American History Questions and Answers
by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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What personal lesson in "American History" has Elena experienced deeply?

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Madeleine Wells eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Another personal lesson Elena learns is that love is often complicated by life events that are beyond one's control. Within this life lesson, there is also a deeper lesson: inherent biases are not easily overcome, even in the face of love.

In the story, Elena becomes infatuated with Eugene, a Caucasian boy from her class. She is so entranced by the possibilities in her relationship with Eugene that she can't conjure up the necessary emotions to grieve the death of President Kennedy. Elena cannot understand why the president is an icon to people like her mother and Mr. DePalma (one of her teachers). To her, the president is a mysterious figure far removed from her normal existence. She simply cannot relate to the country's collective grief, as her feelings for Eugene are more immediate.

However, Elena soon learns that love is more complicated than she imagines. Despite her feelings, she must contend with the biases of others. That, she cannot control. She must also contend with her mother's feelings of anger, grief, and frustration.

Although the text only hints at why Eugene's mother rebuffs Elena, one thing is clear. Elena cannot change how Eugene's mother thinks. Eugene's mother may feel uncomfortable that Elena does not come from the same social background as her son. The text hints that Eugene's mother is also extremely protective; she does not want her son to form close friendships that cannot endure. Perhaps, there is even a racial component. Taken together, Elena learns that love is a complicated affair, despite her very real feelings.

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Elena, by the end of the story, has experienced something of a coming-of-age in her character, as the way she is treated by Eugene's mother has smashed her dreams irrevocably and also forced her to become aware of racism and discrimination and how it operates in her world. Note how Elena responds to the words that Eugene's mother says to her:

I couldn't move. I just stood there in shock at hearing these things said to me in such a honey-drenched voice. I had never heard an accent like hers, except for Eugene's softer version. It was as if she were singing me a little song.

Although Eugene's mother's voice sounds sweet, it does not mask the cruelty that Elena identifies in the words that she utters, and Elena is forced to experience first hand her own grief, but not for the death of JFK, but for the death of her dreams and innocence, as she realises that she lives in a world where she will be treated differently and judged because of her ethnicity.

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