American History Analysis
by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ortiz Cofer’s commitment to document the Puerto Rican experience of adolescent female characters is evident in “American History.” In fact, her female characters, unlike the male characters created by other Puerto Rican writers, move away from the traditional cultural and linguistic separation of life in the barrio, to allow a more direct interaction between the environment and the self. “American History” singles out the development of the feminine psyche of a teenage Puerto Rican in a feminist text that incorporates the young woman’s voice into the struggle for racial equality.

As the narrator and protagonist in a story with few characters, Skinny Bones not only represents a transitional Puerto Rican generation, she also determines the literary devices. She narrates in a style that is clearly personal, fashioned after the popular female teenage practice of keeping a journal for careful recording of all of her daily activities. The technique resembles the Bildungsroman, a literary chronicle written from the point of view of a young character. As a Bildungsroman, “American History” introduces Skinny Bones’s personal view as an outcast character of society at large, including her vision of American culture from her perspective as a Puerto Rican teenager. That personal view gives to the text its freshness of expression and its unbiased stands on the subject matter presented.

The authentic testimonial narrative devices of a Bildungsroman text reveal Skinny Bones’s role as a young reporter of life in the barrio. Although young people are evidently the author’s expected audience, both adults and youngsters react positively to her story’s direct and austere writing style. That personal style, reflective of a young teenager’s daily journal entries, presents issues to be discussed at a personal level—such as Skinny Bones’s meditations on her life—inviting that analysis by the reader. Therefore, the reader, without much warning, learns from concrete examples about such controversial issues as racist attitudes among ethnic groups.

The story also offers a political view of popular American history. Skinny Bones’s dual roles are evident: As a teenager, she confides to her journal details of her attempt at a romantic relationship outside of her ethnic group; as a historian, she records President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Ortiz Cofer recognizes her political dimension. She has remarked that she does “not know of any intelligent, thinking person, sensitive to what is going on in the world, who is not political. If my stories have serious lives being lived, that is, lives...

(The entire section is 608 words.)