Judith Ortiz Cofer was born in 1952 and moved from Puerto Rico with her family when she was a toddler. Her family actually did live in El Building in Paterson, New Jersey just like her main character, Elena, in her short story "American History." Cofer knows first-hand what life as an immigrant is like. She says that her father encountered many types of discrimination, but that finding a place where other Puerto Ricans lived also helped him to keep on going.
El Building itself, Cofer says, had very thin walls and she could hear her neighbors arguing in Spanish, smell their rice and red kidney beans cooking, and hear their salsa music blasting down the hallways and out through the windows. Many of these same descriptions are in the story as well:
"El Building was like a monstrous jukebox, blasting out salsas from open windows as the residents, mostly new immigrants just up from the island, tried to drown out whatever they were currently enduring with loud music" (Lines 8-10).
The lifestyle and housing were not rich, but they were rich in culture and found strength as a community. The social and political circumstances of the time made it difficult to deal with prejudiced people when they encountered them for Cofer's family as well as Elena's. Cofer says that she doesn't consider herself a political writer, but that her characters experienced those realities. Of "American History" Cofer says the following:
"The story doesn't end with a speech on prejudice but with the heartbreak of a girl still unable to comprehend that it all comes together and affects her life" (Elements of Literature, Third Course, 572).