47 pages 1 hour read

Judith Ortiz Cofer

American History

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1993

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Story Analysis

Analysis: “American History”

In “American History,” Cofer tells a story that is very distinct in its setting—Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1960s. She depicts the flux in the town’s population, which occurred in communities throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coast in the 20 years after the Second World War. Around this time, populations—particularly from the South and the Caribbean—migrated to industrialized cities, where they took advantage of job opportunities and established new communities. These communities, usually comprised of people of color, often settled in neighborhoods formerly populated by white immigrants. The latter groups enjoyed greater prosperity, ultimately allowing them to leave crowded cities like Paterson for larger homes in neighboring suburbs—a distant dream for Elena’s parents. In this regard, Cofer’s depiction of Paterson becomes a microcosm of communities throughout the United States experiencing rapid demographic, economic, and political shifts. As the story’s title suggests, its events reflect American history writ large.

This is clearest in Cofer’s depiction of the tensions that exist between racial groups in Paterson and the ways that underlying animosities manifest: Mr. DePalma calling his students “idiots” and “losers”; Gail mocking and stereotyping Elena’s supposed diet; and, most jarringly, Eugene’s mother’s cruel rejection of

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