Judith Ortiz Cofer, a longtime resident of Georgia, was one of a number of Latina writers who rose to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s.
Her stories about coming-of-age experiences in Puerto Rican communities outside of New York City and her poems and essays about cultural conflicts of immigrants to the U.S. mainland made Ortiz Cofer a leading literary interpreter of the U.S.–Puerto Rican experience. In 2010 she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Ortiz Cofer was born in 1952 in the small town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, a semiurban municipality in the western part of the island. Her parents, Fanny Morot Ortiz and J. M. Ortiz Lugo, came to the United States in 1956 and settled in Paterson, New Jersey. As the daughter of a frequently absent military father stationed at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and an uprooted mother nostalgic for her beloved island, Ortiz Cofer spent portions of her childhood commuting between Hormigueros and Paterson.
Even though most of her schooling was in Paterson, she lived for extended periods at her grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico and attended the local schools. This back-and-forth movement between her two cultures became a vital part of her poetry and fiction. There is a strong island presence in her narratives, and the authenticity with which she captured life on the island is as powerful as her descriptions of the harsh realities of the Paterson community.
When she was fifteen years old, Ortiz Cofer moved with her family to Augusta, Georgia. She attended college and received an undergraduate degree in English from Augusta College (later Augusta State University). A few years later she moved to Florida and received an M.A. from Florida Atlantic University. In 1984 she joined the faculty of the University of Georgia in Athens. By her retirement in 2013 Cofer was Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing.
The author’s first literary expressions were in poetry. One of her early chapbooks, Peregrina (1986), won the Riverstone International Chapbook Competition. Two years later her poetry collection Terms of Survival (1987) was published, but it was not until the publication of her first major work of prose fiction, The Line of the Sun (1989), a novel nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, that the author began to receive more critical attention. The Line of the Sun was also the first of Cofer’s works to be published by the University of Georgia Press, with whom she collaborated on several later publications. After this successful debut as a fiction writer, she continued to demonstrate her abilities in storytelling through short stories and personal essays. However, she also kept writing poetry, which she declared “contains the essence of language,” and published two more collections, Reaching for the Mainland (1995) and A Love Story Beginning in Spanish (2005).
Ortiz Cofer claimed to have inherited the art of storytelling from her abuelita (“grandmother”), a fact suggested in the powerful attributes of the grandmother character who appears in The Line of the Sun and many of her other narratives. “When my abuela sat us down to tell a story, we learned something from it, even though we always laughed. That was her way of teaching. So early on I instinctively knew storytelling was a form of empowerment, that the women in my family were passing on power from one generation to another through fables and stories. They were teaching each other to cope with life in a world where women led restricted lives.” Ortiz Cofer’s most powerful characters are Puerto Rican women who try to break away from restrictive cultural and social conventions or who develop survival strategies to deal with the sexism in their own culture.
Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990) is a book of memories described as “stellar stories patterned after oral tradition.” The volume also includes poems that highlight the narratives’ major themes. Silent Dancing received the 1991 PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation in Nonfiction and was awarded a Pushcart Prize. It was followed by The Latin Deli (1993), a combination of poetry, short fiction, and personal narrative. In these collections, as in her subsequent volumes, An Island Like You (1995), The Year of Our Revolution (1998), and Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000), Ortiz Cofer continued to recall and explore through different genres the memories of her formative years. Woman in Front of the Sun, which won an award from the Georgia Writers Association, provides invaluable insights into the inner world of the author, what motivated her writing and where she placed herself in terms of the American mainstream and U.S. Latino literature. Her novel The Meaning of Consuelo (2003) explores language and communication: communication between the title character and her schizophrenic sister, men and women, English and Spanish.
Many of Ortiz Cofer’s stories, poems, and personal essays describe the lives of Puerto Rican youths straddling the Puerto Rican culture of their parents and a mainland culture consumed by its own prejudices, while asserting their own dignity and creative potential. An Island Like You received the 1995 Reforma Pura Belpré Medal and was listed among the best books for young adults by the American Library Association. Call Me María (2004) is a young adult novel chronicling a teenage girl’s move from Puerto Rico to New York City. Her poignant memoir The Cruel Country, published in 2015, recounts her return to Puerto Rico in 2011 to nurse her dying mother. Ortiz Cofer drew from that experience a wide range of reflections on dying, death, and the grieving process, as well as on parent-child relationships, aging, and cultural differences between the United States and Puerto Rico.
Due to a growing interest in her work in Puerto Rico and in other Spanish-speaking countries, the University of Puerto Rico published La linea del sol (1996), a Spanish translation of her acclaimed novel The Line of the Sun. The Fondo del Cultura Económica in Mexico published Una isla como tú (1997), a translation of An Island Like You. The same year Arte Público Press released Bailando en silencio: Escenas de una niñez puertorriqueña (1997), a translation of Silent Dancing. Several of the author’s stories are also available in other languages.
Ortiz Cofer died on the family farm outside Louisville from cancer on December 30, 2016.