Lorna Dee Cervantes’ poem, “Poema para los Californios Muertos” (“Poem for the Dead Californios”), is a commentary on what happened to the original inhabitants of California when California was still Mexico, and an address to the speaker’s dead ancestors. Utilizing a unique dynamic, consistently alternating between Spanish and English, Cervantes accurately represents the fear, hatred, and humility experienced by the “Californios” through rhythm, arrangement, tone, and most importantly, through use of language. Many times readers do not grasp a strong sense of the meaning or provocation of a poem simply through its title.
However, the title “Poema para los Californios Muertos”, translated to “Poem from the dead Californios”, enables readers to immediately understand that this poem addresses the injustice experienced by California’s original inhabitants at the hands of the Americans who invaded it and claimed it as their own. This particular poem consists of four parts and two main areas of focus. One is the speaker’s interpretation of present-day California, which she expounds upon in the first and forth parts, and her present thought process occurring in the second and third parts, in which she addresses her ancestors and her own pain.
Though each part holds its own significance and brings its own unique element to the poem, they are correlated heavily by the tone of aggression and rage portrayed by the reader. In the first part of the poem, in which the speaker is addressing the state of this modern California and the hatred she feels for the people who have created it, Cervantes uses several words such as “cuts”, “cesarean”, “fertile”, “bastard”, and “raped” to portray a feeling of a corrupted innocence. California represents this child that has been stolen from “los madres” (the mothers) and the “husbands de la tierra, tierra la madre” (husbands of mother earth).
It is not the land’s fault that it has been lost, but it is nevertheless darkened by its new inhabitants and the memory of degradation and pain of her ancestors. The forth part brings forth a new type of diction with words such as “bitter antiques” and “remnants” to represent that this is all that remains of California’s original people, and in the final lines, “pungent odor of crushed eucalyptus” and “the pure scent of rage” paint for us an entirely different image than any of the other parts.
Smell is an extremely powerful sense, and by using these phrases with ghastly connotations, Cervantes increases the level of guilt and sympathy felt by the reader. A strong irony in the forth part consists of coupling beautiful things such as a blue jay and crushed eucalyptus, which should connote for us happiness, with pungent odors and shrieking, which steal that false sense of happiness. Furthermore, this irony creates for readers their own personal sense of loss by imagining something so happy as a blue jay making a horrific shriek or of something so sweet as eucalyptus smelling rotten.
Through this, Cervantes has distributed to her readers some of the pain felt by the Mexican people. The middle of the poem, consisting of parts two and three, make up the second focal point of the poem, in which the speaker addresses her ancestors, her own anguish concerning the loss of California as it once was, and reaches the climax of the poem in which she reveals herself as the “hija pobrecita” (Poor daughter) cursing the ghosts of the white people who stole California. The only hint of vulnerability we perceive from the speaker is found within the second and third parts.
She is desperate for peace and longing to make known her ancestors memories. The most important aspect that differentiates this poem from many others is the dramatic use of dual language. Because many readers must use the translated notes to understand the Spanish portions of the poem, it requires them to deeply consider the speaker’s connotations. Many readers will not realize Cervantes’ intentional placement of the Spanish portions. Stanzas one, two, and three begin in English and end in Spanish.
However, stanza four begins in English and ends in English with only one line in the middle consisting of Spanish. Though it is overlooked, this tactic offers a path upon which the subconscious may embark. To the speaker, California has been overrun and forever changed by the white people, represented by English. The single Spanish line is a representation of the speaker herself and exemplifies how truly lost she feels in this place. “Poema para los Californios Muertos” is a prime example of the importance of a dynamic use of language and the strength it brings to a poem when utilized to its full potential.