Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

“The Habit of Movement” is a poem about the difficulties involved in the painful assimilation into another culture. Ortiz Cofer shows the stages along the way as she and her family move away from one culture but are not yet absorbed into another. Ortiz Cofer says she is “a composite of two worlds.” Since she speaks English with a Spanish accent and Spanish with an American accent, she feels that she has never completely belonged in either culture. She writes in English, the language of her schooling, but thinks of Spanish as her cultural and subconscious language. She is a mixture of both worlds, constantly straddling two cultures. She has spent too much time in the United States to think of leaving, but she says she becomes melancholy at times as she continues to yearn for Puerto Rico.

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In “The Habit of Movement,” the poet provides a mental picture of the dichotomy of the immigrant experience. Ortiz Cofer has said that “every time I write a story where Puerto Ricans live their hard lives in the United States, I am saying, look, this is what is happening to all of us. I am giving you a mental picture of it, not a sermon.” In this poem, she shows the ambiguous state of immigrants who no longer feel at home in their old culture but are not part of the new one. The images that she uses to illustrate this struggle begin with a feeling of nostalgia for the homeland that nurtured her and quickly move to the feeling of being adrift in a nomadic lifestyle. By using sensuous imagery, she involves the reader in the experience, comparing her family to “red balloons set adrift/ over the wide sky of this new land.” Her poetic imagery appeals to the visual sense, and the vivid, concrete details help create the tone and meaning.

To show how little each new place means to her, Ortiz Cofer uses the image of “the blank stare of undraped windows.” This failure to connect with new places has an advantage in that the family members never experience a sense of loss when they leave. Again, the poet shows the ambiguity: Her family does not belong to the community, but this same sense of alienation protects them from pain when they leave. As they move, they leave behind places that hold no meaning for them. They never stay long enough in any one place to “learn the secret ways of wood and stone” or become familiar enough to call it home.

The poet’s family has lost the feeling of warmth and safety that their home in Puerto Rico had provided. As they drift from one place to the next, the “lethargy” of the life in the tropics gives way to a loss of “the will to connect.” Yet the nomadic life offers another type of safety: The constant movement that isolates the family from others also keeps it united. The poet is not alone in this isolation because she is part of a family as well as part of a community of immigrants who share her experience. The poem ends with the image of a train in motion as Ortiz Cofer, knowing the family will continue to move, accepts the safety their habit of movement provides.

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