Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
When she was three or four, Judith Ortiz Cofer, born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, in 1952, began the routine that was to define her existence for a number of years. Because her father, J. M. Ortiz Lugo, was a career Navy man stationed on a ship from the Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York, Judith and her brother came with their mother, Fanny Morot Ortiz, to Paterson, New Jersey, where the family lived in “El Building,” a vertical barrio. When the father went on long cruises, the family returned to Hormigueros in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico and stayed with Judith’s grandmother.
When she was nineteen, Judith Ortiz married Charles John Cofer, a businessman. The couple has a daughter, Tanya. Following her marriage, Ortiz Cofer continued her education at Augusta College, from which she received a B.A. in 1974. Three years later, she earned an M.A. from Florida Atlantic University. Ortiz Cofer attended Oxford University for part of 1977 on a scholarship from the English Speaking Union.
Fluent in English and Spanish, Ortiz Cofer worked as a bilingual teacher in the public schools of Palm Beach County, Florida, during the 1974-1975 school year. In 1978, master’s degree in hand, she was named an adjunct instructor in English at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The following year, she was appointed an instructor in Spanish at the same institution. During this period, 1978-1980, she was also an adjunct instructor in English at Palm Beach Community College.
In 1980, having published her first collection of poems, Latin Women Pray (1980), as a chapbook, Ortiz Cofer became a lecturer in English at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, staying there until 1984, when she joined the Department of English at the University of Georgia as an instructor. Her three-act play, Latin Women Pray, was performed at Georgia State University in 1984. Her poetry began to appear in anthologies. Having served as a regular staff member of the International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature from 1979 until 1982, Ortiz Cofer became a member of the Florida Fine Arts Council in 1982. During the summers of 1983 and 1984, she joined the administrative staff of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Ripton, Vermont, which she attended as a student in 1981 and as a John Atherton Scholar in Poetry in 1982.
The Bread Loaf experience did much to help Ortiz Cofer fix her sights on publishing her poetry. Peregrina (1986) and Terms of Survival (1987) owe a substantial debt to the extensive critiquing sessions that characterize Bread Loaf, as does Ortiz Cofer’s fifty-seven-page contribution to Triple Crown: Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American Poetry (1987), for which she provided the section titled “Reaching for the Mainland.” This essay was an initial step toward her expanded work on writing, Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000).
These early collections and the Bread Loaf experience brought Ortiz Cofer a Witter Brynner Foundation Award for Poetry in 1988. There followed in 1989 a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. She used these grants to complete her novel, The Line of the Sun (1989), and a collection of essays and stories, Silent Dancing (1990). In 1995, An Island Like You became the first work of fiction to be published by the University of Georgia Press.
Ortiz Cofer spent the 1987-1988 academic year as an instructor in the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, moving the following year to Macon College as an instructor in English. In 1990, she was the coordinator of special programs at Mercer University. Subsequently, she returned to the University of Georgia to teach writing. In 1992, she gained tenure there as an associate professor of English and Creative Writing.
Most of Ortiz Cofer’s work relates to her early experience, focusing both on her home area of Puerto Rico and on Paterson, New Jersey. The life of Marisol, the narrator in The Line of the Sun, parallels Ortiz Cofer’s life. The book examines the conflict a young girl feels when her father urges her to forsake her heritage and integrate into mainland culture, while her mother presses her to hold onto her true heritage.
Marisol is aided by her black-sheep uncle, Guzman, whose story Marisol tells. Guzman comes to stay with the family in Paterson, and with his help, Marisol attempts an accommodation that will satisfy both parents. Worlds apart in thinking and social outlook from both of Marisol’s parents, Guzman makes the impressionable Marisol aware of possibilities she had never considered.