- Author Biography
- Plot Summary
- Topics For Further Study
- Historical Context
- Compare & Contrast
- Critical Overview
Judith Ortiz Cofer's short story "American History" is a coming-of-age tale set in the early 1960s, when racism and segregation were still in full bloom. The story's fourteen-year-old protagonist, Elena, is a Puerto Rican immigrant living with her family in Paterson, New Jersey, when President John F. Kennedyis assassinated. Despite this tragic event, Elena is focused on Eugene, her new neighbor and the object of her daydreams. When Elena visits Eugene that evening, she experiences her own personal tragedy in the form of prejudice. "American History" first appeared in Cofer's collection The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry in 1993. This collection of poetry and prose won two honors: the Anisfield Wolf Book Award in 1994 and a placement on the Georgia Center for the Books Top 25 Reading List. Cofer's story has also been anthologized in the 2002 collection BigCity Cool: Short Stories about Urban Youth, edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss.
Judith Ortiz Cofer is often referred to as a Latina writer because of her Puerto Rican heritage and her emphasis on the Hispanic experience in her writing. She was born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, in 1952. When she was three years old, her family left the island and moved to the United States, finding a home in Paterson, New Jersey. Cofer's father was a member of the U.S. Navy and was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Cofer's mother, who missed her homeland, often took Cofer back to Puerto Ricofor extended visits. Sometimes Cofer stayed in Puerto Rico long enough to attend school there. This provided Cofer with the strong bicultural background that is reflected in her writing. The family moved to Georgia when Cofer was a teen. After graduating from high school, Cofer was accepted at Georgia's Augusta College, where she earned an English degree in 1974. She then attended Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and received a master's degree in English in 1977. A few years later...
"American History" beings with a description of the narrator's neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1963. The narrator, fourteen-year-old Elena, lives in what she refers to as a Puerto Rican tenement building called El Building. It is an old, rundown apartment building on a busy city corner. Because of the loud music that pours out of the windows, Elena refers to El Building as a "monstrous jukebox." Many of the people who live in this building are recent immigrants, who, according to the author, use the music to help drown out their worries. Elena's narrative then describes a day when her class in the neighborhood school has been ordered to go outside. Though the students do not know it yet, President John F. Kennedyhas just been shot. Shortly after they are sent outside, Mr. DePalma, the physical education and science teacher, as well as the school's disciplinarian, tells the students the shocking news. Some of the students respond with muffled laughter upon seeing DePalma she...
Mr. DePalma is the physical education and science teacher at Elena's school. Elena also describes him as the disciplinarian. It is to Mr. DePalma that students are sent when they get into trouble. So there appears to be some fear surrounding him, especially in Elena's eyes. When he openly weeps in front of students following President Kennedy's death, some students lose respect for DePalma. Although quietly, some students laugh at him. DePalma is not very respectful of the students, either. H...
Elena is the fourteen-year-old protagonist of Cofer's short story. Elena is in the ninth grade and lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Although she does not feel left out of her peer groupat school, she does believe that she does not quite fit in. She mentions only the black girls from school with whom she plays at recess. She does not discuss other Puerto Rican or white friends, other than Eugene. Elena wishes she were more like the black girls, especially regarding their developing bodies, which...
Elena's mother is presented as an adult who is trying to steer her daughter on a course that will avoid heartache. She is worried that Elena is acting rather strange, obsessively watching the house next door, and quickly realizes her daughter is infatuated. Elena's mother also represents the immigrant personality of the first generation. She is more attached to Puerto Rico and the practices of her culture than Elena is. Elena's mother does not want to stay in the United States. She misses her...
Elena, the protagonist of this story, mentions several times that she feels shame—a sense of disgrace or a feeling of inadequacy. She is ashamed of her body, which she believes is too skinny. She is also ashamed of her body's movements, which are at times rigid, jerky, and awkward. Elena talks about her flat chest and wishes she had more feminine curves. She also wishes she had more meat and fat on her bones to keep her warm. Because she is often cold, she cannot keep up with the other girls...
Religion and Death
Religion and death are minor themes in this story. Elena mentions going to church, praying, and having altars set up to honor saints and martyrs. The theme of religion is prominent in connection to President Kennedy's death. Death, in this story, brings out a sense of sacredness. Elena's mother is shocked, for example, when Elena thinks more about studying than she does about going to church to honor Kennedy's death and to pray for his family. The rest of the city, from Elena's point of view,...Why do you think the author chose the title of this story? What aspects of American history are brought into the story, and how do they affect the characters? Is the title literal or ironic? Direct...Investigate immigration to the United States from Puerto Rico. What are the main reasons for people from Puerto Rico to come to the United States? Are the reasons political, educational, or economi...Write an extension of Cofer's short story, creating a scene between Eugene and Elena a week after Eugene's mother has denied Elena access to the house. What would a conversation between Eugene and...Interview adult family members or neighbors, asking them about President Kennedy's assassination. Do they remember how they heard about this tragic event? How did they feel? What did they do? How d...
Telling a story from a first-person point of view (using the pronoun "I") pulls the reader in to the story because it seems like the narrator is talking directly to the reader about a very personal experience. Another way of looking at it is that a first-person narration almost reads like someone's personal journal or diary entries. Readers of first-person narratives are privileged to the intimate thoughts of the narrator. Often the narrator not only relates the actions that make up the story...
Use of Setting and Imagery
Authors often use setting, or the time and location of the story's events, and imagery, or descriptions of visual elements, to convey a mood or to reinforce a story's themes. The setting of Cofer's short story is rather bleak and dark. The imagery Cofer uses to describe the neighborhood, the school, and the apartment building create a sense of gloom. First, it is late November and very cold and uncomfortable outside. It is so cold that Elena has trouble moving. The skies are dark, and when it...
The author interweaves contrasting perspectives throughout her story to heighten the tension that the young protagonist Elena experiences. Teenagers, such as Elena, when passing from childhood into adulthood, often feel quite isolated. They are too old to remain children and must give up the childish comforts of their earlier years. Yet they are not yet old enough to fully grasp the adult world. This feeling of isolation is accentuated in Cofer's story by setting off the adult world from the...
Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was touring Dallas, Texas, in a convertible limousine. Although Lyndon B. Johnson, a native of Texas, was Kennedy's vice president, the Democratic pair had almost lost Texas in the 1960 presidential vote. Kennedy went to Texas to help gain support for the next election. The governor of Texas, John Connally, was sitting in front of the president as their car, which also carried Connally's wife, Nellie, and the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, when...1960s: The citizens of the United States are shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The country mourns the loss of its leader. 1990s: Several devastating events evoke national m...1960s: The U.S. population reaches 200 million in the mid-1960s. According to the PEW Hispanic Research Center, of that number, 8.5 million are Hispanic. 1990s: In the mid-1990s, the U.S. populatio...1960s: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill introduced by President Kennedy in 1963, is passed, outlawing segregation in schools, public places, and employment. Prejudice is common in America, and...
Although Cofer's writing has earned the author many awards, most of the critical attention on her work is focused on her novels. There are, however, a handful of reviews on her short story collection The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry as well as the anthology Big City Cool: Stories about Urban Youth, both of which include "American History." In 1994, shortly after Cofer's book The Latin Deli was published, Michael J. O'Shea, writing for Studies in Short Fiction, pointed out that other reviewers might have overlooked this collection because it contained not only short stories but also poems and essays. Other reviewers, O'Shea claimed, might also have dismissed the collection because it dealt with Puerto Rican themes. However, O'Shea argues that the poems and the essays inform the short stories, thus making the stories richer and the collection a cohesive unit. Furthermore, he states that even though the characters in the stories are Puerto Rican, the issues that they confront are chall...
Created in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, American History: A Visual Encyclopedia gives detailed historical information and brings it to life with more than 750 photographs and paintings, plus extensive maps, charts, and state-specific information. Each double-page spread focuses on one aspect of the nation's history, be it the ...
- DK Children
Prepare your child to understand American history, write great history reports, and have an easy, clear way to learn more about U.S. history with the Children's Encyclopedia of American History, an essential resource for understanding American history and the events that have shaped the creation of the United States.
- DK CHILDREN
- David C. King
Uncover the key moments that shaped American history in this extensive history encyclopedia for children. Get the background on the Battle of Yorktown and discover what started the American Revolution. Learn the legends of the Wild West. Relive the atmosphere of the "Roaring Twenties."
Jun 25, 2019 · Created in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, American History: A Visual Encyclopedia gives detailed historical information and brings it to life with more than 750 photographs and paintings, plus extensive maps, charts, and state-specific information.
The history of the United States started with the arrival of Native Americans in North America around 15,000 BC. Numerous indigenous cultures formed, and many disappeared in the 1500s. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 started the European colonization of the Americas. Most colonies were formed after 1600, and United States was the ...
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