Pat Mora’s poem ‘‘Elena’’ is a work in which the narrator expresses her sense of isolation from her children. Elena pinpoints language as the source of this growing divide, faulting her Spanish as insufficient, and demonstrating the problems in understanding that the English language generates in her household. Her children speak English well; she does not. Yet underlying the overt conflicts created for the narrator by language is another, more subtle reason for the isolation Elena feels. The poet hints at transitions in Elena’s household, transitions that are not confined to the homes of Mexican immigrant families. Elena’s children are not only being transformed by their conversion from Spanish speakers to English speakers and by their assimilation to life in America. Elena’s children are also growing up. Mora contrasts Elena’s memories of her children’s youth in Mexico with their teenage life in America; while the contrasts between Mexico and America, between Spanish and English, dominate the poem, the contrast between Elena’s children as youngsters and as teenagers is also a central feature of the poem.
In the poem’s opening lines, Mora has her narrator Elena recall life in Mexico with her young children. Elena speaks of being able to understand her children, understand their jokes and songs, and their secret conspiring with one another. Yet one may read these lines as imbued with another meaning as well. Not only did Elena understand her children’s language when they were young, when they all spoke Spanish with one another, but she was able to understand her children as people. As a mother of youngsters she comprehended the straightforward needs and desires of her children. They wanted to laugh, play, sing, and enjoy some occasional sweets. The lives of the children and the interactions between the children and their mother were uncomplicated when the children were younger. Elena’s fondness for this time is captured by Mora through the image of Elena smiling as she listens to her children, and by the affectionate references made about the children in this early part of the poem.
Now, however, Elena finds her home occupied by two American teenagers. There are no sweet references here; the children are no longer little. She speaks of feeling excluded from conversations her children have with one another in English. The imagery of the poem sets her physically apart from the children, underscoring Elena’s sense of separation: the children are seated at the kitchen table, and Elena stands by herself, at the stove. While Elena’s isolation is intensified by the language differences between herself and her children, one can easily imagine this scene playing out in any American home. The teenagers are speaking to one another in what appears to the listening parent as code. The teens may be using slang terms, or text messaging terms, or they might even be texting one another, laughing at jokes the onlooking mother cannot understand. Whereas earlier in the poem Elena spoke of being able to understand everything her young children said, suggesting that she truly understood everything about them, now that they are older, Elena feels as if she cannot comprehend her children at all.
Her sense of being disconnected from her children is acutely painful. Mora puts very negative words in Elena’s mouth; she speaks of feeling stupid, unable to communicate. Her efforts at learning to speak English generate feelings of embarrassment and shame. If one considers the fact that the children, whose first language is Spanish, are still able to speak Spanish, then the issue of Elena’s isolation becomes more apparent, and the intensity of her feelings is more easily understood. Elena and her children are still able to communicate with one another. The children could easily speak Spanish with their mother and in their mother’s company. Yet the teenage children choose to make themselves unavailable to their mother by speaking in English instead. It is the fact of this choice that is at least as significant as the language issues at work in the poem. Elena’s children, by choosing, like many other teenagers, not to communicate with their mother, by opting to communicate with each other in a way their mother cannot understand, choose to exclude her. The fact that Elena’s children make this very deliberate choice is a major part of the sense of isolation that Elena feels. The main conflict in the poem is not simply an internal one within Elena; it is not simply that she cannot understand her children. A major conflict exists between Elena and her children, apart from the conflict Elena has with the English language. Elena’s children voluntarily choose not to be understood by their mother. They elect to isolate her. While they attempt to console her when their father disapproves of Elena’s efforts to learn English, the children nevertheless intensify their mother’s feelings of exclusion by laughing at her when she mispronounces words. Mora skillfully underscores Elena’s distance from her children when they are listed along with the grocer and the mailman—familiar strangers—as individuals whose laughter makes her feel embarrassed.
One must not omit from this discussion another cause for Elena’s sense of isolation: her husband. Not only does he apparently disapprove of her efforts to learn English, but he also does not seem to be involved in either the life of his wife or the lives of his children. Elena makes no reference to her husband in her reflections on the past in Mexico, when the children were young. Nor does she seem likely to turn to him for support as a parent of teenage children. They do not present a united front in coping with the changes their children are undergoing. Elena stands alone while the husband drinks his beer.
The fear Elena reveals in the poem’s last lines is that her children will need help that she will be unable to provide if she does not keep trying. Presumably, Elena is referring to her efforts to learn English, but this is not stated directly. Her desire is to remain a significant presence in the life of her children, to be the person they turn to when help is needed. The husband is notably absent from these lines as well. Elena does not see herself as part of a parenting team, but knows that she, unlike her husband, must not withdraw from her children’s lives simply because they have grown older, because they have changed. She insists on trying, despite her fears and embarrassment, despite the fact that her children have made choices to purposefully keep her separated from them. Elena nevertheless endeavors to remain present, to attempt to keep understanding her children. She claims not to want to be deaf to their needs. While her desire to learn English to be able to communicate with them, to hear them in the language in which they choose to speak is an obvious component of her effort to remain a significant part of her children’s lives, Elena seeks on a larger scale to remain emotionally connected with her children. Elena must not only overcome the barrier of language, but also the emotional barriers her children have erected in order to keep their mother separate, apart from them.
One final component attributing to Elena’s sense of isolation, a factor also related to the issue of language, can be inferred from the poem. Elena does not reveal what has brought her family from Mexico to the United States. Whatever the reasons though, the family is now settled, the children are enrolled in an American high school where they have learned English. From the fact that the children are sitting together in the kitchen, talking and laughing, one can assume that they are relatively happy. Elena has provided opportunities for her children that she apparently did not have; she has given them an American education and the chance to learn English. However, by giving her children such opportunities, Elena has been instrumental in the children’s transformation into people who are very different from herself. By exploring this transformation, Mora highlights the irony of parenting. As any mother would, Elena strives to make her children’s lives better than her own. In doing so, she isolates herself from them, simply by providing them with the opportunities for experiences she never had. Mora’s poem, then, touches on universal themes, despite the specific experiences discussed in ‘‘Elena.’’ Within the context of the language conflicts of an immigrant family, Mora examines the isolation a mother creates between herself and her children, and the deliberate exclusion of a mother by her children.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on ‘‘Elena,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.