The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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The Relationship between Art and Experience

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In his poetical treatise "Ars Poetica," which translates into "the art of poetry," Roman poet Horace writes of the importance of "decorum" in poetry, by which he means the appropriate connection between the parts of the poem and its whole. His principle of decorum emphasizes a concern with the relation of a poem to the reader—how the writer shapes the work to produce a pleasing experience for the reader. Judith Ortiz Cofer's "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" also focuses on this relationship between reader and author. In the poem's description of the interaction between a Spanish deli owner and her customers, Ortiz Cofer establishes a connection between herself and the deli owner and herself and her readers. Ortiz Cofer suggests that through this poem that centers on the reality of Spanish immigrant life, she, like the owner of the deli, can offer comfort and a sense of identity to others who share her heritage. This effect, then, results from the art of her poetry.

In an interview in Melus, Ortiz Cofer tells Edna Acosta-Belen about her personal vision of the relationship between art and experience: "As I was growing up, I learned from [my female relatives'] very strong sense of imagination. For them storytelling played a purpose. When my abuela sat us down to tell a story, we learned something from it, even though we always laughed. That was her way of teaching. So early on, I instinctively knew storytelling was a form of empowerment, that the women in my family were passing on power from one generation to another through fables and stories. They were teaching each other how to cope with life." In an interview in Callaloo, Ortiz Cofer adds that these women were "powerful matriarchs" for her: "In my developing consciousness as a story-teller I saw that there was power there, power to influence." Commenting on her transfer of that oral tradition into literature, she explains, "I like the idea of the never-ending story that feeds one generation and then another. It's my own literary heritage; I am nourished by the stories that I heard and then I feed others." Her poem "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" opens her 1993 collection of stories, poems, and personal narratives, which focus on the daily struggles of Spanish immigrants as they cope with the difficult process of assimilation. Her works, like the offerings in the Latin deli, help "nourish" those who read them. Ortiz Cofer's careful shaping of "The Latin Deli" sets the tone of the collection and establishes the crucial relationship between art and reader.

In the Melus interview, Ortiz Cofer discusses her own assimilation experiences after she immigrated from her native Puerto Rico to Paterson, New Jersey: "I write in English, yet I write obsessively about my Puerto Rican experience...That is how my psyche works. I am a composite of two worlds...I lived with...conflictive expectations: the pressures from my father to become very well versed in the English language and the Anglo customs, and from my mother not to forget where we came from. That is something that I deal with in my work all the time." "The Latin Deli" exemplifies her maternal relatives' earnest desire to maintain a sense of cultural identity. The deli's customers respond to the challenge of living between two cultures by returning to the deli to experience the world of their homeland as they speak to each other and the owner in Spanish and as they sample the sights, aromas, and tastes of the offerings there. In the first few lines of the poem, Ortiz Cofer describes the deli,...

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including the items that have a positive effect on the customers. First she notes the "plastic Mother and Child magnetized to the top" of an "ancient register." The customers of the deli come there to connect with their heritage, and so these objects comfort them. The "ancient" register keeps them in touch with the past. The capitalization of the words "mother" and "child" suggests these figures represent Mary and Jesus and highlights the spiritual nature of the deli. The magnet symbolizes the customers' strong religious beliefs that they have carried with them to the New World. Since these beliefs often clashed with the more secular American culture and their children's active assimilation efforts, the magnet helps them reinforce their sense of identity. In lines 4-6, food also becomes an important item in the deli. Ortiz Cofer describes the "heady" smells of dried codfish and green plantains—food that reflects the immigrants' culture. She reinforces the religious theme when she describes the plantain stalks hanging like "votive offerings."

Later in the poem, the customers read aloud the names of the foods on the shelves, which stirs memories of their lost childhood. Ortiz Cofer reinforces this emotion when she employs alliteration in this passage with the soothing sounds of "labels," "aloud," "lost," and "lovers." Their shopping there becomes an integral part in their struggle to maintain their cultural identity. Ortiz Cofer notes that the food is more expensive in the deli, but the customers really do not mind the extra cost. The food they would get from an American supermarket chain would not satisfy their "hunger" for a place where they can connect with each other and with their heritage. The Spanish-speaking people who come to her store have lost a clear vision of themselves in the difficult process of assimilation, as symbolized by "the fragile old man lost in the folds of his winter coat." His love of his homeland emerges in the sounds of his language as he brings a shopping list "that he reads to her like poetry." In her Melus interview, Ortiz Cofer notes her own connection to her native language and its influence on her art: "I use Spanish words and phrases almost as an incantation to lead me back to the images I need."

In her interview in Callaloo, Ortiz Cofer describes her own experience with the Latin delis in her neighborhood: "The hearts of the barrios in New Jersey were the bodegas, which were called delis by some of us. There were Jewish and Italian delis. So if you sold sandwiches, well, it was a deli and that was part of our language...[F]ood is important in its nurturing of the barrio. To my parents their idea of paradise was eating pasteles (pork meat turnovers)." The deli owner in the poem commits herself to nurturing her customers by offering them the products of their homeland. Ortiz Cofer reveals the deli owner's vital connection to the Spanish immigrants as she cuts her focus in the poem back and forth between them. She christens the owner "the Patroness of Exiles," who as Ortiz Cofer notes in the first line, "presides" over the deli. Ortiz Cofer gives her sacred status as she "opens" her food bins for her customers, providing them with a sorely needed cultural link. This Patroness watches over her customers like a Madonna, offering them comfort and a strong sense of self. This woman of "no-age" becomes an amalgam of all the women who run delis in ethnic neighborhoods. Her role there is to spend her days "selling canned memories" while listening to the inhabitants "complain" of their life in America and reminisce fondly of their past. Ortiz Cofer's physical description of her reinforces her nurturing image—"her plain wide face, her ample bosom resting on her plump arms, her look of maternal interest as they speak to her and each other of their dreams and their disillusions." These physical details help provide her customers with a sense of identity, since when they look at her, they "gaze upon the family portrait."

In the poem's closing section, Ortiz Cofer reinforces her ties to the deli owner and her customers/readers. She employs a touch of magic realism when she notes the owner's supernatural powers as she "divines" her customers' needs. With the dual connotations of the word "divine," the deli owner becomes a combination of a seer and an archetypal Madonna figure. She has the ability to "conjure up" products from her customers' homeland, "from places that now exist only in their hearts." Through the construction of her poem, Ortiz Cofer "divines" the needs of her readers, "conjuring up" comforting images of their heritage. In the final lines of the poem, she notes the difficulties she and the deli owner face in their attempts to provide solace to these transplanted people whose hearts have become "closed ports" where memories of their heritage are moored. The mission for both Ortiz Cofer and the deli owner is to "trade" in these ports in order to enable their readers and customers to reestablish a clear vision of self. Thus the deli and the poem become a safe harbor for Spanish immigrants, like Ortiz Cofer, to reconnect with their cultural heritage and so find a respite for a time from the difficult process of acculturation.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland.

The Relationship between Nostalgia and Poetry in Ortiz Cofer's Poem

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In terms of population, the fastest growing segment of the United States is Hispanic. Hispanics constitute the second largest minority population in the country next to African-Americans, and Spanish is the most frequently spoken foreign tongue. Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans make up the bulk of the Hispanic population. The Mexican population is largely concentrated in the West and Southwest, with states like California and Texas boasting the largest numbers. Cubans have a large presence in South Florida, and Puerto Ricans are heavily concentrated in New York City and northern New Jersey. The United States, or the "mainland," as it is known to Puerto Ricans, is considered a place of economic opportunity and freedom, and the rate of immigration to the states from Hispanic countries is very high. However, with opportunity also comes sacrifice. Those who leave home and come to America miss their homeland and a sense of belonging to a more homogeneous culture where family, neighborhood, and town often form the backbone of one's identity. Many immigrants become exiles of a sort, caught between cultures, not wholly belonging to their new home or their old. Judith Ortiz Cofer's poem, "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica," explores the nature of yearning for a place and a way of life that has been lost, linking it to the "stuff" of poetry itself.

The most profound feature of Romantic poetry and, arguably, modern poetry is the sense of loss: loss of love, loss of life, loss of identity. This loss is often couched in terms of nostalgia, a profound and insatiable desire for the past. Ortiz Cofer evokes this nostalgia in the opening lines of the poem, describing the Latin delicatessen:

Presiding over a Formica counter, plastic Mother and Child magnetized to the top of an ancient register, the heady mix of smells from the open bins of dried codfish, the green plantains hanging in stalks like votive offerings, she is the Patroness of Exiles, a woman of no age who was never pretty, who spends her days selling canned memories while listening to the Puerto Ricans complain that it would be cheaper to fly to San Juan than to buy a pound of Bustelo coffee here, and to Cubans perfecting their speech of a "glorious return" to Havana—where no one has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then; to Mexicans who pass through, talking lyrically of dolares to be made in el Norte—

"Canned memories" is a figure of speech playing on the fact that delicatessens sell canned goods as well as produce and other items. Because this yearning and the attendant memories on which the yearning is based are repeated in almost ritualistic fashion, "canned" also means prepackaged, something which can be used time and time again with exactly the same effects. Canned laughter, or laugh tracks, a staple of television situation comedies, is one example of this effect. Nostalgia by its nature is always the same, a melancholic yearning for the past that can never be appeased. It repeats itself precisely because it cannot be appeased. The deli lends itself to feelings of nostalgia because its features and products are similar to those of the immigrants' homelands. The delicatessen is described as a cross between a church and a museum. Ortiz Cofer's description suggests that this is not one Latin deli, but all Latin delis. The food here and the Catholic knick knack, a Mary and Jesus magnet, are staples of many Latin countries, most of which are heavily Roman Catholic, (Puerto Rico is 85 percent Catholic). Rather than satisfy the exiles' longing, however, the deli catalyzes it. These people are emotional exiles as well as physical ones. Though they have left their countries for a better life, they still long for the comfort of their homeland, as represented by foodstuffs such as plantains, a variety of banana that cannot be eaten raw, and Bustelo coffee, a particularly strong blend especially popular in Puerto Rico. The smells and sights of these items remind customers of their past and encourages them to act in particular ways. They become caricatures of exiles from their respective countries: the Puerto Ricans exaggerate and complain about how expensive goods are in the states; the Cubans beat their chests and brag of the day when they will overthrow Castro; the Mexicans are obsessed with making money to escape their impoverished lives. Stuck in the past, these cultural "interlopers" nonetheless must deal with the present. Their inability to do so forces them to live in a kind of purgatory, where the carrot of their homeland is dangled in front of them only to be pulled away the closer they get to it.

The proprietress of the deli is herself a combination of Mother Mary, museum curator, and muse. Like the exiles described and the deli itself, she is a type. Sexless and smiling, she embodies all of the characteristics of the stereotypical Latin mother with her "plain wide face, her ample bosom/ resting on her plump arms, her look of maternal interest." She symbolizes their heritage, the values of Latin culture, and stands for all that is good about the places they have left. In this way, she anchors the exiles in the past even though their hopes and dreams are also in the present and for the future.

Ortiz Cofer underscores the exiles' desire by focusing on language, visitors to the deli "wanting the comfort/ of spoken Spanish." Verbalizing the names of goods (for example, candy) takes the exiles deeper into their purgatory. The past is now like some unattainable lover, whose name they call but who will never answer. Ortiz Cofer once again highlights the ossified nature of the exiles' desire by calling these confections, "Suspiros,/ Merengues, the stale candy of everyone's childhood." Though the candies promise to be sweet, they only disappoint. They symbolize the static quality of impossible want.

The final images of the poem describe the extreme pathos of the exiles' situation. An old man, symbolizing all old men who are exiles, must have the ham and cheese sandwich from this deli, even though he could buy a less expensive sandwich elsewhere. The proprietress, in her role as patron saint of the exiles, attempts to satisfy this need by making the sandwich in the way that the man remembers it being made in his own country, "slicing jamon y queso and wrapping it in wax paper/ tied with string: plain ham and cheese/ that would cost less at the A[and]P..." The man's "hunger" is an appropriate metaphor, and the physical nourishment with which the deli supplies him only keeps his real hunger for his homeland alive. That she "divines" the needs of these exiles, and "conjures" up items from their past, suggests that she has powers, magical and religious. Her real trade is in desire. No doubt caught between cultures herself, this "Patroness of Exiles" presumably also keeps her own dreams of her homeland alive by trafficking in the hopes of others.

How can this description of a Latin delicatessen be called an "Ars Poetica," or art of poetry? If readers consider the patroness a muse as well and consider the customers as poets this title can be better understood. Historically, patrons, both individuals and organizations, have materially and through encouragement, supported poets. A good current example is the National Endowment of the Arts, which gives money every year to poets and artists to help them begin or complete projects. In return, poets acknowledge the support, sometimes in their verse itself. The "Patroness of Exiles" in the Latin deli offers customers emotional support and confirmation that their desires are "real," even though it is "canned memories" that she sells. As muse, she inspires the exiles. In her store they find "the comfort/ of spoken Spanish," mournfully recite the names of deli products, finding solace (and misery) in the act of naming itself. The promise that the patroness offers is the promise of poetry. Poetry, like the patroness, is able to "conjure up" things that exist only in the human heart. Poetry makes something out of nothing, and often originates in the imagination, the same place that gives birth to nostalgia and dreams. But there is something ironic in Ortiz Cofer' s calling her poem an "Ars Poetica," for if we understand the deli as a sad place, a "stale" place where heartbroken exiles are sold the same illusions over and over again, we must understand poetry, by extension, as something akin to the act of lying. This is similar to how Plato saw poetry in The Republic, when he argued for it being banned from his utopian community because it represented no truth of its own, but rather provoked the emotions and kept humanity from knowing the real truth. In evoking the exiles feelings of hopelessness and despair, Ortiz Cofer is not making anything up; rather, she is mining reality itself for the lies that we tell ourselves. The art of poetry for Ortiz Cofer, then, is the art of unmasking our own self-deceptions.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000 .
A widely published poet, fiction writer, and critic, Chris Semansky teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College.

The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry

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Judith Ortiz Cofer's writing defies convenient classification, although she works with many themes that are common to ethnic-American literature, for example, the feeling of being in exile in a strange land, where the sound of spoken Spanish is so comforting that even a grocery list reads "like poetry." The daily struggle to consolidate opposing identities is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the tradition which determines that a latina becomes a "woman" at age 15, which means, paradoxically, not more freedom but more restrictions, since womanhood is defined as sexual maturity, which must then be contained at all costs. This leaves one of her characters feeling "like an exile in the foreign country of my parents' house" because of "absurd" rules that do not apply to her present reality in Paterson, New Jersey.

Another striking example of such cultural clash occurs in the story, "Advanced Biology," in which a ninth grade Jewish boy tells the eighth grade narrator about both the Holocaust and reproductive biology. This leads her to doubt both God's "Mysterious Ways" and the Virgin Birth (and to have a screaming match with her mother on the topic), but concludes with her asking:

Why not allow Evolution and Eve, Biology, and the Virgin Birth? Why not take a vacation from logic? I will not be away for too long, I will not let myself be tempted to remain in the sealed garden of blind faith; I'll stay just long enough to rest myself from the exhausting enterprise of leading the examined life.

Indeed, Ortiz Cofer invites us to do the same when she presents the story of a young Puerto Rican girl's first disappointing attempt to date a non-latino Catholic. In "American History," we get a fictionalized account of the girl living in a tenement in Paterson, who takes a liking to a "white" boy from Georgia named Eugene, only to have her mother warn her, "You are heading for humiliation and pain." Soon Eugene's mother tells her in a "honey-drenched voice" that it's "nothing personal," but she should "run back home now" and never try to speak to the boy again. In "The Story of My Body," a similar situation occurs, and her mother tells her, "You better be ready for disappointment." The warning is followed by the boy's father saying, "Ortiz? That's Spanish, isn' t it?" as he looks at her picture in the yearbook and shakes his head, "No." In the poem "To a Daughter I Cannot Console," the narrator telephones her mother for advice on how to console her own lovesick sixteen-year-old daughter, and when her mother asks her "to remember the boy I had cried over for days. / I could not for several minutes / recall that face." The reader is left with the impression that such an event must have happened to Ortiz Cofer, or else why would she describe it three different ways in the same book? But it is precisely these "three different ways" that ask us—perhaps even compel us—to withdraw from "the exhausting enterprise" of examining too closely. Such events are common ethnic-American experiences, and thus all versions are in some way equally "true."

Other familiar themes treated in colorful and moving ways include the preparation of food (one character derives some fragment of solace after the death of her husband by entering her apartment building at dinnertime, and inhaling deeply "the aromas of her country," and there is a hilarious episode in which some furious adolescent petting is abruptly ended because the narrator has to go stir the red kidney beans before they get ruined), the untranslatability of certain culturally-bound concepts into English (nada can mean so much more than "nothing"), disappointment with fathers, men, and God, and the different standards of beauty between cultures. The essay "The Paterson Public Library" should be required reading in all high schools and colleges.

One especially provocative issue will have to serve for discussion: "The Story of My Body" begins, "I was born a white girl in Puerto Rico but became a brown girl when I came to live in the United States." This essay, about how our identities are often dependent upon how others define us, is followed by a poem appropriately called, "The Chameleon," and another essay, "The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria," in which Ortiz Cofer exposes and rejects common stereotypes of latinas as "hot," "sizzling," etc., explaining that in Puerto Rico, women felt freer to dress and move "provocatively" because the climate demanded it, and they were more-or-less protected by "the traditions, mores and laws of a Spanish/Catholic system of morality and machismo whose main rule was: You may look at my sister, but if you touch her, I will kill you."

Yet, at the opening of "The Myth of the Latin Woman," Ortiz Cofer writes about how she coveted "that British [self-] control," and in the poem, "Who Will Not Be Vanquished?" she writes:

Morning suits us Spanish women. Tragedy turns us into Antigone—maybe we are bred for the part.

Perhaps an "insider" can write this, but does it not also suggest that we all have our own preferred stereotypes? (In a related issue, three of the reviewers who are cited on the back of the book don't seem to be familiar with the traditional Spanish system of naming, referring to the author as "Cofer," when she clearly identifies herself as "Ortiz Cofer.")

In "5:00 A.M.: Writing as Ritual," Ortiz Cofer describes a period in her life when motherhood and adjunct teaching freshman composition at three different campuses somehow failed to fulfill her completely, and she writes that "There was something missing in my life that I came close to only when I turned to my writing." There is a bit of this sentiment in all of us.

Source: Kenneth Wishnia, The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry, (bookreview) in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1997, p. 206.

The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry

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Judith Ortiz Cofer, author of fiction, poetry collections and essays, presents all three in her latest book, The Latin Deli. Some readers and reviewers might overlook the volume because of its eclecticism. (It might have escaped editorial notice in this journal, for instance, because about 60% of the volume is devoted to poetry and essays.) Others might ignore it because they incorrectly assume that its appeal is specifically "ethnic." The latter premise reminds me of a mid-Atlantic university administrator I knew whose office would not subscribe to the New York Times because "we don't care what's going on in New York." For the record, then, don't buy this book solely for the poems, solely for the stories, or solely for the essays; moreover, don't buy this book solely to read about the experiences of Puerto Rican characters in the continental US. Instead, buy this book for the profound, poignant, funny, universal and moving epiphanies between its covers.

Cofer's combination of essays and poems produces a sustained embroidery on the short stories (and vice versa). Indeed, the essays and personal poems (especially the poems "Absolution in the New Year," "Who Will Not Be Vanquished?," and "Anniversary," and the essays "Advanced Biology," "The Story of My Body," and "The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria") reveal some of the autobiographical materials that Cofer uses in her stories. Her characters include young Puerto Rican girls who, like her, grow up in Paterson, New Jersey, in or around a tenement known as "El Building." In "American History," the teenaged protagonist is so focused on her impending study "date" with the blond-haired Eugene that she is unable to respond to the other events of 22 November, 1963. Her mother, offended by the daughter's failure to grieve over the Kennedy assassination, predicts that her infatuation with an Anglo boy will bring only "humiliation and pain." The prediction comes true immediately when Eugene' s mother refuses to let the girl in the house. In a bitter epiphany recalling Joyce's "Araby" and "The Dead," the girl "went to my window and pressed my face to the cool glass. Looking up at the light I could see the white snow falling like a lace veil over its face. I did not look down to see it turning gray as it touched the ground below."

There are other echoes of Joyce, from the explicit allusions to Ulysses in the epistolary narrative "Letter from a Caribbean Island" to the homely character in "Nada" whose "long nose nearly touched the tip of his chin" (like Maria's in Joyce's "Clay"). On a more sustained level, Cofer's stories recall Joyce's Dubliners in their cumulative portrait of El Building's characters in different stages of maturity, from young Eva, who is baffled by the evidence of her father's marital infidelity in "By Love Betrayed," through the emotional powerhouse of "Corazon's Cafe," encapsulating two lives in the narrative frame of the hours following a young husband's sudden death. As the childless widow is surrounded in the embrace of her community, Cofer sketches that community's members with extraordinary economy and force.

Cofer's essays and poems are highly personal and as powerful as her stories. The interplay between her non-fictional commentary on the power of writing ("5:00 a.m.: Writing as Ritual") and the poems and stories that demonstrate that power constitute an implicit narrative structure tying the volume together. Several poems (among them "Saint Rose of Lima" and "Counting") evoke the power of Catholic symbol and mysticism recalled through some secular distance, yet retaining not only the power of vivid recollection but also that conferred by artistic transformation. The emotional range of the volume is impressive, from the moving posthumous reconciliation with a father in "Absolution in the New Year" (with its disarmingly witty yet powerful coda, "There is more where this came from") to the funny adolescent pangs of "The Story of My Body" ("Wonder Woman was stacked. She had a cleavage framed by the spread wings of a golden eagle and a muscular body that has become fashionable with women only recently.")

Cofer's writing is not "about" being a Latina woman in America, nor is it "about" what critics call "marginality" or "Otherness," except to the extent that we are all marginal or Other to some degree. Who could be less "Other" in U.S. society, for instance, than George Bush; but who has been more marginalized than he was in and since the last U.S. presidential election? Judith Ortiz Cofer's work touches on human concerns that speak to none Other than all of us. She is an author worth knowing.

Source: Michael J. O'Shea, ‘The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry, (book review) in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 502.


Critical Overview