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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1873

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.

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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 “No, no, no, with the short Spanish ‘o.’ Final: no lingering vowels in my father’s pronouncements.”

The Salesman, El Arabe, represents another foreign culture, this one Middle Eastern. He desperately wants to bring his son to the United States, but there will be immigration problems unless the son marries an American. El Arabe, in the custom of his own country, proposes to the narrator’s father that he buy the man’s fifteen-year-old daughter to be his son’s wife.

The narrator’s father keeps screaming, “Not for sale!” but El Arabe is persistent. He has given the girl a ring, which her father pulls from her finger, breaking the skin and causing blood to flow. As the story ends, El Arabe has left the apartment and the girl is washing the blood from her hands, seemingly as an act of purification. The pictures on her Scheherazade bedspread unfold endless stories to her.

Cofer is concerned with feminist issues, yet in most of the fifteen stories and forty poems in this volume, she sees such issues in perspective and remains relatively nonjudgmental about them. In “The Witch’s Husband,” for example, the narrator says,

And frankly, I am a bit appalled at what I have begun to think of as “the martyr complex” in Puerto Rican women, that is, the idea that self-sacrifice is a woman’s lot and her privilege: a good woman is defined by how much suffering and mothering she can do in one lifetime.

As this story progresses, however, one learns that the old grandmother, enfeebled by severe cardiovascular problems, who is risking her life to care for her senile husband, years earlier had turned her back on that husband and on her children to go to New York for a year. Her husband, seeing how unhappy she was in her situation, had given her the money to go and had taken a second job to keep her there for a year, never knowing whether she would choose to return to him and their children. Because he had allowed her this freedom, she grew to love him completely and cannot now abandon him to the care of a nursing home.

Cofer’s angriest statement comes in “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria.” In this deeply personal essay, Cofer’s anger is more about ethnic stereotyping, however, than about feminism. She tells of being spotted by a man on a bus trip from Oxford, where she was doing graduate work, to London. The man burst into song, loudly singing “Maria” from West Side Story as he stared at her. On another occasion, as she walked with a companion from a theater in New York, a man blocked her path and burst into “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” fromEvita. She tells also of a Chicana friend, a Ph.D. candidate, whose physician is amazed at all the big words she uses.

One might ask whether the two men who were inspired to song upon seeing Cofer would have done something comparable had Cofer been a Latin man. It seems obvious that they would not. Would a physician have been as amazed by the vocabulary of a Chicano Ph.D. candidate as by that of a Chicana? The anger in this essay is indisputable-and it is the least temperate social commentary of any in the volume-but it is directed at the ethnic stereotyping that is obvious in each instance.

In “The Paterson Public Library,” an extremely well-balanced story, Cofer again reveals her distress at ethnic stereotyping. A black girl named Lorraine has been intimidating the narrator, hating her for irrational ethnic reasons. Even though Lorraine attacks her physically, the narrator can understand Lorraine’s frustration at being stereotyped by her own teachers, who, knowing nothing about Black English, view her use of the language as ungrammatical and illiterate.

A similar condemnation of ethnic stereotyping is found in “American History,” where the impact is twofold. The narrator, despite her intelligence, cannot qualify for honors classes because English is not her first language. In the honors classes is Eugene, an Anglo transplant from Georgia whom the narrator finds attractive. When she finally has the courage to talk to Eugene, they find that they have much in common.

Eugene invites her to his house to study with him. On the emotionally charged day of their first study session-November 22, 1963-the young girl, despite the shock of the Kennedy assassination, goes to Eugene’s house. She is rebuffed and refused entry by Eugene’s mother as soon as she learns that the girl bears the stigma of living in El Building.

The parent-child relationships revealed in the prose and poetry of The Latin Deli present the yin and the yang of adolescent perception. Similar relationships, contradictory yet accurate, are evident in Cofer’s novelThe Line of the Sun (1989) and in her earlier collection, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990). The narrator is not consistent in her view of her parents. What adolescent is? Cofer makes no attempt to impose an artificial consistency upon the narrator’s reactions to her mother and father. She does nothing to cover up the parental warts of which the young girl becomes aware.

The father is a mysterious and enticing-if at times frightening-presence. He works two jobs, so he does not have much time at home. The daughter associates him with the smell of his cologne and thinks that it is this smell that makes her mother cry.

In “By Love Betrayed,” the young girl Eva, a total innocent, finds herself in El Building alone with her father one day when her mother is out and she has stayed home from school with a headache. Among her father’s jobs is that of building superintendent. Eva, wanting to know her father better, follows the scent of his cologne to the fifth floor. Behind a door she hears his voice and that of a woman. When she knocks, the woman, hair disheveled, dressed in a red robe, answers the door. The girl asks for her father, who comes from the woman’s bedroom combing his hair.

He asks why the girl is not in school. She explains that she had a headache and stayed home. Smiling his devil’s smile, as Cofer calls it, he asks whether she was really sick or merely wanted a day off. He then decides that he should take a day off himself and treat her to lunch. Eva remains the innocent, unaware—or unwilling to be aware—of her father’s dalliance.

In most of the stories and poems, the father is overprotective. The mother is unhappy and often argues with her husband. Still, she keeps her family together and tries to compensate for her husband’s overprotection of their daughter, such as buying the girl the Scheherazade bedspread.

The stories and poems in The Latin Deli depict the author’s coming of age with the sensitivity and verisimilitude of a James Agee, a Carson McCullers, or a Harper Lee. Despite their parochial setting, the tales woven in this collection point to universal truths that are the marks of serious and significant literature.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, November 15, 1993, p.609.

Library Journal. CXVIII, November 1, 1993, p.93.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 8, 1993, p.60.

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