What would be the tone and the theme of the poem "Legal Alien" by Pat Mora?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Legal Alien" by Pat Mora is about being both Mexican and American; she points out that, though Mexican-Americans have the traits of both people, they're fully accepted by neither. The theme of the poem is this dual identity, and the tone is at once frustrated and direct.

The theme of "Legal Alien" is the dual identity of Mexican Americans. The speaker talks about the ability to fit in with both English and Spanish speakers yet not exist as fully accepted by either because of the other cultural identification. Both groups believe that the speaker is different and, thus, can be fully accepted by neither. This leads to alienation and judgement.

The frustration is evident when the speaker talks about how Americans view her as exotic, different, and inferior. Mexicans view her as alien and different from them, even if she is capable of speaking like them. She points out that she has to mask her discomfort, knowing that people are already judging her before they know her. Mora doesn't, however, offer a solution. Despite frustration, it's clear that it's a larger issue without an easy answer.

The speaker's tone is also direct. She doesn't pull punches when she says that Americans may see her as inferior. She says clearly that Mexican people convey with her eyes that "You may speak Spanish / but you're not like me." Her discomfort is something that she's open with and not willing to deny to her reader.

samcestmoi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this poem, Pat Mora talks about the cultural identity of Hispanic Americans, about how, despite belonging both to an American community and a Mexican community, one can never really be fully integrated into the other. To be constantly “sliding back and forth/between the fringes of both worlds,” is tiring and disaffirming. The speaker states that he or she must always be putting on a front, to hide the fact that he or she is “being pre-judged/bi-laterally.” This is a parallelism of the first line, which consists of two words:  “Bi-lingual, bi-cultural.” Rather than being fully accepted by two communities, the speaker is “An American to Mexicans,/A Mexican to Americans,” facing stereotypes from both sides. The poem emphasizes the irony of this situation.  The title itself is a good representation of this: “Legal Alien.” Though the speaker is a citizen of the United States, he or she is still “other,” is still an alien.  Despite belonging, she doesn’t belong.

The poem is resigned in tone, and somewhat withdrawn. The speaker feels his or her identity to be suspended, to be caught in a nothing place – to be “American, but hyphenated” – American with stipulations. And this results in a helplessness that comes from being defined predominantly not by your personality or your job or your achievements, but by your race. 

droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The themes of Pat Mora's poem "Legal Alien" revolve around the sense of not belonging, which derives from feeling split between two cultures. The speaker, "bi-lingual, bi-cultural," is able to "order in fluent Spanish" and write in fluent, professional English, but fits nowhere. "Anglos" see Mexican-Americans, such as the speaker, as "perhaps inferior, definitely different," while Mexicans view them as "not like me." The speaker feels like a "token" moving between "the fringes" of two worlds, but never, it is implied, allowed to move beyond those peripheries and into the core of either society.

This theme of alienation, then, necessarily informs the tone of the poem, which expresses the author's bitterness and disappointment over being "judged bilaterally." The speaker explains that she is expected to go through life "smiling" to mask the discomfort of her existence, but it is evident from her tone that she feels frustrated by this and longs for a life where she could be fully part of two cultures, instead of rejected by both.

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Legal Alien

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