The events in "American History" reflect the profound changes that were affecting American society at that time. Although the United States was becoming a more multicultural and more diverse society, significant tensions still remained. The early 1960s was a time in which the civil rights movement became a more prominent feature of American political life. Although the main focus of the civil rights movement was to challenge racial oppression in the South, there were serious challenges elsewhere, as we see in "American History."
Paterson, New Jersey, was ethnically mixed. However, Elena lives in an apartment block that is effectively segregated; it consists entirely of Puerto Rican families. Despite this unofficial form of segregation, Elena has never really experienced firsthand the kind of bigotry and prejudice that we tend to associate with the South at that time. That all changes when she shows up on Eugene's doorstep, and his mother—a Southerner—will not let her through the door. Elena has experienced teasing from other children on account of her Puerto Rican heritage, but she has never encountered anything like this before.
Elena's experience, her loss of innocence on that fateful day, shows us that the problems of segregation, prejudice, and lack of mutual understanding between the races was a pervasive feature of American life irrespective of geographical location.