Through the Eyes of Victor Hernandez Cruz
Immigration remains a controversial and highly debated topic in the United States. Parties continuously bicker over the correct policies and procedures regarding immigrants; many politicians, and citizens have strong opinions regarding immigration. However, many people lack experiences as immigrants, although the United States remains no stranger to immigration, as it was founded by immigrants. Award-winning poet Victor Hernandez Cruz often composed poems based around his experiences of immigration, and blending cultures. Cruz began life in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, and at five he moved to New York City with his family. Cruz began learning English at seven years old by watching television, and he often writes poems in both English and Spanish. He began writing poetry around the age of fifteen, and in 1966, Cruz self-published his first book at seventeen years old. Cruz explains his fascination with poetry in his teen years: “to balance a lot of worlds together… the culture of my parents and the new and modern culture of New York, its architecture, its art, and its fervent intellectual thought” (Esteves). Cruz relocated his life to San Francisco in the 1970s, where he surfaced in the Nuyorican art movement. This movement highlighted the political, economic, and social struggles of Puerto Rican immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of Cruz’s work tinkered with the syntax of both the English and Spanish languages; he created his own bilingual patois. In a 1990 interview, Cruz remarked that his preeminent concerns include “the history of immigration in a world-wide sense; the idea of civilization coming into other civilizations” (Victor Hernandez Cruz, Poetry Foundation). Victor Hernandez Cruz uses poetry to express notions idiosyncratic with Nuyorican works: society, culture, and immigration.
Victor Hernandez Cruz also uses his poetry to challenge societal notions. The idea that things are not always what they seem appears as a common motif in Cruz’s work. One of his most famous poems, “The Problem With Hurricanes,” exemplifies this through a somewhat humorous dialect. This poem examines what society fears, and creates a humorous enigma. It takes the common social belief that the wind and water of a hurricane present the greatest danger, and twists it entirely, instead stating that one should fear the insidious plants that appear innocent and mild in nature. This whimsical paradox between delicious fruit and instant death perpetuate a motif that everything is not as it seems; a storm can manipulate something as frivolous as fruit into an instrument of death. First, the speaker of the poem, a campesino, or farmer, is significant to the poem. As a farmer, the speaker knows the real spur, and unpredictability of nature. Throughout the poem, the campesino hyperbolizes the power of fruit, but by doing so brings an often neglected point into focus; society fears the strong winds, water, and noise of hurricanes, when in fact they should avoid things that most perceive as harmless. The final lines of the poem further perpetuate Cruz’s idea that the beautiful, harmless this in life can become one’s downfall.
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In these lines, the campesino communicates that the dangers of life often appear as simple things. The elements of life that seem marvelous and beautiful often pose great danger. Critic Camden Loesner comments: “For example, furthering the use of fruit as a symbol, the apple that kills Snow White is another effective metaphor. The young princess knows the fruit to be of good flavor and so bites into it, but the succulent food proves to be a demon made to take her life” (Loesner). The hyperbole of the powerful fruit perpetuates itself in the first stanza of the poem: “It’s the mangoes, avocados,/green plantains and bananas/flying into town like projectiles.” This simile conjures an image of murderous fruit zooming through the air like weapons. The simile over inflates the heinousness of the fruit and initiates the imagery that Cruz uses to characterize the plants. Further, the campesino adds that society sees death by fruit as a dishonor, almost unacceptable; for this reason, he believes that individuals factors such as wind and water for the deaths of others.
Cruz’s belief comes to light through the personification of the wind, as he claims that the wind picking someone up and slamming them against a boulder would carry no shame. In “The Problem With Hurricanes,” Cruz exemplifies the idea that things are not always what they seem through his hyperbole of killer fruit; he also perpetuates the idea that it’s not always the big scary things that pose danger. From Victor Hernandez Cruz’s point of view, one should never take outward appearances for granted, as they may create a deceptive impression. This idea most likely echoes Cruz’s experience as an immigrant. His culture, along with others, remained marginalized for decades. Society often judged Cruz and many others based on their appearances. Cruz communicates in his poem “The Problem With Hurricanes” that the overlooked or dismissed can hold great power.
Cruz also provided a window into the streets of New York, and the cultures among them with the poem “Lower East Side of Manhattan.” He often writes from an observational point of view, and this poem does not disregard that style. Critic Rigoberto Gonzalaz explains, “… readers will see the indelible fingerprint of Whitman. Like Whitman’s ‘Mannahatta,’ this poem offers a breathless tour of the cultural, linguistic, and physical landscapes of the city—the Lower East Side itself as a city within the greater Manhattan…” Cruz uses this exploration of the lower east side to emphasize the cultural diversity that The Lower East Side of Manhattan became rich within the early to mid 20th century, as well as the struggles faced by these immigrants. The majority of immigrants that entered New York in the early 1900s settled in crowded tenants in The Lower East Side. The living conditions in the “slums” strayed far from ideal; buildings quickly became crowded and underkept. The cultures of the Lower East Side had settled into somewhat homogenous enclaves, primarily cleft into Jewish, German, Italian, Latin American, Polish, Russian, and Eastern European cultures (Lower East Side). Cruz begins his poem by painting an image of the housing projects along the East River. He imiediatly references the Latin and Afro cultures with the line “Johnny Pacheco/Wilson Pickett”; Pacheco, famous for his cuban music, and Pickett famous for making Soul and R&B music. Then he continues, wisping the reader past the now famous Katz’s Delicatessen with the lines “past the bites of pastrami/Sandwiches in Katz’s.” This references the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, as pastrami became a popular product sold in New York’s kosher delis, such as Katz’s. Cruz continues describing the Jewish neighborhood in further detail, referencing a common Jewish tradition.
These lines scream of the struggle that many immigrants faced after settling in America. Immigrants came to the city but struggled to make ends meet, fighting against the vacuum sucking them into failure. Illuded by the tales of wealth and prosperity, they struggle to grasp the American dream, instead, they become swallowed up by the city. Cruz makes it seem as though they vanish forever as the city chews them up and swallows them with the lines “the pavement had mouths/that ate them.” Finally, Victor Hernandez Cruz parallels himself to the Jewish community with the final three lines: “I too/Henry Roth/ ‘Call It Sleep.” Cruz mentions a novel of a young boy growing up Jewish on the Lower East Side. According to critic Rigoberto Gonzalaz, Cruz is saying, “I too have traveled the difficult path toward becoming an American.” Cruz uses imagery to take the reader on a tour of the Lower East Side. On this journey, he paints Manhattan as its own city within New York City, each culture with its own little burrow. The reader sees a diverse group of cultures existing side by side, each unique in its own way.Victor Hernandez Cruz demonstrates their struggles in the city as immigrants, as they avoid the gaping mouth of the pavement.
Victor Hernandez Cruz also uses imagery and symbolism to weave a tale of different cultures into his poetry. In the poem “Red Beans,” he artistically inspires effective images of a meal of red beans and rice, and how the food marries as someone consumes it. Cruz begins by establishing two colors: rice as white as snow, and what the reader can assume coral colored red beans. White resembles virginity, pristineness, innocence, goodness, and purity. Cruz uses white to represent a pure, untouched existence. With Cruz’s writing style in mind, this most likely represents Puerto Rico, prior to its colonization by Europe. In contrast, red signifies blood and fire; it coincides with danger, war, power, and strength. In this poem, the red beans metaphorically represent an overwhelming, powerful, dangerous force, such as the conquistadors and colonizers that surmounted Puerto Rico. In the third stanza, “Azucenas being chased by/the terra cotta feathers/of a rooster,” creates a powerful image. Cruz furthers his motif of purity with images of “azucenas,” more commonly known as white lilies, which symbolizes chastity and virtue.
Roosters symbolize dominance and arrogance. As Cruz suggests the roosters chase the lilies, he begins to illustrate the actions of the settlers to the aboriginal Indians of Puerto Rico. Further in “Red Beans” Cruz writes, “India red/spills on ivory.” Ivory, once again, clearly represents the pure, valuable, pristine island of Puerto Rico. However, India red has very specific color qualities. The name India red comes from the red soil found in India. This unique soil gets its pigment from naturally occurring iron oxides. Similarly, human blood gets its red color from iron oxides. Combined with the word “spills,” one can infer that Cruz refers to the bloodshed and struggle faced by the people indigenous to Puerto Rico during its colonization. He continues with images of “ochre cannon balls,” clearly alluding to the battle to conquer the island. The last two stanzas exemplify how the European and the aboriginal Indian cultures fused to make something new. “Red beans and milk/make burgundy wine,” begins to bring harmony to the conclusion of the poem. As the person eating a meal of red beans and rice finishes, they wash it down with a glass of milk. This stanza brings a sense of unity to the poem. The two separate colors, red and white, have now made one thing. It whispers the idea that although every human has different ideas and lifestyles, everyone ends up in the same place. In this case, the red beans and rice had different characteristics, but their journey concluded in the same location. The final stanza introduces violet, a new color to the poem. This new color suggests that the two metaphorical cultures, represented by white and red, have come together to make something new. “Red Beans” creates a metaphor in which Cruz paints Puerto Rico’s colonization in a different light.
Cruz focuses many of his poems on the history of immigration. He recognizes the way in which immigration transforms communities. “El Poema de lo Reverso” exemplifies Cruz’s stylistic use of poetic devices, while referencing early immigration to Puerto Rico. He writes using colorful rhythms and images, creating an intimate connection between the reader and the poet. Cruz cuts images and ideas into fragments, then unifies them in a fashion that inspires a vast image, which gives the reader a greater context, done in an artistic fashion, so that each piece relates and connects to another. The poem begins by using palm trees and mangoes, effortlessly referencing the tropics, and placing the reader in what one can safely assume as Cruz’s homeland of Puerto Rico. He continues by connecting the mango, a symbol of the tropics, to “the eyes of Indian women.” This refers to aboriginal Indian people who populated the island of Puerto Rico antecedent to Columbus, Spanish conquistadors, and the colonization of North America (Rivera). Cruz likely used these specific women as a representation of Puerto Rico’s working class. Women such as these would plant seeds that would eventually develop into abundant fruit trees. Cruz connects the seed of the mango, the origin of the fruit, to the eye of the one who planted it. Critic Jenny Bhatt comments on this connection: “Cruz alludes to what is often referred to as the ‘faith of the farmer’ – that the sowing of seeds will eventually yield life and growth, despite the many possibilities of destruction” (Bhatt). The poem continues pulling the reader further back in time when instead of cement, wood dominated the architecture. “Panama hats are seen on skeletons/walking the plazas,” creates a cinematic image while transporting the reader further back in time as it uses Panama hats to reference the colonization that began after Christopher Columbus’ second voyage.
Although the Panama hats originated in Ecuador, the Europeans promptly adapted them as headgear when they began to colonize the tropics (Black). The reader falls further back in time as Cruz paints an image of three ships receding into the horizon. This most likely references Columbus’ second voyage. On this voyage, he aimed to conquer the Taíno tribe, the aboriginal Indians of Puerto Rico, and colonize the island (Christopher Columbus- 2nd Voyage). The voyage deeply impacted Puerto Rico socio-culturally, economically, racially, and politically. Cruz lingers on this voyage in many of his works. Cruz continues the poem by exploring the early lives of the settlers. He takes them back to their hometowns, and their infancy. Eventually diminishing them to flirtatious glances exchanged between their parents. The lines “Clutching a pound of bread/through a busy plaza” likely refers to a meal purchased and eaten by the parents of the settlers. Before the couple can live, eat, and have children together, they must have a bond through marriage, as Cruz signifies the ceremony with “the sound of church bells/in reverberation.” Cruz uses the last line of the poem as a significant metaphor.
“In reverberation” not only allows the reader to hear the reverberation of church bells but demonstrates how the ringing of those bells culminated to much larger events throughout history. Critic Jenny Bhatt elaborates: “Cruz is using a rather popular fictional trope – the butterfly effect in chaos theory. This is defined as ‘the sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ in which a small change in one place (i.e. a butterfly flapping its wings) can result in large differences in a later state (i.e. a hurricane that occurs several weeks later)” (Bhatt). In the case of the poem, the butterfly becomes the church bells ringing, and the hurricane becomes the extreme, deep-cutting and long- lasting socio-cultural, economic, political, and racial effects from the conquering and colonization of Puerto Rico. Cruz arranges fragments of images to inspire the reader with literary illustrations that reverse time, amplifying the changes immigration can bring to a nation. Each image that Cruz creates in this poem plays a vital part in the message; each image fits together like a stained glass mosaic, telling the story of Puerto Rico. With this poem, Victor Hernandez Cruz encourages the reader to remember where they came from, to keep in mind one’s history and how it shapes the future, and to embrace that migration fosters the evolution of the human race.
Victor Hernandez Cruz rose as a strong voice in the Nuyorican movement. His poetry expressed many ideas distinct to the Nuyorican movement. He uses a layer of humor in “The Problem With Hurricanes” to communicate that things are not always what they seem; judging something based on its outward appearance may have dangerous consequences, for the overlooked can hold great power. Readers embark on a tour, exposing themselves to the daily struggles of immigrants in New York City, in Cruz’s poem “The Lower East Side of Manhattan.”
“Red Beans” invites the reader to a meal of red beans and rice, while metaphorizing the cultural discourse and consequential harmony in Puerto Rico. His poem “El Poema de lo Reverso” uses fragmented images, put together like stained glass, to communicate the idea that the smallest of events can have a large impact worldwide. His journey as an immigrant and his cultural experience have immensely impacted his poetry. As an outcome, Victor Hernandez Cruz uses his poetry to express ideas focused on society, culture, and immigration.