Authors: Judith Ortiz Cofer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Writer of prose, poetry, and drama

February 24, 1952

Hormigueros, Puerto Rico

December 30, 2016

Louisville, Georgia

Biography

Born in Hormigueros, near Mayagüez in southwest Puerto Rico, Judith Ortiz Cofer (ohr-TEEZ CO-fur) spent part of every year in Paterson, New Jersey, as she was growing up. Her father, Jesús Ortiz Lugo, who served in the U.S. Navy, was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard during many of his service years. Although Ortiz’s mother, Fanny Morot Ortiz, saw to it that the family spent part of every year in Puerto Rico, they lived for long periods in Paterson, which became the setting of a great many of Ortiz’s stories. Some of these stories center on El Building, as their apartment house was called when the Jewish tenants left and large numbers of Puerto Ricans moved in. Ortiz Cofer calls El Building a vertical barrio.

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The young Judith Ortiz attended school in Puerto Rico, where she went to San José Catholic School in San Germán, and in New Jersey, where she attended public schools and later St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Paterson. When she was sixteen, her father suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to retire from the Navy. The family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where Judith completed high school and enrolled in Augusta College, from which she graduated in 1974. She received a master’s degree from Florida Atlantic University in 1977 and that year also studied at Oxford University.

Her first book, a reflective collection of stories entitled Latin Women Pray, appeared in 1980. Ortiz Cofer turned this collection into a play, which was produced in Atlanta in 1984. In 1981, Ortiz Cofer received a fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where she subsequently served on the administrative staff during the summers of 1983 and 1984. During that time she published The Native Dancer and Among the Ancestors, and these works, as well as the poetry collection Reaching for the Mainland, appear to be a direct outcome of the Bread Loaf experience. Ortiz married Charles John Cofer during her sophomore year in college, and she taught bilingually from the time of her graduation until she completed the master’s degree. She thereupon taught English in various Florida colleges until 1984, when she joined the faculty of the University of Georgia at Athens, where she was appointed to teach creative writing.

Ortiz Cofer’s first volume of poetry, Reaching for the Mainland, which she later revised and expanded, focuses on the conflicts inherent in Puerto Ricans’ struggle to adapt to the mainland environment and to master the language, the history, and the customs of a new society. In Terms of Survival she explores some of the same problems but also hones in on the Puerto Rican dialect, emphasizing its ability to dictate the roles that males and females play in society simply through its linguistic conventions. The book is psychologically challenging and thought-provoking.

The Line of the Sun, Ortiz Cofer’s first full-fledged novel, which is set both in Salud, Puerto Rico, and in Paterson, is concerned with immigration and with the problems of adjusting to a new society. This theme also pervades Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, a collection of autobiographical essays, many of which focus on the dynamics of the vertical barrio in which Ortiz Cofer spent major portions of her childhood years.

The Latin Deli, a collection of short prose pieces and poems, captures well the outlook of transplanted Puerto Ricans, most of whom harbor the dream of working on the mainland to assure their financial security but then returning to “The Island” to live out the rest of their lives. The principals in this book cling to their old ways; the women, for example, cook the green plantains they buy at inflated prices in the neighborhood bodegas, where they also purchase the overpriced Bustelo coffee without which their afternoon coffee klatches would lack authenticity.

In this collection, especially in the story entitled “Not for Sale,” Ortiz Cofer focuses on the clash of cultures. Ortiz Cofer broaches the conflict between Puerto Ricans and African Americans in the story “The Paterson Public Library,” in which Lorraine, a black bully intimidates the story’s Puerto Rican protagonist for purely racial reasons.

Ortiz Cofer died at home in Louisville, Georgia, on December 30, 2016. She was sixty-four years old.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Line of the Sun, 1989 The Meaning of Consuelo, 2003 Short Fiction: Latin Women Pray, 1980 The Native Dancer, 1981 Among the Ancestors, 1981 An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio, 1995 Drama: Latin Women Pray, pr. 1984 Poetry: Peregrina, 1986 Reaching for the Mainland, 1987 Terms of Survival, 1987 Reaching for the Mainland, and Selected New Poems, 1995 A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, 2005 Nonfiction: Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, 1990 Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer, 2000 Lessons from a Writer’s Life: Readings and Resources for Teachers and Students, 2011 The Cruel Country, 2015 Children’s and Young Adult Literature: An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio, 1995 Call Me Maria, 2004 If I Could Fly, 2011 Let’s Dance! / ¡A bailar!, 2011 Animal Jamboree: Latino Folktales / La fiesta de los animales: leyendes latinas, 2012 The Poet Upstairs, 2012 Edited Texts: Letters from a Caribbean Island, 1989 Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival, 1999 (with Marilyn Kallet) Riding Low on Streets of Gold, 2003 Triple Crown: Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American Poetry (with Roberto Durán and Gustavo Pérez Firmat) Miscellaneous: The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry, 1993 The Year of Our Revolution: New and Selected Stories and Poems, 1998 Bibliography Acosta-Belén, Edna. “A MELUS Interview: Judith Ortiz Cofer.” MELUS 18, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 83–97. Ortiz Cofer is interviewed about her experience of bridging the Puerto Rican culture of her family and the culture of the US mainland. Bost, Suzanne. “Transgressing Borders: Puerto Rican and Latina Mestizaje.” MELUS 25, no. 2 (Summer, 2000): 187–211. Bost analyzes the work of four Latina writers, including Ortiz Cofer, regarding their depiction of racial color and its impact on multicultural identity. Faymonville, Carment. “New Transnational Identities in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Autobiographical Fiction.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 129–158. Argues that Ortiz Cofer’s depiction of the immigrant experience as not being rooted in a single dominant culture is unique and complex. Kanellos, Nicolas, ed. The Hispanic American Almanac: A Reference Work on Hispanics in the United States. 3d ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 1993. Includes a brief but useful sketch of the writer and her work. Ortiz Cofer, Judith “Puerto Rican Literature in Georgia? An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer.” Interview by Rafael Ocasio. The Kenyon Review 14, no. 4 (Fall, 1992): 43–50. Ocasio asks Ortiz Cofer about her experiences as a bicultural writer and includes questions about works such as Silent Dancing, The Line of the Sun, and “The Witch’s Husband.”

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