The two opening chapters of Silent Dancing serve as a type of Scylla and Charybdis—equally hazardous alternatives—for women who are coming of age.

While the men were at work and the boys played baseball, the women and girls would congregate over coffee at Mamá’s and listen to stories being told; Ortiz Cofer traces her belief in the power of storytelling to these charmed afternoons.

In the first essay, “Casa,” Ortiz Cofer recounts a story that was recounted to her countless times by her grandmother, Mamá. According to the story, María la Loca, the crazy lady who wanders around the village, serves as the example of the woman who allows love to defeat her. As a young woman, María fell in love with a rich man in the village (his name changes with every retelling of the story), but he abandoned her at the altar. From that moment, so the story goes, María became crazier every day, and she ended up alone, childless, and outside the social life of the community.

The second essay centers on Mamá and her desires for some sort of private life within marriage and motherhood. After she had her eighth child, three of whom died in infancy or childbirth, Mamá turned to the “only means of birth control available to a woman of her times”: she gave up the comforts of sleeping with her husband and moved to a separate room in the house so that “she could be more than a channel for other lives.” María and Mamá serve as the diametrically opposed roles available to women, both of which are dangerous to the spirit: the harmful solitude that results from choosing poorly in love and the equally harmful servitude that comes from loving too many people. Ortiz Cofer does not judge any of these women or any of the choices people make, but she does emphasize the power of love to ruin lives or create difficult choices.

One of the most moving essays in the memoir, “Some of the Characters,” contains a section on Salvatore, who is the superintendent in an apartment that the Ortiz family rented in Paterson, New Jersey, during the Cuban missile crisis. This essay reveals the difficulties that men...

(The entire section is 877 words.)