19 pages 38 minutes read

Pat Mora

Legal Alien

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


Pat Mora is a distinguished author of poetry and nonfiction for adults, teens, and children that center on the experience and culture of Mexican Americans living on the border between America and Mexico. She is known as a regional writer because of her focus on the American Southwest, where she grew up and resides today.

“Legal Alien” was published in 1984, during a decade that saw an increasing interest and vitality in Mexican American literature. The poem comes from Mora’s first published collection of poetry, Chants, which introduces characters from various walks of life who are experiencing life on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. Chants was an influential collection that helped shape Chicana poetry in the 80s, winning the Southwest Book Award and the Best Book of Poetry from the El Paso Times.

“Legal Alien,” the final poem of Chants, exemplifies the struggle Mexican American people face in having others understand their dual identities.

Poet Biography

Pat Mora was born on January 19, 1942, in El Paso, Texas—a city that shares a border with Mexico and that is influenced by Mexican culture. Mora’s grandparents on both sides emigrated to El Paso during the Mexican Revolution to escape Pancho Villa’s violence. She grew up in a bilingual, multigenerational home with her parents, maternal grandmother, and aunt. Mora’s mother instilled a love of reading in her, while her aunt gave her an appreciation of storytelling by spinning tales in English and Spanish to entertain the household’s children. Mora’s family is often featured in her work, alongside the Mexican legends and traditions she grew up celebrating.

Growing up, Mora did not realize that being a writer was a path she could take because of the lack of role models she resembled. An excellent student in her Catholic school English classes, she was a voracious reader who began writing at an early age. However, her early writing efforts focused on religion and did not reflect her experience as a Mexican American woman. It was not until adulthood that Mora realized her multicultural identity would be an asset to her writing, which sent her on a journey of learning more about her heritage. After doing so, her Mexican heritage became a source of pride.

Following a long academic career teaching English at all levels, Mora decided to leave teaching to become a university administrator in 1981. This career change allowed her to pursue her love of writing in the evenings after her children had fallen asleep instead of grading papers. She did not become a published author until she was in her 40s, after many rejections.

Besides Chants, Mora published six additional collections of poetry for adults, two memoirs, a book of essays, and over 40 books for children that all incorporate Mexican American characters and culture. Mora also created “El día de los niños, el día de los libros,” or “Children’s Day, Book Day”—an initiative to promote literacy and a love of reading among children and their families. She is motivated to continue to write by her belief that, “Mexican Americans need to take their rightful place in U.S. literature.”

Poem Text

Mora, Pat. “Legal Alien.” 1984. People’s World.


“Legal Alien” is narrated by a speaker with no specific name, gender, or other defining details besides being a Mexican American who fluently speaks English and Spanish. The title suggests they are a “legal alien,” which refers to a person who retains citizenship in their home country but is legally allowed to live in a different one. The poem’s title displays the tension within the speaker’s identity: They are legally permitted yet still alienated—both within their native country and their country of choice.

Straddling the border of two cultures, the speaker is equally able to work in a professional office where English is dominant and can also order in Spanish with ease at a Mexican restaurant. They are looked at with suspicion from both cultures to which they belong, never entirely fitting into either. Their duality makes them an outsider in both cultures. Despite being a legal resident and speaking English, they are othered by Americans. However, they are also rejected by Mexicans, who do not see them as one of their own, either.

The poem ends with the speaker smiling to hide the discomfort of having nowhere to fit in and being judged on both sides.