Cofer Ortiz’s Ars Poetica
- Word count: 1284
- Category: Women
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The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica
A woman presides over the counter of a Latin Deli, behind an antique cash register with a magnetic plastic effigy of mother and child on top. The deli smells of open trash cans, dried codfish, and indoor plants.
The woman behind the counter is a sympathetic figure for Latin immigrants driven out of their countries, she exists as an ageless entity who was never around to be ‘pretty’, and her days are spent selling processed food from the collective immigrants’ cultural past.
She listens to Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Mexicans complain about the plight of their lost countries and the tribulations of getting by and living in ‘El Norte,’ or America, desperately in need of people to converse with in their Spanish mother tongue, looking to the woman behind the counter as a figure of comfort and empathy, with whom they can share the dreams and disillusions of their Latin immigrant plight and heritage.
The deli is small, with narrow aisles and packed with with jars and canned food products with labels which read like poetry to the customers who come to eat there.
They revel in the instances of their childhood cultures by way of partaking in the array of Latin food in the deli, and talking amongst themselves in Spanish; delighting in the sound of uttered Spanish food, Merengues, Suspiros, Jamon y Queso, mouthing each name with an endearment people only often reserved for former lovers.
The lady in the counter reads each Spanish label from a jar and a can, and prepares slices of jamon y queso, Latin food which by another term could be referred to as mere ham and cheese, she wraps it in wax paper and ties it in a string.
She prepares the food, moves and talks in manner that could constitute poetry. Offering up packet sized tangible versions of a culture and country that now only exists within the hearts and consciousness of the people who visit the deli, to partake of the food and indulge in conversations between themselves and the lady presiding over the counter.
Analysis of the Poem
The Puerto Rican poet Judith Cofer Ortiz, created and captured within her poem Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica, the general presentiment plaguing the consciousness and cultural identity of Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and various Latin immigrants in the space of their stay in the United States. Their shared Hispanic roots and culture converge – as the title of the poem implies – at the Latin Deli, where dreams and disillusionment regarding the reluctant loss and embrace of countries steeped in different ideologies are disclosed.
The poem begins with the picture of a woman behind an antique register, in a deli which reeks of the apparent mixed stench and scent of open trash cans, dried codfish and indoor plants. The woman and the deli are similar in attributes in that they both offer a worldly familiarity; that despite lacking an enumeration of pleasantry and harboring the mainstream version of beauty, the prospect of both woman in the counter and the physical structure of the Latin Deli does little to incite sentiments of displeasure or a threatening disposition. As such, people turn to the diner and the woman presiding over it as entities which take on a form of significant and much needed warmth and comfort.
The woman in the diner is referred to as the “patroness of exiles,” “a woman of no age who was never pretty” because she exists as another individual who shares the rest of the Hispanic immigrant community’s plight. She stands behind the counter and cash register to offer a welcome ear for stories she had heard various times before, but is willingly and patiently listening in to nevertheless.
She offers an empathetic ear and a welcome demeanor to customers in search of divulging their own personal histories, of complaining about the state of Hispanic and Western affairs, and of their desperate need to converse in their mother tongue. She listens to these disclosures much like a priest accommodates a sinner into a confession box, or the way a bartender does to a lonely customer sitting in the bar who has had one drink too many.
The ‘plastic mother and child’ magnetized on the old cash register represents the predominantly Catholic faith and religion which prevails in Latin countries the likes of Mexico and Puerto Rico, among others. Mama Maria and Jesu Cristo, two of the base foundations of the Catholic faith and figures symbolizing a largely significant concept of Hispanic culture. The plastic magnet effigy represents the ordinariness and banality of its existence in the setting of an old and commonplace establishment where people come for food and sometimes social interaction.
Meringues and Suspiros are seen as remembrances of a precious childhood long gone, brought to the present in a foreign country inside a typical establishment of an eatery, catering to the Latin community. Jamon y Queso,or the mere ham and cheese is treated as an equally exotic pleasantry, positioning itself in the realm of delights in Hispanic culture, made tangible through sweets and the salty ready to be devoured, not whole, but in sensational bits and pieces. The presence of Latin food is welcoming, it urges them to converse and interact in the familiar and welcoming context of an establishment they closely relate with.
The poem culminates in much the same way it started, with a woman peddling and receiving a traffic of thoughts, culture and ideologies which refuses to exist elsewhere, except in the hearts and consciousness of the people who still dream of it. People who are disillusioned by the alleged greatness and promise of deliverance in a country which they are reluctant to call home.
Their culture and ideology exists and is ultimately embodied in the Latin Deli, in the plastic mother and child magnet, the ancient cash register, in the smells of open trash cans, dried codfish, indoor plants, in canned foods with Spanish labels, in merengues, suspiros, and slices of jamon y queso, in the narrow aisles of the deli, in the plain and sympathetic ‘patroness of exiles’ resigned behind the counter, and most importantly, in the people who come to partake of this visual moving poetry and bite-sized version of their culture and identity.
The imagery and visual poetry afforded by Judith Ortiz Cofer to her readers mirrors her multicultural upbringing. The extent of the poem delves in the history, personal social tragedies and the longing for the country and culture which appears dead or distant to its people.
Inasmuch as it is about the tribulations of Latin immigrants, Cofer’s poetry also celebrates and revels in her people’s roots, the symbols and ideologies with which they are bound together, and the instance of their gathering. How, in the seemingly trivial and banal act of consuming food, – the fuel that gets every individual through the day – is done with an act of endearment, of visual poetry as vivid and beautiful as Ortiz Cofer’s words.
Although fraught with conflicting longing and ideologies, the poem ultimately celebrates the Latin culture by enumerating the shared differences of each exile or immigrant, and offering empathy in the knowledge that such sentiments exist not to plague a single individual, but others as well, the Latin Deli is set as the stadium which allows people to see that reality. This affords people a great deal of significance because as the cliché goes, we find ‘strength in numbers.’