Ortiz Cofer, Judith

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Born 24 February 1952, Hormigueros, Puerto Rico

Daughter of Jesús Ortiz Lugo and Fanny Morot Ortiz; married Charles J. Cofer, 1971; children: Tanya

Judith Ortiz Cofer moved from Puerto Rico to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1956 when her father enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Jesús Ortiz Lugo frequently traveled to Europe with the cargo fleet and sent his family back to Puerto Rico during these prolonged absences. Consequently, Ortiz Cofer grew up in several cultures: peasant Puerto Rican society, the immigrant America of her tenement home, and the white middle class world of her American Catholic school. Her poetry, novel, and memoirs reflect her need to reconcile her disparate and at times conflicting self-identities. Her parents finally settled in Augusta, Georgia, where she attended high school and college. Subsequently, she earned an M.A. in English at Florida Atlantic University (1977) and a scholarship to study at Oxford University. She has been a member of the Bread Loaf Writers Association teaching staff since 1991 and an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia since 1992.

Ortiz Cofer's works usually describe Puerto Rican women—in Puerto Rico and in the United States—surviving harshly limited lives in either or both settings. Marisol, the semiautobiographical figure in The Line of the Sun (1989), must learn to make sense of two Americas, the "exclusive club" of her Puerto Rican tenement "expatriates" and the "white middle class world" of her classmates. In Puerto Rico, peasant women are burdened by poverty and large families, and often rejected from society. These characters endure ugly conditions yet they develop lives with an increasingly rich sense of human strength: "We are like the dead, / invisible to those who do not / want to see / and our only protection against / the killing silence of their eyes is color. /…we will build our cities of light, / we will carve them / out of the granite of their hatred / with our own brown hands" ("What the Gypsy Said to Her Children," Reaching for the Mainland, 1987).

Like her metaphors, stories about the past give Ortiz Cofer's characters a nearly visible foundation that extends with time and generations. Praising Silent Dancing (1990), Aurora Levins Morales warmly claimed, "For Puerto Rican women in the U.S. controlling language, telling our own stories, is central to our sense of territory, of having a place in the world." In this book, Morales said, she "has told a piece of our common story, added another room to our house." In this loosely autobiographical collection of short stories and poetry, Ortiz Cofer highlights the African as well as Spanish aspects of Puerto Rican culture. Her characters practice Santeria, the mixture of African spiritism and Western religion. They worship the Black Virgin at the church shrine in Hormigueros. "Being a woman and black made Our Lady the perfect depository for the hopes and prayers of the sick, the weak and the powerless," Ortiz Cofer notes in the book. Silent Dancing resulted from an attempt to understand how she "came to be a writer," she says. Similarly, Marisol in The Line of the Sun searches for an identity by writing a story. The first half of the novel depicts the childhood of her mother, father, and unconventional uncle in Puerto Rico. Marisol completes her story, soothed by the realization that "the only way to understand a life is to write it as a story, to fill in the blanks left by circumstance, lapse of memory, and failed communication." Ortiz Cofer thus suggests that through writing one can construct a history and an identity perhaps not yet recognized: "I wish I could write a poem…that would make you want to get up in / the middle of the night to search for things / you didn't know were lost" ("A Poem," Reaching for the Mainland).

Ortiz Cofer writes in English, but an elusive future grammatically anticipated allows Reaching for the Mainland (her first commercial book), a collection of poems depicting loss and alienation within American and Puerto Rican society, to conclude with lyrically echoing hope: "In Spanish the conditional tense is the tense of dreamers / of philosophers, fools, drunkards / of widows, new mothers, small children / of old people, cripples, saints, and poets. / It is the grammar of expectation / and the formula for hope: cantaría, amaría, viviría. / Please repeat after me" ("Lesson One: I Would Sing"). In Terms of Survival, another book of poetry published in 1987, Ortiz Cofer confronts her poetic dialectic of survival. A cultural legacy, and her desire to be released from rituals associated with women, take root in tropical imagery.

In 1996 she published her sixth book, An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio, and in 1998, The Year of Our Revolution: New and Selected Stories and Poems. Of the few Puerto Rican women who began publishing in the early 1980s, Ortiz Cofer is the one who has most consistently endured, and worked in several genres—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her early novel The Line of the Sun has been called the most complex of the few novels by Puerto Rican women (writing in English) published in the 1980s. She has been compared to her critically acclaimed compatriot, Rosario Ferré, who remains living on the island and writes in Spanish.

Ortiz Cofer received a PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation in nonfiction for her book Silent Dancing, which was also chosen as a Best Book for the Teen Years in 1991 by the New York Public Library. Her novel The Line of the Sun was selected in 1989 by the New York Public Library as one of 25 Books to Remember. Ortiz Cofer is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She attributes her writing talents to "the spoken word" and, most particularly, to the stories of her grandmother, although she did not begin writing poetry until she was an adult. Since 1992 Ortiz Cofer has been teaching full time at the University of Georgia, having previously been a part-time lecturer there for several years. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many journals, including Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Exposure, and anthologies such as Best American Essays, The Norton Book of Women's Lives, The Pushcart Prize anthology, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and others.

Other Works:

The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993).


Corpi, Lucha, ed., Máscaras (1997). Howard, E., ed., Issues and Identity in Literature (1997). McCracken, E., New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity (1999). Zimmerman, M., U.S. Latino Literature: An Essay and Annotated Bibliography (1992).

Reference works:

Biographical Dictionary of Hispanic Literature in the U.S. (1989). CANR (1991). Hispanic Writers (1990). Who's Who in Hispanic Americans (1991, 1992). Who's Who in Writers, Editors, Poets (1989).

Other references:

LATBR (6 Aug. 1989). NYTBR (24 Sept.1989). Reader's Companion to the American Short Story (1998).Women on the Edge: Ethnicity and Gender in Short Stories by American Women (1998). WRB (July 1989, Dec. 1990).



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