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Judith Ortiz Cofer is best known for poetry and novels that explore the meaning of dual culturalism—the influence of two cultures on people, families, situations, or societies. Because she primarily focuses on her personal experience of being a Puerto Rican in the United States, her prose and poetry is both autobiographical and confessional.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Tale of Two Cultures
Judith Ortiz Cofer was born February 24, 1952, in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico. Her father, Jesiis Ortiz, believed that his joining the U.S. Navy would help provide for his family; so began a life of different assignments around the world. When Judith was young, her father was assigned to Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the family was relocated to Paterson, New Jersey. Whenever Judith’s father was deployed overseas, her mother would pack up the family and return to Puerto Rico, where the family would stay at her grandmother’s home. In Puerto Rico, Judith spoke Spanish, listened to Spanish music, and ate Spanish foods. In New Jersey, Judith had to learn English and adapt to a new culture. The frequent moves between urban life in Paterson and rural life in Puerto Rico made a lasting impression on the young Judith.
Growing up between two disparate places was not easy on Cofer as a child or as a teen. The frequent migrations were a disruption to her school life, her friendships, and her sense of self. Each location had different customs and rules of conduct, especially for young women. In the middle of this confusion, Cofer found a refuge in stories. Whether she was listening to her grandmother’s folktales or reading books in the Paterson Public Library, Cofer learned early the importance of words and language. In The Global Education Project, Cofer claims that language and its art form was her bridge between both cultures.
In 1968, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Two year later, Cofer attended Augusta College, where she studied to become a teacher. She met John Cofer, was married, and had a child. She continued her studies and graduated with a degree in English. Cofer and her new family moved to Florida, where she enrolled in the graduate program at Florida Atlantic University. From there she obtained a master’s degree in English and continued to teach.
During her graduate years, Cofer focused her writing on Latina women and her immigrant experience. These ideas formed the basis of her first poems, which were published in literary periodicals and collections by small presses. Three chapbooks, or pamphlets, featuring her poems were published in the early 1980s: Latin Women Pray, The Native Dancer, and Among the Ancestors.
A Latina in Georgia
In 1984, Cofer and her family moved to Athens, Georgia, where she became an instructor at the University of Georgia. In the following years, Cofer branched out from poetry and wrote her first novel, The Line of the Sun (1989), a story about finding balance between living life as a Puerto Rican and an American. The novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1990, Cofer published a collection of poetry and personal essays titled Silent Dancing. It, too, deals with her early years of moving back and forth between Puerto Rico and Paterson. Cofer’s second novel, The Meaning of Consuelo (2003), focuses on a young Puerto Rican girl whose parents are fighting and whose sister suffers from schizophrenia.
Cofer continues to write while teaching full time at the University of Georgia. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Poetry, the O. Henry Prize for a short story, and Best Books of the Year citation. Her most recent work is a novel for young adults, Call Me Maria (2006).
Works in Literary Context
Cofer is one of the many notable contemporary Puerto Rican and Latina writers to be recognized in the United States. She writes at length about her bilingual and bicultural experience, in part because she believes the perspective is one that can be shared by many readers. She views her personal experiences as a universal journey in which many have found their identities and sense of self, home, and culture.
Though Cofer writes poetry and fiction, her work is primarily autobiographical. She changes some of the places and people, but the theme that runs through all her work is identity formation—what it means to be a Puerto Rican living in America. She explores the challenge of living between cultures and not being fully comfortable in either. But rather than choosing one culture over the other, Cofer keeps both cultures alive in her work. Though her books are written in English, they are filled with Spanish, the two languages melding together as one. She is committed to her complete heritage, filling her works with allusions to Spanish history and culture as well as the sights and sounds of Paterson, New Jersey.
In The Line of the Sun and Silent Dancing, Cofer uses a young female narrator to pass on the stories of women from the past. The stories of the older women, told in the oral tradition, are often humorous, and filled with subtle lessons on how to be strong and independent without letting men know. Cofer’s grandmother was indeed one of these powerful storytellers and exerted a strong influence on Cofer. However, unlike her grandmother’s stories, Cofer’s narratives describe the frustration of living with two cultures and the urge to adopt the one that allows the most freedom.
Works in Critical Context
Most critics find Cofer’s Latina or minority literature exotic, but mainstream enough that readers can enjoy it. While her narratives offer views about universal friend ships, hopes, pain, and angst, they also have a distinctive Latina flavor that keep her tales unique and fresh.
The Line of the Sun
The Line of the Sun is a story about three generations of a family told in two parts. In the first part, the female narrator describes the Vivente clan of Salud, a Puerto Rican village. The second half is set in Paterson, New Jersey. Most critics lauded Cofer’s first novel for its poetic qualities. In the New York Times Book Review, contributor Roberto Marquez hailed it for the ”vigorous elegance” of its language. He called Cofer ”a prose writer of evocatively lyrical authority, a novelist of historical compass and sensitivity.” Though Marquez criticized parts of the plot as contrived, he proclaimed Cofer as ”a writer of authentic gifts, with a genuine and important story to tell.” In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sonja Bolle remarked on the beauty of Cofer’s passages, stating ”her eye for detail brings alive the stifling and magical world of village life.”
Silent Dancing In Silent Dancing, Cofer offers a more personal view of her constant migrations between Paterson and Puerto Rico. Geta LeSeur, a reviewer from MELUS, the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, finds the book more instructive than autobiographical: ”The reader gets a feel for the dual-culture conflict of America’s immigrants; for ethnic prejudices; for the problems of acculturation; … for Puerto Rican women’s culture, for the ‘Quincenera’ … for language, for religion, and other concerns of gender, race, and class.” Mary Margaret Benson of Library Journal reinforces this view, stating that these ”eminently readable memoirs are a delightful introduction to Puerto Rican culture.”
- Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Volume 30, Detroit: Gale, 1999.
- Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Volume 3, Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Cofer, Judith Ortiz. Silent Dancing: A Partial Rembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood. Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico Press, 1990.
- Acosta-Belen, Edna. ”Judith Ortiz Cofer: Poetry and Poetics.” MELUS (Fall 1993).
- Fabre, Genevieve. ”Liminality, In-Betweeness and Indeterminacy: Notes toward an Anthropological Reading of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s The Line of the Sun.” Acraa 18 (1993).
- Gregory, Lucille H. ”The Puerto Rican ‘Rainbow: Distortions vs. Complexities.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (Spring 1993).
- Kallet, Marilyn. ”The Art of Not Forgetting: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer. Prairie Schooner (Winter 1994).
- LeSeur, Geta. ”Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puertro Rican Childhood. MELUS (Summer 1993).
- Novoa, Juan Bruce. ”Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Rituals of Movement.” Americas Review (Winter 1991).
- Ocasio, Rafael. ”An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer. Americas Review (Fall-Winter 1994): pp. 84—90.
- ——”The Infinite Variety of the Puerto Rican Reality: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer. Callaloo (Summer 1994).
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