Judith Ortiz Cofer first came into my view in the late 80`s

Vibrant Biculturalism in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s
The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica
April 2003
By Carmen Acevedo Butcher
Shorter College
315 Shorter Avenue
Rome, GA 30165
Copyright©Carmen Butcher 1995
Judith Ortiz Cofer first came into my view in the late 1980’s. I was a graduate student at
The University of Georgia, where she is on faculty. In fact, I was a lonely insomniac at UGA
when I found myself seated one day in the Black Dog Café after an illuminating poetry reading
by Coleman Barks. I had dressed in a black velvet skirt and almost matching jacket, something
my mother found in a basement sale at Rich’s years before, and I was at the table with other
graduate students in English who’d been at Barks’s reading. We were having tea in chipped cups
on equally chipped china saucers, no two of which were alike. At the table next to ours perched
“the eminent ones” (Coleman and other professors and published poets), and there there was a
woman who caught my eye because she was lovely and because she looked like one of my
much-adored aunts in Miami. This women held my awe; she was a Poet with a capital P. Words
obeyed her like willing lovers, and this divine being said to her companions, with a subtle nod in
my direction, “She’s beautiful,” meaning me, and the melancholy person I was then thought,
Well, I’m no published poet, but—no matter—Judith Ortiz Cofer thinks I’m beautiful.
Professor Cofer never knew I heard her compliment, and I never found the courage to
take a course from her, either. I felt inadequate just contemplating that scenario. I felt safer then
researching someone other than myself. So I went the scholarly route (which, I must admit, is—
to this day—also satisfying), charging into the world of Anglo-Saxon, even though I’d written
poetry consistently since I was old enough to grasp a fat pencil, and even though as a serious
graduate student I was then writing poems in margins and blank pages of my thick, predictable
literature anthologies, but that is mostly where they stayed. Some did make it to paper and some
of these made it to the trashcan. I continued straightforward.
Having studied German language and literature at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
years earlier on a Rotary Club International Graduate Scholarship helped me secure a Fulbright
Copyright©Carmen Butcher 1995
Scholarship later in my graduate school career, and I hung out in libraries all over England,
researching at Senate House, the British Library, and Oxbridge. In truth, I was looking for
anything unusual, say, a monk’s shopping list or a map to buried Viking treasure (I was often in
the , and along the way I devoted much energy writing a very academic dissertation on the littleknown but much-praised English Benedictine monk named Ælfric.
But, no matter where I traveled, nor what arcane subjects I studied, I never forgot the
kind dark eyes of Judith Ortiz Cofer that day in the Black Dog Café. They were the kind of eyes
I as an Acevedo grew up gazing into, but I had never seen them in the face of a female poet.
That moment was kismet. It surfaced in my mind over the years, reminding me that a LatinAmerican woman such as I myself could dare write with the intent to publish, and not solely
cook, clean house, care for a man and children, or enter the “safe” career path of teaching. Over
the years, including one sunny husband and two lively children later, I lost my loneliness and
insomnia (though young children are not a couples’ Club-Med vacation), and I found the nerve to
write. Even as a stay-at-home mom, I pursued a career in freelance writing, though not with the
same success as Cofer, obviously, and even now while teaching Old and Middle English courses
and linguistics at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, I still write non-scholarly poems and essays.
And I send them out for publication or post them on my blog (www.carmenbutcher.com) or read
them at Shorter.
Cofer’s wide-ranging book about the lives of Barrio women, The Latin Deli: An Ars
Poetica (1993) articulates my own (more modest) struggles as a Cuban-American writer and
teacher. And that is because Cofer is not, after all, a divine being; she is something even better—
she is a real woman writing, and her writings are a witness to anyone who can read that puttingfingers-to-keyboard is one way to truth, to healing, to love, to a new kind of openness and
tolerance. In her essay, “5:00 A.M.: Writing as Ritual,” Professor Cofer confesses: “There was
something missing in my life that I came close to only when I turned to my writing, when I took
a break from my thesis research to write a poem or an idea for a story on the flip side of an index
card” (166).
She continues, saying she felt an “urgent need . . . to work with language as a search; I
did not know for a long time what I was looking for” (168). She places priority on conducting a
quest without a known goal, and this is important because few men and even fewer women will
set aside precious time today to do anything that does not have a practical and announced aim. A
woman with every hour booked in a fourteen-hour day can routinely, for example, find time to
wash one more special blouse for a daughter, but most will rarely (and, I will say, unhealthily)
think of themselves and what they themselves need. They have been taught by society that that
is “selfish.” Very early in The Latin Deli, Cofer acknowledges the goal-lessness of her writingas-search by quoting San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross): “Para venir a lo que no sabes, /
has de ir por donde no sabes.” (“To come to what you do not know / you must go by the way
you do not know”) (5).
Ignorance, then, is not an enemy in a spiritual expedition, as long as one is en route. A
terrible obstacle, though, when growing a soul, is the lethargy that comes from society’s
pressures to conform, and Judith Ortiz Cofer is well aware of that. She refers to “society’s
emphasis on the ‘acceptable’ priorities” for women, and, even though we are already into the
third millennium, writing is still not one of those traditional careers a women is encouraged to
cultivate with pride and satisfaction, or without guilt. The world over, “Kinder, Küche, und
Kirche” still prevail, in spite of all hype to the contrary.
In The Latin Deli, Professor Cofer presents several themes that speak intimately to my
Cuban-American self, but I will address only one in detail here: biculturalism (including
bilingualism as a way into biculturalism), and this paper will analyze their vibrancy in the poems,
personal essays, and short stories of this book . Every fall semester I enjoy the days my 1010
class and I discuss Cofer’s “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named María,” or
pages 416-23 in Subjects/Strategies. My students are predominantly natives of Georgia and firstgeneration college students, so they need to be exposed to biculturalism as a topic for analysis
and contemplation, first, because they are mostly white, and, second, because they live in an area
with a rapidly increasing Latin population. I feel we need to know our neighbors better.
In this fine essay, Cofer tells the story of a bad experience she had once when she was a
student at Oxford University. On a bus trip she took into London, a slightly tipsy young man got
down on his knees in the aisle and serenaded her Latin features with the song, “María,” from
West Side Story. This episode startled me the first time I read it because a similar thing happened
to me, except in a different country, in a little town on the Rhine River called Boppard, then in
West Germany. I was twenty-two, it was my first time abroad, and I was walking down a
cobblestone street, alone, when a young German man burst out of a tavern, thrust a dozen of the
reddest roses in my hands, kneeled to belt out some song in German, then just as quickly dashed
off, never to be seen again. I would have doubted the experience, except there were those thorny
roses I was holding.
Until I read Cofer’s essay exploring what it means to be perceived (or, rather,
“misperceived”) as “Latina,” I myself did not quite understand those old experiences lodged,
itching, in my memory. Like Cofer, my Hispanic (Cuban) heritage has often had its Caucasian
context bump against it rudely. And that Caucasian culture has often (but certainly not always)
viewed Latinas as “Hot Tamales,” without first even asking this (then) single Latina, “And what
is your name?”
“The Myth of the Latin Woman” contains two examples of Cofer’s signature humor that
enables her to present and discuss incendiary issues like racial clashes without being harsh or
furious. This humor gives her direct prose a genuine gentleness and opens readers to hear and
accept the truth of the sometimes humiliating experiences Cofer has faced because she is a
“Latina.” Humiliation is the obvious point in a story Cofer tells about her encounter with a
tuxedoed middle-aged man, “probably a corporate executive, well educated, even worldly by
most standards,” who accosted her and a colleague one evening in the early 1990’s, raised his
champagne glass towards her, and “half-recited, half-bellowed ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’”
as she was walking toward her room in a classy metropolitan hotel (151).
His young daughter was with him, in satin and lace, but he did not stop with the insulting
song. He followed this act with a ditty shouted-and-sung to the tune of “La Bamba,” except, as
Cofer summarizes wryly, “the lyrics were about a girl named María whose exploits all rhymed
with her name and gonorrhea” (152). That sophisticated, brave humor flashes again when Cofer
describes how she replied to this embarrassing fiasco in a tuxedo: “When he finished, I looked
not at him but at his daughter. I advised her calmly never to ask her father what he had done in
the army. Then I walked between them and to my room.” (152)
Cofer next reminds her reader that this same man would have been less likely to entertain
a white woman with a dirty song in public. She points out that he would have more likely stifled
his impulse by considering that a white woman is someone’s wife or mother or, as Cofer
explains, “at least somebody who might take offense, [b]ut to him, I was just an Evita or a María:
merely a character in his cartoon-populated universe” (152).
This story’s incisive, humane humor makes Cofer’s point about prejudice, and I always
hope my students are taking indelible notes. Also worth noting is what Cofer omits in her
description of the discomfort she experienced at the hands of this stereotyping white male—she
does not once use that worn-out word, prejudice. Instead, sophisticated diction creates her
trademark details. Cofer never tells her reader, “That guy was stupid and obnoxious”; she brings
out the corporate executive and lets him bellow rudely, to paraphrase Mark Twain. In the last
section of The Latin Deli, “The Medium’s Burden,” Cofer begins with Emily Dickinson’s
reminder of the power of indirection: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—” (117). Even the title
of that same essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman,” contains a precise use of a small but telling
word, myth. Cofer could just as easily have titled her piece, “The Stereotyping of the Latin
Woman,” or “Examples of Prejudice Against the Latin Woman,” but myth has no negative
connotations. It sneaks up on the unsuspecting reader. It causes no bristling of the brain, no
immediate, “Oh, right, another whining minority writer.” But it does allow a fresh view of old
problems. This fine word choice enables Judith Ortiz Cofer, an individual Latin-American
woman, to show her audience how she differs from that Latina myth, and why.
The etymology of detail is revealing in this context—from an Old French word denoting,
“a piece cut off,” from detaillir, meaning “to cut up,” detail is ultimately related to tailor.
The irony is that, in presenting her reader with countless nuanced, starkly honest fragments from
her life, and then piecing them together into compelling stories and poems, Judith Ortiz Cofer
transcends her own meaning and, in effect, successfully mythologizes her own life, without
meaning to do so. The reader is reminded of the detailed, true-to-life poems of Lucille Clifton,
where the same phenomenon of universality occurs. For both poets, the African-American and
the Hispanic, particular experience is shown to be universal. The poetry and the prose of Cofer’s
The Latin Deli are tailor-made for my own Cuban-American heart, and they also resonate deeply
with a diverse audience.
Cofer herself says this is her desire: “Every time I give a reading, I hope the stories I tell,
the dreams and fears I examine in my work, can achieve some universal truth which will get my
audience past the particulars of my skin color, my accent, or my clothes” (154). And she
concludes “The Myth of the Latin American Woman” with more of her sophisticated humor:
I once wrote a poem in which I called us Latinas ‘God’s brown daughters.’
This poem is really a prayer of sorts, offered upward, but also, through the
human-to-human channel of art, outward. It is a prayer for communication,
and for respect. In it, Latin women pray ‘in Spanish to an Anglo God / with a
Jewish heritage,’ and they are ‘fervently hoping / that if not omnipotent, / at least
He be bilingual.’ (154)
In the cornfields of Macedonia, a small rural community where I was raised not far from
Canton, Georgia, that prayer must have reached even the Southern single I was, the last of all my
elementary-school girlfriends to marry and have children. I applauded Cofer’s rejection that a
man’s view of physical passion is always the correct one. Once, a boorish beau kissed Cofer
sloppily and then resented her insufficiently passionate response—he sputtered, “I thought you
Latin girls were supposed to mature early [author’s emphasis].” Cofer addresses that “mature”
slur with instructive paronomasia: “[This was] my first instance of being thought of as a fruit or
vegetable—I was supposed to ripen, not just grow into womanhood like other girls” (151). She
uses this incident out of her life’s history to show that that Caucasian idea of “mature” is based
on the Latin-American woman “myth”: Hispanic women who dress well must be unquestionably
horny for their dates because they are Latin-American women who are dressed well. Here again,
her own story assumes a larger meaning; in its telling, it matures into the fruit of common truth—
Guys who assume are just not sexy.
When I first read The Latin Deli, I sampled it in no straightforward fashion, and it is a
credit to its non-linear language that it reads as well from back to front to middle as it does from
front to back. What I discovered was that sometimes Judith Ortiz Cofer was an outsider even in
her own home as she was growing up. Her biculturalism estranged her even there. She could
read books in English, but her parents could not. My aunts in Miami, in “little Havana,” still
cannot speak English, but their children all graduated from The University of Miami, so I
understand this dichotomy. Again, Cofer uses her splendid sense of diction and her poet’s ear to
express the peculiar isolation she experienced. In the essay, “Not for Sale,” Cofer describes what
it was like to be sixteen with a dictatorial father who said no to everything—no dating, no
driver’s license, and no end-of-the-year-school-year weekend trip with her junior class, even with
three teachers as chaperones.
She lets her readers hear this “No” as she quotes her father’s saying, “No, no, no, with a
short Spanish ‘o.’ Final: no lingering vowels in my father’s pronouncements” (16). These two
lines are poetry embedded in a prose piece. Spanish vowels are shorter than those in English,
and the curt “Spanish” o’s in her father’s three stern No’s contrast well with their surroundings,
standing out all the more. They are followed by the longer o of the English language, found in
the no in the second sentence, before lingering, as well as with the long o and the devastatingly
assured “ow” sound in pronouncements. In two deft, beautifully memorable sentences, Cofer has
summed up the intractable tyranny of the Hispanic male, and how appalling it can be if that male
is also your father. In this case, each of the three No’s is part of a trinity of power, an idea that
suits the Catholic context, too, where heavenly father and earthly father are often one concept, or
one fiat.
But Judith Ortiz Cofer found sustenance in books, as many a fledgling writer does. In
“Not for Sale,” she bluntly admits, “Books kept me from going mad” (16). Books were
companions when both inside and outside her home she was confronted by the painful barrier
biculturalism can sometimes be. The Latin Deli contains several paeans to books. Cofer
elaborates in “Not for Sale”:
They allowed me to imagine my circumstances as romantic: some days I was an
Indian princess living in a zenana, a house of women, keeping myself pure, being
trained for a brilliant future. Other days I was a prisoner: Papillon, preparing
myself for my great flight to freedom. (16-17)
In her essay, “American History,” she admits that an indecorous fire escape was her
favorite spot on which to sit and read her library books in the summer, when she was living in the
hideous high-rise called El Building, in Paterson, New Jersey (8). In this story about her
rejection by a potential beau’s Southern mom because of her brown skin color and low social
circumstances, Cofer records her loneliness well. She describes how the fire escape was located
over a house occupied by an old Jewish couple, and how, over the years, she “had become a part
of their family, without their knowing it, of course” (8). Her close attention to detail shines here,
until the reader feels as if he or she, too, is sitting on that fire escape day after summer day, book
in hand:
I had a view of their kitchen and their backyard, and though I could not hear
what they said, I knew when they were arguing, when one of them was sick,
and many other things. I knew all this by watching them at mealtimes. I could
see their kitchen table, the sink and the stove. During good times, he sat at the table
and read his newspapers while she fixed the meals. If they argued, he would leave
and the old woman would sit and stare at nothing for a long time. When one of them
was sick, the other would come and get things from the kitchen and carry them out on
a tray. (8)
This quotation also shows the young writer honing her skills of observation in silence,
over time. In another essay, “The Paterson Public Library,” the reader sees the young Cofer
becoming a committed bibliophile. This public repository of books is remembered with these
telling words, “It was a Greek temple in the ruins of an American city” (130). To get to this
temple, a skinny Cofer risked being bullied by Lorraine, an older, bigger black girl who lived
nearby, but young Cofer ran that risk regularly anyway because “my need for books was strong
enough to propel me down the dreary streets with their slush-covered sidewalks and the skinny
trees of winter looking like dark figures from a distance: angry black girls waiting to attack me”
And Cofer’s description of the inside of the library is Keatsian in its sensual attention to
Inside the glass doors was the inexhaustible treasure of books, and I made my
way through the stacks like the beggar invited to the wedding feast. I remember
the musty, organic smell of the library, so different from the air outside. It was the
smell of an ancient forest, and since the first books that I read for pleasure were fairy
tales, the aroma of transforming wood suited me as a prop. (131)
The library was literally her sanctuary. It provided her with ideas to navigate the hazards
of biculturalism, as she explains:
[B]ooks...contained most of the information I needed to survive in two languages
and in two worlds. When adults were too busy to answer my endless questions, I could
always look it up; when I felt unbearably lonely, as I often did during those early
gypsy years traveling with my family, I read to escape and also to connect: you can
come back to a book as you cannot always to a person or place you miss. I read and
reread favorite books until the characters seemed like relatives or friends I could see
when I wanted or needed to see them. (133)
She still feels this way:
I feel my pulse quicken a little when I approach a library building, when I enter the
stacks and inhale the familiar smell of old leather and paper. . . . [A] visit to the library
recharges the batteries in my brain. Looking through the card catalog reassures
me that there is no subject that I cannot investigate, no world I cannot explore.
Everything that is is mine for the asking. Because I can read about it. (133-34)
The Latin Deli demonstrates that, if the Paterson Public Library is a haven for Cofer’s
English-language self, then Cofer’s immediate family is another important place of stability,
where her Spanish-language person needs no translation. In the poem, “Anniversary,” she
speaks of lying in bed with her husband in an unsettled, and often unsettling world and how his
mere presence reassures her: “Sometimes, in the dark, alarmed / by too deep a silence, I will lay
my hand on your chest, / for the familiar, steady beat to which I have attuned / my breathing for
so many years” (165). Thirty plus years of marriage is a wonderful, long time to sing a song
together with someone, as the well-chosen word, attuned, suggests, with slight paronomasia.
In the poem for her daughter Tanya, “Who Will Not Be Vanquished?” Cofer’s love spills
over into remarkably succinct metaphors—“you pirouette / so that your wide skirt blooms /
around the long stems of your legs / for me to admire your wild beauty” (159). Blooms, stems,
and wild work together to give the reader the vision of a tender, gorgeous flower just blossoming
outside the reach of and without the aid of any gardener. In the poem, “Unspoken,” Cofer
surprises the reader with the obliquity of another well-wrought image, and also with powerfully
ambiguous last lines. She hugs her daughter goodnight and her daughter winces; her new breasts
are swelling. This wincing brings from Cofer the mother a string of thoughts. She wants to tell
her growing child it will not always hurt. She wants to tell her about men and “the pleasure of a
lover’s hands on skin” (158). She wants to tell her “of the moment / when a woman first feels a
baby’s mouth at her breast, opening her / like the hand of God in Genesis, the moment / when all
that led to this seems right” (158). The stunning image of these last lines was also my experience
and is the experience of women everywhere who have felt that first suckling: you are
transformed forever in the ability to create life and also sustain it. Your self has indeed been
opened “like the hand of God in Genesis” (158).
However, Cofer decides not to divulge this future knowledge to her daughter. Instead,
she respects her child’s privacy. She remembers, “Instead I say, sweet dreams, / for the secrets
hidden under the blanket / like a forbidden book / I’m not supposed to know you’ve read” (158).
“Sweet dreams” suddenly represents not only a banal, routine bedtime greeting, but all these
future ecstasies Cofer has seen in her mind and wishes for her daughter. But Cofer as mother
cannot overstep her boundaries to reveal these to her daughter’s new, growing adult self, and the
“forbidden book” is both her daughter’s adolescent body and also a literal book her child stayed
up, years before, reading instead of sleeping. Cofer chooses to pretend now that she does not see
this other “forbidden book.” In that last line, she lets her reader know that she wistfully recalls
when the biggest issue at bedtime was contraband books held secretly under the covers till all
hours, and maybe with a flashlight, and not the pain of an emerging adulthood, with all its
promise of happiness . . . and pain and responsibility.
The happiness, responsibility, and sorrows of adulthood are written large in Cofer’s short
story, “Corazón’s Café,” which tells of a new widow’s struggle to face a future without her
beloved husband of ten years. When I read this work aloud to my students, the writing explodes
in my mouth like my Grandmother Acevedo’s chicken fricasee or arroz con pollo or frijoles y
negros or sweet fried plantains. One reason is Cofer’s evocative use of the Spanish language.
She does not overload her writing with it, but she provides touches of Spanish diction, like spices
to a pot. The San Juan de la Cruz quotation given bilingually at the beginning of this paper is a
fine example of the way Cofer never lets her reader forget we are dealing with two very different
worlds, and the essence of “Corazón’s Café” is presented through skillfully bilingualism.
This tale begins after closing time, in the café itself, where Corazón, wife of the dead
Manuel, finds herself uncustomarily alone. She is stunned by her husband’s death that day, and
memories rivet her to her high stool behind the counter. The chronicling of Corazón’s life with
Manuel unfolds in the short story through her memories. As is obvious even in the title,
Corazón’s name (the Spanish word for “heart”) contains the point of this story, and this bilingual
chronicling of a Latin-American, human heart is a splendid example of Cofer’s ability to
immerse her reader pleasantly in a strange location. Cofer’s insertion of Spanish diction here and
there in the narrative, sometimes translated, sometimes not, takes the reader ever deeper into the,
well, heart of this love story.
Cofer’s careful manipulation of Spanish diction follows a general pattern in “Corazón’s
Café.” At the beginning of the story, she uses Spanish words which she then translates for the
reader; next, she uses Spanish words that she does not translate, choosing instead to make their
meanings apparent by the surrounding text. Finally, she moves to a freer use of the Spanish
language as the story concludes. I spent every childhood summer in Miami, and this progression
mimics the way Spanish (or any language) falls at first on the ears of a foreigner, a non-speaker.
Initially, you translate everything into your native language all the time. Then, as you gradually
become more acquainted with the language, you translate less in your head because familiarity
and context facilitate your understanding. Finally comes the magical day when the invisible
bridge in your mind separating your first-learned language and your second-learned one
dissolves, and you are left with only clarity. With this bilingual progression from basics to
fluency, the story line itself draws the reader in and makes him or her part of Corazón’s Hispanic
The first example of this use of bilingualism comes early, in paragraph three. It begins
with Corazón thinking, “Habichuelas rojas, the cans of red kidney beans they stacked in a little
pyramid” (93). Immediately, the reader finds herself in a Hispanic café, and she is inside the
mind of Corazón, who is surveying the order of the store’s wares and seeing her beloved,
deceased Manuel’s hand even in the way he stocked the whole store “in possible meal
combinations” (93). Take the “habichuelas rojas” out of that sentence, and the plot at once loses
color. The second example comes on the next page. Here Corazón recalls that she has always
been a good judge of “la belleza,” of “the beauty” in others (94). In these two initial examples,
where the Spanish diction is clearly translated for the reader, who may be entering the barrio for
the first time, Cofer also establishes the theme of her story—true love lost—and, though this is a
universal theme, we are meant to appreciate that the protagonists are Puerto Rican immigrants.
So the Spanish diction has a twofold purpose: focus the reader’s attention on the plot’s core, and
pull the reader into it imperceptibly.
These translated examples of Spanish continue for a few more pages, as real culture
shock does. Three pages on, Corazón reflects on the powerful abandonment with which she, as a
virgin, gave herself to Manuel when she met him; she says he was her “destiny, el destino” (97).
At this point in her reflection, the two had only made plans, not taken action, and Corazón’s
older sister, Consuelo, conspires to thwart their swift resolve. The next example of Spanish
diction signals that the consummation of the two protagonists is nearing. After Consuelo’s
wedding, Corazón helps her newly married sister, Consuelo, remove “the little crown of fresh
flowers, azucenas, white lilies from her hair” (99), even though Corazón is fully aware that her
older sister Consuelo had engineered affairs so she could be married before Corazón beat her to
the altar—certain humiliation in her Hispanic culture. Corazón’s gracious assistance to her
conniving elder sister indicates that she is, as her name suggests, a woman of good heart, and
thus an excellent match for the equally benevolent Manuel. The use of azucenas also helps
emphasize a shift in the story’s movement—Corazón holding her older sister’s “white lilies” is
now herself free to marry.
The next examples of Spanish diction occur in the “belly” of the story, and their
meanings are mostly discerned by their contexts, and not usually by outright definition. The
culture is taking us in. On our way to these instances, Cofer fills four pages of her prose with
lip-smacking aromas and tempting edibles, and they, and the Spanish diction highlighting them,
come to symbolize the symbiotic and very intimate physical relationship existing between
Corazón and Manuel. For example, Corazón remembers the “warm milk sweetened with
cinnamon” that she smelled as she and Manuel embraced each other in his room for the first time
(100). Here Cofer uses food and the smells of food as metaphors for the complete love Manuel
and Corazón experienced, and, on another day, they make love with the window wide open,
letting in the Island smells of pungent oregano, cayenne peppers, cilantro, coriander, the
“pimientos y ajíes” of their daily cooking (102-03). Even those who do not know exactly how
this Spanish phrase translates into English know from its context they would like this aroma, and
under those same circumstances, too.
The reader is then told that the breeze that day also blew in the scents of papayas and
banana trees, and Corazón remembers their “fat little guineitos niños” that “melt-in-the-mouth
sweet when fried” (103). Again, readers do not need to know guineitos means “bananas,” in the
same way travelers abroad do not necessarily need to know a country’s language in order to
appreciate the exotic food in a restaurant. The senses rejoice in this sensual image and in its
association here with lovemaking. Cofer has succeeded with her choice Spanish diction in
making these scrumptious smells and foods synonymous with this altogether mutuallynourishing Latin couple.
After that, things get real, and the edges to the Spanish words blur even more. Corazón’s
kind mother-in-law was a midwife when younger, and Doña Serena (and she is “serene”) advises
the pregnant Corazón to see a doctor before telling Manuel the news of her pregnancy because
she has felt Corazón’s stomach and fears something is wrong with their unborn baby. Cofer
gives Doña Serena these words: “‘It is best to make certain in these matters, querida, men do not
like to be disappointed about babies’“ (104), and querida is not defined. But the reader intimates
that “querida” (which means “darling”) is a form of endearment.
When the doctor checks Corazón, he does find problems with her pregnancy. She must
have a hysterectomy right away, and she is left childless. On the next page, facing this, Corazón
also loses old Doña Serena, the mother Corazón never had, to death, and she remembers her as a
“sufrida—one who accepts pain and sacrifice as her lot and her privilege” (105). I believe this
word is defined because of its importance to the story’s theme. When one thinks of this concept
in other languages, chi ku in Chinese and gaman in Japanese, for example, the ethnicity of
sufrida gains special significance here, as would the Chinese or the Japanese form in a story
about a Chinese or a Japanese woman; each conjures up an entirely different cultural context for
“to eat bitterness.”
These two nouns ending in –ida, “sufrida” on page 105 and her “querida” on page 104,
are true mother and daughter in spirit, and this connection is primary to the story’s meaning.
Both characters, Corazón and Serena, suffer much, and because they are both good to the core,
their characters become allegoric. They are heart and serenity. The story will conclude with the
knowledge that Corazón has become a sufrida, which is the nature of any true love story,
eventually, since death cannot be outrun.
The last four-plus pages of this masterful short story assume the reader’s Spanish
language facility has been honed over the first nineteen pages and can appreciate and
comprehend a more difficult vocabulary. In one of Corazón’s memories, she is sitting on a stool
behind the counter when Manuel was alive, listening to her female customers complain about the
way their children grow up and leave the barrio as quickly as they can, to return only during
holidays. Cofer writes, “Corazón listened to their mothers’ laments about their hijas and el
olvido” (112), and, this time, the context does not entirely make the foreign language meaning
clear for the non-Spanish-speaking reader. “El olvido” means “forgetfulness, oblivion, neglect.”
This deliberate blurring of languages by Cofer simulates for the alert, non-Spanish-speaking
reader that vertigo of mind which accompanies the learning of a foreign language, and yet it is
also inclusive. The reader also senses a crisis looming in the story as the Spanish language itself
takes us closer to the untranslatable Puerto Rican mind of the new widow, Corazón. I also
believe that if the Spanish words in this short story were sifted out and lined up in sequence as
they appear in the narrative, Corazón’s history can be read in them, as if they were exotic tea
leaves brewed explicitly for that purpose. For example, at this juncture in the story, Corazón is
herself in grave danger of “forgetting” the barrio, of turning her back on it—of embracing “el
Instead, as the heavy-hearted Corazón accepts her fate, her “el destino,” she decides not
to shut Corazón’s Café (which also represents the openness of her own heart), and this decision
has been adumbrated in the aforementioned memory of her listening, when Manuel was alive, to
the mothers grumbling about their children leaving the barrio. Hard though it will be, Corazón
will choose to carry on alone a business that had been begun by her and her lover together, and,
at this point in the story, Spanish dialogue is introduced. This introduction of bilingual discourse
allows the reader to participate in the process in which this heartwarming Latin widow finds her
resolve. The Spanish brings us closer to who she really is.
For example, Corazón listens with her good heart to the trials of old Don Cándido, who
stays alive by writing letters to politicians and judges because he has vowed not to die before he
has seen his son released from a Cuban prison, and he is also sustained by simply “talking and
talking and talking” (115); and as Corazón listens to him, she is also staying alive, with her
practiced talent for sincere listening, so when old Don Cándido shouts, “╬»Libertad!” (115) the
savvy reader knows Cofer means for that Spanish declaration to be, not only for Don Cándido’s
imprisoned son, but also for Corazón, whose serving others candidly can set her free.
The story ends with a significant exchange between Corazón and her husband’s informal
partner and son-in-spirit, Inocencia. Again, the names are important. The way of the heart who
loves is through suffering to serenity, and the way expands further down the path of innocence
for those who remain open and candid. When Manuel was alive, Corazón and Inocencia had
never spoken to the other, nor been cordial. But Corazón signals their future relationship when
she sings out, “Buenas noches, Don Inocencia” (116). Corazón’s use of Don, the term of high
respect, indicates that—even though Inocencia is younger than she—Corazón is putting their
relationship on a new level by echoing his respectful, “Buenas noches, Doña Corazón” (115).
These two Spanish lines signify that Manuel’s wife and Manuel’s informally “adopted” son are
now partners and will face the future with courage, together. A grieving Corazón will find her
freedom in going out to meet life, instead of retreating from it into sorrow.
In conclusion, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s writing has a way of arresting minds, the way the
chameleon in her eponymous poem kept his eyes on her, she says, “as if waiting / for me to
change” (147). Her refrain, “[b]ut I stayed the same” echoes through that poem, and the
counterpointing leitmotif, “He just kept his eyes on me / as if waiting for me to change,”
becomes a direct challenge to her readers (147). But the challenge of the wise, all-seeing
chameleon is a gentle one, no matter how direct. In The Latin Deli, Cofer shows us
biculturalism’s isolation and consolations, and we also see much joy in a world bursting with
color and music, beautiful images, and fluent diction.
Each time I close the book after another reading of its nourishing, revivifying fare, I think
of the achingly seductive image in the poem, “How to Get a Baby” (119). I read to affirm I am
not alone, to change, and to connect; in some sense, I read, as Cofer says, “to get a baby” (119).
And when I have done as Cofer’s poem describes, gone to the sea (of her writing’s truths), fresh
from my lover’s arms, and when I sit in the shallow water where, it is said, the waiwaia (spirit
children) are drawn to the “love smell,” I, too, know that when I close this book, I am carrying
“new life”—new ways of looking at and understanding life. And I feel that delicious recognition
of this fact when I feel in my psyche “the tide / pull[ing] away from [me] / like an exhausted
lover” (119).