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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Pat Mora
(b. 1942)

A Chicana from El Paso, Texas, Pat Mora has written three books of poetry, a children’s book, and a collection of essays. She earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English from the University of Texas at El Paso while she raised three children who all currently attend universities. She lives and writes in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The poem “University Avenue” presents Chicanas, working-class women, who only recently gained front-door entry to universities, particularly in traditionally racist institutions in Texas that historically relegated Mexican women to roles as faceless workers pushing the broomcarts, mopping the corridors of academia, and cleaning the departments’ bathrooms. Mora’s poem recognizes that the “first of our people” to attend universities as students, administrators, and faculty, however, need not sacrifice Mexican indigenous traditions that inform Chicana/Chicano identity. Implicit in her use of Spanish words is the succor that bilingualism offers, the richness that biculturalism should evoke. The lessons whispered in Spanish are also the stories, the rich oral traditions that we carry with us to seminars, meetings, and lectures.

In “Unnatural Speech” Mora explores the dual voices of this bilingual, bicultural student. She speaks to the pain that the Chicana confronts as she makes the transition from Spanish speaker to English-dominant speaker. Must the Spanish oral tradition of childhood nursery rhymes remain in the past, hidden in the memory of carefree childhood? Is there danger in learning and internalizing the “new rules” of the dominant language too well? The dilemma remains: will accommodating the dominant culture in the United States erase the songs of the other, the indigenous Mexican culture?

“Border Town: 1938” presents the other side of the bicultural dilemma. While we can now assert the importance of keeping both the Mexican and the American languages and traditions, Mora’s poetry urges us to remember the specificities of Chicana history in the United States; that history has been one of separate and unequal educational systems. Evoking that memory of segregated “Mexican Schools” in Texas of the recent past, Mora does not allow the reader to romanticize that history. The problem she presents in these poems from her collection, Borders, is one where Mexican Americans on the border too often are forced to choose one side or the other, one language or the other, one culture or the other. Struggling to gain a foothold in the land of their ancestors, Chicanas must learn to gain power from a constantly shifting, ambiguous, multiple identity: as Mora asserts in a poem from Chants, “Legal Alien”, “an American to Mexicans / a Mexican to Americans / a handy token / sliding back and forth / between the fringes of both worlds / by smiling / by masking the discomfort / of being pre-judged / Bi-laterally.”

Sonia Saldívar-Hull
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
Border Town: 1938 (1986)
University Avenue (1986)
Unnatural Speech (1986)

Other Works
Chants (1984)
Borders (1986)
Communion (1991)
A Birthday Basket for Tia (1992)
Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle (1993)

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Pat Mora
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Pat Mora
Mora's own site offers information about her latest work, published fiction and nonfiction, and more.

The Academy of American Poets
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Voices from the Gaps
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