Historical Context

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Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898 by the Treaty of Paris as a result of the Spanish-American War. U.S. citizenship was granted to Puerto Ricans in 1917, and during World War II it became an important U.S. military base. On June 4, 1951, Puerto Ricans voted in approval of a law which allowed them to draft their own constitution, and on July 25 of the following year Puerto Rico was declared a Commonwealth of the United States. As a result, Puerto Ricans share most rights of other U.S. citizens, although they are not allowed to vote and for the most part do not pay taxes. Although several elections have been held since 1952 to reinstate Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, not all citizens are in agreement over it; over the years different factions have advocated independence for the island, sometimes resorting to violence. Since 1968, governmental bodies in Puerto Rico have vacillated over maintaining commonwealth status, achieving statehood, or advocating independence. In 1993, 43 percent of citizens voted to retain commonwealth status, 46 percent advocated pursuing statehood, and 4 percent chose independence.

Since World War II, when Puerto Ricans were drawn into the U.S. armed forces, migration between the Island and the U.S. mainland has been consistent. Ruth Gruber, in Puerto Rico, Island of Promise, writes, "New York has the same pull to Puerto Ricans that it had to the America-bound immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their relatives are in New York; there is security in family." Before 1948, 95 percent of Puerto Rican immigrants to the mainland moved to New York. That statistic has diminished over time, but New York is still the traditional destination for Puerto Rican expatriates. Although Puerto Ricans leave the Island for a variety of reasons, most go in search of work, which is scarce at home, and a higher standard of living. Unlike other immigrants, who often come to the U.S. fleeing persecution or oppressive governments, Puerto Ricans tend to have tremendous national pride. The island of Puerto Rico, however, is too small and has too few natural resources to hold its people. The birth rate continues to soar, and population density is higher per square mile than any state aside from New Jersey and Rhode Island. As a result, unemployment and the resulting poverty is always an issue in Puerto Rico. Many Puerto Ricans, like Ortiz Cofer's family, move back and forth between the Island and the mainland because it can be done with relative ease, and because of the conflicting reception on the mainland. The rapid and voluminous influx of Puerto Ricans into New York in particular has resulted, as with any minority group, in slums, gangs, and a great deal of racial prejudice toward Puerto Ricans. Mainland Americans have tended to forget that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and Puerto Ricans have historically been treated with the same disregard and exploitation as illegal immigrants. Over the last two decades, however, Puerto Ricans as a community have assimilated at a high rate and much of the community has moved into suburbs such as Paterson, New Jersey, as in Ortiz Cofer's stories.

Literary Style

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Point of View
"Bad Influence" is a narration of Rita's summer according to her point of view, the account of which shifts over time. At the opening, Rita's narrative is intensely critical, sarcastic, and very funny. She is a classically exasperated, smart aleck teenager with typically hyperbolic, derogatory opinions about her elders. Everything about Puerto Rico is insufferable in her eyes until she spends a beautiful morning at the beach with her grandmother, while Papá Juan attends to Angela and her...

(This entire section contains 1430 words.)

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mother. Once she makes friends with Angela and celebrates her fifteenth birthday with a huge fiesta, her perspective gradually shifts and softens; Rita acclimates to life on the island and begins to enjoy herself, rather than enduring it. Although she by no means drops her sarcastic, know-it-all tone, even her criticisms have a lighter, kinder tone. For example, at the opening of the story she calls her grandfather's car a tiny subcompact, while by the end of the story, when she joins her grandparents in picking up the rest of her family at the airport, she calls it his toy car. Rita's perspective is softened and expanded over the course of the summer to incorporate the Puerto Rican into herself.

The setting of "Bad Influence" is the core of the story; in essence, Rita's summer is about a sense of place and her identification with location. Although Rita's heritage is Puerto Rican, at age fifteen she identifies strongly with her home, school, and friend in Paterson, New Jersey. As a result, although she has spent two weeks of every year in Puerto Rico on vacation, she predicts her summer there will be, in a word, strange. Her emphasis on this word indicates not only the oddness of the events during the summer, but the fact that she finds the island foreign and apart from herself. Physically Rita finds the place repellent, overly hot, and humid: "it was like I had opened an oven door." Physical climate operates as a metaphor for personal climate in that, like the weather, people in Puerto Rico are intimate, sweaty, hot-tempered, excitable, and very physical.

In Puerto Rico, Rita is forced to deal with a culture that she finds not only foreign in its intimacy but, in her eyes, antiquated and mystical. In keeping with stereotypes of Latin Americans, her grandparents are Catholics who have holy water and an altar in their home, and believe that her grandfather has spiritual powers. Rita is forced to endure a lifestyle that includes rising before dawn and interacting with community members of all ages, rather than a world comprised solely of her peers. By the end of the summer, Rita has taken lessons in mysticism from her grandfather and adapted to life on the island by establishing a friendship with Angela and visiting the beach on a regular basis. In so doing, she incorporates parts of old-world Puerto Rico into her contemporary American self.

Most of the symbolism in "Bad Influence" concerns the disparity between life on the island and life in the United States. When Mamá Ana and Papá Juan pick Rita up at the airport, they have to squeeze into what Rita calls her grandfather's subcompact car. Rita focuses on the tiny, old car as a measure of status, sizing it up by American standards. Similarly, household conveniences like air conditioning are notably absent from Rita's grandparents' home, much to her chagrin. She brings up the absence of A.C. numerous times, so it stands out when she attributes the real and metaphoric chill in Angela's house to the fact that these wealthy people might have air conditioning. Although access to A.C. indicates wealth and status, it is meaningful that Angela's house, in which she and her mother are estranged, is cool inside, while Mamá and Papá's lively, comfortable house is overly warm. Rita complains throughout the story of uncomfortable heat, an apt metaphor for personal feelings; her grandparents themselves are too warm, too close, and in fact suffocating to her when she first arrives on the island. Over time she does acclimate both physically and personally to the temperature and to the climate, or copes with the discomfort by going to the beach and finding relief in her peer, Angela.

Rita herself operates as a symbol in as far as she is a synthesis of two worlds, the American and the Puerto Rican. It is no accident that on the afternoon of her arrival Papá Juan sees into her dream while comforting his confused rooster, Ramon. Ramon has a skewed sense of time and thinks day is night and night is day. Like Ramon, Rita is out of balance in her new setting, and although she believes she has a clear view of the world around her, she sees through a skewed lens of her own, which is that of an American teenager, and not necessarily reliable. Her view of life on the island is impacted by the fact that she is somewhat of an outsider, and in her own words, Spanish is "not my best language." At the end of the story, having been a catalyst for Angela's healing and to a degree her own, Rita has a more balanced view of life, both in New Jersey and in Puerto Rico. She makes a claim to be a mind-reader herself, and although this is in keeping with her adolescent omniscience, she has a better developed sense of perception by the end of the summer.

Literary Heritage
The literary heritage of Puerto Rico is indebted to its history as an intersection of pre-Hispanic Indian settlement, Spanish colonialism, importation of Africans in the slave trade, and, most recently, American imperialism. The oral history of the Indians and Africans from throughout the Caribbean predate the arrival of the Spanish in 1493. The encounter between the Spanish conquistadors and the Taínos who inhabited the island during the 1500s gave rise to a wave of letters, annals, and poems in Spanish, reporting on the newly discovered place and people. Spanish became the primary language of Puerto Rico, but was enriched and expanded by the Indian vocabulary, which, according to Arturo Morales Carrión in Puerto Rico, A Political and Cultural History, "give[s] the Spanish language of the conquistadores a touch of Indian color and a new vision of man and life in a setting unknown to the European before the discovery of America." He continues, "The vocabulary of Taíno origin gives a special flavor and color to the Spanish language by recalling the prehistory of the Caribbean," which persists today in both geographical names and everyday language. "The oral literature of the island offers glimpses of pre-Colombian Indian poetry in anecdotes, proverbs and legends." The oral tradition has given rise to the contemporary tradition of the jíbaro storyteller, or rural Puerto Rican. Carrión writes that "The jíbaro and the slum dweller continue to tell stories orally, in which daily life and nightmares and dreams become legends that beautify the reality of the island's past and present."

Carrión writes, "From the late sixteenth century until 1897, traditions and customs carried the imprint of the Catholic religion with traces of Taíno and African elements." Catholic religious mysticism combined with the forces of African and Indian spiritualism contribute to the Latin American blend of the real with the fantastic in both written and oral literature, known as magical realism. Of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Puerto Rico Carrión writes, "Country folklore, municipal festivities, and the plantation became the focus of attention for the artist, the poet, the storyteller, and the anonymous bard, while the intellectual began to challenge colonialism in its different aspects." Since colonization of Puerto Rico by Spain, Spanish has been the primary language of the island, but the American presence since 1917 has influenced the language and literature as well; the majority of its people are bilingual. The thematic content of the current oral and written traditions, as well as the recent reemergence of Taíno vocabulary, reflect and chronicle a strong overall impression of cultural resistance. The fact that such a large part of the Puerto Rican population migrates back and forth between the U.S. mainland and the island is also motivation to keep Puerto Rican culture alive in a world divided by a conflicted national identity. This struggle for Puerto Rican identity is embodied not only in Ortiz Cofer's work, but in other Puerto Ricans' as well, in the metaphor of the island for the self—separate from a larger body, yet inextricably a part of it.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bishop, Rudine Sims, review, in Horn Book, September-October, 1995, p. 581.

Gruber, Ruth, Puerto Rico: Island of Promise, Hill and Wang, 1960, p. 177.

Luís, William, Dance between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean Literature Written in the United States, Vanderbilt University Press, 1997, pp. 27, 95.

Morales Carrión, Arturo, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History, W. W. Norton, 1983, pp. 319, 322-25.

Ocasio, Rafael, "The Infinite Variety of the Puerto Rican Reality: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer," in Callaloo, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 730-42.

----, "Puerto Rican Literature in Georgia: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 43-50.

Ortiz Cofer, Judith, An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio, Orchard Books, 1995, pp. 1-5, 13, 22, 25.

----, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, Arte Publico Press, 1990, pp. 17, 63.

Rochman, Hazel, review, in Booklist, Vol. 91, No. 12, February 15, 1995, p. 1082.

Vasilakis, Nancy, review, in Horn Book, Vol. 71, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 464.

Further Reading
Ortiz Cofer, Judith, contributor, Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the U.S.A., Open Hand, 1991. A literary and cultural analysis of contemporary Puerto Rican authors writing from the U.S. mainland.

Sedillo Lopez, Antoinette, Latino Communities: Emerging Voices, Political, Social, Cultural, and Legal Issues, University of New Mexico Press, Garland Series, 1998. An analysis of contemporary Latin American influences, including artistic movements; it includes an in-depth discussion of magical realism.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide