I Speak of the City: Judith Ortiz Cofer

[It took me a long time to accept being a Nuyorican writer; it felt like I hadn’t lived a gritty enough city life, thought the poetry I was writing wasn’t political enough, and (the biggest sin) not actually being able to claim coming from la isla. After a while, I started hanging with some other writers who could claim la isla, were writing poetry they felt was deeply political but felt they didn’t have enough of a city experience to feel down since they had grown up in the burbs. Yes, even in community grass roots poetry there are gate keepers who aren’t just measuring your poem when you’re on the mic, but also making sure you hit all the valid culture points and if you don’t… you’re ass out from the club.

One of the first books that clued me in on the fact that any kind of gate keeping, especially coming from inside an ethno group, was completely wrong was The Latin Deli. A mix of poetry and short story that was as Rican as you can get but no so Nuyo with most of the stories going down in Paterson, New Jersey. The irony being that most Latino families I knew in the Bx were plotting day and night to get enough change to be able to buy a house in, you guessed it, New Hersee. So I knew that the Boricua suburb transplant that Judith Ortiz Cofer was writing about was a true Nuyorican voice.

The other burb reality is that you can take the Boricua out of the City but the City always is sure to follow and so the Bodega began to pop up alongside the Italian, Russian and Jewish Delis in the burbs. It’s all so very familiar to me, not just the recognizable food items but the cast of characters that hang by the front counter, some work there, some shop there and others just know that’s the best place to tell a story.]

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

Presiding over a formica counter,
plastic Mother and Child magnetized
to the top of an ancient register,
the heady mix of smells from the open bins
of dried codfish, the green plantains
hanging in stalks like votive offerings,
she is the Patroness of Exiles,
a woman of no-age who was never pretty,
who spends her days selling canned memories
while listening to the Puerto Ricans complain
that it would be cheaper to fly to San Juan
than to buy a pound of Bustelo coffee here,
and to Cubans perfecting their speech
of a “glorious return” to Havana–where no one
has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then;
to Mexicans who pass through, talking lyrically
of dólares to be made in El Norte–
                                                                all wanting the comfort
of spoken Spanish, to gaze upon the family portrait
of her plain wide face, her ample bosom
resting on her plump arms, her look of maternal interest
as they speak to her and each other
of their dreams and their disillusions–
how she smiles understanding,
when they walk down the narrow aisles of her store
reading the labels of packages aloud, as if
they were the names of lost lovers; Suspiros,
Merengues, the stale candy of everyone’s childhood.
                                                                She spends her days
slicing jamón y queso and wrapping it in wax paper
tied with string: plain ham and cheese
that would cost less at the A&P, but it would not satisfy
the hunger of the fragile old man lost in the folds
of his winter coat, who brings her lists of items
that he reads to her like poetry, or the others,
whose needs she must divine, conjuring up products
from places that now exist only in their hearts–
closed ports she must trade with.

© Judith Ortiz Cofer

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  1. quick comment then i promise i will read the poem: the “gatekeepers” in the grassroots spaces are just as rabid as the “gatekeepers” in academic and institutional spaces, about measuring authenticity, and about determining those standards. certainly, the grassroots community also has the concern of appropriators, i.e. those who would literally capitalize on the grit, urban poverty, et al – thinking about kiwi’s recent blog post on what it means to be an artist in this age of aggressive capitalism. and that these artists would give nothing back to the grassroots communities, nothing to help them, nothing to support them.

    still, it sucks to be suspect.

    word verif: notfate !!!

  2. Ah, sir, you wrote this just for me, didn’t you?

    Struggling with the burbs as a Nuyorican writer is precisely what makes my little heart tick. The picture you’re looking at, by the by, is the heart of Downtown Paterson, an area where that pesky gentrification thing never seems to stick.

    And if it’s the palimpsests you’re after, there’s an old furniture store called Van Dyk’s on Main Street that I think is now a National Wholesale Liquidators, or so it was.

  3. Barb: Every gatekeeper is a pain and the only way I make through is picturing how they all want to be Zull and all the sycophants want to be Rick Moranis. Or is it the other way around? I guess it depends on who is uglier or dokier.

    Rich: You know when I think of Paterson, New Hersee, I’m think of you and that time we drove through there in the dead of Sunday Night passing by those commuter buses that shuttle you back and forth from the City to the Falls. Good times, Hutch.

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