Study Guide

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica Quotes

  • The Home

    she is the Patroness of Exiles, (7)

    That is one sweet job title. It also lets us know that our store owner's clientele are people who are separated from the place they'd most like to be: home.

    while listening to the Puerto Ricans complain
    that it would be cheaper to fly to San Juan (10-11)

    This is an exaggeration, of course, but—despite the complaining—the clients come to the store as way to revisit their homeland. Buying the coffee that you used to drink there, even if it's overpriced, is the next best thing to a plane ticket home.

    and to Cubans perfecting their speech
    of a "glorious return" to Havana (13-14)

    The fact that the Cubans are "perfecting their speech" suggests that they've been practicing—notecards, PowerPoint, the works. The idea of home is so alluring that they seem to be revisiting it through their rehearsing.

    all wanting the comfort
    of spoken Spanish, to gaze upon the family portrait
    of her plain wide face (18-20)

    How can one face look like a "family portrait"? This isn't some Picasso-inspired cubist commentary. Instead, our store owner is a familiar face. She reminds her customers of the people they have left behind to come to the U.S. That's one reason why they now feel so at home in her deli.

  • Language and Communication

    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
    […] to Mexicans who pass through, talking lyrically
    of dólares to be made in El Norte— (10-17)

    Our store owner has heard it all—the complaints, the speeches, everything. That's probably because she hears the same things in her store, day in and day out. It's as though people are there simply to bask in the glow of their language, rather than to add anything new to the conversation.

    all wanting the comfort
    of spoken Spanish, to gaze upon the family portrait (18-19)

    Here the poem states the connection flat out: language = comfort. It's the familiar sound of Spanish that lets the shoppers feel like they're back home—if only for a short while.

    reading the labels of packages aloud, as if
    they were the names of lost lovers; Suspiros,
    Merengues, the stale candy of everyone's childhood. (26-28)

    OK—this is pretty intense. We've had some strong feelings for Cap'n Crunch in our past, but we've never been moved to read the cereal boxes at the grocery store. These shoppers use their native tongues both to capture the tastes of their youth and to practice the language of their home countries.

    of his winter coat, who brings her lists of items
    that he reads to her like poetry, (34-35)

    This is probably the highest compliment you can pay to any piece of writing: read it like a poem. Even if you're saying "milk, eggs, support hose," treating a shopping list like poetry shows just how meaningful those items are to you. And reading in your home language makes that doubly-important.

  • Memory and The Past

    a woman of no-age who was never pretty,
    who spends her days selling canned memories (8-9)

    "Canned memories"—why didn't we think of this? It's a great way to keep those memories fresh and tasty. Here we realize that this deli has a lot more on its shelves than just overpriced coffee.

    […] Cubans perfecting their speech
    of a "glorious return" to Havana--where no one
    has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then; (13-15)

    The notion that nothing "has been allowed" to change since they left shows us just how important memory is to the Cubans—and really everyone who shops at the deli. They're hope is that their past has stayed exactly as they remember it. More than that, they hope to go back and visit it some day.

    reading the labels of packages aloud, as if
    they were the names of lost lovers; Suspiros,
    Merengues, the stale candy of everyone's childhood
    . (26-28)

    Mmm… nothing says connection to the past like a fistful of stale candy. As hard as it may be to believe, the candy's not what matters here, though. It's what the candy represents that counts: a childhood treat, a connection to the past.

    […] conjuring up products
    from places that now exist only in their hearts--
    closed ports she must trade with. (36-38)

    These are quite possibly the saddest lines in the poem. The past, as much as it might provide a place of comfort and a sense of home, is just not reality for many of these deli-goers. Their homes, and their lives before they moved, are lost—forever. That's why these former places are now "closed ports" that the store owner must "trade" with. In other words, she must help these people try to connect with a part of their past that will never be a part of their future.

  • Community

    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, (9-12)

    Even though they complain, don't you get the feeling that these Puerto Ricans are repeat customers? For starters, where else would they find Bustelo coffee? That's the kind of thing that allows them to connect with their homeland. And doing so allows them to connect with the store owner and each other, as well.

    […] Cubans perfecting their speech
    of a "glorious return" to Havana--where no one
    has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then; (13-15)

    The Cubans are another community-within-a-community here. That they all have the same "speech" indicates that a big part of their sense of community is a shared focus on returning, one day, to their homes in Havana.

    as they speak to her and each other
    of their dreams and their disillusions-- (22-23)

    This isn't a case of TMI. The shared experience of being an expatriate in a foreign land is a powerful source of community, one that brings everyone closer together.