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I’m a WOC Pursuing a PhD in Poetry, Here Are 5 Latina Poets Whose Names You Need To Know

Humans have been reciting poetry since pre-history. The inception of literacy and popularization of the written word birthed an entirely new movement for poetry, which turned the epic oral tradition into something more tangibly present, capable of truly withstanding the test of time.

Poetic fragments have been found etched on monoliths, in cuneiform, and hieroglyphics, dating back to ancient empires, sacred texts, and epic storytelling across millennia. The earliest poet whose name is clearly identified with her work is the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna, who wrote many poems of praise to the Goddess Innana.

The first poet, and record author in history, was a woman. Still, her name is not as widely known as it should be. As a fellow woman of color pursuing her Ph D in Poetry, I felt compelled to highlight the names and voices belonging to other women who are making history with their own poetry, exalting love, loss, Latinidad, and the human condition as a whole. 

  1. Natalie Diaz

As the first Latina to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, Natalie Diaz has more than earned her place among this illustrious list of women. In fact, the only other member of the Latinx community to win a Pulitzer Prize was William Carlos Williams in 1963, so we were long overdue.

Born to a Mexican father and a Native American mother, Diaz identifies as Mexican, Mojave, and queer, and her work often depicts these myriad aspects of identity. Her award-winning second collection of poetry, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” explores many aspects of her hyphenated self, which she calls a “constellation,” while advocating against racial violence, injustice, and inequality.

The social commentary in her poem “American Arithmetic” illustrates the dwindling population of Native Americans against the backdrop of police brutality toward her people. She writes: “Race is a funny word./ Race implies someone will win,/ implies I have as good a chance of winning as —/ Who wins the race which isn’t a race? […] Sometimes race means run.” 

  1. Ada Limón

Ada Limón has written five poetry collections, “The Carrying” being her most recent and the winner of National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2018. I was first introduced to her work in “Bright Dead Things” during my MFA program.

Limón is of Mexican descent, but admits she was not raised in a bilingual home, which manifests itself as a source of shame typical in the Latinx community toward non-Spanish speakers or those not deemed fluent enough. These themes bleed into “The Carrying,” where she focuses her lyrical energies on fertility, motherhood, womanhood, and the innumerable nuances of her Latinx identity.

In the poem, “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual,” she asks, “Would you like to come to dinner/ with the patrons and sip Patrón?/ Will you tell us the stories that make/ us uncomfortable, but not complicit?” 

  1. Julia Alvarez

Born in 1950 and raised in the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez has already had a long and distinguished career as a poet, novelist, and essayist, including receiving the National Medal of Arts from former President Obama.

She spent her childhood under the Trujillo regime and was forced to flee in the middle of the night with her family after her father orchestrated a failed attempt to overthrow the government. She retells this event in “Exile,” writing, “At dawn the plane arrived and as we boarded,/ Papi, you turned, your eyes scanned the horizon/ as if you were trying to sight a distant swimmer/ […] for you knew as we stepped inside the cabin/ that a part of both of us had been set adrift.” This moment is so poignant considering how so many of us are intimately familiar with leaving one home behind for another, riddled with fear, doubt, and mistranslations.

Alvarez has authored over 20 books, three of them being poetry collections.

  1. Nancy Morejón 

Nancy Morejón has been writing, translating, and teaching for over 30 years. As the first Afro-Cuban woman to receive a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Havana, she also became the first post-revolutionary Afro-Cuban poet to achieve world renown, as her work has been translated in more than ten languages.

Following in the footsteps of her mentor, the legendary Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in America, Morejón pioneered the celebration of blackness, and in particular, of black women.

Additionally, she dissects enslavement in Cuba, assimilation, and the merging of races that amalgamate to create a unique Cuban identity. In what is arguably her most famous poem, “Mujer negra (black woman),” which has been anthologized numerous times since it was first published in 1975, she writes: “Still I smell the foam of the sea they forced me to cross.” This poem’s speaker imagines the journey from Africa to Cuba and finally settles on a message of integration and equality. 

  1. Sandra Cisneros

No list would be complete without this iconic essayist, novelist, and poet, who has received countless awards since she began her ascent into the Latinx literary canon with the publication of her first novel, “The House on Mango Street,” in 1983. I read this book, as many of us did, in my high school English class, and I remember having an epiphany: I was not alone. America was largely composed of immigrants such as myself, who were struggling with very similar issues, including a sense of belonging, language, and the duality of identity, all reflected in the intricate lives of the characters born of Cisneros’ fertile imagination.

Then, I read her poetry and fell in love with the way she weaved in and out of Spanish, like a highly skilled swimmer diving into the depths of the water and then resurfacing for air when necessary. In one of my favorite poems of all time, “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me,” which I have emulated and refitted to reflect my own Cuban idiosyncrasies, Cisneros addresses a lover who makes her feel her most passionate, authentic, and incandescent Mexican self. She invokes gods and goddesses, la Virgen de Guadalupe, natural disasters, and “mariachi trumpets of blood.” In the poem’s final verse, she writes: “Quiero amarte. Atarte. Amarrarte/ Love the way a Mexican woman loves.” Maybe I’m biased, but it sounds like true love to me. 

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