The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

Culture Clash
The clash between American and Spanish culture becomes the impetus for the immigrants to come to the Latin deli. In an interview in Melus, Ortiz Cofer notes that this theme predominates in all the stories and poems in The Latin Deli. Her work reflects her own experience with trying to reconcile the contradictions in her cultural identity. She explains, "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." She continues, "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 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." The customers in the deli, like Ortiz Cofer's parents, struggled to hang on to the traditions of the past, in order to maintain a clear sense of who they are and where they came from. There they see the symbols of their culture—the Mother and Child magnet and especially the food. They also can hear and speak their native tongue.

In an interview in Callaloo, Ortiz Cofer explains how places like the Latin deli helped Spanish immigrants reestablish their cultural identity. She writes, "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)." The deli owner in "The Latin Deli" is similar to a woman in one of the collection's short stories, "Corazon's Café." Ortiz Cofer explains that this woman is "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."

Art and Experience
The customers in the deli elevate the status of the items there to art as they read "the labels of packages aloud, as if they were the names of lost lovers." One "fragile old man lost in the folds of his winter coat" reads his lists of items "like poetry." The store items become poetry as they remind the customers of their culture and so reaffirm their sense of themselves.

This theme also emerges in the relationship Ortiz Cofer establishes between herself and the deli owner. Ortiz Cofer suggests that through her poems and stories that center on the lives of Spanish immigrants, she, like the owner of the deli, offers comfort and a sense of identity to others who share her heritage. In her Callaloo she notes, "The idea of staying alive by telling stories is something that has always fascinated me...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, I hope. All my women—Corazon, Mama, all of them—rely on their imaginations to make their lives richer and to teach their daughters."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access