Chicano Poetry

The 1960s and 70s saw the birth of the Chicano movement, an artistic, social, and political movement that empowered young Mexican Americans. This movement also saw an explosion in the production of Chicano literature and poetry, and young Chicano poets used their poetry as a form of political protest and as a tool to shape the movement’s identity. Today, Chicano writers continue to make important contributions to American poetry.

Chicano Poetry Chicano Poetry

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Table of contents

    Poetry in the Chicano Movement

    Chicano culture in the United States can trace its roots back to 1848 when Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago. This treaty ended the Mexican-American war and left the United States in possession of a large swath of formerly Mexican territories, including many of the modern-day southwestern and western states. Cordelia Candelaria, the author of Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction (1986), calls the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago “as significant as the Declaration of Independence” to Chicanos.

    This new division of territory meant that approximately 80,000 Mexicans found themselves living in the United States overnight. These individuals could become American citizens or move South to the other side of the newly drawn border. Nearly 90% of Mexicans decided to remain, and they began constructing a new culture distinct from Mexican and American cultures.

    Chicano poetry, map of Mexico and the United States, StudySmarterA map of Mexico and the United States from 1847.

    The term Chicano originated as a derogatory slur directed towards these Mexican Americans. In the 1950s and 60s, young Mexican Americans reclaimed the term as a way of celebrating their own cultural identity and resisting assimilation into white American culture.

    The 1960s and 70s saw an explosion of Chicano intellectual activity, including the popularization of Chicano literature and poetry. Also key to the Chicano movement, was political activism, especially in the realm of workers’ rights, and organizations such as the United Farmworkers Union were founded.

    This environment of heightened social and political awareness gave rise to Chicano literature and poetry. Prior to the mid-1960s, Chicano writers had been producing and publishing poetry in both English and Spanish for many years. However, in the 1960s, Chicano poetry became widely read and distributed for the first time, elevating its importance in the Chicano community and in the construction of Chicano identity.

    The first wave of Chicano poetry was made up of mostly male poets, including Ricardo Sánchez (1941-1995), Abelardo Barrientos Delgado (1931-2004), and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (1928-2005).

    While the Chicano movement empowered the Chicano community and brought more social and political visibility, the movement was very male-centered and influenced by machismo, and women often remained oppressed and excluded.

    By the mid-1970s, Chicana women had begun to challenge these notions and insert their own voices into the growing body of Chicano poetry. Writers and intellectuals like Gloria Anzaldua (1942-2004) pioneered the study of queer and feminist theory in the Chicano community, and poets such as Sandra Cisneros (1954-present) and Marcela Christine Lucero-Trujillo questioned traditional gender roles.

    Moving into the 21st century, a new generation of poets, including Sara Borjas and Yosimar Reyes, have continued the radical tradition of Chicano poetry, using their words to draw attention to today’s most important political and social issues and elevating marginalized voices.

    Chicano Poetry: Famous Poets

    Some famous writers of Chicano poetry include Ricardo Sánchez, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Sandra Cisneros.

    Ricardo Sánchez (1941-1995)

    Born in El Paso, Texas, and the youngest of thirteen children, Ricardo Sánchez would go on to become one of the founders of Chicano poetry. Sánchez showed an interest in poetry from a young age but received little support from his teachers and family because he was Mexican. In 1960, Sánchez was convicted of armed robbery and served several years in prison. After finishing his sentence, Sánchez secured a journalism fellowship that allowed him to move to Richmond, Virginia.

    In Richmond, Sánchez found that he could relate to the struggles that he saw African Americans facing, struggles similar to those he had seen his Mexican American community face growing up. This inspired Sánchez’s poetry, including his best-known collection, Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion/The Liberation of a Chicano Mind (1970).

    Sánchez eventually earned a Ph.D. from the Union Institute in Cincinnati and became a tenured professor at Washington State University.

    Juan Felipe Herrera (1948-present)

    Juan Felipe Herrera was born to a family of migrant farmworkers in Fowler, California, in 1948. He studied social anthropology at the University of California and Stanford University during the 1970s, where he became immersed in the Chicano Movement. He published his first collection of poetry, Rebozos of Love, in 1974 and has since gone on to publish more than twenty books, including young adult novels, children’s books, poetry collections, and essays.

    Chicano poetry, San Joaquin Valley, StudySmarterHerrera grew up in the fields of the San Joaquín Valley.

    Herrera has taught at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, California State University, Fresno, and California State University, Riverside. He has also served as the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and was the first Chicano poet to serve as the US poet laureate.

    Sandra Cisneros (1954-present)

    Sandra Cisneros is a key figure in Chicano literature. Her novel, The House on Mango Street (1984), was one of the first Chicano books to gain mainstream success and is still read in classrooms around the country. However, Cisneros thought of herself as a poet long before she became well-known as a novelist.

    Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros resisted the expectations of her Mexican-American parents, insisting on living alone and pursuing her writing instead of getting married and becoming a mother. Her first chapbook, Bad Boys, was published in 1980, followed by My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987) and Loose Woman (1994).

    Most recently, Cisneros published her first collection of poetry in twenty-eight years, Woman Without Shame (2022).

    Chicano Poetry: Key Books

    Some key books of Chicano poetry include Here Lies Lalo: The Collected Poems of Abelardo Delgado, Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind by Ricardo Sánchez, and My Wicked Wicked Ways by Sandra Cisneros.

    Here Lies Lalo: The Collected Poems of Abelardo Delgado (2011)

    Abelardo Barrientos Delgado was one of the key figures in the early Chicano moment. In his obituary, The New York Times referred to him as “one of the grandfathers of the Chicano literary renaissance,”1 and his combination of poetry and activism inspired a generation of Chicano writers. During his lifetime, Delgado wrote and self-published fourteen volumes of poetry, none of which are still in print. Here Lies Lalo unites work from five of these previously published volumes, making Delgado's poetry available to mainstream readers for the first time.

    Many of the poems contained in the collection are protest poems that denounce the suffering and discrimination that Chicano people face. However, much of Delgado's work also celebrates Chicano land, history, and traditions.

    Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind (1971) by Ricardo Sánchez

    Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind was Ricardo Sánchez’s first published book. It was one of the first examples of the protest poetry that would come to define the Chicano movement and cemented Sánchez’s reputation as one of the founders of Chicano poetry. The collection was released in 1971, one year after Sánchez was released from prison for armed robbery. His poems, which deal with themes of freedom, liberation, and the Chicano experience, are known for their angry demands for cultural justice.

    My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987) by Sandra Cisneros

    Sandra Cisneros’ first full-length collection of poetry, My Wicked Wicked Ways, was published in 1987 and helped to establish her as one of the key women working in Chicano literature. Like Cisneros’ other work, much of the poetry in My Wicked Wicked Ways focuses on women’s experiences, particularly defying the expectations of traditional gender roles. She writes about love, loneliness, and her experiences navigating the world as a single Chicana woman.

    Chicano Poetry: Examples of Poems

    One classic example of Chicano poetry is “I Am Joaquin” (1967) by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales.

    Yo soy Joaquín,

    perdido en un mundo de confusión:

    I am Joaquín, lost in a world of confusion,

    caught up in the whirl of a gringo society,

    confused by the rules, scorned by attitudes,

    suppressed by manipulation, and destroyed by modern society.

    My fathers have lost the economic battle

    and won the struggle of cultural survival.

    And now! I must choose between the paradox of

    victory of the spirit, despite physical hunger,

    or to exist in the grasp of American social neurosis,

    sterilization of the soul and a full stomach.

    Yes, I have come a long way to nowhere,

    unwillingly dragged by that monstrous, technical,

    industrial giant called Progress and Anglo success....

    I look at myself.

    I watch my brothers.

    I shed tears of sorrow. I sow seeds of hate.

    I withdraw to the safety within the circle of life --

    MY OWN PEOPLE” -“I Am Joaquín”

    “I Am Joaquín” (Yo soy Joaquín) is an epic Chicano poem written in Spanish by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and translated by Juanita Dominguez. It was one of the earliest poems produced in the Chicano movement, published in 1967, and has been widely studied.

    In the poem, the speaker describes the struggles that he and other Chicanos face in the United States. It discusses the tension Chicanos experience trying to assimilate into the Anglo-American culture while still trying to keep their own culture intact. The speaker traces his own heritage by drawing on Mexican and Mexican American history to illustrate a collective and united Chicano identity.

    Chicano Poetry: Key Themes and Quotes

    Some of the key themes in Chicano poetry are borders, the construction of Chicano identity, and political activism.

    Borders

    Physical, social, and cultural borders are key themes in much of Chicano poetry.

    Across the border in Mexico

    stark silhouette of houses gutted by waves,

    diffs crumbling into the sea,

    silver waves marbled with spume

    gashing a hole under the border fence. -Borderlands/La Frontera (The Homeland, Aztlán)

    Although not strictly known as a poet, Gloria Anzaldúa was one of the most significant writers and theorists of the Chicano movement. Her best-known work Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), is a semi-autobiographical mix of essay and poetry in Spanish and English that explores issues of gender, race, and sexuality in the Chicano and Latino experience. Borders and border theory make up a key part of her text and are essential to defining Chicano identity.

    Chicano poetry, Southwestern landscape, StudySmarterThe borderlands of the Southern United States often appear in Chicano poetry.

    Anzaldúa and other Chicano writers often write about the physical border between the United States and Mexico but also explore other borders that separate individuals along the line of race, gender, and ethnicity.

    Chicano Identity

    Many works of Chicano poetry deal with the construction of Chicano identity.

    Here I stand,

    Poor in money,

    Arrogant with pride,

    Bold with machismo,

    Rich in courage

    And

    Wealthy in spirit and faith.

    My knees are caked with mud.

    My hands calloused from the hoe. I have made the Anglo rich,

    Yet

    Equality is but a word–

    The Treaty of Hidalgo has been broken

    And is but another treacherous promise.

    My land is lost

    And stolen,

    My culture has been raped.

    I lengthen the line at the welfare door

    And fill the jails with crime.” -“I Am Joaquín”

    This example comes from “I Am Joaquín” by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales, one of the most famous works of Chicano poetry. The poem outlines how Chicano identity has been constructed throughout history by outlining key historical moments.

    Political Activism

    Chicano poetry is known for its tendency toward protest poetry.

    stupid america, hear that chicano

    shouting curses on the street

    he is a poet

    without paper and pencil

    and since he cannot write

    he will explode.” -“Stupid America”

    “Stupid America” (1969) is one of Abelardo Delgado’s most famous poems. It deals with America’s perception of Chicano people and their lack of opportunities. Delgado expresses his anger and frustration at the oppression and racial discrimination in the United States.

    Chicano Poetry - Key Takeaways

    • Chicano poetry developed during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s.
    • Some famous writers of Chicano poetry include Ricardo Sánchez, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Sandra Cisneros.
    • “I am Joaquín” (Yo soy Joaquín) by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales is one of the most famous examples of Chicano poetry.
    • Some key books of Chicano poetry include Here Lies Lalo: The Collected Poems of Abelardo Delgado, Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind by Ricardo Sánchez, and My Wicked Wicked Ways by Sandra Cisneros.
    • Some of the key themes in Chicano poetry are borders, the construction of Chicano identity, and political activism.

    1Simon Romero. "Lalo Delgado, 73, Vivid Poet Of Chicano Literary Revival." The New York Times. 2004.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Chicano Poetry

    Why is Chicano literature important?

    Chicano literature was initially important in shaping and defining Chicano identity. Chicano writers have since made many important contributions to the American literary landscape.

    What message does the poem have for Chicanos?

    Poetry has been an important way for Chicanos to shape collective Chicano identity and has been used as a tool for social and political protest.

    What were the defining characteristics of the Chicano identity?

    Chicano identity developed in the 1960s and 70s as a way for Mexican Americans to reclaim their culture and heritage and resist the pressure to assimilate into Anglo-American culture.

    What is the famous Chicano poetry?

    Some key books of Chicano poetry include Here Lies Lalo: The Collected Poems of Abelardo Delgado (2011), Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind (1971) by Ricardo Sánchez, and My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987) by Sandra Cisneros.

    What is an example of Chicano poetry?

    A good example of Chicano poetry is “I Am Joaquín” by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales.

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