Throughout Cervantes’s poem ‘‘Freeway 280’’ is the theme of renewal. The first incident is presented in the images of the fruit trees and the wild plants that grow in the abandoned plots of land under the freeway. Though the houses have been knocked down to make way for the construction of the highway, the land remains. There are thousands of cars passing overhead, yet under the mass of concrete there exists a natural garden. The more fragile plants, like the roses, as well as the people who once lived on this land, are long gone, but the more hardy plants have risen out of the soil on their own. Rather than becoming a barren piece of land, a plot consisting only of dirt and trash, the earth has renewed itself, sending up healthy plants. These plants are even stronger than before, the speaker states. The plants are not just weeds. They are edible plants that will nourish the people who eat them. But the plants and the people who gather them are not the only form of renewal in this poem. The speaker of the poem is also renewed. She mentions the fact that at one time all she wanted to do was to run away from this piece of land. Now she has a change of mind. She wants to visit it, and she even climbs a fence to get to it. Once all she wanted to do was to be on the highway, heading in some other direction. Now she has come back to find a part of her that has been missing. She, too, wants to be renewed, like a seed that has waited a long time to sprout.
Coming of Age
Cervantes’s collection Emplumada, in which the focus poem was published, is often described as a collection of coming-of-age poems. The term coming of age suggests an attainment of maturity. When this term is applied to literature, the poem or story narrates an aspect of a young person’s life when he or she reaches a point of understanding in their transition from childhood to adulthood. Often the piece of literature focuses on a turning point. In Cervantes’s poem, this turning point is the speaker’s recognition that at one time all she wanted to do was to run away from her childhood. She disliked so much of it, even the way the neighborhood smelled. She wanted to be taken to some place that was totally unlike what her childhood represented to her. However, when she returns to the same place, even though most of her childhood neighborhood has been destroyed, she finds the beauty that remains. Even though her childhood is buried under the concrete pilings and wide expanses of highway, she finds nourishment. Now that she is beyond her childhood years, she finds that she is stronger and more capable of embracing her memories. She is able to mount the obstacles that have been placed between herself and her memories. Those memories, she finally understands, contain the unsprouted seeds of her beginnings. If she abandons those memories, as the neighborhood has been abandoned, she will have lost a part of herself. Thus, the speaker demonstrates that she has matured beyond the pain of those memories and is ready to reclaim them.
Loss and Discovery
One of the overall themes of this poem is that of loss and discovery. On the surface, the houses, the cannery, the people who have lived and worked in this neighborhood are all lost, at least from this particular scene. So, too, are the cultivated flowers. On another level, one might imagine that the relationships among the neighbors are also gone. The noises of children playing in the yards, of people walking to and from work, all the aspects of this deconstructed neighborhood remain only in memory. The speaker suggests that because the neighborhood has been destroyed, so also have some of the memories. The people who once lived there have turned their backs on the place because all that remains is a piece of land hidden under the freeway.
However, the speaker demonstrates that there is also the possibility of discovery. From a distance, all that appears to exist in this place is the freeway. Upon closer inspection, though, beyond the fences and traffic, is the land on which this neighborhood once thrived. After climbing the fence and walking upon the land, the speaker discovers that not only does the land still exist but that there is also life there. By taking the time to inspect this piece of land, the speaker stirs her memories and becomes intrigued with the possibility of discovering something new about herself.
One of the strongest themes in this poem is that of survival. There is the survival of nature, despite the neglect and a non-supportive environment. The irony in this aspect of survival is that the delicate plants, the roses and the geraniums that need constant human care, do not survive in the new, harsh conditions. These plants have been manipulated through human cultivation and have become dependent on artificial means of nourishment. Humans have to feed and protect them. The plants have been cultivated for their beauty and their aromatic scent and not for their strength. The trees, even though they too have been cultivated, are strong enough to survive because they have stronger roots. But the most self-sufficient plants are the wild ones, the ones that most people call weeds. These plants have received no human cultivation. They are strong because they have evolved over the centuries to exist in the harshest conditions. These are the purslane, the mints, and the wild spinach.
The other aspect of survival is that of the speaker. There is irony in her story, too. First, as a younger person, she thought that the only way she could survive was to head out on her own, to leave the environment in which she was living. She wanted to use the highway to run away from home. She wanted nothing to do with her home. Then, some years after her neighborhood was demolished, she returns to what is left. She even fights to overcome the barriers (the fences) that have been placed around her own neighborhood. Now that she is older, she realizes that in order to survive, she has to find pieces of herself that she discarded in this neighborhood. These pieces of herself, she is hoping, may be found in the form of seeds. A seed is a symbol of survival in that it holds the potential of growing into a new plant, or in the speaker’s case, nourishing a new or long-forgotten aspect of herself.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009