by Roberta Gordenstein (Elms College)
I Used to be a Superwoman
by Gloria L. Velásquez
Houston: Arte Público Press, 1997; 127 pp.;
In this eloquent and eminently readable collection of poems, Gloria Velásquez, poet, novelist, and professor, expresses her desire to experience life fully, to be her own woman, even at the cost of becoming Superwoman. The cover illustration mimics the superhero comic genre by depicting a determined woman with six arms juggling domestic implements as well as her university book bag against a gigantic "S" in the background. "Superwoman Chicana," the title poem reveals the multiplicity of roles that turn her into "the super-pendeja Chicana, very very tired, oppressed and fed up." According to Velásquez, for a Hispanic woman the only way out of the barrio, the fields, or the hotel rooms is a college degree: Edúcate mujer / Adelante mujer / the future is yours. Contrary to the expectations of her machista culture, she dares to leve her husband and raise her child alone in order to get an education, thus inspiring others who fight the uphill battle for liberation.
Otherness provides the context for much of the poetry by this Mexican-American woman. Surrounded by Anglo society, marginalized by her Chicana identity, Velásquez nonetheless takes pride in her heritiage: "Children of the Sun, the earth pleasures in your burned, bronzed body. This is Aztlán / where my people were born / My ancestors didn't come on ships / across the ocean blue." Her response to the question, "Who am I?" is that she embodies all women of Hispanic heritage and history, la Malinche, la Virgen de Guadalupe, la Llorona, the undocumented woman laborer, the revolutinary Chicana, crying out for human rights and equality. The Chicana draws her strength from other female role models, the uneducated grandmother and mother who help her to survive, and Frida Kahlo, another woman who suffered for art and love.
Conflict between two opposing worlds reveals itself in the juxtapositon of elements of childhood poverty, contrasting life as a migrant laborer, "picking potatoes, straw mattress / candies, oil lamps, canvas curtains" with her "college degree, automatic dishwasher / air conditioning, iced tea." Sarcastically she elicits "those joyful days of my childhood and youth in the Fifties and the Sixties" when she "learned that Columbus discovered América and that my forefathers were Washington and Roosevelt" and laments the transformation from "verses of the soul to useless theories, bourgeois words" in "Metamorphosis at Standord." "Advice" recalls the mother who knows only the old ways and traditions and reveals the disparity between women who accepted their role and the contemporary woman who courageously affirms her own life. However, the struggle has cost her her soul and replaced her heritage with one that is foreign.
Her brother's birthday allows the author to recall the pain and anguish of his death while she expresses anger against the American flag, symbol of democracy but also the reason he died in Vietnam--"Just another pair of black shoes, Vietnam shoes, Fini's shoes stained with blood"--and so she pens a tribute to the boy whose memory pervades the collection. Velásquez also rails against the "patrocito" who controls the lives of Chicanos like a feudal lord, denigrating Hispanics, making their lives miserable, destroying the self-confidence of the young who fight so hard to succeed. Invoking the Chicano Movement with its battle for human rights, she uses poetry as a weapon, for her words to resond, her concerns to be acted upon. The final poem of the collection, "America" ironically perverts this patriotic song in a scathing indictment of California's proposition 187 which denies public education and welfare to the children of illegal immigrants.
Part autobiography, part protest literature, this cathartic and compelling volume of poems powerfully reveals the author's existential anguish--born alone, ultimately, we all die alone. The work cries out for memory, to remember those who came before, to be remembered by those who follow. This plaintive poetry poses disturbing questions as it laments the futility of the Vietnam war and the senseless death of young Chicanos who fought there. It also captures the sorrows of childhood, the burdens of womanhood, and the contrast between past and future generations--her parents' lives and her own. Accessible to both English and Spanish readers, this bilingual edition is visually enhanced by unforgettable black-and-white sketches by the author's children--haunting drawings of a young soldier superimposed on the flag, mourners over a grave, and a grim-visaged child clinging to a barbed-wire fence.
Review by Dr. William Martínez