What Is the Theme of the Short Story "American History" by Judith Ortiz Cofer?

Occasionally small, personal tragedies overshadow large, shared tragedies. Such is the case in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s short story “American History,” in which the speaker, Elena, remembers the day former President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Though the people around Elena are horrified by President Kennedy’s death, she is more taken by her own tragedy: being shunned by her neighborhood crush, Eugene, and his family. Ortiz Cofer’s story explores the theme of tragedy, both personal and collective, as well as tragedy’s ability to simultaneously bring people together and push them apart.

Personal Tragedy

Elena’s personal tragedy resonates much more strongly with her and the readers of her story than does the assassination of President Kennedy. This is because she is the direct victim of Eugene’s family’s disapproval, and the readers bear direct witness to this disapproval. And while the adults of the story and the occupants of Elena’s apartment building can come together and grieve President Kennedy’s death together, Elena is forced to suffer her humiliation in solitude. Ortiz Cofer’s story reveals that even small tragedies can have enormous and lasting impacts that far outweigh large tragedies.

Collective Tragedy

“American History” tangentially reveals how a collective tragedy such as the assassination of President Kennedy can be experienced simultaneously by a multitude of people. Though there is a large gulf in terms of experiences between Elena’s family and Eugene’s family, both families are deeply affected by the president’s death. Similarly, teachers and adults at Elena and Eugene’s school share these feelings of grief. Ortiz Cofer’s story explores the effects of a large tragedy on different communities of people.

Unity Through Tragedy

Upon hearing of President Kennedy’s assassination, neighbors and families of Elena’s apartment building seek solace in one another’s company. Elena says President Kennedy had become a saint-like figure for many of the Puerto Rican and black families living in El Building, suggesting a sort of religiosity as to how they united through his tragic death. Elena compares this to a time she visited Puerto Rico for her grandmother’s funeral, when many attendees relied on religious observances as a means of coping with death.

Disunity Through Tragedy

In the story’s conclusion, Elena is turned away from Eugene’s home by his mother, who is deep in mourning over the president’s death. Surprised to see a young girl asking to study with her son on the day of the president’s assassination, Eugene’s mother assumes that Elena, her family and the rest of occupants of El Building are insensitive to the national tragedy. “I don’t know how you people do it,” she says with disdain before turning Elena away. Because she believes Elena is not demonstrating the proper amount of sorrow for President Kennedy’s death, Eugene’s mother believes herself superior to both Elena and people who are similar to Elena. In this way, Ortiz Cofer’s story demonstrates that even in with a large, collective tragedy such as an assassination, tragedy can cause strong disunity between people.

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