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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Judith Ortiz Cofer
(b. 1952)

The daughter of a teenage mother and a career Navy father, Judith Ortiz Cofer spent her childhood traveling back and forth between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico, her birthplace, experiencing schools and neighborhoods in both Spanish and English and adjusting and readjusting to different cultural environments. After retirement, her father settled the family in Georgia, which stabilized Judith’s education. During college she married and, with husband and daughter, moved to Florida where she finished an M.A. in English. A fellowship allowed her to pursue graduate work at Oxford, after which she returned to Florida and simultaneously began teaching English and writing poetry. In 1981 and 82, she received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and continued on the program’s staff until 1985. Peregrina won first place in the Riverstone International Poetry Chapbook Competition in 1985. Reaching for the Mainland and Terms of Survival appeared in 1987. Since then, she has concentrated on prose, publishing The Line of the Sun (1989), a novel; Silent Dancing (1990), autobiographical essays; and The Latin Deli (1993) and An Island Like You (1995), short stories.

As a child, living amid the violence and racial tensions of the Paterson, New Jersey slums, the library became her refuge, and books her English teachers; on the island, the written word gave way to the oral tradition of her Spanish speaking grandmother. Though strongly determined by the English language and literary tradition of her academic training, her writing still reflects the tension of that dynamic intercultural background. Spanish lingers, filtering through in emotion-packed words or phrases that remind us we are reading something other than a monolingual text. Her poems offer continual overlays and blends of cultures and languages that refuse to settle completely into either side, hence defining their ever-shifting, never-ending synthesis as authentic Puerto Rican life. She calls it the “habit of movement,” a state of instability that informs and stimulates her creativity.

One pattern her exploration takes is that of gathering, like an anthropologist, sayings, expressions, or words from Puerto Rican Spanish and recasting them into English poems in which the essence is conveyed across linguistic borders. In the process, she charts the experience of intercultural life, exposing readers to alternative perspectives on everyday matters that can seem so common and simple when safely encapsulated in the familiar words of one’s own language. That is, Ortiz Cofer achieves what many claim to be the function of poetry: she rarifies language and experience to an intensity that enables it to stir the reader’s otherwise callous sensibilities. At a more pedestrian level, this experience is and has been fundamental to the development of the U.S. idiom and culture, themselves a product of the continual intercultural synthesis that makes them so rich and dynamic. Thus, beyond displaying the particularities of Puerto Rican experience, Ortiz Cofer reminds us of our common national character.

While much of her poetry and prose displays the texture of her interwoven cultures, the underlying preoccupation is more sexual than cultural. More than languages and geographic locations, the figures gripped in an unstable embrace are men and women, with the former more an ever-absent presence, and the latter a long-suffering presence longing for that absence. Perhaps her works document the disintegration of the traditional family resulting from the pressures of migratory life, but even in the pieces that recall prior lives in more settled times, stable relationships are illusions. Ortiz Cofer’s concern is not simply ethnic, but profoundly sexual—the key to any stable culture is the viability of the male-female relationship. Her basic question is the essential one of desire and its fulfillment. Everything else—ethnic strife, social injustice, gender conflict, religion, tradition, language itself—becomes mere incarnation of frustrated desire. Silent Dancing plays with memory and the power of media to document events, despite its inability to convey the emotive value of images. A powerful commentary on lost moments, it is equally forceful as a recovery of the ephemeral quality of experience.

Juan Bruce-Novoa
University of California at Irvine

In the Heath Anthology
Claims (1987)
En Mis Ojos No Hay Días (1987)
Latin Women Pray (1987)
My Father in the Navy: A Childhood Memory (1987)
The Woman Who Was Left at the Altar (1987)

Other Works
Among the Ancestors (1981)
The Native Dancer (1981)
Peregrina (1986)
Reaching for the Mainland (1987)
Terms of Survival (1988)
The Line of the Sun (1989)
Silent Dancing (1990)
The Latin Deli (1993)
An Island Like You (1995)

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A Casa of My Own
A webcast of Cofer's lecture delivered on March 2, 2000 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Judith Ortiz Cofer, Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing
Cofer's homepage at University of GeorgiaAthens.

Montgomery College presents the Judith Ortiz Cofer Page
This page offers links to an interview, critical essay, and other sources.

Secondary Sources