American History Questions and Answers
by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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What is the theme of the story "American History" by Judith Ortiz Cofer?

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The themes of American History by Judith Ortiz Cofer are cultural isolation and the effects of racism and xenophobia, signified in Elena's difficulty living in Patterson, New Jersey and how the attitudes of people around her affect her feelings about herself and the world.

Elena -- also known as Skinny Bones -- experiences a lot of negative interactions with people due to their racism and xenophobia. For example, a girl at the beginning of the story yells at Elena for not jumping rope fast enough, saying "Didn't you eat your rice and beans and pork chops for breakfast today?" The other girls start making up a chant with the word pork chop and Elena feels embarrassed and upset.

She thinks about how difficult it is to live in a city in winter. Elena hates the weather and how the black girls in her class seem to always be warm and fast, while she's cold and slow. She envies them. She fantasizes about life in Puerto Rico, where she's only been once. She says that the stories her parents tell about it are like fairy tales. 

Elena is blocked from advanced classes -- despite her excellent grades -- only because English is not her first language.

Her relationship with Eugene isn't marked by the racism and xenophobia that mar many of her other encounters. However, when she visits his house, his mother immediately dismisses her and sends her away. She tells Elena that Eugene cannot study with her based only on Elena's looks and where she lives.

Elena's reaction to the death of President Kennedy shows her isolation from other people. They're all very affected and her mother asks Elena to go to church with her. She also expresses surprise that Elena is going to see Eugene now that President Kennedy is dead. Elena, on the other hand, goes home from her encounter with Eugene's mother shocked and tries to feel sad for President Kennedy. She is only able to find tears for herself in the end. 

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The theme of a story is found in the main subject being discussed. For Elena in Cofer's "American History," dealing with the prejudice she faces at such a young age seems to dominate the story. Elena is a Puerto Rican girl who attends a predominantly African American public school. She ironically faces prejudice from girls in her P.E. class who call her "Skinny Bones" and ask her if she eats rice and pork chops for breakfast. Putting up with their constant harassment makes her feel lonely and isolated.

Then, as if dealing with the girls at school isn't enough, Elena must face prejudice from a white neighbor from Georgia who won't allow her to study with Eugene, the only friend she has at school. Elena is shocked beyond belief when she is turned away at the doorstep because she lives in El Building and is Puerto Rican. "You live there?" asks Eugene's mother and points up at Elena's home. "She looked intently at me for a couple of heartbeats, then said as if to herself, 'I don't know how you people do it.'"

Elena is surrounded by prejudiced people who she allows to hurt her because she is just recognizing their prejudice for what it is. In this coming-of-age story, Elena must look prejudice in the face and decide how she will deal with it. Unfortunately, the reader only gets the part of the story that shows the growing pains dealing with prejudice, not the part that tells how Elena deals with it. Therefore, the theme of the story revolves around Elena learning about prejudice in the world, that there are different types of prejudiced people, and people have many different reasons for being prejudiced that might shock her at different times in her life.

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