El Building, a forbidding monolith that dominates the corner of Straight and Market streets in Paterson, New Jersey, once housed middle-class Jews. They have fled from Puerto Rican incursions into their territory, leaving El Building a vertical barrio occupied almost totally by people from “The Island,” as the inhabitants refer to their former home. Having migrated to the United States during World War II and afterward, they have tried to establish in this cold, gray environment some semblance of the life they left behind, some replication of the sense of community they knew in their small Puerto Rican towns and villages.
Most of the people who live in El Building—especially the women—cling to the dream that one day they will be able to return to The Island and live adequately on pensions. Few of the women have jobs; few have learned English. They live within an English-speaking society, but the small center they have created for themselves on the fringes of that society is Spanish- speaking, Hispanic-thinking.
These Puerto Ricans, feeling unwelcome in their adopted environment, stay mostly to themselves, their society confined largely to the barrio they have established and the nearby bodegas, including the Latin Deli. Old customs die hard. The women still cook the green plaintains and dried codfish of their native land, still pay outrageous prices for the imported Bustelo coffee that is essential to their afternoon coffee and social hours, still, although they live in a larger, depersonalized society, meet almost daily in one another’s apartments or in El Basement for gossip, commiseration, and emotional support.
Reflective of the solidly textured community they have created is the way the neighbors in El Building-Lydia, Isabelita, and the narrator-react when Dona Ernestina receives the devastating news that her only son, Tony, has been killed in the Vietnam War. A year earlier, when she lost her husband, Dona Ernestina had coped adequately with that death. Now that her son is dead, draped in the unrelieved black of deep mourning, she becomes frighteningly calm, almost catatonic. She gives away her most cherished possessions. When word trickles out that she is giving away everything she owns, long lines of total strangers, many of them street people, form in the hallways outside her door to grab whatever they can get.
“Nada,” winner of the 0. Henry Award in 1993, is the story of Dona Ernestina’s emotional deterioration after her son’s death. The neighbors gather, unwilling to be intrusive yet concerned about their friend’s situation and her reaction to it. She has already said, “No, gracias,” to the American flag and her son’s medals that the army has tried to bestow upon her. Vacant inside, she sits in her room saying, “Nada, nada, nada.” The narrator comments, “That word is like a drain that sucks everything down.” The grieving woman now is stripping her life of all vestiges of its past, seemingly expunging from it all of her stored-up memories.
When Dona Ernestina goes so far as to begin throwing her larger possessions-her television set, kitchen chairs, stools-out the windows in the middle of the night, pedestrians on the streets below call the police. The old woman is found sitting stark naked in the corner of one of her rooms, numbed by sedatives. Her neighbors quickly run to get their best clothes for Dona Ernestina to wear so that she might dress well and be led away in dignity.
Judith Ortiz Cofer ’s sensitivity to language, particularly to negative terminology, recurs in “Not for Sale,” the story of an itinerant salesman who comes to the narrator’s house and sells her mother, on the installment plan, an expensive bedspread that depicts the Scheherazade story. The mother buys the overpriced bedspread for her adolescent daughter, whose overprotective father forbids her to date, to go on well-chaperoned school trips, or to get her driver’s license. Cofer remarks on the father’s...
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