| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Judith Ortiz Cofer
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.
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.
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.
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.
University of California at Irvine
In the Heath Anthology
En Mis Ojos No Hay Días
Latin Women Pray
My Father in the Navy: A Childhood Memory
The Woman Who Was Left at the Altar
Among the Ancestors
The Native Dancer
Reaching for the Mainland
Terms of Survival
The Line of the Sun
The Latin Deli
An Island Like You
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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.