An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio
is a collection of short fiction by Puerto Rican-American author and poet Judith Ortiz Cofer. First published by Puffin Books in 1996, the twelve short stories of this volume take place in a Paterson, New Jersey, barrio that is home to a largely Puerto Rican population. Ideal for readers ages twelve and older, An Island Like You
presents a diverse view of the immigrant experience, told through the eyes of young people forced to deal with problems and stresses far beyond their years, while also exploring the universal elements of growing up, discovering the world, and coming to terms with one's family, one's tribe, and oneself.
The collection opens with a poem written by Ortiz Cofer, who was also an accomplished, award-winning poet. In "Day at the Barrio," she vividly paints a picture of a typical day in the barrio. Salsa music spilling from open windows. Young men catcalling young women. The bodega man sweeping the steps of his shop. The joys of escaping to the roof of a tenement and getting a bird's-eye view of the world, looking below at the current of people that make up the neighborhood and those just passing through.
The first story, "Bad Influence," centers on fifteen-year-old Rita and her attempts to reconcile her Puerto Rican heritage with her life as an average American teenager. To quell her rising interest in boys, Rita's parents send her from their home in Paterson to Puerto Rico, where she spends the summer with her grandparents. Initially hostile and judgmental toward her grandmother and grandfather, she gradually begins to accept their traditional ways and the rich and unique cultural experiences her background affords her. By the time the summer ends, Rita has a new friend, a new relationship with her family, and a new understanding of who she is.
"Arturo's Flight" follows high school student Arturo, embarrassed that his English teacher, Miss Rathbone, has asked him to recite a Shakespeare poem. Fleeing the jokes of his buddies, he ends up on the steps of a church, where he meets the building's janitor, Johann. The two form an unlikely friendship, and Johann tells Arturo of the trials his family faced during World War II. This gives Arturo a bigger-picture perspective on life's struggles and he learns that no matter where you are or the difficulties you're presented, you can always find a measure of strength and solace within yourself.
In the story "Catch the Moon," Luis is still trying to accept his mother's death. He works in his father's auto parts store and salvage yard—a job he thoroughly loathes. Then he meets a beautiful girl named Naomi, who, he learns, needs a hubcap for her car. Searching the salvage yard for just the right hubcap, he feels a newfound purpose in his work. He sees the value of hard work and the payoff that can come with showing your true emotions to someone you care about—in this case, in his burgeoning relationship with Naomi.
"A Job for Valentin" is a celebration of differences and a testament to the fact that we all have our own unique purpose and place in the world. Teenager Terry works at the local pool, where one of her coworkers is a mentally challenged man named Valentin. She would rather spend time with another coworker, a handsome lifeguard with the somewhat ironic name of Bob Dylan (not the singer). When Bob slacks off at his job and a little boy almost drowns, Valentin dives in and saves the child, making Valentin a hero. Terry comes to see that everyone has a contribution to make—and first impressions and snap judgments can be fatal to a blossoming friendship.
The other stories in An Island Like You
include "Beauty Lessons," "An Hour with Abuelo," "The One Who Watches," "Matoa's Mirror," "Don José of La Mancha," "Home to El Building," "White Balloons," and "Abuela Invents the Zero." In these, as in all the pieces assembled here, Ortiz Cofer challenges the popular trope of "troubled kids," instead, giving each of her heroes and heroines an opportunity to consider their choices and their circumstances, to make decisions and mistakes, and, ultimately, to learn and grow from these experiences. And while her stories are about Puerto Rican immigrant teens or first-generation Puerto Rican-American teens, they are also about issues pertinent to all kids, of all backgrounds, of all times. If there is one overarching theme that all of these stories have in common, it is the idea that no one person is ever truly alone, no matter how alienating their situation might be. We are all connected. As Ortiz Cofer says in her opening poem: Look at the sea of people walking through the barrio and see "each one alone in a crowd,/ each one an island like you."