16 pages 32 minutes read

Pat Mora


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


“Elena” is an early poem by the Chicana poet Pat Mora. It appears in Mora’s first poetry collection Chants (1984), which explores the experiences of Chicanos and Chicanas, Americans of Mexican descent. In that collection and throughout her work, Mora is interested in the lives of individuals who must negotiate multiple cultures and languages. “Elena” is a persona poem, which presents the words or thoughts of a well-defined speaker who is not the poet. Elena is a woman who grew up in Mexico but moved to the United States with her husband and children. She is determined to learn English because her children increasingly communicate in that language, and Elena wants to understand them and be as close to them as she was back in Mexico. The poem vividly conveys linguistic and psychological challenges that many immigrants face as they adjust to their new life in the United States, especially women with traditional upbringing who must develop determination and strength to emancipate themselves from gender stereotypes.

Poet Biography

Pat Mora was born in 1942 in El Paso, Texas, where her grandparents had moved from Northern Mexico. She grew up in a bilingual family, so she was equally immersed in English and Spanish from an early age. Her literary work reflects her comfort in and love for both languages. Mora has worked as a teacher, college administrator, and museum director. She is also a popular speaker, promoting literacy, reading, creativity, and inclusivity. In 1996, she founded Children’s Day, Book Day (El día de los niños, El día de los libros), a yearlong initiative to bring the joy of reading into the lives of all children, which culminates in a nationwide yearly celebration on April 30th. Mora is a recipient of numerous awards, two honorary doctorates, and a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also an honorary member of the American Library Association.

Mora has published dozens of books, including poetry, nonfiction, and books for children. Her early collections of poems—Chants (1984) and Borders (1986)—focus on the experiences of Americans of Mexican descent (Chicanos and Chicanas). She broadened her scope in later work, but the value of Mexican heritage and the peculiarities of bicultural existence remain her central themes, which she explores in Agua Santa/Holy Water (1997), Adobe Odes (2006), Encantado: Desert Monologues (2018), and other books of poetry. In 1997, she published House of Houses, an exploration of her family history and a celebration of Chicana historical experience and aesthetic sensibility. Her other popular works of nonfiction include Nepantla: Essays from the Land of the Middle (1993) and Zing! Seven Creativity Practices for Educators and Students (2010). Mora has also written over thirty children’s books, many of them bilingual. One of the most recent is Bookjoy, Wordjoy (2018), which reflects her lifelong passion for advocating literacy and joy of reading. She believes that motivating children and their families to be readers is essential for American democracy.

Poem Text

Mora, Pat. “Elena.” 1984. Commonlit.org.

Note: This poem can be found on several websites, but Commonlit.org features the most accurate transcription. The only error is that Lines 15 and 16 are fused together. In the original version of the poem in Chants (1984), “embarrassed at mispronouncing words” is a separate line. Thus, that version contains 22 lines.


The speaker in “Elena” is a woman of Mexican heritage who has recently immigrated to the United States with her husband and children. The poem consists entirely of her own words and thoughts. Elena is unhappy because she can no longer communicate with her children only in Spanish like she used to in Mexico. Back then it was easy for her to understand them and their needs. Now, however, the children go to an American high school and speak primarily in English. Elena knows little English, so she feels “dumb, alone” (Line 11) when the family gets together in the evening around the kitchen table. Determined to learn English, Elena buys a textbook, even though her husband frowns at her efforts. Their oldest child thinks that the father doesn’t want Elena to be “smarter than he is” (Line 15). Being 40 years old, Elena is embarrassed that she mispronounces English words like a child might. She worries that her children and others laugh at her. More than anything, she worries that her lack of English proficiency will weaken the bond between her and her children. Therefore, as hard as it is for her to learn “the thick words” of a foreign language (Line 20), she must keep trying lest she “be deaf” (Line 21) when her children need her help.