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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Pat Mora and James Welch Session Author and Literary Works: Pat Mora

Pat Mora

Author Bio

Pat Mora is a writer and activist who works to preserve and celebrate Mexican American literature. Descended from four grandparents who came to Texas from Mexico in the early twentieth century, Mora’s bilingual and bicultural experiences inform all her work. She was born in El Paso in 1942, and is often called a regionalist for the way she portrays the physical grandeur and cultural richness of the Southwest.

The author of over 20 books of poetry, non-fiction and children’s stories, Mora has received numerous honors for her work, including an NEA poetry fellowship, the Civitella Ranieri fellowship, four Southwest Book Awards, the Premio Aztlán Literature Award, the Ohioana Award, and the Pellicer-Frost 1999 Bi-national Poetry Award. She has also served as a consultant on U.S.-Mexico youth exchanges, a museum and university administrator, and a teacher of English at all levels. Mora is known as well for her promotion of “El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros,” a celebration of books and children, languages and cultures, which takes place on April 30 each year. She has three grown children and divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and northern Kentucky.

“Family, Mexican American culture, and the desert are all important themes in my children’s books as well as in my poetry and nonfiction for adults,” writes Mora. Several of her children’s works bring to life her personal family stories. In The Rainbow Tulip, Mora tells of her mother’s bicultural experiences: “At home I’m Estelita. At school my name is Stella.” In her memoirs and poetry, she introduces readers to her extended family and ponders the nature of her relationships with her relatives and ancestors.

The desert landscape provides a vibrant backdrop for much of Mora’s work. She writes that she loves “the open spaces, the wide sky, all that sun and all those animals that scurry across the hot sand or fly high over the mountains.” In her poem “Desert Women,” Mora writes that “Desert women know / about survival,” and, “like cactus,” can hide behind thorns. But, she warns at the end of the poem, “Don’t be deceived. / When we bloom, we stun.”

"My Own True Name" by Pat Mora: Synopsis

In the poems of My Own True Name, Mora explores what it means to be bicultural — both the richness of it as manifested in family, food, rituals, and celebrations, and the pain of being seen as neither one thing nor the other. “For a variety of complex reasons, anthologized American literature does not reflect the ethnic diversity of the United States,” explains Mora. “I write in part because Hispanic perspectives need to be part of our literary heritage; I want to be part of the validation process.” In one of her best-known poems, “Legal Alien,” Mora explores what it means to be “hyphenated”:

sliding back and forth
between the fringes of both worlds
by smiling
by masking the discomfort
of being pre-judged

My Own True Name is a work aimed specifically at adolescents. It includes poems from earlier collections alongside new poems, each included because it seemed to Mora to speak to young people, particularly young writers. Mora stresses that we are all writers, and all struggling to become better writers, whether we are published adult poets, teenage students, teachers, principals, or anyone else. She hopes that poems — hers and those of others — will help students connect literature with their lives, and feel safe and confident enough to write their own. As she says about the students in classes where she has read her work and encouraged theirs: “I want them to feel that they could bring any part of themselves, their language, their sadness, whatever kind of family they come from, and it’s going to be honored. It’s going to be treated with tremendous respect.”

Says scholar Nicolás Kanellos: “Pat Mora is a writer who has united many different populations, but of course the most important ones are young people and older people. And she has particularly spoken to young people of high school age through her diction, through the themes she touches upon, and through her insistence on the idea that young people have a culture and that they have an ability to see the world and be able to capture it. So she wants to go one step further and encourage them to write.”

Scholar Juan Bruce-Novoa writes that many of the poems from My Own True Name “feature the theme of English language acquisition as a painful experience of conflict and suffering for native Spanish speakers.” Indeed, in “Learning English: Chorus in Many Voices,” Mora writes: “people still laugh at me / when words stumble out / I want to disappear.” But Bruce-Novoa also points out that “[Mora’s] perspective characterizes the experience as one of gain and loss, emphasizing the latter as the loss of cultural authenticity, while the value of the gain is left in doubt.” He also notes the “touch of ambivalence” in many of the poems: “The characters are attracted to English-based culture, producing a desire whose satisfaction they seek.” Mora explores this kind of internal conflict in her poem “Elena,” about an immigrant parent who cannot understand the words of her Americanized, English-speaking children. Yet in “Immigrants,” she also explores the keen desire of immigrants to have “American” children and “wrap their babies in the American flag / feed them mashed hot dogs and apple pie / name them Bill and Daisy.”

Bruce-Novoa cautions teachers teaching the poems of Pat Mora that “the ethnic background of the students will greatly determine the nature of class discussions.” First-generation immigrants may relate to her themes in profound ways, while others may see themes remote from their own lives. While he warns that talking about these issues can bring up controversial questions about the place of immigrants and foreign languages in American culture, Bruce-Novoa suggests that teachers “guide the discussion toward the universal quality of the experience of acculturation the poems express.” He also recommends placing Mora in the context of certain other Latino writers when teaching her works. These might include Bernice Zamora, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Judith Ortiz Cofer. Teachers could also include works like Tomás Rivera’s …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Richard Rodriquez’s Hunger of Memory, and Linda Chavez’s Out of the Barrio.

Pat Mora Audio Clip

One of my hopes is that the literature makes us all more compassionate. I say a lot that –and I believe it — literature helps us cross borders and build community. I believe that. And it is when we hear many different kinds of voices that that happens. It wasn’t until I was an adult who began to write that I realized that the most exciting thing to write was about being of Mexican descent and coming from the desert. So, I want them to feel that they could bring any part of themselves, their language, their sadness, whatever family they come from, and that it’s going to be honored, and it’s going to be treated with tremendous respect.

Nicolás Kanellos Audio Clip

Read more about Nicolás Kanellos.

Pat Mora is a writer that has united many different populations, but of course, the most important ones are young people and older people. My Own True Name is a book that takes a selection of works from all of her books and provides new poems that she thinks particularly speak to young people. And she has particularly spoken to young people of high school age through her diction, through the themes that she touches upon, and through her insistence in the idea that young people have a culture and that they have an ability to see the world and be able to capture it. She wants to go one step further and encourage them to write. Particularly in My Own True Name, she addresses this.

Q & A with Pat Mora

When did you become interested in writing?
When I was in middle school my family would get LIFE magazine, and on the back page there was always an essay, and I think the author’s name was Shana Alexander. And I would always think, wouldn’t that be great, just to be able to write about anything you wanted and give your opinion? And so that’s really what led to the book of essays, and Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle. Nepantla is a Nahuatl word, so that means it’s from one of the indigenous languages in Mexico. And it means the land in the middle. I had been doing a lot of speaking when I was a university administrator. And I would spend a lot of time preparing these presentations, and I thought, Well, what if I tried to put them down so that people who are interested in working more effectively with Latino students, and hopefully with all students, maybe they would find these of use? And so that’s how the book evolved.

How did My Own True Name evolve?
The book My Own True Name evolved in an interesting way, thanks to a comment by a librarian in California who was aware that I had written poetry for adults and some poetry for children, but her question was, Why wasn’t I doing something for teens? And so that’s really how it evolved. And it was difficult to select the poems. Sometimes I would say to teachers: What is it that you think your students enjoy most from [my books] Chants, Borders, and Communion? And then I had the opportunity to create some poems thinking specifically about teens.

I had written before about indirect address to a young writer and in “A Letter to Gabriella,” which is part of Nepantla: Essays from the Land In the Middle. But I think that in the address, at the beginning of My Own True Name, I let myself be a bit more playful, and I had a very good time with it. I had also spent more time with young people as writers, and so I felt that I had maybe a better sense of what their issues were: their often deep reluctance to see themselves as writers and the huge challenge which we have, as educators, to create a psychically safe place. That’s what I want, a classroom that is so psychologically safe that I can bring you all of me. And there are very subtle ways in which we tell students what we’d rather that they not bring, by the examples that we read. So when I was going through school I was a very good student in English. I never wrote much about being Mexican, being Mexican American. It wasn’t until I was an adult who began to write that I realized that the most exciting thing I had to write about was about being of Mexican descent and coming from the desert. So I want them to feel that they could bring any part of themselves — their language, their sadness, whatever kind of family they come from — and that it’s going to be honored. It’s going to be treated with tremendous respect. And that doesn’t mean that students are not going to be invited and encouraged to improve their work, but that respect comes first. And it is my personal feeling that one of the best ways for that to evolve is for teachers to spend time connecting with themselves. We do not do that enough. Because teachers are so busy. We have so many tasks for them to do. Where is the space for them to think about their own cultural selves? What is it they bring to the classroom? But these are also comments that teachers have made to me, when I say to them, “Tell me where you come from and how that affects what you do in the classroom.” It is when I think about myself and I sort of honor myself and my voice, and I’m curious about myself and my background, that I can be curious about you.

How do you feel about poetry?
Well, I’m interested in three genres and probably always have been. When I look back at sort of notes that I would scribble to myself, when I was a young mother, I would say, This might make an interesting poem. This might make an interesting essay. This might make an interesting children’s book…. I love poetry and always did. I mean, I loved all of the old rhyming poems, and I think that was the initial hook for me. And my hope always is that teachers will be teaching poetry more and all kinds of poetry and that they themselves will be delighting in it, because, of course, students pick up what we love and they sense our excitement. In my travels, because I have the good fortune to visit different kinds of schools, I encounter some teachers who are absolutely wild about poetry, and I have seen some incredible examples of teachers who transform their students, so that all of them stand up and read their poems and define themselves as poets. On the other hand, I meet a lot of teachers who in private conversation say to me that they are very reluctant to teach poetry, and when I have pursued that, they often mention very negative memories about memorizing poems they didn’t really like, feeling uncomfortable when their own English teacher would say, “What does the poem mean?” and hoping that she wasn’t going to call on them. The sense that they feel they don’t write poetry, and so how could they teach it? And it was that reluctance that really got me intrigued with putting together a very brief document for my Web site on poetry power. And [there are] two..things I’m trying to suggest. One is that writing poetry improves your writing because with poetry, every word matters. And if you bring that kind of attention to your prose, you are going to find, Gee, my sentences are kind of flabby. Because after you’ve worked in poetry for a bit, you just feel that, you know? It tightens your writing. I also think it’s important to realize that poetry can be used in all kinds of classes, not only in literature classes. So working with your colleagues in history, or whatever, can be a way to help students realize that literature also crosses. It also crosses these curricular borders. And it helps students understand connections. When I talk about these incredibly dynamic teachers that I have the pleasure of encountering, some of them manage — and I’ve seen it happen with even first graders — to help these students see themselves as poets. And I think that is a kind of intense faith that a teacher gives a student or a class, you know? You are poets, we’re all poets, and what does that mean? And I think it means that we value language, it means that we live attentively, it means that we play with language. It means that we read poetry, you know? It means that we read poetry.

You write a lot about the landscape.
I’m personally fascinated by landscape. So, for example, I might see a mountain and immediately start asking people Well, do you know what kind of stone that is? Do you know — what are the names of these trees? And I’m always saying to students, “You want to learn the names”; which, of course, then we move right into the whole idea of, How do I do that? Well, writing and reading are intensely connected. The best way to improve themselves as writers is to read and read and read and read, and to cultivate a desire for that quiet time. I always tell them, it’s one of my favorite times of the day, when it’s finally my time, you know. In elementary school, students always talk about book joy. You know, that book joy is a particular kind of privilege and pleasure, when you can be alone with a book, and you are happy, you know? I always try to stress that idea of attentiveness and the attentiveness can apply to attentiveness to the world around me, you know? I want to notice the sky. I want to notice the landscape. I want to notice the people. I want to notice the sound. I tell students I am very nosy and a great embarrassment to my children, because I eavesdrop on conversations everywhere. But that’s a good characteristic for a writer. You want to be nosy, you want to be curious, but that means you have to be listening, listening. And that is a challenge sometimes for young people. They are very involved with their own lives, we know that, and it is an inward time, you know. They are figuring out what their identity is, hence My Own True Name. I mean, they are struggling with that. So it’s very hard for them to come out of themselves at times and listen to others — which is not to say that young people are not incredibly compassionate, because I think they are. But we must remind them of their value and create the right space for them to listen. Make it seem natural and comfortable. And I think, of course, that teachers create that climate, you know. I speak to teachers, I tell them, because I believe they are powerful people. And what frightens me is that they may not realize just how powerful they are, that they can open a student up or close a student down and sometimes close a student down for life, with a look, with a remark, you know. It’s like parenting. It can be terrifying how much of an effect we can have on a young person’s life. And, as a writer, what I’m after is your heart, you know? That’s what I want. And we live in a society that asks you to value your mind and not to see emotional knowledge as valuable. And what I want young people to realize is that their emotions are not something to be ashamed of, nor to discard, but something to integrate as part of their, yes, intellectual life. But so much of our society asks us to split that.

Information About Key References

English Language Amendment
This proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution would make English the official language of the United States. Proponents of the amendment want to ensure that English retains dominance in American society. English Plus is an organization dedicated to promoting bilingualism and combating repressive English-only legislation.

An arroyo is a dry riverbed. Arroyos are featured in Pat Mora’s poetry as part of the natural, often magical, desert landscape. Teacher Alfredo Lujan took his students to an arroyo to write.

Acculturation refers to a gradual process of cultural change and adaptation that occurs when groups with different cultural norms come into contact with one another. When one culture dominates in a certain environment, however, the process of acculturation for the subordinate group can be unpleasant and even oppressive. But it is also true that the reverse is happening, that the dominant or “official” culture is absorbing elements of the subordinate culture, although this tends to happen subversively or implicitly.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to "My Own True Name"

Pat Mora’s poetry is explored using a reader-response approach in the Session 1 video. However, students can experience Mora’s work in a variety of ways.

For example, they can take their initial responses to the poetry and use them to formulate a scientific inquiry into desert life. They can explore geography, conservation, and environmentalism and bring their new knowledge back into the reading of Mora’s poetry.

A cultural studies exploration of Mora’s poetry in My Own True Name might find students investigating language differences among old and new immigrants to the United States. Students can take polls, research census data, read newspaper articles, and construct meaning about the current climate of immigration and language diversity in this country.

The cultural studies activity can lead to a critical pedagogical study whereby students explore patterns in U.S. immigration law. As critical pedagogyrequires an activist effort on the part of the class, students can design a variety of ways to assist and befriend immigrant communities through tutoring or creating information booklets describing services, rights and responsibilities for immigrants new to this country.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Mora, Pat. Agua Santa: Holy Water. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
This book of poems focuses on feminist themes, describing the lives of Mexican women, both earthly and celestial. Included along with poetry on motherhood, death, and displacement is a poem about Frida Kahlo and one about an Aztec goddess.

—-. Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Each of these poems is a fervent prayer from the heart of “Aunt Carmen,” a fictional 80-year-old sacristan. Mora pairs each poem with an illustration of a saint carving, which Catholics from northern New Mexico have traditionally created as part of their worship.

—-. Borders. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1986.
In Borders, Mora explores how borders both separate and bring people together, whether they be political, professional, gender-related, or personal borders.

—-. Chants. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1984.
Mora’s poetry focuses on the tension of belonging to two cultures at once, the divisions between people and cultures, family relationships, the desert landscape, and poetry itself. In Chants, Mora’s first book, she explores desert culture and, according to Nicolás Kanellos, publisher of Arte Público Press, acts almost as a “shaman” in imparting a spiritual message of healing.

—-. Communion. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991.
Communion brings Mora’s first two volumes of poetry, Chants and Borders, full-circle by exploring a variety of ways in which people can come together.

—-. House of Houses. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
In this innovative memoir, Mora introduces the reader to her extended Mexican family through a series of first-person narratives. Drawing on Mexican history to tell the story of the family’s narrow escape from Mexico during the bloody days of Pancho Villa and the Revolution, House of Housesthen richly evokes their struggle to begin a new life in the United States.

—-. Nepantla: Essays From the Land in the Middle. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.
Containing essays, speeches, poetry, memoirs, and lectures, this book fleshes out some of Mora’s most familiar subjects, such as bilingualism, women, family, and the need for ethnic groups to preserve their cultural heritage.

—-. My Own True Name: New and Selected Poems for Young Adults 1984-1999. Texas: Arte P?blico Press, 2000.

—-. The Night the Moon Fell: A Maya Myth. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2000.
In this early-childhood tale, Mora retells a Maya Indian myth about the night the moon fell from the sky and broke on the ocean floor. With help from some friends, the moon rises again, new and whole. Evocative illustrations by Mayan artist Domitila Dominguez — who also illustrated La Historia de los Colores (The Story of Colors) by Zapatista rebel Subcomandante Marcos — help bring the story to life.

—-. Tomás and the Library Lady. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
In this award-winning children’s book, Mora tells the true story of author Tomás Rivera, a child of migrant farm workers. Helped by a kind librarian, Rivera discovers the world of books, and his own imagination, at a town library. Rivera’s novel …y no se lo tragó la tierra (…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him) is also featured in Session 4 of this series.


Works about the Author

Barrera, Rosalinda B. “Profile: Pat Mora, Fiction/Nonfiction Writer and Poet.” Language Arts, 75:3 (March 1998): 221-227.
This profile offers biographical information and a critical appreciation.

Hurado, Aida. “Sitios y Lenguas: Chicanas Theorize Feminisms.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 13:2 (Spring 1998): 134-160.
This article considers Mora’s work from an ethnic and feminist perspective.

Mora, Pat. Pat Mora’s Web site.
This site offers samples of work, biographical information, and news.

Rosenmeier, Rosamond. “Three Poets: Three Feminist Worlds.” Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, 17 (1992): 39-41.
This article offers a look at Mora’s treatment of women’s issues.

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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