The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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Historical Context

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Literary Heritage
Magic realism is a fictional style, popularized by Gabriel García Márquez, that appears most often in South American literature. This style may have emerged from the mystification of Latin America that occurred during colonization, as many Europeans chronicled strange and supernatural occurrences in the new land. The term was first associated with the arts and later extended to literature. In the 1920s and 1930s, Latin American artists were influenced by the surrealist movement and so incorporated the style into their art. Authors who use this technique mingle the fantastic or bizarre with the realistic. Magic realism often involves time shifts, dreams, myths, fairy tales, surrealistic descriptions, the element of surprise and shock, and the inexplicable. Often something common converts into something unreal or strange in order to reveal the inherent mystery in life. The writer, however, usually creates a supernatural atmosphere without denying the natural world—a paradox characters appear to accept without question.

In an interview in Callaloo, Ortiz Cofer notes that Puerto Rican authors extend the definition of magical realism "to include a different way of looking at the world." She continues:

When you read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez or The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, you are required to accept supernatural phenomena and to practice suspension of disbelief. When I write about espiritismo, I am writing about an ordinary, everyday thing that most Puerto Ricans live with...As I use espiritismo in my novel, there is nothing there that cannot be explained through natural law. I do not have any flying carpets or any other magical occurrences...My work reflects the reality that espiritismo...[is] for many ordinary outlet for their emotions, a way to feel that they are in control of their world.

Historical Context
In an interview in Callaloo, Ortiz Cofer comments on the cultural background of the poem as well as the collected works:

The book is called The Latin Deli because the centers, 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). All my stories, I feel, have political commitment, but in "Corazon's Cafe" there is a woman fully committed to nurturing the barrio, to bringing life to it, not by standing on a soap box, not by becoming a great philosopher, but by keeping this bodega open. So that the people of "el building" could have their pasteles, could have their cafe (coffee), could have a taste of what they needed to nurture them spiritually. It is a political story in that this woman supersedes her own personal needs in order to take care of the people of the barrio. This is the Puerto Rican experience that I know.

In a Melus interview with Edna Acosta-Belen, Ortiz Cofer comments on the tensions experienced by Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States, which resulted from their experiences with conflicting cultures. Acosta-Belen comments that the writings of Latina authors like Ortiz Cofer "represent an excellent illustration of how issues of gender, race, culture, and class become intertwined, expanding the terms in which marginalized groups construe their identity in relation to the U.S. mainstream society." Ortiz Cofer adds, "One of the things that is so dissonant about the lives of children in my situation is that I would go to school in Paterson and...

(This entire section contains 727 words.)

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mix and mingle with the Anglos and Blacks, where the system of values and rules were so much different than those inside our apartment, which my mother kept sacred. In our apartment we spoke only Spanish, we listened only to Spanish music, we talked about la casa (back home in Puerto Rico) all the time. We practiced a very intense Catholic religion, with candles in the bathtub, pictures of the Virgin and Jesus everywhere and I sort of felt (and I have a couple of ironic poems about this) that God was always watching." Establishments like the one described in "The Latin Deli" also became places where immigrants could experience the customs and cultures of their homeland.

Literary Style

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Ortiz Cofer wrote "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" in free verse, which varies line length and does not have an established meter. The poetic line becomes its basic rhythmic unit. Line breaks highlight important words in the poem. In "The Latin Deli" Ortiz Cofer frequently ends her lines with words that help convey the poem's themes. For example she ends lines 3-6 with "bins," "plantains," and "offerings," which reinforces the importance for the immigrants of the deli's Spanish food and the deli owner's position as "patroness," providing solace through food. Lines 18 and 19 end with "comfort" and "portrait," illustrating how the deli helps the customers reestablish comforting connections with their heritage.

Repetition of sounds in a poem can also emphasize key words and images and so create poetic structure. In addition, sounds can provide pleasure. Ortiz Cofer uses alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds, in lines 26-27 in the words "labels," "aloud," "lost," and "lovers" to emphasize the joy the customers feel when they speak in their native language. She employs internal rime in lines 16-17 when she describes the Mexicans "talking lyrically of dóolares," which highlights their hopes in the New World. The importance of food becomes evident through examples of consonance, the repetition of final consonant sounds, in "bins" and "plaintains" (lines 4-5).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Acosta-Belen, Edna, review, in Melus, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, p. 15.

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

Review, in Booklist, September 15, 1993.

Review, in Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1993.

Wishnia, Kenneth, review, in Melus, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1997, p. 206.

Further Reading
Review, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 45, November 8, 1993, p. 60.
This reviewer praises the collection of works in The Latin Deli especially in their portrayal of the "complexities of Latina identity."


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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.




Critical Essays