In Judith Ortiz Cofer’s short story “American History,” there are several instances of irony that add layers of complexity to the narrative. One particularly striking example is the way in which Elena, the story’s protagonist, is both welcomed and rejected by her new classmates.
The Irony of Welcoming Exclusion
At the beginning of the story, Elena is excited to start school in America. She has just moved from Puerto Rico and is eager to make friends and learn about her new home.
However, when she arrives at school, she quickly realizes that she is an outsider. Her classmates stare at her and whisper among themselves, making her feel unwelcome. Despite this initial exclusion, Elena is surprised when one of her classmates, Eugene, invites her to join his group for a social studies project.
This invitation seems like a gesture of friendship and inclusion, but it quickly becomes clear that Eugene only wants Elena on his team because she is Latina. He tells her that their project is about “famous Puerto Ricans,” assuming that Elena will be an expert on the subject simply because of her heritage. This assumption reinforces the idea that Elena’s cultural identity is all that matters about her; it also suggests that Eugene sees Puerto Ricans as exotic or otherworldly.
The Irony of Ignorance
As Elena works on the project with Eugene and his friends, she realizes that they know very little about Puerto Rico or its history. They assume that all Puerto Ricans are poor and uneducated; they also make insensitive comments about Hurricane Hugo, which had recently devastated parts of Puerto Rico.
This ignorance is ironic because it reinforces stereotypes while also highlighting how little Americans know about their own history. By assuming that all Puerto Ricans are alike or equally disadvantaged, Eugene and his friends ignore the diversity within Puerto Rico itself. They also overlook the fact that many Americans have faced similar challenges throughout history; in particular, the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo could be compared to natural disasters that have struck the United States.
The Irony of Assimilation
Another example of irony in “American History” is the way in which Elena’s desire to assimilate into American culture is both rewarded and punished. On one hand, Elena’s English improves quickly, and she is able to participate more fully in her classes. She also begins to make friends outside of Eugene’s group.
However, as Elena becomes more Americanized, she also loses touch with her own cultural heritage. She stops speaking Spanish at home, which disappoints her grandmother. She also begins to view Puerto Rico as a distant memory rather than a vital part of her identity.
This irony raises important questions about assimilation and cultural identity. Is it possible to become fully American without losing touch with one’s own heritage?
What happens when individuals or communities are pressured to assimilate? Does assimilation always lead to exclusion or erasure?
Overall, “American History” is a rich and complex story that explores themes of identity, culture, and belonging. The irony woven throughout the narrative adds depth and nuance to these themes, highlighting the contradictions and complexities inherent in individual and collective experiences. Cofer’s use of irony encourages readers to question their assumptions about themselves and others while also celebrating the diversity that makes America such a vibrant and dynamic society.