Summary & Themes of “An Hour with Abuelo” by Judith Ortiz Cofer: Analysis

“An Hour with Abuelo” by Judith Ortiz Cofer is a popular short story selection for students. It can be found in her collection An Island Like You: Stories of the BarrioIt’s about a teenage boy who has a realization after visiting his grandfather in a nursing home.

Summary of “An Hour With Abuelo”

Arturo’s grandfather, his Abuelo, is in a nursing home and doesn’t have a lot of time left. Arturo agrees to go visit after his mother had been asking him for a week. He doesn’t want to go. His summer vacation is running out and he still has lots of reading to do. He also doesn’t like the smell of the place.

Arturo’s mother is emotional when she drops him off. He walks quickly to Abuelo’s room. He doesn’t know his grandfather well. He used to be a teacher and, later, a farmer, and he taught himself English from the dictionary.

Arturo finds his grandfather writing a short story of his life. Arturo wants to hear it, so Abuelo reads his story out loud.

He’s always loved words since he was a boy in Puerto Rico. His mother read to the children from the few books they had and the weekly paper. She also taught them how to write. Abuelo wanted to be a writer and teacher. Instead of working the land with his father, his mother sent him to high school. He paid for his board with labor and grew his own food. He graduated top of his class.

He returned to his mountain village and got a job as a teacher. He had lots of books and was happy.

When World War II broke out he was drafted by the U.S. government. He tried to get deferred as the only teacher in the village, but he had to go. He offered to teach the illiterate soldiers but his sergeant didn’t appreciate book learning and put him on latrine cleaning duty.

After the war he returned home but couldn’t teach anymore. Now, a college degree was needed. His parents were sick and two of his brothers were killed in the war. He started farming, got married and had children. He taught them to read before they started school.

Abuelo puts the notebook down and stays silent for a while, looking at Arturo. Arturo liked the story but has some objections. He doesn’t like the title, Así es la vida (“that’s the way life is”), because he won’t let life get in his way. He thinks Abuelo could have tried harder to pursue his dream of teaching. Before he can find the Spanish words to answer, they’re interrupted by an older woman in jogging clothes.

She calls to Abuelo, reminding him it’s poetry day and he’s going to read his new one. They get him into his wheelchair and hand him his notebook of poems. Arturo starts to push him but Abuelo tells him his time is up. The lady takes over and they head down the hallway.

Arturo has the feeling his grandfather was also timing the visit. He walks slowly toward the exit. He doesn’t want his mother to think he’s rushing.

Theme: Aging

The theme of aging is the story’s most obvious as one of the main characters, Abuelo, is an elderly man living in a nursing home. This is in contrast to his grandson, Arturo, who is in high school.

Arturo has a dismissive view of his grandfather, seemingly due in large part to his advanced age. He doesn’t want to visit him, having avoided it many time before. His mother has been nagging him about it for a week before he finally goes. This is despite knowing that his grandfather “doesn’t have too long to go now”—he has a limited time left in the final stage of his life. Arturo places more importance on the limited time he has left in one small part of his young life, saying “I don’t have much time left of my summer vacation.”

Arturo doesn’t like visiting the home because of the smell, as if this somehow represents the people who are there.

Arturo demonstrates a narrow view of the elderly when he jokingly asks his grandfather if he’s writing the story of his life. This implies his Abuelo is only who he is at this moment; that he hasn’t lived a life that could make an interesting story. It’s as if in Arturo’s mind, the story of his Abuelo’s life would be that he grew up, farmed, had a family and went to a nursing home.

It’s interesting that Abuelo showed respect for his elderly parents when they were sick. Taking up farming to care for them was of the reasons he couldn’t pursue the education he needed to continue teaching. This is in contrast to Abuelo’s situation in a nursing home. This doesn’t mean his family is neglecting him; we don’t know everyone’s circumstances and his living arrangements seem comfortable.

The epiphany that Arturo experiences at the end changes his view of his elderly grandfather. He “can’t help but think that [his] abuelo has been timing [him].” He realizes that his grandfather has a life of his own, even now at an advanced age and in deteriorating health.

It’s poetry day and Abuelo is going to read his newest piece. He’s valued here for his literary gifts and seems to enjoy the attention. It was actually Abuelo who carved out some time—time more precious due to its scarcity—for Arturo, not the other way around.

Theme: Pursuing Your Dreams

Arturo learns his grandfather had a passion and an aspiration that was only partly fulfilled. He was able to teach for a time, but then circumstances caused him to abandon it.

Abuelo had a passion for words and books, and he took reasonable and necessary steps to pursue this interest. This allowed him to achieve his dream of teaching in his small village.

After enjoying this for a time, Abuelo faced some major obstacles:

  • the war took him away from his profession and stifled his literary interests.
  • the educational standards changed—a college degree was now needed to teach.
  • his parents were sick and he was the only one in the area to help.

Abuelo had to give up his dream of teaching because life got in the way. We see that his changed circumstances didn’t change who he was. He taught all his kids to read before they started school. Presumably, he continued to read and write himself. We know for sure that he writes poetry in his old age. In a way, he’s living a version of his dream now.

Abuelo pursued his dream in a balanced and practical way. This contrasts with Arturo’s attitude. He doesn’t think his grandfather tried hard enough.

Arturo is “mad that . . . adults . . . just accept whatever crap is thrown at them because ‘that’s the way things are’.” He says he goes after what he wants. This is spoken like a teenager who hasn’t had to deal with life’s obstacles yet.

Even after hearing his grandfather’s history, Arturo doesn’t think he did enough. It seems clear, though, that he did try hard and did what was in his power to do. Arturo is speaking from the perspective of a teenager who feels unstoppable. He can think now that he won’t let life get in his way, but he will learn that it isn’t that simple. His motivation as an adult with responsibilities likely won’t equal his motivation now.

Arturo doesn’t appreciate the work his grandfather put in and the sacrifice he made. They’ve allowed Arturo to be in the position he’s in, with opportunities that have a smoother path than his grandfather’s.

Similarity Between the Main Characters

There are obvious parallels between Abuelo and Arturo, beginning with the fact that Arturo was named after his grandfather.

They share a love for reading and writing. Arturo is hoping to get into an AP English class. He is also driven to pursue his own interests. It sounds like they have the makings of a close relationship, but that’s not the case.

This suggests the distance between them could be due to the age difference and their senses of responsibility. Arturo can’t relate to an elderly man, even though they have significant things in common. He also doesn’t share his grandfather’s sense of responsibility toward others. It’s possible he will in the future.