How Themes Inform the Context: Herrera, Tafolla, and Laviera

Pages: 3
Words: 1298


In literature, poetry is a truly unique phenomenon since, unlike the rest of the genres, it does not seek to tell a story; instead, its purpose revolves primarily around conveying a specific message and appealing to the reader’s emotions. Therefore, the thematic richness of a poem is inevitably connected to it context, informing it and defining the course of its development. For instance, the themes of loneliness and cultural alienation as a result of being placed in a foreign sociocultural context are expressed vividly through the sociocultural problems of Chicano and Latino population in the poems by Herrera, Tafolla, and Laviera. By incorporating rich figurative language and the active use of metaphors and symbolism in their poems Exiles, Compliments, and My Graduation Speech, Herrera, Tafolla, and Laviera define the context of their writing by reminiscing about their personal experiences through the lens of the themes in question.


Being connected thematically, each of the three poems under analysis could be seen as the extension of one another, rendering similar issues from different standpoints. However, to envision the complexity of Latin and Chicano people’s lives in immigration and the challenges that they have faced, starting with the poem that tackles the most difficult them appears to be reasonable. Being extraordinarily jarring and devastating, the need to seek political asylum and the state of being in an exile is, perhaps, one of the most difficult changes that an immigrant can face. Addressing it in his poem, Exile, Herrera connects the themes of loneliness, despair, and loss to his personal experience, thus, making the poem emotionally relatable, as well as historically meaningful.

Herrera (Exiles)

Addressing the complexity of the turbulent political relationships within the Dominican Republic, the poem incorporates the thematic elements of loneliness and the hardships of being placed in an alien environment by portraying the difficulties of being a political refugee. In the specified poem, the theme of the exile defines the context to a tremendous extent since the very notion of an exile does not allow for multiple interpretations. As a result, Herrera chooses to describe his impressions of fleeing from the violence and aggression observed in the Dominical Republic at the time: “They are in exile: a slow scream across a yellow bridge” (Herrera).

Figurative Language and Sensory Details

While the theme and the context remain at the forefront of the poem, the choice of language also defines how the reader relates to the subject matter. In Herrera’s Exile, metaphors are heavily used throughout the poem, creating the much needed sense of dread and despair; for instance, the sea is characterized as “swallowing all prayers” (Herrera). The use of the specified type of figurative language allows introducing additional coarseness into the poem, making it unrefined and rough, which contributes to the overall impression and renders the experiences of dread, hopelessness, and despair that refugees have faced when fleeing to the U.S. in search for a political asylum. Therefore, the figurative language used in the poem supports both its emotional weight and the themes of loneliness and hopelessness that it carries. Likewise, the sensory details, primarily, the visual ones, help to create a jarring impression of the suffering that refugees undergo: “Only tall faceless figures/of pain flutter across the bridge” (Herrera). Therefore, the poem incorporates stylistic choices and sensory information naturally to create a realistic atmosphere.

Tafolla (Compliments)

Continuing the theme of immigration and the sense of being culturally lost, Carmen Tafolla introduces new concepts of cultural belonging in Compliments. In the poem, the author dwells on how some people tend to say that the main character of the literary work does not look Mexican. Even though these words are meant to be praise, the author sees it as a sign of disrespect and the inability to put one’s self into someone else’s shoes (Stringer 31). As a thirty-year-old woman of Mexican descent, the narrator sets the tone for the poem since she does not feel accepted anywhere. Basically, her interpretation of the situation is that many people overlook the true colors of a person while focusing on cultural stereotypes or a person’s exterior. None of the words shared by other people can be seen by her as compliments because they bring her down and feel like a cold shower. Instead of taking her for who she truly is, people keep bothering the narrator with their alleged compliments that serve as more of a pejorative sentence. The central topic of “Compliments” is that one should never lie to themselves since others will always share their masked compliments to hint at cultural and physical differences in order to feel better

Figurative Language and Sensory Details

Similarly to Herrera’s poem, Compliments also utilizes metaphor extensively as the means of conveying the intended meaning of the poem. In fact, the very title of the work, Compliments, is expected to be a reflection on how cultural markers indicating one’s belonging to an ethnic minority are perceived in modern society. Specifically, the word “compliments” has the direct opposite meaning to its usual one in this case. Indeed, the poem contains obvious praise of having little in common with the Latino and Chicano culture, yet Tafolla rightfully outlines that the specified perception of cultural characteristics is hurtful both to an individual and the Latino/Chicano community in general. Specifically, the use of metaphor in the specified case demonstrates how belittling such a compliment is to a Latino/Chicano person. In turn, sensory details appealing to the reader’s sight, namely, age perception based on one’s appearance, convey the complexity of ethnic and cultural perceptions: “They also say/I don’t look Mexican” (Tafolla). Therefore, the poem appeals directly to the visual experiences of the reader.

Laviera (My Graduation Speech)

The ultimate poem to look into when discussing the notions of personality and self-acceptance is Tato Laviera’s “My Graduation Speech,” where the focus is placed on the main character’s sense of identity and his hesitation. Even though the main character’s mother tongue is Spanish, his main concern is whether to write the graduation speech in English or Spanish. He quickly admits that he is from Puerto Rico, but even his own name is pronounced differently when read in both languages (Laviera). The central topic of “My Graduation Speech” is that irrespective of confusion and hesitation, people will always have the opportunity to represent their people and stand with their unique values and aspirations.

Figurative Language and Sensory Details

Finally, addressing the figurative speech in Laviera’s poem, one should mention the use of figurative speech elements that make the message especially meaningful. For example, the poem makes effective use of metaphors to emphasize the connection between the Spanish and English languages: “i wonder if my kink could live/in ponce, mayagüez and carolina” (Laviera). The absence of capitalization also serves a distinctive purpose in the poem, allowing for the maximum expressivity. Finally, sensory details are introduced implicitly through the language switching. Namely, the change in the sensory perception, whether one listens to the poem (audial perception) or reads it (visual perception) creates the needed impression.


Since Herrera, Tafolla, and Laviera apply a range of thematic elements to their poems, Exiles, Compliments, and My Graduation Speech, each of the poets manages to convey an important message by providing corresponding sociocultural contexts. As a result, even though none of the poems renders the same subject matter or issue, the thematic connection between them brings the poems together and allows viewing them as a collective Chicano and Latino experience. Furthermore, the use of figurative language primarily, metaphors, allows enhancing the general experience and provide the shorthand for vital ideas. Therefore, the key emotional beats of the poems are conveyed with impeccable timing, allowing the reader to embrace the complexity of the raised issues while understanding them contextually and, therefore, empathizing with the protagonists.

Works Cited

Herrera, Juan Philippe. “Exile.” Poetry Foundation, 1892.

Laviera, Tato. “My Graduation Speech.” Poetry Foundation, 2014.

Tafolla, Carmen. “Compliments.” Pinterest, n.d. Web.