“Sonrisas” by Pat Mora is a poem that describes groups of women in two separate rooms. The title, “Sonrisas,” means “smiles” in Spanish, however, the poem isn’t only about smiles; it focuses on the activities of two groups of women. The narrator remarks on their conversations, clothing, coffee, and culture. The poem is comprised of two stanzas that have similar words but much different meanings. The themes parallel throughout the poem and are found in similar areas of the separate stanzas. The content of both stanzas are analogous yet, they have striking differences. What is the purpose of having the stanzas in “Sonrisas” mirror each other?
The first stanza, which is an octave, begins with the lines “I live in a doorway/ between two rooms” (Mora, page 528, lines 1-2). While she doesn’t actually live in this doorway, her life is lived between two distinct places. The narrator explains what goes on in the first of the rooms; a professional group of women drink black coffee and discuss “budgets, tenure, [and] curriculum[s]” (lines 3-5). The black coffee shows the blandness and simplicity of the women at work; it is a staple to most people’s work routines and can be found in offices of all kinds. These women are “in crisp beige/suits, quick beige smiles/ that seldom sneak into their eyes” which shows how the atmosphere in the room is professional and serious (lines 6-8). The narrator only hears the occurrences in the room yet she is able to describe what happens within it. This conveys the narrator’s familiarity to the situation.
The second stanza, comprised of nine lines, begins with “I peek/ in the other room” which reflects the opening actions of the poem (lines 9-10). Because the narrator “peeks” into the room, one can infer that she isn’t wholly part of the group of women. The act of peeking shows that the narrator feels as though she cannot completely venture in but she is only comfortable from a distance. The women in the room are not called women, but are called “señoras” instead (line 10). This word choice doesn’t provide a concrete job for the women but it unveils their ethnicity; señoras is Spanish for women.They are wearing “faded dresses” which implies a lower socioeconomic class than the women in the first stanza (line 11). The room is filled with “laughter” and “steam from fresh tamales” (lines 12-13). Unlike the women in the first room, the women in the second room do not mute their actions. However, the women are forced to “scold one another” for laughing too loudly; they attempt to hide their smiles by pressing their lips together to curb their enthusiasm (lines 15-17). The narrator simply “peek[s]” into the second room but she is able to see all of the intricate details about their dresses, milk, tamales, and smiles thus proving her connection to the women inside the room (line 9-17).
Taking a closer look at “Sonrisas,” it is evident that the women are of different ethnic backgrounds in each of the separate rooms. In the first stanza, the women have “beige smiles” (line 7). Beige, which is a light brown color, implies that the women are not white but we are unaware of what ethnicity they truly are. In contrast, we are positive of the ethnicity of the women in the second stanza. The narrator calls the women “señoras” in line 9 and refers to their “Mexican eyes” in line 19. Although the narrator’s ethnicity is unknown, these descriptions imply that the narrator relates to a Mexican background as well as being a mix of cultures.
Another difference between in the poem occurs with the sounds of each stanza. The first stanza repeats a harsh “k” sounding consonant. Mora uses words like “quiet clicks…cups” “coffee, click, click…facts, “curriculum”, “careful” and “crisp” (lines 4-6). Lines 7 and 8 begin a shift to the second stanza because they repeat a softer consonant sound with the repetition of “s”; “suits, quick beige smiles / that seldom sneak into their eyes.” This acts as a transition between the two different rooms because the “s” and “k” sounds are blended together in the last lines. The “s” consonant is repeated through the second octave. The women in the other room are referred to as “señoras” who “stir sweet/ milk coffee” where “laughter whirls” (lines 10-12). The softer consonant is repeated with “sh,sh” and “lips” (line 14, 16). The “s” and “l” sounds make the second stanza more sweeter sounding than the first. The sweeter sounds convey a partiality to the second group of women; the narrator sounds as though she is fonder of the Mexican women and is irritated by the first group.
The sounds while reading or saying the poem are different than the sounds that are caused by the women in the poem. The “click,click” in line 4 represents the sounds occurring in an office, and their discussion topics are about work related issues: “budgets, tenure, curriculum” (line 5). The women in the first room talk only about work which helps us to compare them to the women in the second room where we see more personal interactions. The women in the second stanza have to calm each other down because they’re laughing too loudly. A woman in the room says: “Sh, Sh, mucho ruido” which means “shh, too loud” in Spanish (line 14). These sounds relate to their ethnicity which highlights the situation while they eat tamales and drink sweet coffee.
There are many subtle differences that are seen between the two rooms. The first variation between the groups of women in the two stanzas is seen in their coffee. The first groups of women drink “cups of black coffee” which shows their predictability, hastiness and blandness (lines 4-5). This type of coffee reflects their relationship to work. The coffee is not something that is to be enjoyed in excess, it is just part of their routine because they enjoy its predictability. The Mexican women in the second room “stir sweet milk coffee” which takes more time to make and is more flavorful than black coffee (lines 11-12). This shows their ability to enjoy life.
Another slight distinction is seen in the use of color within both stanzas. The Mexican women in the second stanza “press their lips, trap smiles/ in their dark, Mexican eyes” (lines 16-17). This highlights their loud nature and excitement that the room is filled with. Their dark eyes contrast the “faded dresses” but they are both powerful images (line 11). This contrasts the first stanza where the women are dressed in “crisp beige suits”; the word beige is used again to describe the smiles these women have (lines 6-7). Beige is a bland, plain color that mixes brown and white. This mirrors the emotions of the women in the first room because they are real people mixing changing because work is intergraded into their life.
Both stanzas end by remarking on the women’s eyes and smiles in each room. The first stanza concludes with: “quick beige smiles/ that seldom sneak into their eyes”(lines 7-8). The professional women in this stanza are forced to hide their smiles, and when they do smile, they are not genuine. A genuine smile is seen all over a person’s face, especially in one’s mouth and in one’s eyes. These women do not smile because they are in a serious, work related environment.
The second stanza ends when the narrator describes the women when they “press their lips, trap smiles/ in their dark, Mexican eyes” (lines 16-17). These women are forced to block their laughter by keeping their mouths shut and keeping their smile in their eyes instead of their mouth s and lips. Unlike the first group of women, the women in the second stanza are forced to hold back their enjoyment- they don’t lack happiness, they have an excess of it. The idea of smiles goes back to the title of the poem, “Sonrisas.” The Mexican women’s smiles are more desired because there is joy in their life and in the room that they are in.
Both stanzas of the poem are needed to show the subtle differences of each group. The 2 stanzas complement each other in order to give a more vivid description of the narrator’s life. Because the narrator knows a great deal about each group, one can see that she is deeply connected to both. The poem mirrors itself in order to convey the idea that the narrator’s life is mirrored by the two different groups of women. She belongs to both groups and can relate to the minute details that are distinct to each group like their smiles, culture, coffee, and activities.
Mora, Pat. “Sonrisas.” The Norton Introduction to Literature Portable Edition. Booth,
Alison et al. New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 528.