By Pat Mora
Publisher: Arte Publico Press, Houston
Reviewed by Dr. Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Book Review #6 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
Pat Mora’s iconic poetry book, Borders, sets its tone immediately, with the title poem placed alone just before the thematic sections of the book unwrap themselves. Mora makes a distinction between men’s and women’s communication right off the bat, citing a researcher who says, “…men and women may speak different languages that they assume are the same.”
Thus, the first border is laid down by Mora: the line separating how the sexes communicate. “So who can hear/ the words we speak/ you and I, like but unlike,/ and translate us to us/ side by side?” the poet asks. She establishes a framework of contiguous separations—borders—where “like” is “unlike,” and we are “similar but different,” existing “side by side,” but still needing translations for comprehension. She’s speaking about all of us, of course.
Her book goes on to evoke and explore borders large and small, known and unknown, old and new, faint and glaring. The poet draws on her lifetime of living on and near borders, beginning with her birth in El Paso, Texas, her home for most of her life before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Mora has straddled the border between cultures and languages, has navigated the “like” and “unlike” for her entire life. As her book depicts, borders can be cruel or innocuous, but they ultimately reveal us to ourselves.
Cruel Borders of Hardship
Her book is filled with snapshots of people from all walks of life, people identifiable for their hardships as much as for their triumphs. Mora starts with the famous pioneering author and university leader, Tomás Rivera, whose hands “knew about the harvest,/ tasted the laborer’s sweat” but also “gathered books at city dumps…began to hold books gently, with affection.” Then, his hands “wrote the books/ he didn’t have, we didn’t have,” and hugged “the small brown hands” of children gathered round in admiration, “his hands whispering his secret/ learn, learn.” Rivera was the consummate cross-over, a migrant child of illiteracy who won prizes for his books and inspired legions of modern Latinos/as to demolish obstacles. Again, Mora establishes her framework with this, the second poem in her book, showing us how inhumane borders can be erased.
Other people, however, struggle with the limitations and discrimination imposed by borders. In “Immigrants,” Mora describes the lengths immigrant parents go through to “Americanize” their children, as they “wrap their babies in the American flag,/ feed them mashed hot dogs and apple pie.” Always, the fear of rejection and marginalization haunts them. In “Echoes,” the poet practically speaks through clenched teeth as she recounts how a party hostess insisted that her guests “just drop the cups and plates/ on the grass. My maid/ will pick them up.”
In “The Grateful Minority,” the poet describes Ofelia “scrubbing washbowls…/ mopping bathrooms for people/ who don’t even know your name.” The poem’s narrator cannot understand how Ofelia, as well as other “brown women,” can “whistle while/ you shine toilets, smile gratefully/ at dry rubber gloves, new uniforms,/ steady paychecks…content in your soapy solitude.” These women “bloom/ namelessly in harsh countries.” Perplexed, the poem’s speaker says: “I want to shake your secret/ from you. Why? How?”
The Subtle Borders of Life
But other borders—symbolic, emotional, or spiritual—are more subtle and often less painful. Section II (untitled) of Mora’s book speaks of family love, of the generations, and the passage of time. In “To My Son,” the border between childhood and adolescence is symbolized by the worn-down swing set, now sitting silent in the backyard, abandoned years ago. The border between doting affection and tough love is embodied in the word “no” repeated like a litany in “The Heaviest Word in Town.” The border between security and fear strikes the poet in “Waiting Room: Orthopedic Surgery,” as she waits nervously for her broken child to be made whole again.
Some borders transcend time, and Mora, particularly fond of elders, captures these poignantly. In “Pajarita,” the “small, gray Mexican bird/ brittle of bone, flutters at ninety/ through the large American cage/ all the comforts/ except youth.” The saintly grandmother straddles life and death as each day passes. In “Los Ancianos,” the poet describes an old couple holding hands as they traverse the plaza, “both slightly stooped, bodies returning to the land.” Walking the fine line between the present and eternity, “They know/ of moving through a crowd at their own pace.”
Our Individual and Collective Borders
Since borders are demarcations, there are always two sides, and marginalization is unavoidable. There is “us” and “them,” “their way” and “my way.” With this duality, prejudice and stereotypes become fact, and it takes concerted efforts on each person’s part to blur the borders traversing our lands and our interactions, so people can become simply one huge expanse of humanity.
Pat Mora’s heartfelt, spiritual book is a paean to how these borders imbue our lives, but how hurtful borders can be eased, or removed, when we embrace how everything is interwoven and we are, ultimately, one. Mora the poet is the sum total of her parts. As she has said in interviews, she cherishes her cultural heritage and often imbues her writing with it. Her writing is her attempt to facilitate communication and understanding among diverse peoples. She communicates with evident warmth, love, and compassion.
Known nationally for more than 30 books of poetry, essays, and children’s writings, Mora has received numerous literary awards, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literacy Award, the Southwest Book Award (4 times), Premio Aztlán Literature Award, and the Pellicer-Frost Bi-National Poetry Award. She has also received two honorary doctoral degrees and is best-known for instituting the nationally-celebrated event, “El día de los ninos/El día de los libros” (“The Day of the Children/The Day of Books”). Advocacy for children’s literacy is an abiding passion of Pat Mora. Her website is www.PatMora.com .
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.