Cofer's protagonist in "American History" Elena, whose family has recently moved to New Jersey from Puerto Rico, feels the effects of being different at a school with a mostly African American student population. When Eugene moves into the house next door and starts attending the same school, Elena hopes to become his friend. Because Eugene is white, he also feels the effects of being a minority at school. As a result, Elena and Eugene become friends and find strength at school together even though other students call him "the Hick" and her "Skinny Bones." Elena also seems to have a crush on Eugene because her mother tells her, "Elena, you are acting 'moony.'" Elena explains that "moony" means that she is acting "like a girl stupidly infatuated." But for a young girl who feels lonely at school, why wouldn't she be excited to have the new boy in school as a close friend?
Elena's experience with Eugene is happy and positive until they make a study date at his house one evening. Unfortunately, Eugene's mother answers the knock and does not permit Elena to be friends with her son anymore, let alone come into the house and study. It is this experience that teaches Elena the most about the realities of prejudice in life. For example, Elena feels completely shocked when Eugene's mother says the following:
"You live there? . . . I don't know how you people do it . . . Listen. Honey. Eugene doesn't want to study with you. He is a smart boy. Doesn't need help. You understand me. I am truly sorry if he told you you could come over. He cannot study with you. It's nothing personal. You understand? We won't be in this place much longer, no need for him to get close to people--it'll just make it harder for him later. Run back home now."
When giving advice to Elena after this experience, one might first empathize with her situation and let her know that the pain she feels from such an experience is not her fault. People who are prejudiced are intolerant because they are narrow-minded, not because she has anything wrong with her. Consequently, people like Eugene's mother miss out on experiencing different personalities, stories, cultures, and perspectives towards life. Elena might also need to know that she should not close herself off from other people because of this disheartening and discouraging experience. She should realize that not every person is prejudiced and to give others a chance before judging others herself. It is tough to bounce back after being treated so poorly, but she can also find strength in the fact that she does not need to perpetuate prejudice and hate, either, because she knows how it feels.
In the short story "American History" by Judith Ortiz Cofer, the character of Elena is very shy, withdrawn, and innocent just as her new friend Eugene seems to be. By the end of the story, you should realize that Eugene's mother will not allow her son to study with Elena, even though they are neighbors and classmates, because Elena is Hispanic and Eugene is not. Therefore, I would tell Elena that there are some people in this world who are selfish and ignorant and because of these disgraceful qualities they will lead sad, meaningless lives in isolation. Elena needs to realise that she should learn from a situation like this and involve herself with people who make her feel good about herself instead of people who cannot see past her skin color or nationality.
MAIN EVENTS IN THE STORY