Judith Ortiz Cofer (b. 1952)
Contributing Editor: Juan Bruce-Novoa
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Ortiz Cofer is quite clear and accessible, although students have questions about who she is and why she uses Spanish.
I present the students something from my own cultural background, with allusions to Mexican history and culture. Then I ask them to jot down what has been said. We compare the results, finding that those who do not share the background will choose different elements out of the material than those who come from a background similar to my own. We discuss the function of ethnic identification through shared allusions about the drawing of the ethnic circle around some readers, while excluding others, even when the latter can understand the words.
Students respond to the theme of the abandoned female, which often results in discussions of the single-parent family.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
he theme of male absence and women who wait is perhaps the major one touched on here. Also, there is the historical theme of Puerto Ricans and other minorities in the military as a way of life that both gives them mobility yet divides their families.
The colonization of Puerto Rico by the U.S. and the division of its population into island and mainland groups are reflected in the division of the family. The bilingual child is another result of the confluence of these two nations, reflected in the preoccupation with which language authority will accept from would-be participants.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This is confessional poetry, but with a twist. The author walks a fine line between writing for her own group and writing for the general audience. Thus she introduces Spanish and some culture items from the island, but recontextualizes them into English and U.S. culture. The style becomes an intercultural hybrid.
There is the Puerto Rican audience that will bring to the poems a specific knowledge of cultural elements that they share with the poet. This audience will place the poem in a wider catalog of cultural references. The non-Puerto Rican audience must draw only from the information given, and will perhaps apply the situations to universal myths or archetypes.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
You can compare her well to many other women writers, especially in the sense of women alone in a male world. For example, "Claims" can be read with Lorna Dee Cervantes's "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I ask them to consider what is the function of ethnic writing. How does it work for insiders as compared to outsiders? They should try to determine at what point ethnic writing becomes incomprehensible to outsiders, and what it means to open it to readers beyond the ethnic circle.
2. Write on the theme of the distant patriarch in U.S. contemporary life.
3. Write on the pros and cons of foreign language in literature. The "God" of "Latin Women Pray" can be taken as a metaphor for the U.S. reading public.
Refer to the headnote in the text for specific information. Consult also Acosta-Belen, Edna. "The Literature of the Puerto Rican National Minority in the United States." The Bilingual Review 5:1-2 (Jan.-Aug. 1978): 107-16.