Language and Languages
Mora’s poem ‘‘Elena’’ is concerned with the narrator’s native language of Spanish and the English language of her adoptive country, the United States. For Elena, these two languages are symbolic of the conflict between the familiarity of her native land and the challenges posed by relocating to a new country. The Spanish language for Elena is comfortable and familiar, the language in which she recalls the early years of her children’s lives. It is the language of memory for her. Power over the English language is something Elena’s children, now in high school, have achieved. Elena’s inability to master the new language is a source of shame, embarrassment, frustration, and fear. Elena can no longer comprehend everything her children say to one another, and she is left out of their jokes. She is uncomfortable with being unable to understand her children’s recounting of the day’s events. Elena feels excluded because she cannot participate in conversations with her children. Furthermore, the fact that her children have mastered the English language demonstrates the level at which Elena perceives them to be assimilated into their new country.
The negative feelings Mora attributes to Elena convey the narrator’s sense of being left behind by her children, who have, through the learning of the English language, become something that she is not; they are truly Americans. Excluded as she is from this transition from immigrant to American, Elena persists in her struggle to learn English. She finds the words difficult to say and is embarrassed when people laugh at her efforts. As frustrated and ashamed as Elena feels, she also understands the power the English language holds for her. Without this mastery, she fears that she will be unable to help her children when they need her. The English language represents Elena’s future, while Spanish is the language of her past. Elena struggles to find a way to employ both languages successfully in the present.
The narrator’s sense of isolation in the poem ‘‘Elena’’ is a palpable thing, conveyed through Mora’s imagery and word choice. The source of Elena’s isolation is the English language, as it is spoken fluently by her children but remains a mystery to Elena. From the beginning of the poem, Mora demonstrates the narrator’s sense of insufficiency and the feelings of exclusion generated by her inability to master the English language. Her own language, Spanish, is described as not being enough any longer. Before describing Elena’s current troubles, Mora depicts a past in which the relationship between Elena and her children is whole, characterized by mutual understanding. Set against this backdrop, Elena’s present state of isolation is more clearly understood. Her sense of exclusion is heightened by her knowledge that in the past, her relationship with her children was one in which she felt connected to them. Now, with the children speaking English and her inability to understand their conversations, that feeling of connection is diminished. Elena fears that this connection may be lost completely.
Mora describes a scene in which the children are seated at the kitchen table, laughing together, while Elena is alone, standing next to the stove, feeling mute and foolish. Elena’s physical separation from her children in this image underscores her emotional sense of separation from them. Her isolation intensifies when, as she tries to learn English, her husband frowns upon her efforts, and people, her children included, laugh at the way she mispronounces the English words she struggles so hard to learn. Mora further demonstrates Elena’s sense of exclusion when Elena describes how she locks herself away in the bathroom in order to practice her English without a jeering audience. At the end of the poem, Elena’s isolation is demonstrated to be a source of intense anxiety for her, as she reveals her fears of not being able to help her children in times of trouble. Without the power of the English language, Elena is set apart from her children, unable to share in the joy and pain of life with them.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010