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| American History by Judith Ortiz Cofer Essay

This paper analyses the short story “American History” written by Judith Ortiz Cofer and initially published in 1993. The story-teller, Elena, is a fourteen year old young girl going through puberty, experiencing the offensive pressures of high school, managing the rejection, experiencing her primary crush, and feeling puzzled about not realizing how to feel about the bereavement of President John F. Kennedy.

The center of this account is inner conflict within Elena herself, and the huge gap between her hopes and dreams and the brute reality, which the young girl has to face due to her ethnicity. Ethnicity is also apparent in the external conflict in the manner in which Eugene’s mother treats Elena when she visits his house, and is foreshadowed by Elena’s mother, who warns daughter about what she is heading towards. Additionally, the death of Elena’s hopes is obviously paralleled with the demise of John F. Kennedy, who himself attempted to campaign for equality.

Ethnicity Conflict in American History by Judith Ortiz Cofer

In American History the theme of cultural isolation and xenophobic attitudes in the large US city is reflected through the fresh eyes of a teenage Puerto Rican girl. During Skinny Bones’s initial attempts to adapt to living in Paterson, the theme of cultural isolation is investigated on different levels. Therefore, the challenges she has in adapting are geographical (Skinny Bones is unused to the bitter cold of the Northeast), interpersonal (she is still learning another culture’s codes), and familial (the girl confronts her mother’s incapability to provide feminine advice in the foreign society). Through retelling own daily-life experiences she finds out that all these matters are related to one another and are complicated parts in the forging of her own individuality as a young Puerto Rican female growing up in the USA (Davis, 2002).

The theme of ethnicity and racism is evident in this narrative (Vázquez, 2011). Elena’s relatives are Puerto Rican migrants, who live in gray, old town named Paterson, New Jersey. Elena calls this place the Puerto Rican apartment building asserting that this is a place for people like her. This demonstrates that there are houses meant for some individuals and others created for another class of humans. Being migrants, Elena’s relatives can only afford to live in this old construction in old town. This also demonstrates that as Eugene’s family was not the migrant family, if anything was to happen, Skinny Bones was to suffer as she could never match herself up to Eugene as he came from the totally different race.

The large gap between Skinny Bones’s hopes and dreams and the brute reality, which young girl has to face due to her ethnicity is obvious from the beginning of the book. Basically, Skinny Bones is a teenaged Puerto Rican young girl attempting to get used to living in the apartment building in Paterson. She lives in a previous Jewish neighborhood, which is now inhabited typically by African Americans and Puerto Ricans. As a loner, Elena is attracted to marginalized people just like herself. She encounters her soul-mate in Eugene, a shy boy, who has recently come from South Georgia. Moreover, due to his noticeable southern accent he is soon teased “the Hick,” and he becomes school’s object of mockery, joining Skinny Bones as the outcast (Cofer, 1993). As a matter of fact, Skinny Bones falls in love with this boy, and they soon become indivisible, in spite of their cultural dissimilarities. Eugene, a good student, tutors Skinny Bones in a few subjects. Though Skinny Bones is a good student, she is not allowed to attend the advanced courses as English is not her first language. The account’s climax takes place when Skinny Bones accepts Eugene’s invitation to tutorial session at his house, right across from her apartment building. She accepts willingly as she has been wishing to get acquainted with Eugene’s relatives. After having watched his kitchen from her own apartment, Skinny Bones is especially interested in Eugene’s mother, “a red-headed tall woman” (Cofer, 1993).

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Skinny Bones’s interest in documenting her everyday living, including her inner conflicts, leads her to make a journal in which she introduces the booklover to dissimilar characters and locales. Her major focus is her globe at “Public School Number 13”, the impersonal educational facility where she initially experiences racial conflicts with African American students (Cofer, 1993). For that reason, they give her a nickname that she hates in order to avoid using her real Spanish name. At the same time Skinny Bones demonstrates the inclination toward feminine issues, such as the process of becoming a young female. These issues combine with the account’s thematic axis that revolves around how humans from dissimilar cultures respond to each other and what aspects of their conduct can be treated as xenophobic (Davis, 2002). Skinny Bones does not presuppose the judgmental role even though all the non-Puerto Rican characters reflect alien cultures, which influence her living. African American teenagers stand out as they represent the struggle by both groups to avoid cultural assimilation into the unremarkable US melting pot.

Elena is passing through teenage years and complains concerning her “flatchested body” (Cofer, 1993). For this reason, she also tells how she envies black girls at school and how quick they were (Cofer, 1993). Consequently, she is suffering concerning being always cold and she feels everybody else has it better than she does counting the black students who she declares “always appeared to be warm whilst I froze” (Cofer, 1993). Elena has an inclination for suffering and does it once again when she encounters Eugene. She depicts him as the single “source of light and beauty for me” (Cofer, 1993).

Skinny Bones’s crush on Eugene may also be treated as, and was probably even caused by, her jealous admiration of those who she thinks are better than she is. Elena appears familiar with a sense of being inferior to richer humans; as she comes to Eugene she is “prepared for refusal, snobbery, and the worst” (Cofer, 1993). Thus, Elena observes the lives of old couple and Eugene’s relatives in admiration, putting focus on mere things, which appear majestic to her like sitting reading at Eugene’s breakfast table. This theme of inferiority is very important as it is illustrated at the beginning, in the middle, and lastly in the finale when Eugene’s mother does not wish her child associating with Elena as she learns that Elena inhabits El Building, a house known as low-income housing. Additionally, this is foreshadowed by the manner in which Elena’s mother warns her child about what she is heading towards: You are forgetting who you are. I have seen you looking at that boy’s home. You are heading for humiliation and pain (Cofer, 1993).

The Major Parallel of American History

The death of Elena’s hopes is clearly paralleled with the murder of John F. Kennedy, who attempted to campaign for equality. The American History represents the sharp contrast, considering the fact it describes at the period when President John F. Kennedy is killed. In spite of this heartbreaking event, Elena is concentrated on Eugene, her new neighbor and an object of her fresh source of happiness. This demonstrates likewise a sharp contrast in a sense that an unlucky event happens in the murder of the president, an event, which calls for grief yet Elena is cheerful to have encountered Eugene. Moreover, when Depalma comes to tell the students the awful news that Kennedy had been murdered, some of the students respond with laughter upon seeing DePalma’s tears (Cofer, 1993). Similarly, this again demonstrates contrast as this is an event, which ought to attract pain and resentment yet the students are smiling after being told the news.

The passing away of John F. Kennedy was an event, which shook the globe, but to a teenager like Elena it does not, in fact, mean anything. In the 1960’s, the US citizens both loved and esteemed the presidents and for John F. Kennedy to be taken like that, left millions crying like they would for the demise of one of the closest relatives. The American History helps the readers to identify with Elena and understand how she must have been feeling (Bruce-Novoa, 1991). Whether President was alive or not was not going to influence her existence in any way that she would be capable to notice, so why should she spend her time and thoughts on it? At this moment, Eugene is Elena’s primary priority and she has all her energy and hope invested in advancing things among her and her crush. However, once Elena attends her friend Eugene that evening, she suffers own personal drama in the form of discrimination and racism. This is a resemblance in terms of the events, which are happening at the same time. In this regard, the nation is engulfed in disaster after the President is killed whilst Elena is similarly facing prejudicial disaster (Bruce-Novoa, 1991).

As Elena becomes emotionally closer to Eugene, she becomes more hopeful of becoming more than merely friends with each moment they spend together. This mood, or the emotion evolved in readers by Judith Cofer, is feeling of being inferior to others. Together with that, there was jealousy and that grief that comes over a human being only during those precise disappointments in living you never forget. If the emotional scars remain with one forever, then later every great dissatisfaction shapes one’s personality and overall life. There is no doubt that Elena was altered forever in a way that day. The mood of the overall account would be the sense of unimportance. Therefore, young girl is at the cross road in her existence, she is moving through puberty, she is growing up and becoming a woman, she is on a whole new level in dealing with her initial huge crush, she is experiencing the rage of chauvinism, and this giant globe event has occurred with the demise of John F. Kennedy, and she is just one unimportant little human being fighting with the troubles of her life.


In conclusion, this account does not have a happy finale, which merely cements how realistic it actually is as in living there are no happy endings. The author does a remarkable job in maintaining the narrative convincing and exciting. This excellent short account is, in fact, centered on inner conflict within Elena herself, and the huge gap between her hopes and dreams and the cruel reality, which young girl has to face due to her ethnicity. This is also manifested in the external conflict in the manner in which Eugene’s mother treats Elena when she visits his house, and is foreshadowed by the manner in which Elena’s mother warns her daughter about what she is heading towards. Thus, it is Elena’s conflict that is between her hopes that she has for herself and her friendship with Eugene, and the death of her hopes is obviously paralleled with the demise of President John F. Kennedy, who himself attempted to campaign for equality.

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