Skip to main content

Analysis of Poem 'Legal Alien' by Pat Mora

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Pat Mora

Pat Mora

'Legal Alien', a short, free verse poem, explores the identity of the Mexican American, caught between two cultures, having to face prejudices from both sides.

  • Pat Mora uses metaphor, imagery, language and antithesis to create a complex definition of your typical legal alien.
  • The poem is one sentence stretched out over 22 lines.
  • Picture someone taking a deep breath and letting it all out in one go.
  • English is the dominant language of the poem, but Spanish also features.

But why the need for such a poem? Pat Mora explains:

“For a variety of complex reasons, anthologized American literature does not reflect the ethnic diversity of the United States. I write, in part because Hispanic perspectives need to be part of our literary heritage; I want to be part of the validation process. I also write because I am fascinated by the pleasure and power of words."

Pat Mora has been a voice for those without representation for years. She has written many poems that help others understand the plight of the Mexican American people, struggling for a solid identity. She is also a children's author and teacher.

It was first published in the book Chants in 1984.

Bi-lingual, Bi-cultural,
able to slip from “How’s life?”
to “Me’stan volviendo loca,
able to sit in a paneled office
drafting memos in smooth English,
able to order in fluent Spanish
at a Mexican restaurant,
American but hyphenated,
viewed by Anglos as perhaps exotic,
perhaps inferior, definitely different,
viewed by Mexicans as alien,
(their eyes say, “You may speak
Spanish but you’re not like me”)
an American to Mexicans
a Mexican to Americans
a handy token
sliding back and forth
between the fringes of both worlds
by smiling
by masking the discomfort
of being pre-judged

Line by Line Analysis

'Legal Alien' is a short poem that attempts to define what it is to be a Hispanic living legally in the USA whilst not officially a citizen of that country.

The title itself is enough to challenge alien. The first word formally acknowledges that a person is identified as being within the law, and the second word labels them a foreigner.

The first line reflects the oddity of the situation. The two words here need not be hyphenated, the second word need not have a capital B. The poet has chosen to split the words up as a physical illustration of antithesis on the page.

The reader is aware of the two words as single entities (bilingual, bicultural) but sees them separated, linked only by a hyphen.

They're able to slip from English to Spanish - greeting someone.. How's life?..and then declaring Me'stan volviendo loca (they're driving me nuts/crazy).

Again, clever use of opposites, the greeting being positive, the latter Spanish phrase suggesting frustration.

Yet the legal alien is able. They have work, they use English, they dine at a Mexican restaurant and order using Spanish. They're comfortable in both worlds or so it seems.

Then the line:

American but hyphenated,

and here the poem's tone changes as the speaker suggests that they may be legally working and relaxed enough to speak two languages, but they're a bit odd, like those opening couple of words.

They're viewed by Anglos (English speaking natives) as different - exotic (strange) and inferior (to be exploited).

Yet they're also not fully accepted by Mexicans, who see them as aliens (foreigners) because they're not pure Mexicano.

Metaphorically they're tokens who can get by in both worlds but aren't really comfortable there, they're acting out some sort of existence that doesn't ring true.

The human tendency is to judge people by their appearance and language and if they do not fit the norm, if they're not like 'one of us' then the prejudices and twisted opinions begin to form.

The last line is again one of the odd words, normally a single word but hyphenated here to look different. As a reader, we understand the meaning but are not 100% comfortable with the way it looks.


When two or more words are close together in the same line and start with the same consonant:

definitely different...


When contrasting ideas are juxtaposed, brought together to create in when the speaker notes that a legal alien can slip from How's life? to Me'stan volviendo loca…(they're driving me crazy).


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, maintaining the sense. Many lines of this poem are enjambed, so the reader shouldn't pause but continue on.


A handy token...a token is a thing that can be exchanged for goods or services. It can be a card or piece of paper or anything.


To reinforce ideas repeated use of words and phrases is employed. As in:


Analysis of Form/Structure

'Legal Alien' is a free verse poem of 22 lines, a single stanza, so there is no set rhyme scheme or consistent metrical beat. This reflects natural informal speech. Note the syntax (the way clauses and grammar work together) - plenty of commas embedded, enjambment (lines that run on into the next without punctuation) and parentheses.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey