(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 423 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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 birth (“They Say”). “Quinceañera” tells of the custom of a girl’s coming-of-age party (at age fifteen). Her grandmother prepares her for Puerto Rican womanhood. The adult narrator also explores her and her mother’s memories of the yearly trips to Puerto Rico in “Marina” and “The Last Word.”

The central theme in the book is the traditional Puerto Rican “script of our lives,” which circumscribes “everyone in their places.” The...

(The entire section is 464 words.)