Early in Silent Dancing, which in 1991 won the PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation for Nonfiction and was included in New York Public Library’s 1991 Best Books for Teens, Ortiz Cofer warns her readers that she is not interested in “canning” memories. Rather, like Woolf in Moments of Being(1976), she writes autobiographically to connect with “the threads of lives that have touched mine and at some point converged into the tapestry that is my memory of childhood.”
Silent Dancing is not an autobiography as such; it does not progress linearly from the moment of birth to the day before the final revision is done. It is instead a collection of thirteen stories and a preface, with eighteen poems scattered amid the stories. The book’s elements are interconnected but are also discrete. The sequence in which they are read need not be Ortiz Cofer’s sequence, although she obviously spent considerable thought on arranging the book’s disparate components as she moved toward publication.
“Casa,” the lead story, explains elements of the book’s genesis. The family has gathered, as it does every day between three and four in the afternoon, for café con leche with Mama, the term everyone uses in referring to Ortiz Cofer’s grandmother. In the comfortable parlor that Mama’s husband built to her exact specifications, drinking coffee together provides the adults with the pretext for spinning yarns, ostensibly for one another but covertly for the edification of the children present.
Young Judith was an attentive listener; Ortiz Cofer suggests that her desire to write stems from these sessions in her grandmother’s inviting house in Puerto Rico. This story, like much of Ortiz Cofer’s writing, is exact in detail, warm and tactile in depicting human relationships. Mama is voluble, but as she talks, her hands work steadily on braiding her granddaughter’s hair.
In sharp contrast to “Casa” and stories such as “Primary Lessons” or “Marina,” set in rural Puerto Rico, are the stories about the author’s life in a dark, crowded apartment in Paterson. There, rather than being outdoors in a gentle climate, the children spend their winters huddled in a cramped living room around a television set. Despite its grayness, the New Jersey part of Ortiz Cofer’s existence has its compensations in both comforts and educational opportunities.
The conflict between two cultures often at odds provides the basic conflict for Silent Dancing. Ortiz Cofer personalizes the conflict, yet she lends it a universality that exceeds the two specific cultures about which she writes.
Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood is Judith Ortiz Cofer’s collection of fourteen essays and accompanying poems looking back on her childhood and adolescence in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, and Paterson, New Jersey. Her father joined the Navy before she was born, and two years later he moved them to Paterson, where he was stationed. When he went to sea for months at a time, he sent his wife and children back to Puerto Rico until he returned to New Jersey.
While her father urged the family to assimilate into the American melting pot and even moved them outside the Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New Jersey, her mother remained loyal to her own mother’s home on the island. Her mother’s quiet sadness emerges throughout the book, such as the voice of the poem “El Olvido” that warns that to forget one’s heritage is to “die/ of loneliness and exposure.”
The memoir chronicles significant moments, beginning with her...
(The entire section is 887 words.)