JUDITH ORTIZ COFER
Judith Ortiz Cofer's short story "American History" is a coming-of-age tale set in the early 1960s, when racism and segregation were still in full bloom. The story's fourteen-year-old protagonist, Elena, is a Puerto Rican immigrant living with her family in Paterson, New Jersey, when President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Despite this tragic event, Elena is focused on Eugene, her new neighbor and the object of her daydreams. When Elena visits Eugene that evening, she experiences her own personal tragedy in the form of prejudice.
"American History" first appeared in Cofer's collection The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry in 1993. This collection of poetry and prose won two honors: the Anisfield Wolf Book Award in 1994 and a placement on the Georgia Center for the Books Top 25 Reading List. Cofer's story has also been anthologized in the 2002 collection BigCity Cool: Short Stories about Urban Youth, edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss.
Judith Ortiz Cofer is often referred to as a Latina writer because of her Puerto Rican heritage and her emphasis on the Hispanic experience in her writing. She was born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, in 1952. When she was three years old, her family left the island and moved to the United States, finding a home in Paterson, New Jersey. Cofer's father was a member of the U.S. Navy and was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Cofer's mother, who missed her homeland, often took Cofer back to Puerto Rico for extended visits. Sometimes Cofer stayed in Puerto Rico long enough to attend school there. This provided Cofer with the strong bicultural background that is reflected in her writing.
The family moved to Georgia when Cofer was a teen. After graduating from high school, Cofer was accepted at Georgia's Augusta College, where she earned an English degree in 1974. She then attended Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and received a master's degree in English in 1977. A few years later, Cofer took a teaching position at the University of Georgia at Athens in 1984 and, over twenty years later, was the Regents' and Franklin Professor of English and creative writing at the same university.
Cofer's first published works were poems. In 1986, she won the Riverstone International Chapbook Competition with her collection Peregrina. Though Cofer did not stop writing poetry, she tried her hand at writing fiction, which turned out to be a very successful form for her. Her 1989 novel The Line of the Sun received critical attention and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to her poetry and novels, Cofer also has published short stories and essays. She writes for both adult and young adult audiences. In the course of her writing career, she has been honored with numerous awards. Her collection The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993), in which "American History" first appeared, was awarded the Anisfield Wolf Book Award. Her young adult book An Island Like You:Stories of the Barrio (1996) was named Fanfare's Best Book of the Year and was given the American Library Association's Reforma Pura Belpre Medal. Furthermore, The Year of Our Revolution: New and Selected Stories and Poems won the Paterson Book Prize in 1998. Some of Cofer's more recent works include Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000), a collection of essays; The Meaning of Consuelo (2003), a young adult novel; and a 2005 collection of poems, A Love Story Beginning in Spanish.
Cofer is married and lives with her husband, John (also an educator), and daughter, Tanya, in Athens and Louisville, Georgia.
"American History" beings with a description of the narrator's neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1963. The narrator, fourteen-year-old Elena, lives in what she refers to as a Puerto Rican tenement building called El Building. It is an old, rundown apartment building on a busy city corner. Because of the loud music that pours out of the windows, Elena refers to El Building as a "monstrous jukebox." Many of the people who live in this building are recent immigrants, who, according to the author, use the music to help drown out their worries.
Elena's narrative then describes a day when her class in the neighborhood school has been ordered to go outside. Though the students do not know it yet, President John F. Kennedy has just been shot. Shortly after they are sent outside, Mr. DePalma, the physical education and science teacher, as well as the school's disciplinarian, tells the students the shocking news. Some of the students respond with muffled laughter upon seeing DePalma shed some tears. This angers DePalma, and he calls them a bunch of losers. Then he yells at them and tells them to go home.
The students are delighted to be sent home early, especially Elena. She feels constantly humiliated at school, where her peers call her "Skinny Bones." They also make fun of her for her supposed Puerto Rican diet, teasing her about eating pork chops for breakfast. In addition to the jokes that are thrown her way, Elena hates the winter cold. She says she can never get warm no matter what she does. She wishes she were more like the African American girls who seem to have adjusted to the cold, icy winters.
At home, Elena spends a lot of time sitting on the windowsill in her bedroom reading. She likes her perch, which allows her to look down into the neighbor's yard. An elderly Jewish couple once lived in the house next door, and Elena watched them through their kitchen window. She could tell a lot about what was going on in their lives by the activities in their kitchen. When all was well, the husband and wife would eat their dinners together at the table. When one was sick, the other put food on a tray and carried it out of the kitchen. Elena also noticed when the husband and wife appeared to not be getting along well. The husband would leave the kitchen as soon as The meal was done, while his wife would remain at the table, staring into empty space.
There was a long time when Elena did not see the old man. One day, a crowd of people appeared in the kitchen. Later, a middle-aged woman assisted the elderly woman down the steps of the front porch, carrying suitcases out of the house. After that, the house was empty for several weeks. Elena guessed the old man had died.
Elena had watched as the small flower garden in the Jewish couple's backyard slowly wilted. She had thought about going over and watering the flowers. Then she had watched a new family move in: a man, a woman, and a boy who appeared to be Elena's age. She later learned that the boy's name is Eugene. Eugene is not in any of Elena's classes, but she makes a point of bumping into him in front of his locker and walking home from school.
Since Eugene's family has moved in, Elena has noted the changes. First, Eugene's father mows the backyard, which had turned into a mass of weeds. In the process, he has also mowed down all the remaining flowers in the garden. Elena also sees that the family never sits down at the kitchen table together. Eugene's mother, who comes home from work in a white uniform that Elena concludes is a nurse's outfit, sometimes eats at the kitchen table by herself. At other times, Elena sees Eugene sitting at the table alone, reading his books.
Elena and Eugene do not share any classes because Eugene is taking all honors classes. Although Elena gets straight As, she is not allowed to enroll in these advanced classes because English is not her first language. Elena is eager to talk to Eugene, so she nonetheless gathers up all her courage, catches up with him as they are walking home one day, and starts a conversation. She sees that Eugene is a bit shy from the way he looks at her, so she concludes that he, too, must have wanted to talk to her but was too embarrassed to speak up first. Since that day, they have walked home together. They also go to the library together. This makes Elena feel closer to Eugene. She has not told him that she watches him from her bedroom window, though. Now when she looks down and sees Eugene reading at the kitchen table, at least she knows what books he is reading.
One day, Elena's mother catches her staring out of her window. Her mom is concerned that Elena has become "stupidly infatuated." When Elena began puberty her mother became vigilant, afraid Elena might do something "crazy." Her mom constantly talks to her about virtue and morality, which Elena is not very interested in hearing.
Elena and her mother are quite different. Her mother is unhappy in Paterson and wants to move back to Puerto Rico. Elena, though sometimes tired of Paterson, has no fond memories of the island where she was born. All she remembers of her visits there is a bunch of strangers that crowded around her telling her that they were her aunts, uncles, and cousins. She has no dreams of ever moving back to Puerto Rico.
As Elena's relationship with Eugene grows, she longs for him to invite her inside his house. She wants to see all the other rooms of the house she had stared at from her bedroom window. She also wants to sit at the kitchen table with Eugene, just as she had watched the old Jewish couple do. She wants to talk with Eugene about the books they each read. Elena is reading Gone with the Wind. She is fascinated by the Southern culture and the way that the female protagonist lived. Eugene had told Elena that he was from Georgia, and she thinks he might be able to provide some insight into the story, which takes place during the Civil War.
Eugene is not having an easy time at the high school. Students make fun of him because of his Southern accent. They call him "the Hick." Elena is not disturbed by Eugene having difficulty making friends; this allows her to have Eugene all to herself.
On the day that President Kennedy is shot, Elena has an invitation to come to Eugene's house after school. Elena is, of course, very excited. She goes into her apartment to tell her mom she is going to study with a friend. Her mother is mortified. Elena's mother, as well as many of the families in the apartment building, love President Kennedy. They admire him so much that they have placed pictures of him on their walls and prayed to him. Elena's mother, in tears, tells Elena that she should go to church with her that night. Elena says she will go later because she has to first study for a test.
Elena walks out of her apartment building and heads for Eugene's house. The front door of his house is painted green. Elena remembers her mother saying that the color green represents hope. Upon knocking on the door, Elena hears footsteps inside the house. When the door opens, it is not Eugene. It is his mother. At first she is somewhat polite and asks what Elena wants. When Elena says that Eugene has invited her to study with him, the mother replies that Eugene needs no one to help him study. Then the mother points to Elena's apartment building. She asks if that is where Elena lives. Elena glances at the building. From the vantage point of Eugene's house, she notes that the building looks more like a prison than a place where families live. After Elena acknowledges that that is indeed where she lives, Eugene's mother tells her that there is not much sense in her wanting to be a friend to Eugene. The family will soon be moving away. The mother tells Elena not to take her remarks personally. Then she waits for Elena to leave. But Elena is shocked and feels frozen to the ground. The mother's tone becomes less friendly when she asks if Elena has heard what she had said. Finally Elena walks away and, as she does, she hears the green door closing behind her. After she returns home and goes to bed, Elena tries to think about the president but cries for herself instead. Late that night, a streetlight wakes her up. Through her bedroom window, she watches the snow fall.
Mr. DePalma is the physical education and science teacher at Elena's school. Elena also describes him as the disciplinarian. It is to Mr. DePalma that students are sent when they get into trouble. So there appears to be some fear surrounding him, especially in Elena's eyes. When he openly weeps in front of students following President Kennedy's death, some students lose respect for DePalma. Although quietly, some students laugh at him.
DePalma is not very respectful of the students, either. He belittles them and tells them that they are all losers, which does not seem appropriate for a teacher. DePalma exhibits emotions at the death of President Kennedy, but he also crudely spits on the pavement while students are standing in front of him. When he dismisses them from school, he does so with anger and frustration.
Elena is the fourteen-year-old protagonist of Cofer's short story. Elena is in the ninth grade and lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Although she does not feel left out of her peer group at school, she does believe that she does not quite fit in. She mentions only the black girls from school with whom she plays at recess. She does not discuss other Puerto Rican or white friends, other than Eugene. Elena wishes she were more like the black girls, especially regarding their developing bodies, which are fuller than her own. She also wishes she were as agile as they are.
Though she claims she fears being rejected, she is determined enough to pursue Eugene, the new boy who has moved next door to her apartment building. It is not clear if she works hard to befriend Eugene for a relationship or for a chance to see the inside of his house. Elena, as narrator, says little about what Eugene is like. Instead the discussion about him revolves around Elena's fantasy of her and Eugene acting out a scene that parallels one Elena has previously watched—that of the elderly Jewish couple in their kitchen. From her bedroom window, Elena now watches Eugene in a similar way. Her next step is to get invited into his house so she can play out the role of the woman sitting opposite Eugene at that same table.
Although Elena is crushed when Eugene's mother does not allow her to enter the house, the story hints at the fact that Elena is resilient. The reader senses that she will bounce back. Her recovery is subtly conveyed by her watching the snow fall outside her window at the end of the story. She stares up toward the sky rather than looking down at the ground where everything automatically turns gray.
Elena's mother is presented as an adult who is trying to steer her daughter on a course that will avoid heartache. She is worried that Elena is acting rather strange, obsessively watching the house next door, and quickly realizes her daughter is infatuated. Elena's mother also represents the immigrant personality of the first generation. She is more attached to Puerto Rico and the practices of her culture than Elena is. Elena's mother does not want to stay in the United States. She misses her homeland and dreams of returning there upon her husband's retirement. Elena, in comparison, has adapted more to American culture and is working her way into a new kind of life.
In some ways, Elena's mother is similar to Eugene's. Both women do not want to be where they are presently living. They feel out of place and do not mingle with people who are not like them. They both restrict their children, although to different degrees. Elena's mother suggests what she wants Elena to do, whereas Eugene's mother insists on it.
Eugene is Elena's age and has just moved into the house outside Elena's bedroom window. Eugene has no lines of dialogue in this story, and the author provides little exploration of his personality and none of his thoughts. Readers know Eugene only through Elena's observations of him, which are relatively superficial. Readers learn that he wears glasses, speaks with a Southern accent, comes from Georgia, and is somewhat shy. He apparently has no friends other than Elena.
Another characteristic that readers might question about Eugene is the fact that, at the end of the story, he does not come to the door to greet Elena. He is expecting her and probably hears his mother answer the door, but there is no sign of him in the closing section of the story when his mother is shooing Elena away. Of course, Eugene is still young. But his complete disappearance at the end imparts a sense of weakness or fearfulness in his personality. Unless, perhaps, his interest in Elena was only true in Elena's mind.
When Elena describes Eugene's mother, she says that the woman is dressed all in white and somehow looks otherworldly. The woman uses polite words, but underneath these words, Elena senses coldness. Eugene's mother acts as if her life is caught in a sort of limbo. She is living in a place that she would rather forget. Her family will only be there for a short time, Eugene's mother tells Elena, so it makes no sense for Eugene to entertain any attachment to the people in the neighborhood or at school.
Elena, the protagonist of this story, mentions several times that she feels shame—a sense of disgrace or a feeling of inadequacy. She is ashamed of her body, which she believes is too skinny. She is also ashamed of her body's movements, which are at times rigid, jerky, and awkward. Elena talks about her flat chest and wishes she had more feminine curves. She also wishes she had more meat and fat on her bones to keep her warm. Because she is often cold, she cannot keep up with the other girls in her class when they elegantly jump rope. Elena's body is almost frozen stiff, so her movements are anything but graceful. Later, when she is confronted by Eugene's mother and feels self-conscious, she juts her books forward toward Eugene's mother as if this were an accustomed form of salutation. She is nervous and feels ashamed for being so out of control.
Elena is also ashamed of the building that she lives in. The building is big, dark, and dilapidated. Her feelings of shame might also extend to her Puerto Rican culture, from which, at times, Elena tries to distance herself. She refers to the other Puerto Rican immigrants, at one point, as "these people," as if she did not identify herself with them. When she talks about visiting her relatives in Puerto Rico, she calls them strangers. She wants nothing to do with her parents' dream of returning to the tropical island and living in a home on the beach. Elena is not entirely comfortable in her new U.S. city, but she suggests that it is a lot better than living in the place where she was born.
Not only does Elena feel shame, she is shamed by others. She is humiliated by the girls at school who call her "Skinny Bones" and make stereotypical remarks about a Puerto Rican diet. They make jump-rope rhymes about eating pork chops and beans for breakfast. But Eugene's mother delivers the biggest blow when she denies Elena's dream. All Elena wants to do is sit with Eugene at his kitchen table and read or study with him. Eugene's mother bluntly denies Elena access to the house. She, in essence, tells Elena that the young girl is not the right type of person. She lets Elena know that she comes from the wrong kind of family, the wrong kind of ethnicity, and the wrong side of the street.
Although not as significant as the death of the president of the United States, shame can be debilitating. Shame can be self-generated, such as when Elena feels ashamed of her body type, or supplied by another person. Either way, shame eats away at a person's concept of self and can destroy confidence.
Religion and Death
Religion and death are minor themes in this story. Elena mentions going to church, praying, and having altars set up to honor saints and martyrs. The theme of religion is prominent in connection to President Kennedy's death. Death, in this story, brings out a sense of sacredness. Elena's mother is shocked, for example, when Elena thinks more about studying than she does about going to church to honor Kennedy's death and to pray for his family. The rest of the city, from Elena's point of view, is quiet, subdued, and respectful of Kennedy's passing. Although Elena also comes around to the practice of a memorial silence, she does so only after she has been rejected by Eugene's mother. Up until that time, all Elena thinks about is what she wants—to visit Eugene.
Religion and death bring some characters together. The adults turn to religion in their time of sorrow over the death of the president. Neighbors console one another. They meet at the church to pray together. Their problems are put to the side as they contemplate what this loss might mean to the president's family, to the nation, and to them. When contrasted with the death of Kennedy, the humiliation that Elena has endured because of Eugene's mother's prejudice seems minor, at least in the minds of the people around Elena. Of course, Elena might disagree.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Why do you think the author chose the title of this story? What aspects of American history are brought into the story, and how do they affect the characters? Is the title literal or ironic? Direct a class discussion on this topic. Be prepared to introduce related issues and to ask pointed questions to keep the discussion lively.
- Investigate immigration to the United States from Puerto Rico. What are the main reasons for people from Puerto Rico to come to the United States? Are the reasons political, educational, or economic? How many Puerto Ricans immigrated to the United States each decade beginning with the 1930s? What cities and states are the major destinations? Organize your data in into charts and use this material to give a presentation to your class.
- Write an extension of Cofer's short story, creating a scene between Eugene and Elena a week after Eugene's mother has denied Elena access to the house. What would a conversation between Eugene and Elena be like? Would Eugene side with his mother? Would Elena still be Eugene's friend? Write the dialogue as if it were a scene from a play. Ask someone to take one of the roles, and then read your scene in front of your class.
- Interview adult family members or neighbors, asking them about President Kennedy's assassination. Do they remember how they heard about this tragic event? How did they feel? What did they do? How did they think his death would affect the country? What were their thoughts about Kennedy's widow and children? Choose your most interesting interview, and write a first-person narrative retelling the experience from that person's perspective.
- Draw or paint a picture of Elena's neighborhood as she describes it in this short story. Ask a partner to do the same. Then compare your different interpretations. Show the two pictures to your class. Ask your classmates how their impressions of Elena's neighborhood might be similar or different.
Prejudice is a primary theme of the story and one that resonates with the historical setting of 1963, as the civil rights movement in the United States was then at its height. This theme is subtly applied throughout the narrative, culminating at the very end. Before her encounter with Eugene's mother, Elena encounters prejudice, but none severe enough to prepare her for that which she faces at the end of the story. For example, the black girls at school make fun of Elena but focus their taunts on her skinniness. Making a jump-rope song about pork chops and beans (what the black girls assume is a typical Puerto Rican breakfast) reveals some bias, but Elena is still included in the girls' game. Elena might be skinny, cold, and slow when it comes to jumping rope, but she is not sitting in a corner watching the other girls. She is not banned from joining them. So the prejudice does not appear to run very deep in this peer group.
Another hint of prejudice is demonstrated through the character of Mr. DePalma, the physical education and science teacher at Elena's school. He calls the students a bunch of losers when some of the students snicker at his sobs of grief. His outcry may indicate a hidden strain of prejudice that has bubbled up to the surface. DePalma's prejudice might not be based on race, although that is a possibility. It could be a prejudice based on age, though. It is possible that DePalma believes that young people are not very intelligent or feeling.
The most obvious prejudice is exhibited by Eugene's mother. Elena notes that Eugene's mother's attitude is not very friendly from the first moment the woman opens the door. She makes it clear to Elena that she considers herself and her family to be separate from the people who live in Elena's apartment complex. "I don't know how you people do it," she says. The words "you people" put Elena in a different social class, a class beneath Eugene and his family, in the mind of Eugene's mother.
Telling a story from a first-person point of view (using the pronoun "I") pulls the reader in to the story because it seems like the narrator is talking directly to the reader about a very personal experience. Another way of looking at it is that a first-person narration almost reads like someone's personal journal or diary entries.
Readers of first-person narratives are privileged to the intimate thoughts of the narrator. Often the narrator not only relates the actions that make up the story but also the emotions behind her or her own actions. For example, when someone in this story calls Elena "Skinny Bones," readers do not have to guess at how this affects the narrator. Since the story is written in first person, the narrator immediately conveys her reaction. The inner workings of a character's mind can be exposed in third-person narration (using the pronouns "he" and "she"), too, but in that case a narrator outside the story offers this information.
Readers have a tendency to believe that a first-person narration implies that the narrator and the author are one, which is not necessarily true. Although the author did grow up in Paterson, New Jersey, and does come from a Puerto Rican heritage, the story told in "American History" did not necessarily happen to the author. Cofer may have chosen the first-person point of view just to make the story sound more personal, something that may be appealing to teenage readers.
Use of Setting and Imagery
Authors often use setting, or the time and location of the story's events, and imagery, or descriptions of visual elements, to convey a mood or to reinforce a story's themes. The setting of Cofer's short story is rather bleak and dark. The imagery Cofer uses to describe the neighborhood, the school, and the apartment building create a sense of gloom. First, it is late November and very cold and uncomfortable outside. It is so cold that Elena has trouble moving. The skies are dark, and when it snows, the icy crystals change from white to gray because of the dirt and grime of the city. Buildings block the light and warmth of the sun and look like monstrous duplications of ugly prisons.
Through these images, Cofer uses the setting to relate the overall depressive tone of her story. Paterson, New Jersey, is not a friendly or nurturing environment. The winter has curbed all growth. The long shadows and neglect have killed the flowers in the backyard of the house next door. Loud noises from traffic as well as everyone's tape decks or radios blast out jarring sounds that prevent anyone from having peace and quiet in which to think.
The harsh setting is appropriate for this story. It complements the unkind words of the teacher Mr. DePalma and the cruel and unsympathetic comments by Eugene's mother. By combining the uncomfortable setting with the torment that Elena experiences, Elena's condition feels even more pathetic, adding a deeper dimension to her sadness.
In contrast to the dark, cold setting in which Elena spends most of her time is the house next door. When she watches the older couple in their kitchen, a place of warmth and good smells from cooking, she dreams of being married and having someone with whom to share her thoughts. When Eugene finally invites her to the house, one of the first things Elena notices is the green door at the front of the house, a sign, she believes, of hope. However, all hope is dashed when the door is closed to her.
The author interweaves contrasting perspectives throughout her story to heighten the tension that the young protagonist Elena experiences. Teenagers, such as Elena, when passing from childhood into adulthood, often feel quite isolated. They are too old to remain children and must give up the childish comforts of their earlier years. Yet they are not yet old enough to fully grasp the adult world. This feeling of isolation is accentuated in Cofer's story by setting off the adult world from the world in which Elena lives. The author accomplishes this by contrasting the various perspectives of adults and teens.
Cofer separates the teen world from the adult world through Mr. DePalma. He is emotionally disturbed by the assassination of the president. His sobs indicate that he is feeling a deep loss. When a student giggles at his tears, DePalma seems to think the students are too thick-headed to understand what he is going through. DePalma then lashes out at the teens and attempts to put them in their place—a place beneath him. His angry words are an effort to remind the teens that he is the boss and that they have no right to make fun of him. They have crossed some imaginary boundary between the teen world and adulthood, which in DePalma's mind is an offense.
Elena's mother also makes a distinction between the worlds of adults and teens. In her adult world, due respect must be paid to the dead, and it must be paid according to adult rules. She can hardly fathom that Elena would do anything but go to church with her and pray after President Kennedy's death is announced. She believes her priorities are right and Elena's are wrong.
Eugene's mother believes that she has the right to choose her son's friends. She thinks that her discriminations are in her son's best interests. In some cases, this might be true. One could suggest that since adults have more experience, they may be better judges; however, Eugene's mother jumps to conclusions about Elena's worth based on where she lives and without consulting Eugene. She says her son is smart, implying that Elena is not. She attempts to narrow Eugene's world according to her own perceptions.
By presenting adult perspectives that contrast with Elena's, readers experience the sense of adult domination in the teenager's world. This helps them to empathize with Elena's frustrations.
Coming-of-age fiction revolves around a teenager or adolescent on the cusp of adulthood. The protagonist might be naive about life and the world in the beginning, but as the story progresses, the character learns a lesson that helps her mature. In this story, Elena progresses from a young teen who is just beginning to learn about womanhood to a young woman who has experienced her first real heartbreak. She is fourteen and embarrassed of her flat chest. She wants to have a more womanly figure. In other words, she is ready to shed childhood. She thinks a lot about her future as she watches the older Jewish couple next door. When she fantasizes about her relationship with Eugene, she dreams about their friendship, but her first goal is to get inside that house where Eugene lives. She wants to sit down with Eugene at the kitchen table. She also wants to explore the other rooms of the house, rooms that she has not been able to see from her bedroom window. She has hope, symbolized by the green front door on Eugene's house, that she will become a woman one day, perhaps happily married and living in her own house.
The prejudice and bias she experiences teach her that dreams present challenges that must be overcome. Since her mother warned her that her way to Eugene's house may be blocked, Elena may also have learned that mothers sometimes have knowledge to share.
Elena may have learned a more subtle lesson, as demonstrated in the last few lines of the story. She watches the snow fall and she seems to indicate that she understands there are two ways to look at events in one's life. Elena stares at the snow as it floats high in the air, where it remains clean and white. She refuses to look at it as it touches the ground and turns gray. She does not want to look down where the dirt and other pollutants turn beautiful things into something ugly. This could mean that she is keeping her dreams, or even her dignity, intact, no matter how hard other people try to corrupt them.
Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was touring Dallas, Texas, in a convertible limousine. Although Lyndon B. Johnson, a native of Texas, was Kennedy's vice president, the Democratic pair had almost lost Texas in the 1960 presidential vote. Kennedy went to Texas to help gain support for the next election. The governor of Texas, John Connally, was sitting in front of the president as their car, which also carried Connally's wife, Nellie, and the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, when shots rang out. It was a little past 12:30 p.m. The first shot hit President Kennedy in the back. The same bullet also hit Governor Connally. A few seconds later, another shot hit Kennedy in the head. Kennedy was rushed to the hospital. He was still technically alive, but he had no chance of survival, as the wound to his head was too great. He was officially pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m. Thirty minutes later, a public announcement was issued stating that the president of the United States had been assassinated. At 2:00 p.m., the president's body was taken to Air Force One, the official presidential plane. Vice President Johnson, who had also been in the motorcade but was unhurt, was also taken to the plane and at 2:38 p.m. was sworn into office as president.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960s: The citizens of the United States are shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The country mourns the loss of its leader.
1990s: Several devastating events evoke national mourning: the bombing in Oklahoma City, the bombing during the summer Olympics in Atlanta, the bombing of U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, and the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Today: The citizens of the United States mourn the loss of thousands of victims of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Other tragedies such as the 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University unite the nation in mourning.
- 1960s: The U.S. population reaches 200 million in the mid-1960s. According to the PEW Hispanic Research Center, of that number, 8.5 million are Hispanic.
1990s: In the mid-1990s, the U.S. population reaches 260 million. More than 22 million people who claim a Hispanic heritage live in the United States.
Today: In the mid-2000s, the U.S. population reaches 300 million. Of that number, 44.7 million are Hispanic.
- 1960s: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill introduced by President Kennedy in 1963, is passed, outlawing segregation in schools, public places, and employment. Prejudice is common in America, and numerous riots over civil rights take place.
1990s: Affirmative action, a process by which formal steps are taken to represent women and minorities in employment and education in order to promote integration, is under attack, as some legislators claim these special considerations are unfair. While some racial prejudice still exists, it has become politically and culturally unacceptable.
Today: The protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are applied on the basis of race and gender but not sexual orientation. Prejudice is a topic of public debate in relation to gay marriage and unauthorized immigration.
The casket with the president's body was later placed in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for public viewing. Long lines of mourners wrapped around the building and into the streets. Hundreds of thousands of people wanted to pay their last respects to the young president. On November 25, government officials from ninety different countries came to Washington, D.C., to attend the president's funeral. Huge crowds formed on the sidewalks outside as the president's casket was pulled by a horse-drawn carriage from the church to Arlington National Cemetery, where Kennedy's body was laid to rest. As a monument to the president, an eternal flame was installed near his grave.
Lee Harvey Oswald was the presumed assassin of President Kennedy. He was arrested and was being transferred by the police two days later when Jack Ruby stepped out from the crowd and shot Oswald. Oswald claimed he was innocent but never went to trial. Although the government conducted investigations under the Warren Commission and concluded that Oswald was the assassin, controversies about Kennedy's death remain.
Paterson, New Jersey
Paterson, New Jersey, was once considered one of the major building blocks of the American industrial revolution. The city was specifically planned to be one of the greatest industrial centers in the United States. The Passaic River, upon whose banks the city was founded, has seventy-seven-foot-high waterfalls that provide the power to run many of the country's textile mills. At one point, the city was nicknamed Silk City because of its high production of silk. Later, other manufacturing plants, such as gun and railroad engine makers, built large plants in Paterson.
In 1792, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, formed an investment group called the Society of Useful Manufactures. Money that was collected by this group was used to fund the planned industrial city. The city was named for William Paterson, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who served as the second governor of New Jersey.
In the twentieth century, economic depression spread across the city. Many of the manufacturing factories were shut down as jobs were sent overseas to countries that could produce the goods less expensively. By the 1980s, Paterson was known as one of the most distressed cities in the United States. Unemployment rates soared. Even though Paterson had at one time been the central location for shopping for many northern New Jersey residents prior to the 1980s, new localized shopping malls were built in almost every little town, and people from outside of Paterson stopped coming. Many of the stores in Paterson thus were forced to close.
In the early twenty-first century, parts of Paterson have been experiencing a rebirth. In the Great Falls Historic District, artists have set up a thriving community. The changing character of the city is luring visitors and tourists back.
The 2006 U.S. Census estimated the city's population at just a little less than 149,000 people, which means that Paterson is New Jersey's third largest city. Long known for its ethnic diversity, Paterson is home to large numbers of African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Of the Hispanic group, many have cultural roots in Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Often, people immigrated because they suffered from poor economic opportunities in their homeland. Due to the expanding businesses, such as the booming industries in Paterson, many employers sent representatives specifically to Puerto Rico to recruit workers. Like other Puerto Rican immigrants, Cofer moved with her family from Puerto Rico to Paterson.
Paterson has many different pop culture distinctions. William Carlos Williams, the famous American poet, wrote an epic poem, "Paterson" about the city. Also, the 1989 movie Lean on Me was based on the life of Joe Clark, a principal at Paterson's Eastside High School.
Twentieth-Century Latina Writing
Along with the civil rights movement of the 1960s came increased awareness of ethnic groups other than the Caucasian culture that dominated much of the U.S. media. This spurred an interest in ethnic diversity in the world of literature. Publishers sought stories composed by African American, Asian American, Native American, and Hispanic American authors due to an increasing demand for such books. College campuses all over the United States began to offer courses in multicultural studies. In this atmosphere, writing by American authors with non-European backgrounds flourished. This trend has continued, and Latina literature has been one of the fastest-growing areas of U.S. literature in the early twenty-first century. Some of the prominent Latina authors aside from Cofer include Isabel Allende, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Cristina García, Rosario Ferré, and Magali García Ramis.
Although Cofer's writing has earned the author many awards, most of the critical attention on her work is focused on her novels. There are, however, a handful of reviews on her short story collection The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry as well as the anthology Big City Cool: Stories about Urban Youth, both of which include "American History."
In 1994, shortly after Cofer's book The Latin Deli was published, Michael J. O'Shea, writing for Studies in Short Fiction, pointed out that other reviewers might have overlooked this collection because it contained not only short stories but also poems and essays. Other reviewers, O'Shea claimed, might also have dismissed the collection because it dealt with Puerto Rican themes. However, O'Shea argues that the poems and the essays inform the short stories, thus making the stories richer and the collection a cohesive unit. Furthermore, he states that even though the characters in the stories are Puerto Rican, the issues that they confront are challenges of human affairs. O'Shea comments that the book presents "profound, poignant, funny, universal and moving epiphanies." O'Shea adds that Cofer is "an author worth knowing."
Darren Crovitz, writing for the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, reviews the anthology Big City Cool. Although Crovitz does not single out "American History," he does distinguish the book as one that presents entries on a common theme: "the problems, challenges, and triumphs of urban youth." The young protagonists in these stories, Crovitz writes, discover "who they are." Crovitz described the stories in this anthology as "engaging," "colorful," "noisy," and "invigorating."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In her memoir Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990), Cofer writes that she learned her storytelling skills from her grandmother. In this collection of essays, the author recalls time spent listening to her grandmother telling stories as well remembering stories from her youth spent in Paterson, New Jersey.
- Esmeralda Santiago also has written a memoir of her childhood, which she shared with her seven siblings. In her book When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), Santiago recalls what it was like growing up both in both Puerto Rico and New York City.
- Julia Alvarez wrote How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), a collection of stories about four sisters from the Dominican Republic, their immigration to the United States, and their rebellious natures.
- House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros contains stories about difficult times in a Hispanic community in Chicago.
Hart is a freelance writer and author of literary essays and several books. In this essay, she examines the theme of isolation in "American History."
Isolation is a subtle but pervasive theme in Cofer's short story "American History." It is present when the teenage protagonist and narrator is at school and when she walks home in the afternoon. She seems to feel cut off from her surroundings no matter where she is. She is separated from the people in the street, from the people playing the music that streams out of her apartment building, from her peer group at school, and from her parents. This isolation has many different sources. Some of it is due to cultural differences, such as the ridicule she receives from the girls at school. Another source is the result of age difference, such as the gulf between Elena and her teacher, Mr. DePalma, and Elena and her parents. Yet another cause of this sense of isolation is prejudice, such as that displayed by Eugene's mother toward Puerto Ricans. But in some ways, the isolation is self-inflicted, as Elena seems to purposefully place herself in what could be called a protective blanket of seclusion. In this way, Elena has separated herself from the people and the world around her.
Elena lives in a new country, one in which she and her parents were not born. Whereas her parents lived in Puerto Rico until adulthood and therefore have developed roots in that country, Elena barely remembers anything about that island home. She is only fourteen, so she has not had enough time to truly define and understand herself, let alone this new environment. Since her parents are forever longing to go back to Puerto Rico, Elena has no one to help her adjust.
At school, Elena does not fare much better. She is uneasy and sometimes even ashamed because she is not like the other girls around her. She is too thin and not womanly enough, while the other girls have begun to develop. Neither is she one of the fancy-footed African American girls who far outshine her in jumping rope. Elena can barely even twirl the rope. She is often cold, whereas the other girls hardly seem fazed by the harsh winter weather. Although the girls invite her into their circle, they continue to tease her. They point out the differences between her and them. When Elena befriends Eugene, the taunting intensifies. Eugene is too Southern for the other students' taste. His Southern drawl, though it sounds melodious to Elena, irritates the other students. They make fun of him, too. They have nicknames for both of them, which crowns Elena's and Eugene's friendship with mockery.
Even when she is at home, Elena is disquieted and ill at ease. The building she lives in she likens to a monster and a jail. She refers to her neighbors as "the residents" or as "these people" as if she were not a part of them. She merely observes them and tolerates them as if she wished she lived somewhere else—perhaps in the house next door, where Eugene lives.
Inside her family's apartment, Elena isolates herself. She spends a lot of her time in her bedroom, where, at first, she watches the elderly Jewish couple. This Jewish couple has taken on the role of Elena's retreat from the world. She loses herself in imagining their story, just as she accuses her apartment neighbors of losing themselves in their loud music. Elena's withdrawal, though, is visual, like someone watching a silent television show. Not only does she watch them from a distance, but she does so completely concealed. She maintains only a one-sided relationship, watching them without their awareness. She not only observes them, she makes up her own stories about their lives. She speculates as to when the couple is having a disagreement by the way they treat each other at the kitchen table. She also guesses when one of them is sick in bed. She even guesses that one of the women who comes to visit is the older woman's daughter. She then guesses that the old man has died. None of these conjectures are proven by facts; they are all the fruit of Elena's fantasies, a world that she controls. She can imagine anything she wants. Since she does not interact with the real life characters, she does not have to confront any contradictions that might exist between her imagined stories and the truth of this couple's life. The elderly couple does not know she exists. Elena seems to like it this way.
Elena's mother is one of only two characters for which the author creates dialogue with the protagonist, and this dialogue is brief. Throughout the story, the author interjects brief bits of conversations between Elena and her mother, but she does so to describe the divide between them. Elena's mother is a religious woman who dreams of returning to Puerto Rico. Elena keeps her distance from her mother's church and religious beliefs and will not even consider living in Puerto Rico again. Elena is determined to remain in the United States and go to school so she can become a teacher. No other relatives seem to live in the United States, so if her parents leave, Elena will have to stay behind, alone.
However, her college days are still a long time away. In the present moment of the story, Elena has another dream to fulfill. After Eugene moves into the house across the street, seeing him becomes, according to Elena, the "one source of beauty and light" in her life. As the story progresses, though, it does not seem that Eugene is the primary source of Elena's projected joy. Eugene is simply the key that unlocks the hidden treasure of Elena's long fantasy of the house next door.
Elena puts aside her anxieties of being rejected and pursues Eugene. She finds out what classes he is taking and locates his locker. She makes a point of making sure he sees and recognizes her. Then one day, she approaches him. To her surprise, Eugene seems to like her. They hang out together as they walk home from school. They go to the library together. But what kind of relationship do they have? Elena does not talk very much about him. There are no conversations between them that the readers are privy to.
Surprisingly, readers see Eugene only vaguely. Just as she had observed the elderly couple, Elena now observes Eugene and his family from a distance, unbeknownst to them. She notices Eugene's mother and father as they sit together in the backyard. She comments that the family never eats together in the kitchen, but Elena does see Eugene sit at the kitchen table to read. Elena's greatest desire is to be at that table next to him. She wants to sit with him just as the Jewish wife used to sit with her husband. This desire of hers makes Elena's relationship with Eugene seem distant and concealed, like her past fantasies. She does not mention wanting to hold his hand, nor do they share secrets or dream of going to a movie together. Her fantasy is born with a lot of space between them, from Elena's bedroom window looking down to Eugene's kitchen window. What is more telling about Elena's relationship with Eugene is that she hopes to finally see all the other rooms in the house through her friendship with him. All those rooms that have been hidden from her will finally be revealed, as if to complete the stories she's been watching through the kitchen window. It seems that the house, not Eugene, is the true the source of light in Elena's life. Eugene may be merely the means of entry to the house that Elena has been fantasizing about for so long. Elena may not be ready to unwrap the blanket of isolation that she has used as a cover to protect herself. Yet revealing oneself is what real friendships are all about. Is Elena merely pretending Eugene is her friend? Is she afraid of opening up to anyone?
The story ends with Elena back at her bedroom window. Once again she is alone. She appears to be more comfortable up in her room, detached from her surroundings and the people who inhabit them. She might feel safer staring up into the sky. For Elena, it might be easier to dream while staring at the snow falling from the clouds rather than looking down at the ground where her ordinary, day-to-day life takes place. Readers might wonder if the ground, or life, is too dirty, or difficult, for Elena to come in contact with it.
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on "American History," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt from an interview with Crumpton, Cofer asserts that stories provide for writers and readers alike a sense of who they are, arguing that she is driven by a "need for narrative."
…Margaret Crumpton: What was the first thing you ever wrote that made you think, "I can be a writer?"
Judith Ortiz Cofer: I don't recall having that response to my work. In fact the doubt that I face every day when I turn to the blank page makes me feel like what I'm about to say may be an exaggeration (laughs), but I think that the way that publication works for a literary artist is to reinforce the idea that the world may be willing to lend an ear. So I think that the first time that I considered myself as a real writer, as opposed to a closet writer or a potentially failed writer, was when my little poem "Latin Women Pray" was accepted by a national journal. Before then my early poems had been published in college journals and other highly specialized short lived publications, but this was accepted by the New Mexico Humanities Review, which was a nationally recognized literary journal. That gave me a feeling that my work had made it out into the world; it will actually exist beyond the moment. And so at that moment I think I said to myself "I can be a writer," and that lasted until I faced the next blank page….
Crumpton: I am curious about your economy of language. You say in another interview that "poetry contains the essence of language. Every word weighs a ton," and I think this is especially true in your own poetry. It amazes me that there is so much meaning in poems that are really not very long at all. This is also true for your titles (like the story "American History" for example), which almost always mean two or more things at once. My question is, how do you get words to mean so much?
Cofer: That is a very difficult question, but frankly one of the obsessions that I work with—I always tell people that the older I get the more I realize that there are only, like, three or four obsessions, but I am going to get everything I can out of them. One of them is with the power of language. And words are, of course, the material of language. Language has the power to empower and to diminish, and as I examine each word I try to determine (perhaps not in a conscious way but in the way that the mind works when you are using words to construct art) "how much can a word contain?" I read constantly about language. I'm fascinated by the development of language. After all, even those of us who read only one book know that it begins with "in the beginning was the word." And from that word came story. And so it fascinates me to think that if all of creation can be encompassed in a narrative, surely we are wealthy if we possess a language. And so when I decide, particularly on a title, I ask myself "how much can three words carry?" so that after the person has read the poem or the story they can go back to the title and say "well I can see how that doesn't just mean American history—it can mean many things." I think that comes not only from my work as a writer but from my study of literature, where, as you know being a critic and a scholar, you examine each line for how much power it gives to the work of art….
Crumpton: Your latest book, Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer, is a beautiful collection of essays that explores your development as an artist. This theme is present to a greater or lesser extent in almost all your books. Would you say that it is the most important story you have to tell?
Cofer: I choose to interpret this question as "what is the most important story I have to tell?" And I have decided that, really, all of my stories are about storytelling. Even the novel ends with an admission that it was just a story. And a story can always be changed and modified. I feel that "story," our sense of who we are and who we are to become, our story, is the single most important intellectual possession that we have. And I think that story is not just an individual thing. It has shaped the human race. We have a creation story from every group in the world. I am fascinated by the fact that most women that I meet have a birth story that was given to them by their mothers. They were always the smallest child, the biggest child, the child that almost died, the unexpected child, the child of my youth, the child of my old age. And that has shaped that person's perception of him or herself going through life. I think that my main theme is story. The stories that I have heard, the stories I made up, stories I will make up—what shape will they take? They may take shape as poems or essays or stories, but I realize that, at least for myself, without a sense that the story continues, I cannot see myself in the future. Other people don't think of story in such a conscious way. I think that writers are always thinking of their story. I always laugh when I hear the stories about how writers collected their stories. Like the great late Raymond Carver, who would get his friends to tell stories and then say "are you going to use that?"—like you say "are you going to eat that, can I take your french fries?" And he would take it home and make it his story. I think we are driven by our need for narrative. At least I am. If there is anything that I can say is the main topic for my stories, it's my need to tell stories.
Crumpton: Better answer than the question …
Cofer: No, no, I'm really thinking about your questions. Look at The Latin Deli story "Not for Sale," for example. That story's about the Scheherazade complex. And who was Scheherazade? Scheherazade is the woman who told stories to save herself and to save others. My mission is not quite so urgent; no human lives that I know of are dependent on my telling a story, except for one. Mine. It doesn't mean that I will physically die if I don't tell stories, but I know that I would cease to be interested in the shape of my days as much as when I'm telling a story.
Crumpton: Regarding your development as an artist, you have written about all the influences in your life—your grandmother's stories and women writers like Woolf and O'Connor, etc.—but now you are in the position to influence a new generation of writers through your work and through your role as a professor of creative writing. What would be the most crucial advice you would give to would-be writers?
Cofer: To would-be writers I would say, "don't do it unless you absolutely need to." (And they're not always young, by the way. One of my older graduate students pointed out that she really bristles when someone says, "this is dedicated to young writers"—she's in her forties and she just started to write. One of my best friends didn't publish her first poem until she was fifty, but then she published it in The New Yorker.) So I would say to a new writer, unless you want to be haunted by this phantom specter, by this thing that lets its presence be known in your life on a daily basis, unless you want to give your best hours to this, and the best years of your life, don't do it. And the best way to find out if you can do it is to treat it as a discipline. Books just don't get written as a hobby. Good books at least. Yes, I mean good books (laughs); some really bad books have been written as a hobby! I would tell them to think of it as if your doctor said that unless you do yoga and meditation every day, you're going to die in two years. Think of it in those terms, and give yourself the discipline of making writing a part of your life. If you cannot bear it, if you can always talk yourself out of it, if you find that you'd rather be doing almost anything else but working on that story or that poem, don't declare yourself a writer. Declare yourself something else. Something easier, an investment banker maybe, and you will lead an easier life. But if you find that need to write, then it will become the most satisfying, the most irritating, the most wonderful, and the most devastating thing that you have ever done. Because every time you write something and it's good, if you share it with the public, they'll expect you to write something better next time (laughs). It becomes then this daily struggle to keep up with your own standards, no one else's. And yet, my bad days begin when I don't have time to write.
Crumpton: I'd like to end this interview with a question about a particular poem. Your first poem in The Latin Deli is called "The Latin Deli, an Ars Poetica." Could you discuss why this is your ars poetica?
Cofer: As I was putting together The Latin Deli, I asked myself what my writing ought to do. I realized that my goal was very humble. It was basically to create work that found its center in the joyous things in life. And in the sadness too, in everything that allows us to believe that we are fully alive. That brings to mind what Robert Frost said: "the good poem always begins in delight and ends in wisdom." And I think delight meant an engagement, a full engagement, in life. If I am a poet at all, I am not a poet of the metaphysical. I'm not a philosopher. I like to think of myself as someone who is fully engaged in life and occasionally finds reasons to write either a celebration or an elegy about what happens around me. In this poem what I was trying to do was to celebrate the fact that we can find "home," that idealized concept of that place where you can always return. (Once again, misquoting the great Frost, "The place you haven't to deserve" is what he said home was.) And you can make that happen through your senses. For many of us who are from another place, that happens through food. And this poem was really a search for that place, that sacred place, where someone would come up and say to you "are you nostalgic? Do you need to be in touch with your mama and with your home? Let me show you what I have." And it will be the time machine, the vehicle that will take you back. I found such a place, really just a hole-in-the-wall bodega, in Atlanta, and the woman was a smooth operator, not a high priestess, but I decided this hole-in-the-wall temple and this good business woman/high priestess were going to have to do for my trip home. And so I wrote this poem in which I talk about this Latin bodega, a place where you went in and the smells of home assaulted you and took you back.
Source: Margaret Crumpton, "An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer," in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 93-109.
In the following excerpt from an interview with Kevane, Cofer discusses her poetry and prose collection The Latin Deli, describing the differences between the process of writing poetry and that of writing prose.
… [BRIDGET KEVANE]: You once said that you don't believe in the muse. Why?
Although my writing gives me a spiritual life, I don't depend on anything extraordinary or supernatural or this thing called inspiration, which I believe is something other than what most people think it is. In my essay "5:00 A.M." in The Latin Deli, I said that for me the mysterious part is why I need to write. I need to write like some people need to run, like some people need to play a musical instrument, or like some people need to cook as a form of self-expression. Actually, I don't write for self-expression but for self-discovery. I started giving myself an assigned time, which was five to seven in the morning before my child got up and I had to prepare for my job and everything else. I found that I could will myself to be creative at that hour and that it was a process very similar to exercise. I don't like to exercise, but at a certain point in my day I say that I'm going to do an hour of exercise because I need to. If I don't, I'll regret it and my day will be less than it should be. So I found that it's a combination of the mystical and the practical.
I've always known that if I don't carve a little time for myself, then I won't write. And it's not inspiration. I always tell my students that if the muse does exist she's female and only goes to writers on the West Coast, male writers on the West Coast, who can make her famous in Hollywood. But seriously, I believe that inspiration is actually the culmination of a process of gestation. I believe that I start thinking about something I want to do and it obsesses me. I take notes on cards and put them in my purse, and at a certain point I need to sit down and work on it. For me, that's the point that most people call inspiration. But it's not a thunderbolt. It's been happening. You've been programming your brain, you've been getting ready for that moment. It's more of a natural than a supernatural process.
BK: Is writing a process you enjoy?
Who said I enjoyed writing?! [Laughs] I think that writing is one of the hardest, most painful of human endeavors. When I said that I experienced a moment of joy, the pain I have to go through for that moment of joy is only sometimes worth it. Because sometimes you go through the pain and the moment of joy doesn't come. What I'm saying is that I'm like that runner who is addicted to the high on reaching that third mile. Before then, of course, every bone hurts, every muscle hurts, and then there's that moment when those endorphins are released. But it's always a fearsome proposition to begin something new, and so the answer is no, I don't always enjoy writing. Some days I wish I could put my energies and intelligence into real estate! I'd be rich if I put into examining the stock market all the effort I put into writing a poem.
BK: But there must be some reward for all the effort in writing poetry?
For me, it's become like deep analysis. When I start thinking of a poem somehow my synapses connect and lead me to a place where I don't normally wander into. I know a poem works if it surprises me, if I discover something. The same thing happens over and over, and I always feel a sense of release and almost intense joy for a moment when that happens. Because I know that even if the poem never gets published, even if no one else ever reads it, it has shown me something. The discoveries are not earthshaking. They're discoveries that most people make if they lead examined lives over a long period of time. If you can make them into universal discoveries, then they become art.
BK: Is there a similar process in writing a novel?
It's a similar process but not as intense. I think that the poem is the hardest thing to write. That's why when people ask me to talk about writing I always talk about the poem. It's like comparing brain surgery to any other surgery. Both operations are difficult, but one requires the skill of a diamond cutter. For me, writing a novel is a long commitment to a project and writing the poem is a rush of energy. Even though I revise the poem extensively and sometimes don't let it go for a year, it's still working with the minute. With a novel, you can delete a hundred pages and it can stand that. The patient won't die. With a poem, you can revise it into oblivion or you cannot revise it enough, and it's never quite clear to you whether you have or not.
BK: Which writers have served as models for you?
When I'm addressing a Latino audience and they ask me about models I pause because I know that they want me to say that my models were Puerto Rican writers. I can't say that. Because if you're talking about the models that formed me as an artist twenty years ago, well, there was no big multicultural drive in the United States, there were no Latino studies, nothing like it. In fact, when I was in graduate school, studying American and British literature was the only way that I could do what I wanted to do. Spanish literature from Spain did not represent my interests as closely as did American literature. My only model was Virginia Woolf, because she was the only woman who was allowed on the syllabus. But I didn't feel the shock of recognition until I happened to take a course in Southern literature where I encountered the work of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. I realized that these were women writing about ordinary lives that they had transformed through art. They weren't rich British women who could be counted among the world's Dead Englishman geniuses; these were women who were writing about family, land, religion. I would say Flannery O'Connor was the first one to give me that jolt, and years later, Alice Walker. Then followed Toni Morrison, because once you get into that era, then African-American and other people start publishing. But it wasn't until Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize and the so-called Latin American literary boom, when other Latin American writers were "discovered" by American publishers, that we then got Isabel Allende and other people in translation. It's been a long road. Now I do seek out and read the works of Puerto Rican women on the island.
I had one young person ask, "Was Sandra Cisneros your model?" I had to say, "She is a few years younger than I am!" We started publishing around the same time, she and Julia Alvarez and I. Esmeralda tells me that she used Silent Dancing as a model for when she began writing, so I'm already at that stage where my work is being used as a model! I have had the distinction, if one can call it that, of having been one of the original Puerto Rican writers writing in English, as opposed to being translated, or Latina writers in English. I had to make do, and it hasn't hurt me. I find that I can put into my work many things because I'm aware of the mainstream and have studied contemporary literature by all writers, not just limiting myself to Latino studies, because I think a writer needs to absorb everything.
JH: Your situation sounds like it's in harmony with Chicana writers like Cisneros and Viramontes who were reading a variety of authors as well.
Right, because we didn't have other people. And I think that it's wonderful to have African-American studies and Latino studies, but there's also an inherent danger in that if we're going to create a new generation of writers these studies need to be more interdisciplinary. These writers have to be aware of people like Cormac McCarthy and other fabulous writers who are changing the English language. How can we be innovators if we don't see what's being changed?
In my classes I teach American literature, which includes Cisneros and Gary Soto and Joy Harjo. The Library of Congress defines as an American writer a person writing in English within the boundaries of the United States who's an American citizen. So we're not minority writers, we are American writers who happen to belong to ethnic minorities. I've taught English for almost twenty years from instructor to professor now. My love is literature in all its forms by all its practitioners. But they always have to meet the criteria of excellence that I learned early to apply. I don't teach anyone because it's politically correct. I teach only those writers whose work I can justify to my students.
BK: Any examples you care to mention of what's politically correct that you refuse to teach?
No! I don't think I want to do that. I think that that would be very offensive to people out there. I would really just rather concentrate on the positive. The publishers are at fault in many ways because if a book becomes a best-seller or there's a popular trend to publish a particular kind of writer, then all of the sudden we have five books by five writers that are supposed to be like the other one. They'll say, "If you've read and loved so and so, you will love so and so." I don't think, for example, that you can compare Alice Walker to [Terry] McMillan. You know what I mean? They're just completely different!
Well, those two I have a little more trouble with because I enjoy Amy Tan tremendously. But Maxine Hong Kingston was a crucial writer for me to read. She was an innovator, someone who did something completely new. Basically I really have to admire and love an artist's work and be able to justify it as literature before I teach it in my classes. But fortunately there are so many good writers out there representing so many different groups that I have no problem coming up with a very varied syllabus.
JH: Do you see yourself as a mentor for younger writers?
Yes, I do. Some of my graduate students spend four or five years under my tutelage. I end up spending a lot of personal time with them, and I don't mind it. These are extremely intelligent people, and some of them are very talented writers. Not all will have a successful future as writers, but I don't know that when I first meet them so they all get the same treatment. So, yes, I do see myself as a mentor, and as far as teaching, I knew I wanted to be a teacher before I knew I wanted to be a writer. I never thought of another career. Teaching is just what I always wanted to do ever since I was a child.
JH: What motivated you to publish poetry?
Actually there's never a great deal of encouragement to publish poetry. There's no money in it, you have to want to do it. At first, no one wanted to publish my poems for the same reason that they later wouldn't publish The Line of the Sun. A letter from a university press said that they liked my poems, but they used too much Spanish and their audience was not necessarily bilingual. I wondered if T. S. Eliot expected everyone to speak ancient Hindu when they read The Wasteland. Or whether Pound expected people to know Chinese. It didn't make sense. I sent it to Arte Público, and they took it and the next one to the Bilingual Press. At that time those were my only options because I was writing poems that contained a little Spanish, which I don't think interferes with understanding.
BK: Now the use of Spanish is more acceptable.
Exactly. It should always have been acceptable. If people care enough to read poetry, they care enough to look up a word. I went around with a bunch of dictionaries when I was reading American and British literature. Anyway, it's been a long road, and with me it hasn't exactly been like it has with Esmeralda and Sandra. My work, for whatever reason, has had to first find a home with the smaller university presses, and then, usually after it gets good reviews and awards, a big press like Penguin or Norton will pick it up. My agent just has one phrase that she uses about my work, "It is too literary." And I say, "What … does that mean?" It is not that it is hard to understand, it is just that it deals with subjects that are not easily translated into the mass media in some cases. I have been more fortunate recently in that my work has gotten into all the big anthologies, Norton, Oxford, that sort of thing. Now people seem a little more willing to take a chance. Norton published the paperback of the Deli and Penguin published the paperback of An Island Like You.
BK: Why do your works rely on oral histories? What's special about the oral quality of Puerto Rican literature for you?
I think that many cultures have that oral quality. In fact, my husband is a Southerner and comes from a storytelling family. But they tell their stories differently. There are certain stories that define a family and certain keywords that call them up and everyone knows that if you say something about someone or something in front of his grandmother, that she will immediately tell that story. And even though she usually tells it in the same way, it's expected and everyone enjoys it. What my grandmother liked to do that made her, at least I thought, different and unique was that she didn't mind changing the story for her audience. So I would hear her tell one story for my aunts in a particular way and assure us that it was absolutely true and then tell it to us in a different way to make a different point. What I learned about art from her was that it wasn't so much the facts as the poetic truth that was being made. I thought that was a great lesson to learn. She made an art out of stories that could've been just simple gossip. My mother and the women in the United States told stories to comfort themselves in their loneliness, to remember the island. I remember parties in the apartment in Paterson where people would actually start out telling a funny story and end up crying because the last time they heard it had been from their mothers. Storytelling is used in a culture to preserve its memories and to teach lessons for the same reason that artists write their stories. I give credit to the women in my family for giving me that lesson and some of the original stories that I used.
BK: It seems that you've also adopted your grandmother's view that when you tell a story it's for poetic truth.
Right. Absolutely. I have that little epigraph from Emily Dickinson that says, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." I basically feel that unless I'm writing an essay where I am bound to stick to the genealogical and historical truth, I'm using my powers as a poet and an artist to compose a picture. My art is not representational but impressionistic. I like for my canvases to coalesce into meaning rather than just try to get it all photographically correct. In Silent Dancing, for example, I vowed to tell as much of the truth as I could. I think that book has meant a lot to some people because I think I captured the truth about what it was to be a Puerto Rican girl in the sixties. But I could not vouch that words that my grandmother had spoken back in 1960 were exactly what I had put down on the paper all these years later, so I told the poetic truth. I think that the contract with the reader is what matters as long as you let the reader know that you're working as a poet rather than a historian….
Source: Bridget Kevane, "The Poetic Truth: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer," in Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Bridget Kevane and Juanita Heredia, University of New Mexico Press, 2000, pp. 107-123.
In the following review, Wishnia comments on Cofer's first collection of short stories and poetry, "American History" among them, and notes that Cofer both "exposes and rejects common stereotypes" in her work.
Judith Ortiz Cofer's writing defies convenient classification, although she works with many themes that are common to ethnic-American literature, for example, the feeling of being in exile in a strange land, where the sound of Spoken Spanish is so comforting that even a grocery list reads "like poetry." The daily struggle to consolidate opposing identities is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the tradition which determines that a latina becomes a "woman" at age 15, which means, paradoxically, not more freedom but more restrictions, since womanhood is defined as sexual maturity, which must then be contained at all costs. This leaves one of her characters feeling "like an exile in the foreign country of my parents' house" because of "absurd" rules that do not apply to her present reality in Paterson, New Jersey.
Another striking example of such cultural clash occurs in the story, "Advanced Biology," in which a ninth grade Jewish boy tells the eighth grade narrator about both the Holocaust and reproductive biology. This leads her to doubt both God's "Mysterious Ways" and the Virgin Birth (and to have a screaming match with her mother on the topic), but concludes with her asking:
Why not allow Evolution and Eve, Biology and the Virgin Birth? Why not take a vacation from logic? I will not be away for too long, I will not let myself be tempted to remain in the sealed garden of blind faith; I'll stay just long enough to rest myself from the exhausting enterprise of leading the examined life.
Indeed, Ortiz Cofer invites us to do the same when she presents the story of a young Puerto Rican girl's first disappointing attempt to date a non-latino Catholic. In "American History," we get a fictionalized account of the girl living in a tenement in Paterson, who takes a liking to a "white" boy from Georgia named Eugene, only to have her mother warn her, "You are heading for humiliation and pain." Soon Eugene's mother tells her in a "honey-drenched voice" that it's "nothing personal," but she should "run back home now" and never try to speak to the boy again. In "The Story of My Body," a similar situation occurs, and her mother tells her, "You better be ready for disappointment." The warning is followed by the boy's father saying, "Ortiz? That's Spanish, isn't it?", as he looks at her picture in the yearbook and shakes his head No. In the poem, "To a Daughter I Cannot Console," the narrator telephones her mother for advice on how to console her own lovesick sixteen-year-old daughter, and when her mother asks her "to remember the boy I had cried over for days. / I could not for several minutes / recall that face." The reader is left with the impression that such an event must have happened to Ortiz Cofer, or else why would she describe it three different ways in the same book? But it is precisely these "three different ways" that ask us—perhaps even compel us—to withdraw from "the exhausting enterprise" of examining too closely. Such events are common ethnic-American experiences, and thus all versions are in some way equally "true."
Other familiar themes treated in colorful and moving ways include the preparation of food (one character derives some fragment of solace after the death of her husband by entering her apartment building at dinnertime, and inhaling deeply "the aromas of her country"),… the untranslatability of certain culturally-bound concepts into English (nada can mean so much more than "nothing"), disappointment with fathers, men, and God, and the different standards of beauty between cultures. The essay, "The Paterson Public Library," should be required reading in all high schools and colleges.
One especially provocative issue will have to serve for discussion: "The Story of My Body" begins, "I was born a white girl in Puerto Rico but became a brown girl when I came to live in the United States." This essay, about how our identities are often dependent upon how others define us, is followed by a poem appropriately called, "The Chameleon," and another essay, "The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria," in which Ortiz Cofer exposes and rejects common stereotypes of latinas as "hot," "sizzling," etc., explaining that in Puerto Rico, women felt freer to dress and move "provocatively" because the climate demanded it, and they were more-or-less protected by "the traditions, mores and laws of a Spanish / Catholic system of morality and machismo whose main rule was You may look at my sister, but if you touch her I will kill you."
Yet, at the opening of "The Myth of the Latin Woman," Ortiz Cofer writes about how she coveted "that British [self-] control," and in the poem, "Who Will Not Be Vanquished?" she writes:
Morning suits us Spanish women.
Tragedy turns us into Antigone—maybe we
are bred for the part.
Perhaps an "insider" can write this, but does it not also suggest that we all have our own preferred stereotypes?…
In "5:00 A.M.: Writing as Ritual," Ortiz Cofer describes a period in her life when motherhood and adjunct teaching freshman composition at three different campuses somehow failed to fulfill her completely, and she writes that "There was something missing in my life that I came close to only when I turned to my writing." There is a bit of this sentiment in all of us.
Source: Kenneth Wishnia, Review of The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry by Judith Ortiz Cofer, in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall 1997, pp. 206-208.
Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, s.v. "Puerto Rico," https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rq.html (accessed June 26, 2008).
Cofer, Judith Ortiz, "American History," in Big City Cool: Short Stories about Urban Youth, edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, Persea Books, 2002, pp. 64-72.
Crovitz, Darren, Review of Big City Cool, in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, October 2003, Vol. 47, No. 2, p. 185.
"Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center," in City of Paterson, New Jersey, http://www.patcity.com/ (accessed August 19, 2008).
"Immigration … Puerto Rican/Cuban," in American Memory from the Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/immig/alt/cuban3.html (accessed June 26, 2008).
"Judith Ortiz Cofer," in Voices from the Gap, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/cofer_judith_ortiz.html (accessed August 19, 2008).
O'Shea, Michael J., Review of The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry, in Studies in Short Fiction, Summer 1994, Vol. 31, No. 3, p. 502.
Pew Hispanic Center, s.v. "Immigration," http://pewhispanic.org/topics/index.php?TopicID=16 (accessed June 26, 2008).
Rosales, F. Arturo, Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History, Arte Publico Press, 2007.
Stockland, Patricia M., The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Abdo, 2007.
U.S. Census Bureau, "Facts for Features," http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/010327.html (accessed August 19, 2008).
Acosta-Belen, Edna, Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006.
Acosta-Belen provides an interesting look at Puerto Ricans who have migrated to the United States, exploring the reasons for their moves and their challenges in adjusting.
Dallek, Robert, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Back Bay Books, 2004.
This biography of Kennedy is written by a historian who provides not only the personal story but the background of one of the more famous U.S. presidents.
Gonzalez, Juan, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Penguin Books, 2001.
Gonzalez's popular book provides profiles of Latino immigrant families. In addition, the author offers historical background on the various political events that led these people to leave their homeland and seek refuge in the United States.
Hernandez, Carmen Delores, Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers, Praeger Paperback, 1997.
Hernandez, a literary critic, has collected interviews she conducted with fourteen prominent Puerto Rican writers living in the United States. The writers discuss their struggles in their new culture and their desire to communicate the results.
Pico, Fernando, History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of Its People, Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006.
Professor Pico is considered an eminent authority on the history of Puerto Rico. His work is highly praised for its readability and his storytelling skills, which make reading history enjoyable.