Cervantes’s poem ‘‘Freeway 280,’’ like the other poems in her collection Emplumada, focuses on the coming-of-age process. Knowing this, readers can imagine a young girl surveying a special section of her old neighborhood, describing what was there when the speaker of this poem was a child as well as what is there now. The speaker describes not only the landscape as she sees it but also the elements and forces of this special place that have formed her. The poem is about place as well as the speaker’s personal development.
The speaker begins by letting the reader know that the neighborhood is not a place where well-to-do families live. The houses that were once there were small, a fact that the poet conveys by the use of a Spanish word. There also used to be industry nearby, which implies two things. Houses built near industrial areas are usually occupied by people who have little wealth. This particular industry was a cannery, which the speaker describes only with the color gray, like a tin can. It is also possible that the small houses were inhabited by the workers at the cannery. The images that are presented in the first three lines are neither rich nor oppressive in tone. The effect that is created is neutral, similar to the color gray. The one touching element of these lines is the descriptions of the flowers that grew in the yards of these small homes. These flowers, unlike the weeds that have taken their place, required human care. The cultivated plants such as roses and geraniums did not grow in the wild. The presence of the flowers indicates that someone once took the time to feed, to trim, and to water them. This tender visual image might represent the pleasant memories that the speaker had of her childhood.
The tone changes, however, in the next two lines. Here the speaker informs readers that all that she has mentioned—the houses, the cannery, the cultivated flowers—are gone now. In their place is a freeway, a mass of concrete that hides the place that once was her neighborhood. What is left of the landscape is buried under the elevated ramps and roadways.
In the second stanza, the poem’s tone changes again. Despite the freeways and the cars that go whizzing by, creating a manmade sound of wind, life still exists. Though the land beneath the freeway has been deserted, plants have managed to grow. The speaker names the plants and suggests that they still remember when houses were there and people used to work in their gardens. The plants that rise out of the earth in search of the sun, the speaker says, are even stronger than before. Though they are not the roses and geraniums of the cultivated garden, they are the survivors; many of them are what people refer to as weeds. Also, there are still trees that continue to bear fruit. There are apricot, cherry, and walnut trees. There are also wild mustard plants, spinach, mint, and purslane (a wild, edible green). Though the fields look abandoned, there are still old women who go there. The women know the worth of this rich source of nutrition, and they collect the food in their bags.
In the third stanza, the speaker uses the personal pronoun ‘‘I.’’ Now she is no longer just describing the scene, she is entering the poem and taking action. She climbs the wire fence that runs around the field. As she does so, she reveals that she once lived in this place, and she remembers that there was a time in her life when all she wanted to do was leave it. So it seems ironic to her that she is now working her way back in. There was a time when all she wanted was to be on the freeway that now arches over her head. She wanted to go to someplace else. She liked the straight lines of the highway that would take her from one point to another. She longed for the discipline of the tight lanes in which she would be forced to stay. She was tired of the sun and heat, the smells of the cannery, and the depressingly stale air of her neighborhood (or of her life as a teenager). In contrast now, she wonders why she is enjoying her return.
The speaker answers this question in the fourth and final stanza. She realizes that she is looking for something in what she refers to, in Spanish, as the strange fields of the city. What she is looking for is a missing part of herself. She does not define this missing portion, but she believes it is in that field under the freeway, in that old neighborhood where she once lived. This missing part of her was cut down, maybe just like the houses were knocked down or maybe just as the old cultivated flowers were neglected. That portion of her, the speaker suggests, could be dead and buried. But in the last line of the poem, the speaker confesses that she holds out hope. Maybe that part is not dead. Maybe it is contained inside a seed, a seed that might be planted and renewed.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009