Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768
The collection An Island Like You opens with a poem entitled "Day in the Barrio". This poem describes life in the New Jersey neighborhood that Rita, the main character in the story "Bad Influence" calls home, a place humming with noise, people, and activity. In its color and music it is reminiscent of Puerto Rico, while in its urbanity it is entirely mainland U.S. The last four lines of the poem sum up the unifying theme of the stories that follow:
Keeping company with the pigeons, you watch the people below / Flowing in currents on the street where you live / Each one alone in a crowd, / Each one an island like you.
The island metaphor for the mainland Puerto Rican is an apt one, in that it speaks to the interplay between the community and the individual in a displaced island culture. Judith Ortiz Cofer, in her memoir Silent Dancing, discusses the way that being a part of two cultures makes one feel an outsider in both worlds. She writes, "Being the outsiders had turned my brother and me into cultural chameleons." As a fifteen-year-old on the cusp of adulthood, Rita, like the author, struggles to negotiate both the border between two cultures and the line between childhood and adulthood.
At its most basic, "Bad Influence" is the story of a teenager at odds with the adult world, who in the course of a summer, comes to terms with that world. At the onset of her summer, exiled from her home and friends to Puerto Rico, Rita resents and criticizes her grandparents. Over time she finds them insightful, spirited, and kind people; she learns from them and adjusts to their world, and, as a result, takes a step toward adulthood. The search for identity Rita undergoes is a universal theme for teenagers, whatever the circumstance, and Rita is like most adolescents. Her critical evaluations of her grandparents and her parents are typical of any teenager sifting through his or her personal legacies, in an effort to accept and incorporate what they choose and reject the rest. Nancy Vasilakis, in her review of An Island Like You for Horn Book, relates the critical consensus that "the narratives have a universal resonance in the vitality, the brashness, the self-centered hopefulness, and the angst expressed by the teens as they tell of friendships formed, romances failed, and worries over work, family, and school." Rita's struggle, however, is as much a search for individuality as she approaches adulthood as it is an effort to negotiate two cultures.
"Bad Influence" opens with Rita's preconception of summer on the island. She begins, "When I was sent to spend the summer at my grandparents' house in Puerto Rico, I knew it was going to be strange, but I didn't know how strange." Emphasis on the word strange calls to mind different interpretations of the word: on one hand bizarre or unusual, on the other foreign or other than oneself. Both function in the story, as Rita sees her grandparents' world as not only odd and nonsensical at times, but finds Puerto Rican culture alien and treats it as something that doesn't belong to her, as an antiquated, foreign world. Notably, she calls Spanish "not my best language." Rita identifies with her current home—Paterson, New Jersey—where her priorities are typical of her peers (boys, sports, and her friends), and in contrast, Puerto Rico holds little appeal. In fact she goes so far as to call it "my parents' Island," separating it from herself and indicating the gulf between her generation and theirs.
When she gets off the plane, Rita's first reaction is to the heat, which she finds stifling and oppressive. In her typically hyperbolic words, "When I stepped off that airplane in San Juan, it was like I had opened an oven door. I was immediately drenched in sweat, and felt like I was breathing water." The ladies at the...
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