Themes and Meanings

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What is most interesting about the poetic conceit used in this poem is that it allows the reader to view El Salvador from the same perspective as the poet. Alegría has written a chronicle of images that is just as effective as a documentary film in its ability to bring the reader around to the poet’s point of view, both visually and emotionally. As do most modern poets, Alegría uses the images in her poem as reinforcement for her perspective, her vision of El Salvador. She exhorts her reader, writing subjectively, as well as autobiographically, about the country in which she grew up. Alegría uses her poetry to re-create the struggle of the people of Central America.

The specific purpose of “Documentary” is to make the general reader aware of an obscure area of the world. Alegría’s mother was El Salvadoran; the poet lived there and knows firsthand the way of life, economy, politics, and survival of the El Salvadoran people. Memory, exile, and abhorrence of war and violence characterize Alegría’s poetry. The political content of her poems is not unusual for a writer from Central America. However, Alegría writes out of a deep love of life, rather than from a particular partisan perspective. The poet wants her readers to understand the value of freedom and to learn how people in every part of the world are connected.

The coffee harvest affects the lives of workers as well as consumers, and this fact is most noticeable at the close of the poem. The lines that catalog the negative side effects of coffee export—“malaria/ blood/ illiteracy/ tuberculosis/ misery”—introduce an image of the harvester’s truck that “bellows uphill/ drowning out the lesson.” The “lesson” is presented as though to a child learning the alphabet. However, instead of having the letter A represent an apple, as it does for most English-speaking schoolchildren, it stands for alcoholism. Similarly, other letters of the alphabet stand for other social problems. By replacing the customary mnemonic devices for letters of the alphabet with names of social problems unique to El Salvador, the poet cleverly insinuates that coffee consumers are so unaware of the conditions under which the product they purchase is produced that they literally need the situation spelled out for them. Thus, the poet who bears witness to the struggle for survival in her homeland also makes her reader a witness to those struggles.

Even if readers of “Documentary” drink morning cups of coffee that do not come from El Salvador, they must ask how a cup of coffee might be maintaining a way of life they would not accept for their own family. That is the connection between the people in “Documentary” and the readers of the poem.

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