Victor Hernández Cruz

2006 EP. NO. 5

BORN INA AGUAS BUENAS, Puerto Rico, Victor Hernández Cruz moved to New York City with his family in 1954 at the age of five, where he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area of New York City dubbed “Loisaida,” for its large Puerto Rican community.

Hernández Cruz began writing at age fourteen and at the age of seventeen, self-published his first poetry collection, Papo Got His Gun! And Other Poems in 1966, using a mimeograph machine to produce copies that he distributed to local businesses and sold for seventy-five cents each. Soon after, he co-founded the East Harlem Gut Theater, a short-lived Puerto Rican collective which produced street performances. In 1967, Hernández Cruz became an editor of Umbra magazine, produced by the African American literary collective, Society of Umbra, which was founded by Tom Dent, David Henderson, Askia Touré, among others. Hernández Cruz frequently published in small literary magazines and poetry anthologies, and in 1969 moved to Berkeley, California, where he worked as a teacher in an experimental public school. In that same year, he produced his second collection of poetry, Snaps, published by Random House, which established his national reputation as a poet at 20 years old.

By the 1970s, Hernández Cruz emerged as one of the leading voices of the Nuyorican School of émigré poets. Collections from that period include Mainland (Random House, 1973) and Tropicalization (Reed, Canon & Johnson, 1976). In 1971 Hernández Cruz visited his home island of Puerto Rico and in reconnecting with this aspect of his identity, wrote the book By Lingual Wholes (Mamos Press, 1982), a poetic study of bilingualism that demonstrated his talent as an insightful critic. In 1991, his book Red Beans (Coffee House Press) received the Winner of the Publishers Weekly “Ten Best Books of the Year” Award. He went on to publish Panoramas (Coffee House Press, 1997) a book of poems, essays and stories; and Maraca, New and Selected Poems, 1966-2000 (Coffee House Press, 2001). He is currently promoting his recently published collection, The Mountain in the Sea (Coffee House Press, 2006), a strong, richly lyric synthesis of Spanish, North African, Caribbean, and North and South American cultures. Hernández Cruz’s work has been translated into Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Tagala, and Czech. While producing these rich volumes of poetry, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley and San Diego, San Francisco State College, and the University of Michigan. He would live in Morocco for some time before relocating to his hometown in Puerto Rico, where he currently resides.

His honors include a Latin American Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Scholarship and the New York Poetry Foundation award. He was a co-founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, and was featured in an interview with Bill Moyers on the PBS series “Language of Life.” Now in mid-career, he continues to surprise and inspire.

One of the great things about Hernández Cruz is that throughout his long career, his poetry has displayed a rich convergence of cultures, full of rhythm, color and local voices. His writing includes his Puerto Rican culture; his experiences in New York as a Nuyorican; living in California among Chicanos; his travels to Chicago, Detroit, and Las Vegas; and his life in Morocco, which have all been interwoven into a distinct African, Indian, Spanish Latino and Mediterranean voice that is primarily presented in an Anglo-Saxon language, English. His relationship to music: African and Caribbean rhythms, Jazz and Latin Jazz, Blues and Be-Bop, are key to his works. His influences from Islamic culture and its connections with Islam and Spain have become a growing constant in his work (for example, his book Maraca is a play on words for “Morocco”), although this aspect of his writing is often overlooked and neglected in reviews.

Much of Hernández Cruz’s work explores the relationship between the English language and his native Spanish, playing with grammatical and syntactical conventions within both languages to create his own bilingual idiom. Hernández Cruz is often associated with the Beat poets and the Umbra poets; he has been described as a surrealist poet; he has been connected to literary movements such as minimalism and concrete poetry; and he has often been identified as a political poet. Truth be told, much of his poetry becomes more interested in language itself than in reproducing the Nuyorican or even Puerto Rican speech. His poetry seems to be written in “the language of a foreign land” that here is neither the United States nor Puerto Rico.” Thus, identifying Hernández Cruz solely as a “Nuyorican” poet simply does not fit.

As a matter of fact, Hernández Cruz’s poetry has evolved from the fragmented and often violent images of urban life, experiences with drugs and existential beliefs during his youth, as portrayed in Snaps, to a dynamic and sometimes profound expression of biculturalism and bilingualism. Cosmopolitan and urban, his poetry stands without sacrificing images of Hispanic origin, culture and tradition, while at the same time, exposing and exploring other parts of self with an African-Caribbean-Mediterranean sensibility. He is the language of the urban, intellectual Latino who nevertheless cannot survive without transforming the past into the present, whose articulately persuasive humor and intelligence bear persistent witness to a meld of peoples and culture.

Last updated 2009.

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