends between San Jose and San Francisco and is often mentioned as one of the most scenic highways in the world. The roadway is fifty-seven miles long and begins at U.S. 101 in San Jose and ends near the baseball park of the San Francisco Giants. The freeway was built in the 1950s and was named the Junipero Serra Freeway.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009