Refugee Ship Poem

"Refugee Ship"
Lorna Dee Cervantes

Like wet cornstarch, I slide 
past my grandmother's eyes. Bible 
at her side, she removes her glasses.
The pudding thickens.

Mama raised me without language.
I'm orphaned from my Spanish name.
The words are foreign, stumbling 
on my tongue. I see in the mirror
my reflection: bronzed skin, black hair.

I feel I am a captive
aboard the refugee ship.
The ship that will never dock.
El barco que nunca atraca.

Poem Analysis 

“Refugee Ship” can be interpreted as an autobiographical piece that directly confronts the identity crisis that defined the Chicano Movement. Broken up into three stanzas, the natural pause between the paragraphs provides reflection and shows the speaker’s hesitation to dig deeper into her identity crisis. In a tone expressing alienation and sorrow, the speaker talks about being isolated from both her American and Mexican cultures. She calls herself “wet cornstarch” sliding past her grandmother’s eyes. Like slippery cornstarch, she is incapable of being absorbed into the tradition and heritage her grandmother represents, but instead slides away. She uses a direct metaphor by calling herself “wet cornstarch” sliding past her grandmother’s eyes. Like slippery cornstarch, she is incapable of being absorbed into the tradition and heritage her grandmother represents, but instead slides away. The speaker also feels out of place when she observes her grandmother, “Bible at her side,” a solid alliance of religion and tradition that the speaker hasn’t found. The detailed imagery of “The pudding thicken[ing]” as her grandmother removes her glasses symbolize this cohesion and sense of consistency between heritage and faith that the speaker, the wet, slippery cornstarch, is excluded from.

Because the speaker was raised in celebration of only one of her cultural identities, English, she is “orphaned” from her Spanish heritage (Emplumada 41). Just as Cervantes was discouraged from speaking Spanish to avoid the racism and prejudices that pervaded the time, the speaker has been limited to English and thus feels a disconnect with her Spanish birthright. It’s interesting to note here that Cervantes is making a direct comparison; a lack of language leads directly to a lack of identity. The speaker then goes on to look in the mirror, the imagery provided is that of an honest reflection: “bronzed skin, black hair,” the striking markings of a Chicana woman. She feels detached from the image in the mirror, as though her body and inner self doesn’t feel at one with the dark-skinned girl gazing back at her. Yet because of her Mexican appearance, the speaker is also alienated from her United States heritage that has been preached all her life. The speaker feels great despondency looking in the mirror; she doesn’t feel she can claim either identity as her own.

            In the final stanza, lines 10-13, the speaker admits that she feels she is “a captive aboard the refugee ship / The ship that will never dock” (41). She is in a permanent transitional stage, constantly in between two places but never reaching her ultimate destination. The speaker is struggling, accentuated by her language choice of words such as “slide,” “stumbling,” “orphaned,” “foreign,” and “captive,” many of these which she places at the end of the line for further emphasis (41). She is incapable of ever truly arriving at one culture because in her blood is a mix of the two, something the speaker hasn’t quite come to terms with yet because she is instead focused on the hopelessness of her situation. This sense of being the “Other” and isolation from her identity is indirectly reinforced by the assumption that the speaker is most likely a female, a gender role that has been traditionally also labeled the “Other” throughout history. Not only is the speaker alienated from both her cultures, but she is also automatically cast in a lower caste and alienated from the male-dominated world she inhabits.

When “Refugee Ship,” a traditionally English poem, is translated into Spanish, Cervantes deliberately reinforces her point that being caught between two cultures causes can cause serious instability and inner turmoil on its victim. She purposely integrates misspelled words and incorrect translations, making crió the incorrect crío and using the male instead of female conjugation of the word “captive.” By doing this, she is illustrating the struggles a part-Mexican person raised American faces to return to their Spanish roots and showing that they can never be entirely assimilated into either culture. The speaker also repeats the last sentence twice in both English in Spanish (“The ship that will never dock. El barco que nunca atraca”) (41). By doing so, she is reiterating the pain and despair of coming to terms with the fact that she is stuck in eternal exile, “culturally homeless” in a limbo between two cultures (Bifurcations in Lorna Dee Cervantes’s Emplumada). Cervantes’s poem is honest, emotionally direct, conversational, and shows the struggling speaker’s initial acknowledgement of identity and foreshadows a coming of age of a young person on the quest for self-identity.