The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Claribel Alegría’s “The American Way of Life” is a nonstanzaic, 206-line poem about the poet-speaker’s visit to three American states: California, Pennsylvania, and New York. The speaker, who does not live in the United States, had visited America once before, but so long ago that she “nearly forgot” what the country and its people were like. The poem offers commentary on several aspects of American life and ends with the speaker’s personification of America as a “bitch” who “chews up” minorities as if they were “Chiclets.” The American way of life, the poet predicts, will be destroyed.

The poem opens as the speaker is “swallowed” by the state of California’s “hypnotic tangle/ of freeways” viewed from an airplane. An escort who drives the speaker from the airport asks if the speaker has forgotten “the American way of life?” The speaker visits “the Sanctuary,” where she is “presented” to her “‘compatriots’” who come to America without papers (“the ‘eternally undocumented’”). These “undocumented” people are “transparent” as “they slide through Mission Heights” or work as servants in a wealthy San Francisco Bay area neighborhood. After work, the immigrants gather together in “unsafe” houses, or houses where they can be found, to watch Americans riding in pleasure boats around the island of Alcatraz. The speaker’s escort explains that “three hundred undocumented”...

(The entire section is 498 words.)