In 1984, I picked up Pat Mora’s Chants, a collection of poems about the border, and experienced the jolt that comes with reading about yourself. Mora, a native El Pasoan, had an intimate knowledge of the cultures, languages and social mores that make up border life. The book’s resonance for me, as a first-generation American, lay in her exploration of Old World meets New World. Sometimes the meeting births new ways and traditions, but often it’s a clash in which history, identity and relationships are at stake.
Perhaps the most moving example of this clash is the poem “Elena,” about an immigrant mother. “They speak English. At night they sit around/ the kitchen table, laugh with one another./ I stand by the stove and feel dumb, alone./ … Sometimes I take/ my English book and lock myself in the bathroom,/ say the thick words softly,/ for if I stop trying, I will be deaf/ when my children need my help.”
Other poems celebrate our adaptation of tradition. In “Love Ritual,” a spurned woman borrows from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to lure back a lover: “Outside my door I’ll sprinkle yellow/flower petals. Carefully I’ll place/ my picture, the poem I wrote you,/ a sketch of two lovers removing/ each other’s clothes. I’ll light/ green votives, and you’ll be pulled/ back too. And maybe stay.”
This book is no more lost than many other poetry collections. The form’s compression and metaphors will put off some readers. The genre demands that we read with our eyes and listen with our heart. Too often, we lack such patience. But one of Mora’s strengths is her accessibility. She adeptly uses universal themes such as family, love and nostalgia to invite readers in. She’s equally skilled at seducing us with evocative language, as in “Mielvirgen”: “In the slow afternoon heat she sits/ … her eyes closed, her tongue sliding/ on her lips, remembering, remembering.”
Chants is more than 25 years old, but today’s border and immigration debates make it more relevant than ever because it humanizes those living along the border, one of the most misunderstood parts of our country.
Beatriz Terrazas is a writer based in Dallas. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News and elsewhere.