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Pat Mora has developed one of the broadest audiences of any Hispanic poet in the United States. Her crisp narrative style and the healing messages in her verse appeal to both adult and young readers. As a result, her poems have been reprinted in many elementary, middle, and high school textbooks. While Mora has often been considered a soft-spoken feminist and a regional poet who celebrates life in the desert, her poetic vision has an all-embracing quality. She has written verse that explores the condition of women not only in the Southwest but also in such Third World countries as Pakistan. She has also written deeply humanistic essays and richly diverse children’s literature that both encompasses Mexican folk traditions and addresses such modern topics as adoption.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Patricia Estella Mora was born on January 19,1942, in El Paso, Texas, to an optician, Raul Antonio Mora, and Estella Delgado Mora. She attended Catholic schools in
El Paso and received her higher education at institutions in the city, graduating with a BA from Texas Western College in 1963. After finishing college in 1963 she worked as an English teacher in the El Paso Independent School District and El Paso Community College, and then received her MA in English from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1967. Eventually she returned to the University of Texas at El Paso as an instructor, and from 1981 to 1989 served as a university administrator and museum director.
Mora began publishing poetry in the late 1970s in minor magazines including the Americas Review. Her publications of this period were part of the first wave of the Chicano literary movement. Her first books of poetry clearly indicate her interest in shamanism and biculturalism. Chants and Borders each received the Southwest Book Award, critical acclaim, and a place in college and high-school curricula. Her third book of poetry, Communion, solidified her reputation with scholars and general readers.
Activism and Honors
In 1986 Mora received a Kellogg Fellowship to study national and international cultural-conservation issues. Subsequently, she became a consultant for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and specialized in U.S.-Mexico youth exchanges. In addition to the Kellogg honor, in 1994 Mora received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to further the writing of her poetry, which resulted in the publication of Agua Santa: Holy Water (1995). With her background in education and interest in exploring issues of cultural development and conflict, Mora has become a popular speaker and guest presenter at gatherings of teachers and education professionals around the country.
Family and Relocation
Mora is the mother of three children, William, Elizabeth, and Cecilia, all from her first marriage, to William Burnside. In 1984 she married an archaeologist, Vernon Lee Scarborough, with whom she has traveled extensively. When Scarborough relocated from the University of Texas at El Paso to the University of Cincinnati, Mora made the transition from the West Texas desert to the colder Midwest. Since moving to Ohio, Mora has published several books for children, including A Birthday Basket for Tia (1992), Listen to the Desert (1994), Pablo’s Tree (1994), The Desert Is My Mother (1994), and The Gift of the Poinsettia (1995). She has also produced a collection of autobiographical essays, Nepantla: Essays from the Land of the Middle (1993); a family memoir, House of Houses (1997); and a volume of religious poems, Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints (1997).
Mora now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and continues to write. In 2006 she won the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award and in 2008 won the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Letters.
Works in Literary Context
Mora writes much about the people and landscapes of the American Southwest. She personifies the desert in strong, enduring women such as her grandmother who nurtured her when she was growing up. She seems to find strength in Mexican women to bridge gaps in society, whether by commanding respect in an industry or university boardroom, speaking before an audience of educators, or pursuing relationships with men. Her identification with the desert provides a great deal of the power that Mora brings to her poetry readings, in which she often evokes the image of a shaman or curandera (faith healer), another of her alter egos in Chants.
The Southwestern Landscape
The image of the Desert Mother is the central motif in ”Mi Madre” and became the basis for one of Mora’s books for children, The Desert Is My Mother (1994), which won the Stepping Stones Award in 1995. Of particular significance in Chants, however, is the magical relationship between the poet and the Desert Mother. The poet demonstrates shamanistic abilities, tapping into the mysterious power of the desert, its rhythms, its ability to heal with the herbs that grow there, its warmth, and its toughness and strength.
In ”Legal Alien” Mora uses the metaphor of the border to represent the outsider status of Mexican Americans. She also sees the border in terms of social class and racism—the skin color of Mexicans is a border to Anglos in ”Mexican Maid,” for example, and class differences separate Mexicans from Mexican Americans in ”Illegal Alien.” However, other poems in Chants, such as ”Legal Alien,” and ”Curandera,” depict the borderland as a center of power in itself. No matter how she is using them, Mora is clearly intrigued by borders and interprets them not only in physical but broad philosophical terms.
Having dwelled on the border between Mexico and the United States for much of her life, Mora came to believe that Mexican Americans, no matter where they resided, lived a type of border existence. While the border can provide a vantage point from which to observe and understand two societies, such a perspective tends to make one feel like an outsider. The result, in Mora’s opinion, is that alienation becomes a central condition of the border dweller. Mora has stressed the border as a position of power, a place in which to bridge divisions, heal wounds, and facilitate mutual understanding. This process begins in Chants, in which the inhospitable and uninhabitable borderland is envisioned as a mother who nurtures her children: ”she: the desert / She: strong mother” (”Mi Madre”).
In Chants, Borders, and Communion, Mora also attempts to negotiate the border between the past and the present, so as to draw upon the strong women who preceded her: her aunt, Ygmacia Delgado (whom she and her siblings called Tla Lobo, or Aunt Wolf), her grandmother, and mother, as well as healers and rebels. Mora envisions herself as a link in the tradition of passing on wisdom to her own daughters and to society at large, choosing the best from the past and making what changes are necessary. As she has explained:
To transform our traditions wisely, we need to know them, be inspired and saddened by them, choose for ourselves what to retain. But we can prize the past together, valuing the positive female and Mexican traditions. We can prize the elements of the past as we persist in demanding, and creating, change.
Mora rejects the limited roles society has forced on women in the past, especially those that control their sexuality. Such rituals and practices as burying a female child’s umbilical cord in the house or placing orange blossoms in the hair of a bride are censured in the poems ”Dream” and ”Aztec Princess,” for example.
Works in Critical Context
Mora’s poetry has attracted the attention of Chicano and feminist scholars, along with reviewers from smaller journals who generally appreciate her shamanistic imagery and her idealistic desire to unite and heal.
A reviewer of Chants in Dusty Dog Reviews asserted: ”This is richly feminine poetry, in which a healthy womanly sensuality is being continuously awakened like the living dawn that spreads its westward lights across the world, continuously unveiling a physical magic.” The collection has also garnered the praise from fellow poets, such as Anya Achtenberg who wrote in Contact II (1995), ”Healers, those who restore harmony by bringing together what seems to be separate, often suffer but possess great ‘magic,’ and Mora’s is a healing voice.” Novelist Jewelle Gomez is another of Mora’s admirers— she wrote in Hurricane Alice that ”Mora has a powerful grasp of the music of everyday language, and she is not afraid of dark, complex feelings…. Mora’s simplicity and economy create a haunting sense of timelessness.” GrSmez went on to say that none of the women in Chants ”have been bowed by the weighty roles chosen for them in this society. To be old, to speak only one language, are not stigmas; they are conditions in a natural transitory order. . . . This collection is rich, spirited, promising.”
Bryce Milligan in the National Catholic Reporter found the poems in Communion to be ”powerful, imaginative and well crafted.” In his opinion, ”it is clear the poet is giving birth to a new voice.” In Texas Books in Review, however, Betsy Colquitt found some of the poems in this new voice to be ”more engaged intellectually than emotionally” and suggested that Mora’s best poems were still those that related to the Southwest and her bilingual, bicultural identity.
A Birthday Basket for Tia
Mora’s books for children have been acclaimed almost universally for her sensitive and deft portrayals of Mexican American and Mexican culture. Mary Sarber’s assessment of A Birthday Basket for Tia in the El Paso Herald-Post, for example, could be applied equally to all of Mora’s picture books: ”This is an outstanding addition to the growing body of literature that will help Hispanic children identify with their culture.” Mora’s writing for children has also been praised for helping to bring Hispanic culture to non-Hispanic children.
- Saldfvar-Hull, Sonia. ”Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Edited by Hector Calderon and Jose David Saldfvar. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, pp. 203-220.
- Achtenberg, Anya. ”Healing with Age,” Contact II (1985): 31-32.
- Colquitt, Betsy. Review of Communion in Texas Books in Review (Winter 1991).
- Fox, Linda C. ”From Chants to Borders to Communion: Pat Mora’s Poetic Journey to Nepantla,” Bilingual Review/Revista Bilingue (1996).
- Gomez, Jewelle. Review of Chants in Hurricane Alice (Spring/Summer 1984).
- Milligan, Bryce. Review of Communion, National Catholic Reporter (10 May 1991).
- Murphy, Patrick. ”Grandmother Borderland: Placing Identity and Ethnicity, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (1993): 35-41.
- Passman, Kristina. ”Demeter, Kore, and the Birth of the Self: The Quest for Identity in the Poetry of Alma Villanueva, Pat Mora, and Cherrie Moraga,” Monographic Review, 6 (1990): 35-41.
- Sarber, Mary, review of A Birthday Basket for Tia in the El Paso Herald-Post. Pat Mora Homepage. Accessed December 14, 2008, from http://PatMora.com.
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