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Analysis of Poem 'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica' by Judith Ortiz Cofer

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer and a Summary of 'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica'

'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica' is a poem that neatly sums up the plight of the Latin American immigrant, so often pilloried and misunderstood, but here treated with sympathy and understanding.

  • By focusing on a deli - a shop selling food and other items - and its owner, a strong and resourceful mother figure, the poet has set up a familiar scene but what is unusual is that the speaker brings an objective, impersonal viewpoint, the narrative is distanced, 3rd person. There is no 'I', no personal involvement.
  • Throughout the poem, there is a constant referral back to this central figure, the Patroness of Exiles, the motif being that of communication. She listens, she serves, she brings meaning simply by being herself.

So the deli becomes a kind of walk-in poem, hence the Ars Poetica in the title, which means 'the art of poetry' - the people who frequent this establishment are an integral part of this poetic world.

  • There may be different nationalities in the deli - Cubans, Puerto Ricans and so on - but they are all seen as one people by the maternal owner, their common sharing that of homesickness. They all seek solace through contact with food, language and memories of their former home.

Judith Ortiz Cofer knew this world very well. Born in Puerto Rico in 1952 she moved with her family to the USA as a child and grew up in the state of Georgia, eventually becoming a professor at the University of Georgia.

She wrote novels and poetry books exploring the inner worlds of those who were caught between cultures, Latino/Latina Americans searching for a true identity. She especially concentrated on the experiences of females (Latinas) who she believed were unjustly oppressed.

'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica' was first published in 1992 in the Americas Review and was a part of her book The Latin Deli, published in 1993.

'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica'


'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica' Analysis

'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica' is full of vivid imagery and everyday observation. The main theme is that of the uprooting of the immigrant, the Latin American with roots in the 'old world' but with life in the new - the USA.

These immigrants visit the shop to keep in touch with their pasts and to chat with the hostess, who gets to know their emotional dreams and fears, as well as slice off some ham and cheese for bodily nourishment.

It has lines full of ordinary descriptions and lines with figurative language. There are food items for sale plus memories which come in a can. The synthetic mixes with the natural, as does Spanish with English and the past with the future.

Basically, it combines a fixed biography with the restless world of those not yet assimilated into the new culture, everything seen through the eyes of the Patroness of Exiles.

  • This objective narrative gives the poem a broader context, the speaker is able to commentate, much like in a novel or piece of fiction, seeing life at a distance yet avoiding mere opinion.

So it is that the immigrants are tolerated, welcomed, understood and given sustenance. The Patroness has probably been in a similar situation herself and so puts up with all the gripes and groans, the idiosyncracies and the swing between dream and disappointment.

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In a way she is like the Statue of Liberty, welcoming the needy with an open heart and mind, turning no-one away.

  • She mediates between those who long for a return to their homeland but who must find a way of making a living in the new world. She understands the nostalgic grip the past can have on the heart, yet she must somehow do business in the here and now - with those metaphorical closed ports.

So, by creating this world where real life meets poetry - on a customer's list of items - the speaker is able to come to terms with the struggle the shoppers have to gain a sense of identity.

The goods for sale in the deli help them achieve this. The food and candy help restore the self and give consolation and reassurance. It's up to the Patroness to discover just what each of them needs; she gives more than just value for money, she is a magician for these migrants, she mothers them and restores something to their souls.

Literary Devices Used

'The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica' is a free verse poem of three stanzas, making a total of 38 lines of varying length.

There is no set rhyme scheme or regular meter (metre in British English). This loose arrangement means that stresses vary from line to line and no consistent rhythm exists.

On the page, the poem resembles three paragraphs, somewhat like a newspaper article.


There are several examples:


woman...who was


spoken Spanish


lost lovers.

Language (diction)

The poem is set in the present, bringing the reader directly into the deli and the Patroness with active participles such as:


And note these terms which reflect the longing in some of the shoppers:

selling canned memories/glorious return/perfecting their speech/wanting the comfort of/their dreams and disillusions/the names of lost lovers/reads to her like poetry/exist only in their hearts.

The mix of Spanish with English:

dólares (dollars)

El Norte (the north)



jamón y queso (ham and cheese)

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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