In “Legal Alien,” poet Pat Mora explores the cultural tension present in the lives of Mexican Americans. The speaker in the poem describes a bicultural individual who is able to fluently speak both English and Spanish and who uses both languages in his/her everyday work and social life. The individual works a standard office job and frequents Mexican restaurants. But the individual has a difficult time being fully accepted by his/her community. Americans view the person as “exotic,” “inferior,” and “definitely different,” while Mexicans see the person as “alien,” an outsider. As a result, the individual becomes viewed by society as a token of the bicultural experience, only existing on the margins of both cultural worlds. To preserve the self, the individual presents an outer front to hide the pain of having been prejudged. So the individual is in fact a "legal alien"—one who belongs yet is not fully accepted by society.
Mora uses a Mexican American individual as the subject of the poem and intends him/her to represent the collective experience of Mexican American people. The poem is written in free verse—twenty-two lines of varying meter that do not employ a rhyme scheme. Mora uses Spanish juxtaposed with English to highlight the tension in the individual's life: when the individual is asked in English “How’s life?”, he/she responds in Spanish “Me'stan volviendo loca” (They are making me crazy). Mora also employs antithesis by positing "American" and "Mexican" as opposing factors to highlight the cultural tension in the individual’s experience.
“Legal Alien” appears in Mora’s poetry collection titled Chants, which was published in 1984 by Arte Publico Press. In the collection, many of the poems are thematically related to the diverse cultural experiences of those living in the Southwestern desert region of the United States. Chants was awarded the Harvey L. Johnson Book Award by the Southwest Council of Latin American Studies in 1984 and the Southwest Book Award by the Border Regional Library in 1985. A prolific author of poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and children’s literature, Pat Mora continues to be a voice for the Mexican American experience.