Ortiz Cofer, Judith: 1952—: Poet, Novelist, Educator
Judith Ortiz Cofer: 1952—: Poet, novelist, educator
Best known for her poetry and novels on the meaning of identity and ethnicity, Judith Ortiz Cofer used her often rootless childhood as a basis for some of her most well known works. Many critics feel it is the journey that Ortiz Cofer takes her readers on that so many readers can relate to, a quest of sorts to discover what it means to be a person in a specific place and culture. As Ortiz Cofer said in a 2000 interview with Bridget Kevane, "The Poetic Truth: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer," she does not write "for self-expression but for self-discovery." Her writing is like "deep analysis," that allows the writer and the reader to discover something that had hitherto been unknown.
Childhood Filled With Confusing Moves
Judith Ortiz Cofer was born on February 24, 1952, in Hormingueros, a town in southwest Puerto Rico. Her father, Jesus Lugo Ortiz, and mother, Fanny Morot, were very young teenagers when they married in Puerto Rico in 1951; Ortiz Cofer's mother was not quite 15 years old, and her father was just 18 years old. Jesus Lugo had been a good student and president of his high school senior class, but he saw no future for himself and his newly pregnant wife if they remained in Puerto Rico. With determination to provide a better life, he gave up his own dreams of continuing his education and joined the United States Army. Jesus Lugo was immediately sent to Panama, where he remained for the next several years, not even returning when his daughter was born. Ortiz Cofer was two years old before her father was able to return to Puerto Rico and see his daughter for the first time. Because of the continued need for a steady income and the lack of other opportunities, her father then joined the United States Navy, where he was quickly assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. Jesus Lugo had a relative in Paterson, New Jersey, and so he relocated his family into a small apartment over a Jewish owned store in Paterson. The neighborhood of Paterson was in the midst of a shift from a Jewish population to a Puerto Rican population, but at the time of their move in 1955, the Ortiz family was quite isolated from other Puerto Ricans, who lived only a block away.
The navy sent Ortiz Cofer's father to Europe about every six months and whenever her father was away on a deployment, her mother would pack up the family and return to Puerto Rico until he returned. This shifting from the urban northeastern United States to the very rural and more relaxed Spanish atmosphere of Puerto Rico made Ortiz Cofer's childhood seem nomadic. When at home in Paterson, the family spoke Spanish and they ate the foods of Puerto Rico. They listened to Spanish music, and her mother read Spanish romance novels, and thus, her daughter also read these books. Reading her mother's twenty-five cent romance novels was how Ortiz Cofer learned to read Spanish. In her loneliness for her island home, Ortiz Cofer's mother also turned to religion for solace, since religion offered strong reminders of her own mother. As a result, Ortiz Cofer grew up in a very Catholic home.
At a Glance . . .
Born on February 24, 1952 in Hormingueros, Puerto Rico; married Charles John Cofer on November 13, 1971; one child, Tanya. Education: Augusta College, BA, 1974; Florida Atlantic University, MA in English, 1977.
Career: Palm Beach County Public Schools, FL, bilingual teacher, 1974-75; Broward Community College, Fort Lauderdale, FL, adjunct instructor in English, 1978-80, instructor in Spanish, 1979; University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, lecturer in English, 1980-84; University of Georgia, Athens, instructor in English, 1984-87; Georgia Center for Continuing Education, instructor in English, 1987-88; Macon College, instructor in English, 1988-89; Mercer University College, Forsyth, GA, special programs coordinator, 1990; University of Georgia, Athens, associate professor of English and Creative Writing, 1992–; author, 1980–.
Selected awards: John Atherton Scholar in Poetry, 1982; Riverstone International Poetry Competition for Peregrina, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, 1989; Nominated for Pulitzer Prize for The Line of the Sun, 1989; Pushcart Prize for Nonfiction, 1990; O. Henry Prize for a short story, 1994.
Addresses: Home— P.O. Box 938, Louisville, GA 30434. Office— Department of English and Creative Writing, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602. Agent— Berenice Hoffman Literary Agency, 215 West 75th St., New York, NY 10023.
Ortiz Cofer grew up speaking Spanish at home, but eventually she had to learn English, which while a difficult language to master, she did very well, eventually well enough to teach and write in English. She learned to speak English to help her mother, who spoke only Spanish, but this ability also created a huge responsibility for a small child. In a 1993 Melus interview, Ortiz Cofer told her friend and research assistant, Edna Acost-Belen, that, she "became the translator, the interpreter, the decision maker, very early in my life." With her father gone so much of the time, she was often the one who took her mother shopping and helped to make those frequent absences easier for her mother. In 1958, on an extended visit to Puerto Rico while her father was away, Ortiz Cofer enrolled in her first formal school at La Escuela Segundo Ruíz Belvis. On later trips to Puerto Rico, she attended El Colegio San Jose, a private Catholic school. While in Paterson, Ortiz Cofer attended Public School Number 11, but when she entered high school, she attended a Catholic secondary school.
In her memoir of her childhood, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, Ortiz Cofer recalls the fragmented nature of growing up in two so disparate locations and the feeling of never really belonging to either. The frequent trips back to Puerto Rico for six months at a time, which were followed by the inevitable return to Paterson, were a constant disruption to her life. Her schooling was disrupted, but so, too, were friendships. Worse, she often felt like the new girl, who needed to constantly re-adjust and make new friends. This back and forth movement continued for most of her childhood. The last trip to live in Puerto Rico was when she was 15. Each location offered different rules of behavior for a teenage girl, and so the frequent moves also provided many cultural differences to which she must constantly adjust. Women dressed differently in the two cities, with sexuality of dress and behavior more suggestive in Puerto Rico, where it was also safer, since a woman's male relatives provided a protective and moderating influence. Ortiz Cofer's mother never acknowledged that she should dress differently when she was in Paterson, where she continued to dress as Puerto Rican women dressed on the island, in boldly colored dresses. Thus, she stood out from other mothers.
Discovered Poetry After College
In 1968, when Ortiz Cofer was 16 years old, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. After the 1968 riots in the Puerto Rican barrios of Paterson, Ortiz wanted to move his family to a safer location, far from the turmoil of the northeast. The move to Georgia meant many changes for the family, including the adjustment to yet another house and city and way of life. However, another important change occurred two years later when, in 1970, Ortiz Cofer enrolled at Augusta College. Years earlier, her father had given up his own plans for an education so that he could provide for his young family. Now, with Ortiz Cofer's admission to college, where she planned to study to be a teacher, her father's vision for his oldest child was coming to fruition. A year later, on November 13, 1971, she married Charles John Cofer. Ortiz Cofer continued with her studies, successfully combining school, marriage, and family, and in 1974, she received a B.A. in English. She and her husband also had a child, a girl, Tanya.
After graduation from Augusta College, Ortiz Cofer and her family moved to Florida, where she began a career teaching. She also enrolled in a graduate program at Florida Atlantic University to study English. The first year that Ortiz Cofer was in Florida, she worked as a bilingual teacher for the public school system in Palm Beach County. While she was living in Florida, her father was killed in an auto accident in 1976, shortly after he had retired from the Navy. After Ortiz Cofer's father died, her mother returned to Puerto Rico to live. The following year, in 1977, Ortiz Cofer received a masters degree in English from Florida Atlantic University. Her master's thesis, "Lillian Hell-man's Southern Plays," was a sociological-literary study of Hellman's plays. Also in 1977, Ortiz Cofer studied at Oxford University in England for one summer, where she earned graduate credits. Over the next ten years, Ortiz Cofer taught English, and occasionally Spanish, at Broward Community College, in Fort Lauderdale at Palm Beach Junior College, in Palm Beach, and at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
One of the most significant changes in her life occurred when she began to write poetry. Ortiz Cofer's maternal grandfather built homes, but he also wrote poetry and would read it to his granddaughter. Her maternal grandmother was a storyteller, who could adapt any story to her audience. Both grandparents had the gift of imagination and a talent for expression. In spite of this ancestry, Ortiz Cofer had not considered writing poetry until she was nearly at the end of her graduate studies. In a 1997 interview with Stephanie Gordon for the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, Ortiz Cofer told of how, when she was writing her thesis and "working with powerful words," she "started feeling a need that writing the thesis did not fulfill." She began to express these feelings by writing down ideas, which later became her first poems. Eventually, and on the advice of Betty Owens, her department chair, Ortiz Cofer began to submit her poems for publication. The New Mexico Humanities Review became one of the first professional journals to publish her work. In 1980 Ortiz Cofer published the first of three chapbooks or pamphlets of her poetry, Latin Women Pray. The two remaining chapbooks, The Native Dancer and Among the Ancestors were published the following year.
After ten years in south Florida, Ortiz Cofer and her family returned to Georgia to live. Not only had she fulfilled her father's goals of completing college, she had earned a graduate degree, and she had become a teacher and a published writer. With the return to Georgia, Ortiz was not only a published poet, but in 1984, she also became an English instructor at the University of Georgia in Athens. Also in 1984, her first chapbook of poetry, Latin Women Pray, became a three-act play when it was produced at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Over the next eight years, she would teach English at other Georgia colleges, including Macon College and Mercer University College. While she taught English to university students, Ortiz Cofer also continued to write. In 1986, Peregrina, her first professional published book of poetry, won the Riverstone International Poetry Competition. A second book of poems, Terms of Survival, was published the following year. In spite of her success with poetry, Ortiz Cofer did not limit herself to only that genre. Her first novel, The Line of the Sun, told a story with which its author was most familiar—the mixing of Puerto Rican and American life and the efforts to find a balance between two such disparate cultures. The Line of the Sun was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1989.
Writing Focused on Maintaining Identity
It is certain that the frequent moves and significant differences in the two cultures made Ortiz Cofer's childhood and adolescence a challenge. However, those challenges have also become the basis for much of her writing. Even in her first fictional novel, The Line of the Sun, Ortiz Cofer used her own life experiences in a thinly disguised autobiographical examination of the transient nature of identity. In Carmen Faymonville's 2001 study of Ortiz Cofer's work, "New Transnational Identities in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Autobiographical Fiction," Faymonville argues that Ortiz Cofer's writing is bridged between two cultures, without having to be identified with either one. Instead, "This new, constantly shifting identification with two cultures allows an escape from fixed, modernist identity and acknowledges that cultures are not discrete geographic or cultural spaces." Ortiz Cofer, according to Faymonville, does not choose between being Puerto Rican or American, as her mother felt she must do. Ortiz Cofer's mother could not allow herself to become an American; she was always a Puerto Rican, who yearned to return to her home. Faymonville posits that in her fiction, Ortiz Cofer is proving that "after relocation, national identity need no longer become the object of nostalgia and desire and no longer function as the repository of all that is experienced as absent and lacking." Unlike her mother, Ortiz Cofer need not choose between being an American or a Puerto Rican; she can become both and remain in her home in Georgia. Her imagination unites both identities in her writing.
Since 1992 Ortiz Cofer has been a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. In 1999, she was appointed the Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing. She and her husband live in Louisville, Georgia on a farm that has been in her husband's family for many years. Although Ortiz Cofer continues to visit Puerto Rico frequently, she has proven in both her writing and in her own life that an immigrant need not choose one identity over another. Rather than sacrifice being Puerto Rican for being an American, Ortiz Cofer is able to transcend both cultures by keeping both of them alive in her own work. As she wrote in an essay in "Rituals: A Prayer, a Candle, and a Notebook," "the memories [of her parents and her childhood] emerge in my poems and stories like time-travelers popping up with a message for me." One of the unique aspects of Ortiz Cofer's work is her ability to capture the past, with its difficulties of assimilation, and make those thoughts relevant to her readers. It is as if her readers had becomes voyeurs of the author's past, to capture a rare glimpse into her life.
Latin Women Pray, Florida Arts Gazette Press, 1980.
The Native Dancers, Pteranodan Press, 1981.
Among the Ancestors, Louisville News Press, 1981.
Peregrina, Riverstone Press, 1986.
Terms of Survival, Arte Público, 1987.
The Line of the Sun, University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, Arte Público, 1990.
Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer, University of Georgia Press, 2000.
Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women, Hyperion, 2000, pp. 29-38.
Latina Self Portraits: Interviews With Contemporary Women Writers, University of New Mexico Press, 2000, pp. 109-123.
AWP Chronicle, October/November 1997, pp. 1-9.
Melus, Fall 1993, pp. 84-99; Summer 2001, pp. 129-159.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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