Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

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Claribel Alegría is an enduring voice for the rights of Latin American people. One primary focus of her artistic work is to show how those in power exploit those who have little power. Certainly “The American Way of Life” is a strong example of Alegría’s central point, but the poem speaks to more than the powerful Americans who live the life Alegría illustrates. The poem speaks to those minorities who seek the American way of life, including immigrants, displaced workers, the poor, and those who, like university students, seek to change the American way of life.

The poet speaks to immigrants when she describes the “three hundred undocumented” who are deported weekly, turned in by border patrol agents (“the Migra”). The illegal immigrants come to the United States to seek a better way of life, but Alegría reminds immigrants that those who are deported are “returned to their deaths” or to where they have no hope of a better life. The poet also takes note of those legally allowed to work in the United States, but who have no jobs. Alegría finds irony in the name of a factory, Bethlehem Steel, that causes the lives of its “jobless steelworkers” to become “suddenly as empty” as the plant in which they used to work. Christians have long associated the name Bethlehem with hope for a better future. In this instance, the name is associated with a corporation that has wreaked havoc in people’s lives and caused them to feel helpless.

One university campus, Berkeley, represents the nation’s institutions of higher learning when the poem mentions that “anarchy” in the form of “banners and slogans” mocks “the cloisters” or covered walks that are usually found around campus quadrangles. Students are “Joshuas” on this sacred ground. They are the chosen who will, like Joshua, lead their followers in the realization of the promise of land, in this case, the promise of America. Students “knew” as the speaker “knew” that they were having an impact because the “walls shuddered/ and the deans trembled.”

In the poet’s vision, the poor in the United States suffer most. Impoverished natives of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Lebanon, as well as Chicanos, are chewed up “as if they were Chiclets.” The simile here refers to the first chewing gum mass-marketed in North America. Chewing gum was produced on Staten Island, New York, in the 1870’s from the sap of the Mexican chiclezapote tree. For centuries, the people of Central and South America had been chewing chicle from their native trees. Even today most chewing gum is made from the sapodilla trees of Central and South America. Alegría compares the exploitation of Latin Americans with the widely known American habit of consuming chewing gum. Alegría’s compatriots, like the product that grows naturally in their countries, are as disposable as wads of gum. The poet prophesies that America’s habit of exploitation will lead to its own destruction.