The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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Readers of Silent Dancing and The Line of the Sun will encounter in The Latin Deli many of the personalities and situations familiar from Ortiz Cofer’s two earlier books. The delicatessen of the title is a bodega in Paterson where residents of El Building shop for such Puerto Rican comestibles as plantains and Bustelo coffee.

Most of the stories and poems in The Latin Deli are told from the perspective of a young girl torn between two worlds. The father, English-speaking and light-complected, is a working-class man who constrains a daughter in whom sexual desire is awakening. The mother is temporarily resident in El Building, ever longing for Puerto Rico and refusing to learn English.

El Building is a vertical barrio, an attempt to preserve in Paterson some sense of the community its inhabitants have traded for the economic opportunities the mainland offers. The girl in most of Ortiz Cofer’s stories speaks English well, yet she endures discrimination directed against Puerto Ricans.

In “American History,” the narrator, bright and more fluent in English than Spanish, is barred from classes for the gifted because English is not her native language. She develops a crush on Eugene, a boy from Georgia who is taking classes for the gifted. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, she accepts Eugene’s invitation to go to his house to study with him; Eugene’s mother, however, asks her whether she comes from El Building, which is next door. When the narrator admits that she does, the mother bars her entry.

In “The Paterson Public Library,” Ortiz Cofer deals sensitively with a complex social problem: the tensions between black people and Puerto Ricans. She explains that when Puerto Ricans fill jobs or move into vacant apartments, black people often feel that those are jobs they might have gotten or apartments they might have occupied.

The narrator is terrorized by a black girl, Lorraine, whom she is forced to tutor at school. Even though Lorraine beats her up, the narrator understands the frustrations that motivate Lorraine’s violence. The narrator, who resents being treated like a mental deficient because her accent is different, understands how Lorraine’s brand of English also causes her to be misjudged by racist teachers.

In “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Ortiz Cofer focuses on what intelligent, well-educated women who are judged by ethnic stereotypes must endure. This piece, more sorrowful than bitter, speaks to members of any minority group.

The forty poems and fifteen stories in The Latin Deli are sensitive and searching. They demonstrate the depth of an author who has spent her adult life exploring the impact of her early years poised between two cultures.

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