Mora’s poem ‘‘Elena’’ does not follow any patterns in terms of formal structure and is not divided into stanzas (a stanza is a unit of poetry, or a grouping of lines that divides the poem in the same way that a paragraph divides prose). There are, however, lines that are linked in terms of the subject matter they treat. The poem opens with the narrator of the poem declaring that her native language, Spanish, is insufficient. In the next six lines, Elena recalls her life in Mexico with her children. She remembers listening to her young children and smiling at what they would say. During their time in Mexico, Elena observes, she was able to understand everything her children said. She was empowered by their common language to laugh at the jokes the children told, to delight in the songs they sang. Nothing, not even their secretive childhood plans, was unknown to her. Elena recalls overhearing them plotting to get something from her. In Spanish, she recalls the children convincing each other to ask her for candy. This section of the poem ends abruptly with Elena stating, as emphatically as she asserts in the first line that her Spanish is not enough, that her memories of this special connection with her children through the bond of their language occurred in Mexico, in the past.
The tone of ‘‘Elena’’ shifts at the beginning of the eighth line of the poem. Things are different, Elena observes, now that her children are older and enrolled in American schools. Now the children are teenagers who speak fluent English. Elena reveals that the children sit at the table, laughing together, while she stands apart, feeling isolated, unable to understand what they are saying, unable to speak with them in English. Mora’s word choice in these lines suggest that Elena feels both incapable of speech and not smart enough to learn what her children have learned. The narrator’s shame and embarrassment become as apparent as her sense of exclusion.
In the next lines of ‘‘Elena,’’ the poet explores Elena’s efforts to learn English. Elena reveals that she has bought a book in order to help her learn to speak English. Her husband appears both disapproving and somewhat disinterested. When Elena shows him her book, he frowns and continues to drink his beer. Elena informs the reader that her oldest child attempts to comfort Elena by telling her that the husband does not wish for Elena to become smarter than he is by learning English. Despite this sympathy, Elena admits that at forty, learning the language is challenging. She discusses her embarrassment at not being able to pronounce words properly, and feels that everyone—her children, the grocery store owner, the letter carrier—is laughing at her. Elena confides that she takes her English book into the bathroom with her, where she can practice in private, saying the words that are so strange and difficult for her to enunciate.
The final two lines of the poem are succinct expressions of the narrator’s fears. Elena insists that she must persist in her efforts, because if she does not keep trying to learn the language her children now speak with ease, she will not be able to hear them when they need her. Much is contained in these two short lines. Mora chooses to express Elena’s inability to understand her children’s English conversations as deafness. Clearly the family can still speak to one another in Spanish, and so Elena is not truly deaf to her children’s needs. Nevertheless, if the children elect to hide something from her, they only need to speak in English. Elena is keenly aware of the fact that being able to comprehend the everyday conversations of her children will enable her to understand their lives and give her the power to advise and guide them, whether or not they directly express a need or ask for help.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010