Judith Ortiz Cofer Essay - Critical Essays

Judith Ortiz Cofer American Literature Analysis

Judith Ortiz Cofer’s writing is precisely right for its time. Latino American consciousness in the United States, already raised by such writers as Jesús Colón, Nicholasa Mohr, Rolando Hinojosa, Pedro Pietri, Piri Thomas, Tomás Rivera, and others, has been elevated to a new plane in Ortiz Cofer’s work.

Her own life provided Ortiz Cofer with the built-in conflict between two cultures that her writing successfully depicts. She has managed to place the two major elements of this conflict into the kind of symmetrical juxtaposition that permits her work to bristle with dramatic tension.

Her novel The Line of the Sun is equally divided between the stories of her family in southwestern Puerto Rico and in Paterson, New Jersey; the first half of the book is set in Puerto Rico, the second half on the U.S. mainland. In Silent Dancing, Ortiz Cofer achieves an even greater contrast by intermixing stories of her island home with stories of her mainland home. Each story in this book has elements of both worlds in it.

The contrasts Ortiz Cofer builds are sharp and apparent. Puerto Rico is warm, both thermally and in terms of its people, whereas Paterson, New Jersey, is cold in the same terms. The autobiographical character in Silent Dancing is ever aware of Paterson’s grayness, of its long, drab winters; the father is aware of Paterson’s coldness to foreigners. To shield his family from this coldness and to avoid open hostility, he demands that his family members keep to themselves, realizing the near hysteria that the influx of Puerto Ricans into a formerly middle-class Jewish neighborhood has generated among the Anglos who remain.

The father, able to pass for an Anglo, contrasts strikingly to his wife and children, who are clearly Latino and cannot pass. The father has been assimilated; the mother never will be. Each has different aspirations for the children. The father hopes they will gracefully, inconspicuously become typical Americans; the mother that they will preserve and reflect their Puerto Rican heritage.

The basic tensions in Ortiz Cofer’s work are heightened both by the obvious contrasts between two cultures and by the contrasts between the perceptions of children and adults. Ortiz Cofer handles these perceptions with disciplined consistency, revealing what she needs to reveal, never allowing a child to have adult perceptions or an adult to have those of a child. She draws her lines clearly as she shapes her characters; she resolutely keeps them from intruding upon one another’s turf.

Ortiz Cofer acknowledges her great admiration of Virginia Woolf, who dealt with problems of personal isolation and alienation similar to those found in much of Ortiz Cofer’s work. Ortiz Cofer, fortunately, had Puerto Rico to fall back on when her isolation and alienation threatened her equanimity; Woolf was less fortunate.

Ortiz Cofer possesses the same sort of eye for physical detail that characterizes Woolf’s writing. She presents her stories with an unencumbered sharpness of focus reminiscent of Woolf’s best descriptive passages, yet with the sort of delicacy and decorum that Woolf attained in her most successful novels.

Ortiz Cofer’s poetry deals with the same dualities found in her short stories and in her play Latin Women Pray. The conflict that most engages her attention cannot be viewed only as Puerto Rican culture versus mainstream American culture. In a sense, this surface conflict provides the pretext Ortiz Cofer requires to frame her deeply felt, sweeping questions about humankind.

Much of Ortiz Cofer’s poetry is written in irregular lines of varied metrical schemes and lengths. Despite, or perhaps because of, this irregularity, Ortiz Cofer’s verse achieves a relaxed rhythm that suggests easy, free-flowing conversation.

Her poetic lines are wholly appropriate to the atmosphere she seeks to build. Ortiz Cofer’s ear for language is as good as her eye for detail, and the two combine happily in most of her poetry. Typical of the easy meter she achieves is a bitter yet matter-of-fact poem, “The Woman Who Was Left at the Altar.” The spurned, now fleshy woman makes her unused wedding gown into curtains for her room and makes doilies from her wedding veil. She roves the streets, chickens dangling from her waist; in her mind, their yellow eyes mirror the face of the man who shunned her. She takes satisfaction in killing the chickens she sells, because in that act, she is killing him, annihilating troubled memories that haunt her.

This narrative poem, gaining much power from what is left unsaid, achieves its major metrical impact by moving at its exact center from two anapestic feet to trochaic and iambic feet, all in one line; the next line is iambic dimeter:

Since her old mother died, buried in black,she lives alone.

Ortiz Cofer continues in the next lines with two dactylic feet, followed in the same line by two trochaic feet, and continuing to two lines equally varied metrically:

Out of the lace she made curtains for her room,doilies out of the veil. They are nowyellow as malaria.

These metrical irregularities are a fundamental part of Ortiz Cofer’s narrative poetic style. Her poems never seem strained or unnatural, despite their somewhat bewildering metrical scheme.

In her prose writing, as in her poetry, moreover, Ortiz Cofer is ever aware that words, whether written or spoken, have sound. She has an inherent sense of the cadences of human speech, capturing those cadences with extraordinary verisimilitude.

The Line of the Sun

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

Marisol Vivente struggles between loyalty to her native Puerto Rico and loyalty to the United States.

Marisol San Luz Vivente, the protagonist in The Line of the Sun, Ortiz Cofer’s first novel, is an autobiographical character. Like Ortiz Cofer, Marisol was born in southwestern Puerto Rico but, from an early age, spent much of her life in Paterson, New Jersey. The novel encompasses three decades, beginning in the late 1930’s and ending in the 1960’s, and traces the impact these decades have on three generations of a family.

Marisol’s father, Rafael, works near New York City and lives with his wife and children. Marisol, through stories she hears from her mother, has enough direct and immediate contact with her heritage that she feels strongly impelled to cling to it—as her mother, who wants her to retain the values and culture of her forbears, thinks she should.

Her Puerto Rican father, having struggled successfully to become assimilated, wants Marisol and her brother to adopt the manners and customs of the United States so that they can blend in inconspicuously, thereby improving their economic opportunities. Marisol, at a highly impressionable age, has to deal with an inner conflict between her two cultures and, in doing so, has to consider the impact that the resolution of her dilemma will have on her relationship with her parents and on her future.

Into this situation, Ortiz Cofer, writing vividly and poetically about the family, introduces Uncle Guzman, a relative about whom the parents have talked quite darkly. During the Korean War, Guzman’s brother, Carmelo, was killed in combat. At about the same time, Guzman, fifteen and the wilder of the two brothers, was involved in a scandal in his native Salud, where he lived with a prostitute known as La Cabra. He fled his island for New York, going there as a migrant farmworker. Years later, he appears on the Viventes’ doorstep in Paterson one Christmas Eve and stays with his relatives for several months. During part of this time, he is confined to bed after he is attacked by a neighborhood thug.

The introduction of Guzman, her father’s best friend during adolescence, is necessary to the resolution of Marisol’s conflict. She had known this uncle largely through reputation; the family talked about him in hushed tones. Guzman, quite unwittingly, enables...

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