|Title:||Ethnicity, Feminism, and Semantic Shifts in the Work of Judith Ortiz Cofer|
|Publication Info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information.
Ethnicity, Feminism, and Semantic Shifts in the Work of Judith Ortiz Cofer
vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
Ethnicity, Feminism, and Semantic Shifts in the Work of Judith Ortiz Cofer
Rafael Ocasio's 1992 interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer is poignantly titled, "Puerto Rican Literature in Georgia? An interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." The titular inquiry into the author's origins and her current residence indicate the importance of a sense of place and its significance, in terms of how authors are defined not only by critics and themselves, but also by literary categories. A Puerto Rican writing in English is generally expected to conform to certain habits, forms, or significations that identify her as Puerto Rican, one of which is this sense of place. However, Cofer's case is an interesting one because her continual movement as a child between the mainland and the island creates what Juan Bruce-Novoa calls a "migrating consciousness—not to be confused with immigrating, which denotes one-way lineal movement from a source to a goal" (93). This migrating consciousness is evinced by Cofer's own assertions about culture as "a habit of movement" (qtd. in 92), and Bruce-Novoa's analysis of Cofer's early work, in which "cultural identity demands constant movement, oscillation, which ultimately places identity in the act of movement itself" (93). While Cofer's work is set both on the mainland and the island, she maintains a commitment to both through a movement between the two in which neither is fixed or privileged.
One of the ways to maintain the act of movement and oscillation is to move between cultural spaces as well as significations. Certainly, if one of the markers of U.S. Latino literature is a sense of place, another is the inclusion of the Spanish and English languages. However, this particular marker is often associated with a range of techniques such as code-switching and cultural communities including Nuyoricans, Chicanos/as, and Mexican Americans that may find thematic parallels in Cofer's work, but not equivalents. Regarding the Nuyoricans, for example, Cofer asserts that she enjoys their work but associates it with a particular locale in New York significantly different from her experiences and situations growing up in Paterson, New Jersey ("Puerto Rican Literature" 45). As one of the distinguishing aspects of her work, Cofer argues that incorporating Spanish and English indicates how "saying one thing in a particular way is completely different than saying the same thing in another way" ("The Art" 75). Cofer uses Spanish to portray a particular reality and flavor, "a formula for reminding people that what they're reading or hearing comes from the mind and the thoughts of Spanish-speaking people" ("Judith Ortiz Cofer" 101). Thus, the choice to use the Spanish language calls attention not only to the linguistic moment in a text but also to the particular cultural situation, event, or idea the language articulates.
This essay focuses on how Cofer's notions of identity and language function as associated with the predominant theme of women and women's roles and identities in particular cultural contexts in the texts Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990) and The Latin Deli (1993). Cofer's plays on linguistic markers such as mother, marriage, virginity, and prostitute, in Spanish and English, invoking multiple stereotypes and connotations associated with both the island and the mainland. However, based on a notion of identity that relies on movement and oscillation, Cofer maintains the language associated with women in a kind of semantic flux in which critical analysis of any linguistic marker, either in Spanish or English, is limited because meaning builds, shifts, and contradicts throughout these two collections. For example, a Western reader might be inclined to call Cofer's texts feminist and assert that the author problematizes and subverts terminology used to describe women and women's roles. However, such terminology proves subversive because the connotations of even a single word continually shift to include both positive and negative valences. These continual shifts indicate how, as an observer, Cofer can identify how women both conform to and belie cultural constructs. The very complexity of women's experiences belies singular portrayals and, as a result, while Cofer participates in an Anglo feminist tradition of reinterpreting the roles to which women are assigned, she also participates in a tradition articulated by Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, who cites the "pluralistic mode" as a strategy used by women, as members of multiple cultural communities, to circulate a wealth of terms that define women and their experiences (79).
In the "pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she [the writer] maintain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else" (79). That something else in Cofer's work is evinced by her movement between physical locales and her ability, as participant and observer, to articulate the cultural codes associated with each, without foregrounding one or the other. Rather, Cofer reveals how women negotiate a wealth of cultural constructs, juxtaposed with lived, embodied experiences. Furthermore, she insists that these communicate with one another, so that meaning and signification exists in the spaces between, or, as Bruce-Novoa asserts, in "the inter space where new meanings are renegotiated in a process of synthesis" (96). Ultimately, Cofer's shifts between two geographies and two sets of cultural codes reveal her dual commitment to both, and the effects the negotiation between the two cultures, histories, traditions, and languages has on notions of identity and agency, as will be seen, specifically for women.
Silent Dancing opens with the essay, "Casa," which grounds the entire collection in a community of women associated with the oral tradition. In "Casa," the women gather for the afternoon ritual of café con leche, where they tell stories meant to entertain but also to "teach each other and my cousin and me what it was like to be a woman, more specifically, a Puerto Rican woman" (14). While many of the cuentos narrate real events, they are also thickly embellished "morality and cautionary tales" (15) from which the narrator learns appropriate behavior for women. As participant and observer, the narrator becomes the "cultural chameleon" (17) who can blend into crowds and, when she returns to the mainland, repeat these stories to connect herself to a cultural heritage she associates with women. Additionally, readers are grounded in the tradition of storytelling as it is associated with the Spanish language. While the text is primarily in English, the use of Spanish words to articulate the traditions of café con leche and cuentos maintains the connections between the traditions, the language, and the island. The term casa is one many English speaking readers can define as house, home, or household but which, in the context of the story, refers not to a physical structure but to a sense of home the narrator associates with Puerto Rican women, their traditions, and the island. Since the narrator continually moves between the island and the mainland, however, her community of women is not fixed in either locale. Home may signify the narrator's connections to Puerto Rico, but it also suggests a displacement as the narrator moves away from that culture to the mainland.
In sharp contrast, the opening piece in The Latin Deli is not concentrated on a community of women, but, perhaps, on the metaphoric removal of women from a particular cultural community. "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" focuses on a Catholic tradition surrounding the Virgin Mary, but is set in an American context, which alters that tradition. In this poem, the narrator plays on the titular Latin origins of a poetic term and technique. While the poem is not about writing poetry or a poetic technique, it narrates a tradition that is transplanted from one cultural situation into another. The poem opens with the image of a plastic Madonna and child atop a formica deli counter, thereby removing the statue from a church or religious context into a commercial, American setting. The Madonna is:
The Virgin Mary symbolizes the exiled Latino community and their memories of, and connections to, the homeland. The characters' lives in America indicate their revised perceptions of a religious icon, not necessarily as sacrilege, but as a means for survival in foreign territory. Traditionally, the Virgin Mary is sacred and familiar; in "Advanced Biology," the narrator asserts that "Our family talked about La Virgen as if she were our most important relative" (124). Later, the narrator's mother asserts that those "who do not have the Holy Virgin Mary" as an example "do things for the wrong reasons" (126). The Virgin is an exemplar of good behavior and a representative mother for good Catholics. In this poem, however, she is more closely connected in an American context, to the figure of a real, human woman who "spends her days / slicing jamón y queso" (3) and no matter what the Virgen does, she cannot "satisfy / the hunger of the frail old man lost in the folds / of his winter coat, who brings her lists of items / that he reads to her like poetry" (4). Poetry is associated not with poetic language or technique but with the lists of items that romanticize Puerto Rican products. If the poem is about a tradition, it is about the recontextualization of a Catholic icon into an American context and the negotiations performed by the deli's patrons. Rather than a strictly holy icon, the plastic, Americanized Madonna comes to represent a real woman to whom the patrons turn to recover their losses and memories of the homeland. Still, like the women in "Casa," the Virgin is the center of home and community.
Whereas the Spanish in the opening piece of Silent Dancing is directly associated with Puerto Rican traditions of storytelling, the Spanish in The Latin Deli's opening is ironically linked to an American context: dollars, meringue, and ham and cheese. While in the poem "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica," the Virgin is a plain-faced woman with "plump arms" who "smiles understanding" (3), in others she is entirely traditional. In "The Black Virgin," for example, the fervor with which Catholics worship their icon is evinced by the women who climb on their knees "one hundred steps to the [Virgin's] shrine" (Silent Dancing 43). The Black Virgin was said to appear before a woodcutter who was about to be gored by a bull, and every year since, people celebrate her in the Fiestas Patronales when her figure is paraded through town (44). As the narrator asserts, "[b]eing a woman and black made Our Lady the perfect depository for the hopes and prayers of the sick, the weak, and the powerless" (44). More traditionally revered here than in the poem set in the deli, the Virgin serves as a mediator for God: it is through her that one's promesas "could get His attention" (44). The Virgin is presented as an icon and a woman who serves her adorers in a more traditional Catholic manner as a mediator for God in a Puerto Rican setting.
Whether or not the Virgin Mary is an icon in her own right or a mediator with light or dark skin, Cofer's representations reveal the multiple interpretations of her, often related to the island or the mainland, and to the Spanish or English language. I would not argue, however, that the invocation of the Virgin Mary in an American setting suggests only a revision of her and the Catholic tradition, while her invocation on the island remains pure. Rather, no single portrayal of her is presented as correct or singular. Each represents a possible interpretation of her, depending on the context in which she is invoked. The author's choice to cite the celebration of the Black Virgin in Spanish—the Fiestas Patronales—situates that particular tradition in Puerto Rico. More importantly, the story of the Black Virgin is only a brief segment of a larger tale about women's autonomy. The narrator's father in the essay is in the Army. While his wife and daughter remain on the island with his mother, they learn what it is like to live without a man, sharing stories with their female relatives: "The three women living alone and receiving Army checks were the envy of every married woman in the pueblo" (39-40). The narrator's mother and grandmother take up smoking and spend their days pampering the young narrator. While their situation is referred to in ideal terms, the suggestion is not that women are better off without men, but that the women, in the absence of men, forge bonds that provide them comfort, safety, and entertainment. Situating the story of the Black Virgin Mary within the larger story emphasizes the women's community as a powerful source of support for women within the larger cultural community in which they often sacrifice their needs and desires for others just as the Virgin does.
Like the Virgin Mary, the institution of marriage is associated in both collections with a wealth of linguistic possibilities that suggest a wealth of interpretations—many ironic and ambiguous—for what marriage means and evokes for women. In a series entitled "From 'Some Spanish Verbs,'" the author titles four poems in a series according to a Spanish infinitive followed by its translation. In the first two poems, the marital union is explored according to the ways in which the participants "translate" the titular terms in their lives. The first, "Orar: To Pray," begins with a woman's being left by her husband, despite her "hissed pleas" (The Latin Deli 28). After he is gone, the woman will "fall / on her knees to say prayers composed to sound like praise; following / her mother's warning never to make demands / outright from God nor a man" (28). On one hand, the prayers parallel religious invocations to the Virgin Mary wherein women must seek the mediation of the Virgin or couch direct addresses to God. On the other hand, to suggest that the couple's behavior is a pattern implies that her prayers go unanswered, which would make the title ironic because neither God nor the husband read or respond to the wife's pleas. Thus, both the word pray and the ritual acts of prayer must be mediated, even if unsuccessfully, by the Virgin for the mother and for readers. However, the title suggests a direct translation of a term and its connotations; the issue is not one of translation but of mediation. As Bruce-Novoa asserts, the "interlingual, intercultural language expresses what neither language can, even when they engage each other in 'accurate' translation of meaning from one code to the other" (94). Translation suggests direct equivalency, and in the above poem, Cofer intimates that direct equivalents are not actually possible given the situation in which the characters find themselves. Orar may literally translate as "to pray," but within the poem there is a rift in communication within two systems— a religious and cultural one—in which women bear the greater burden, despite their attempts to communicate.
There is yet another issue of mediation when, in the same poem, the child is introduced listening to the familiar sounds of her mother: "Knees on wood, shifting / the pain so the floor creaked, and a woman's / conversation with the wind—that carried / her sad voice out of the open window / to me" (28). The child asserts that the words spoken by her mother that do not reach heaven fall on her own chest, where they become embedded "like splinters of a cross / I also carried" (28). The poem concludes with the mother passing her pain and sadness to her daughter, but it is a sadness that indicates several predicaments. First, neither God nor men can always be relied on for assistance or solace, and second, because the words escape, the Virgin is not always a successful mediator. Third, and most important, the daughter learns to carry the metaphoric splinters from the cross from her mother because they may otherwise go unnoticed. It is the daughter who will have to decide for herself how to carry those splinters into her own life, how she, as a young woman, will negotiate the titular terms of prayer as well as marriage. It is the daughter who can revise the two systems of religion and marriage in which her mother suffers and in which she may participate.
In the poem "Dividir: To Divide," the husband's affair with "the fake-blonde widow / next door" (29), prompts a different response from the wife. Rather than make demands of her husband or God, she uses silence and suffering as a weapon, resulting in yet another breakdown in communication. After the affair, "she chose pride; he, humility" (29). The woman refuses "help hauling groceries, small children, / and whatever load she carried home / up that steep hill" (29) and suffers until her husband lay on his deathbed, where it is rumored that she kissed him once before he died and "Then, kneeling by the bed, / washed and anointed his still body. / Taking it back" (39). The poem ends with a powerful image of a woman hardened after twenty years by her inability to forgive. As in "Orar," the children are implicated in this cycle: they are "punished like him...beyond our petty crimes" (29). While the crime seems petty to the child, the poem indicates that the betrayal is anything but, although the silence the mother uses as a weapon implicates her in that crime. The very word petty is indicative of the husband's behavior and the wife's response to it. The household environment after the affair is neither healthy nor fulfilling for any of the family members. However, that the children believe there are alternatives to the situation is important because this knowledge complicates the simplistic interpretation of infidelity which, as the title indicates, translates unsuccessfully for everyone. What is emphasized here is perspective, not a linear act followed by specific consequences, and one that reveals the position, and thoughts of husband, wife, and children as responsible agents implicated in the familial drama.
Cofer presents notions of the Virgin and marriage to provide a wealth of cultural and linguistic markers associated with American and Puerto Rican culture, but markers that include, and move beyond, stereotypical notions present in both cultures. America has popularized the stereotype that Latino men are somehow more chauvinistic than American men. Judit Moschkovich asserts that this assumption is misguided, to say the least. Sexist oppression cannot be compared in terms of degrees, but only in terms of its existence as oppression in whatever form it takes. Additionally, sexist or heterosexist oppression "is more or less visible depending on how communicative a people in a culture are" (82). Cofer's presentation of intimate relations complicates the stereotypes by presenting the characters as real and not as caricatures, and also by pointing to alternative behaviors and roles. The focus is not on presenting Puerto Rican traditions for an English speaking audience, but on recognizing how we interpret and translate traditions in general. Institutions such as marriage and the church—and the women who participate in these—cannot be singularly defined, either within a single cultural construct or from one to another. In addition, the reader is made privy to the narrator/author's particular vantage point as "cultural chameleon" and subtly encouraged not to attempt to literally translate the events narrated. One powerful example of this discouragement is Cofer's presentation of multiple interpretations and connotations surrounding individual words, traditions, and situations, resulting in a semantic flux that resists rigid definitions. In terms of marriage, especially, for example, the essay "Marina" reveals how the marital tradition and the very notion of womanhood is debunked in a surprising example that diffuses stereotypical notions of men and women in a Latin American context.
The narrator in "Marina" asserts that her relationship with her mother after her father's death has become strained, in part because the narrator chose to remain in America, while her mother returned to the island. While the two have trouble defining "key words...such as 'woman' and 'mother,'" they share the tradition of storytelling, albeit one whose significance has changed (Silent Dancing 152). While the daughter grew to love these stories for what they reveal of the "history and the people of the Island," her mother "likes recalling the old days" (153). The import of the storytelling tradition changes from passing information to something more nostalgic, and, as a result, the subject of the tales changes. The mother narrates a story of two adolescent girls, Marina and Kiki, who become intensely attached to each other at a river where they exchange stories of boys and their bodies. Much to the town's distress, the girls disappear, leaving behind a note that tells of their elopement. What the town discovers is that Marina's mother was so distraught after having a boy child, she had dressed her child "in a flowing gown of lace and had her christened Marina" (158), and thereafter presented the male child to the community as female. When the narrator asks her mother what happened to the couple, the mother responds: "'What happens to any married couple?'...'They had several children, they got old...' She chuckled gently at my naiveté" (159). Soon after, mother and daughter encounter the aged Marina who has returned to Puerto Rico after Kiki's death. The narrator is compelled to ask a final question about whether he was a good husband, to which her mother responds, "'He would know what it takes to make a woman happy'" (160). The narrator smiles inwardly and asserts that she and her mother "now had a new place to begin our search for the meaning of the word woman" (160). The daughter realizes that her mother does understand the complexities of womanhood and woman, despite having led a "traditional" life as wife and mother. The mother's very acceptance of the story indicates her awareness of alternate possibilities for women, including the women her daughter represents as wife, mother, and career woman.
The very name Marina also plays on a linguistic translation and cultural pun: while marina refers to a seacoast or shore, in the essay it invokes the masculine marino, which refers to a marine or a sailor. Despite learning that Marina is actually a man, the townspeople still refer to him as the feminine Marina who appears to suffer no ill feelings in his community. While "Marina" represents a nontraditional example of what it means to be a woman in Puerto Rico and what it means to marry, "Marina" also indicates a second pun as associated with one of the most positive portrayals of marriage in both collections. While previous examples of marriage suggest that women and men marry to legitimately bear children and that women seem to be responsible for securing marriage, "Marina" presents an alternative. In "Marina," wo(men) talk about their sexuality openly, and the example set by the couple results in a story that can be told to other women. More than a union to bear children, the story of Marina and Kiki fosters the notion that sexuality need not be associated only with procreation, and that marital unions may be grounded and based in friendship.
"Marina" reveals not only a nontraditional example of marriage, it also hints at the dangers of sexual knowledge and the lack thereof. One of the issues Cofer points to in the essay is that the Marina and Kiki met at a river with other girls to discuss the forbidden topic of sex. The narrator asserts, "they [girls] were betrayed by their own protective parents who could bring themselves to explain neither the delights, nor the consequences of sex" (155). Sexual knowledge is complicated in Cofer's work because it is something that is both celebratory and threatening. In the poem "Quinceañera," the arrival of the narrator's period signals a Spanish tradition of celebrating her fifteenth birthday, which suggests not only her coming of age into sexual knowledge, but also the dangers associated with sexual knowledge. Because she has begun to menstruate, the young girl's dolls are put away "like dead children" and she, not her mother, is expected to wash her own clothes and sheets "as if / the fluids of my body were poison, as if / the little trickle of blood I believe / travels from my heart to the world were / shameful" (Silent Dancing 50). The coming party is ironic because, while it translates as a celebration, it clearly indicates a shameful mourning as indicated by the mother, who has "nailed back" her daughter's hair with black hairpins (50). Even so, the narrator recognizes the contradiction and wonders why her blood is shameful while the blood lost by saints or men in battle is "beautiful" (50). Only in the former case does blood have negative connotations, primarily because it represents the potential for young women to marry and to become pregnant. The quinceañera invokes multiple connotations the daughter must mediate successfully if she is to grow into womanhood and maintain respect in her family. Because her entrance into womanhood is fraught with responsibility that is both celebratory and threatening, she must navigate her entrance into womanhood by learning to read her body as well as others' responses to it to arm and protect herself.
By contrast, in "Unspoken," the narrator's relationship with her adolescent daughter is less tumultuous. There is no hint of the threat of sexuality represented by the daughter's "tender swelling of new breasts" (The Latin Deli 158). The mother even wants to tell the daughter about "the pleasure of a lover's hand on skin... of the moment / when a woman first feels / a baby's mouth at her breast" (158). Instead the mother says "sweet dreams, / for the secrets hidden under this blanket / like a forbidden book / I'm not supposed to know you've read" (158). Sexuality is still portrayed as a taboo subject, but for very different reasons, which is a tacit understanding of the mother's part. The implication of this, as in other poems, is that a woman's relationship to her body is often defined by her culture, by the persons who respond to the changes she experiences in one light or another, all of which impact how she perceives her body, but also how she perceives the bodies of men. "Quinceañera" reveals one perception, while "Unspoken" reveals another, neither of which is indicated as correct or incorrect, but as possibilities that have significant repercussions for young girls.
What is most significant are the sensitive lines between cultures that define sexuality in very different terms and elaborate what it means for a young woman to be responsible for the behavior and attitudes of men in general and of men toward women. In the essay "Quinceañera," the daughter returns to Puerto Rico for a visit where she learns, as a member of her "mother's matriarchal tribe," what it "meant to become a woman in Puerto Rico" (Silent Dancing 139):
Having left and returned to the island, the young girl is more aware of the dictates of womanhood in her culture, few of which appear positive. She is both a threat to herself and to men and, as in the poem, the fifteenth birthday signals not celebration, but her new role as "trainee for the demands of womanhood and marriage" (141). The celebration is associated with a tradition, and it is also, for the narrator, associated with the phenomenological, which is not cultural but natural, although its expression is distinctly cultural. The narrator recognizes her body's changes, which leads directly to how she is to control both her body and others' responses to it, depending on where she finds herself.
When she finds herself attracted to a boy on the island, she recognizes that his courtship occurs in a manner New York has not prepared her for: "the hoots, hisses, and street-poetry that Latinos subject women to, was radically different from this dramatic, romantic wooing carried on without awkwardness and surprisingly accepted by the adults" (143). The surprise is a result of the ironies and contradictions between her culture's fearful response to her coming of age versus the young boy's behavior and her response to it. The young girl has long been taught what is and is not acceptable regarding her behavior around boys, but the cultural clash occurs when she pursues the romantic wooing and leads the young boy behind her grandmother's house. There she turns her face to his for a kiss, but he runs away. The narrator recognizes her error and chides herself playfully: "I had made an awful mistake, broken the rules of the game, and frightened away my gentle admirer. How far this reckless act of mine set that boy back with women, I do not know" (147). The narrator understands that she failed to conform to the dictates of womanhood, in sharp contrast to the behavior of even members of her own culture in an American context. Still, she recognizes through both cultures "the many directions a woman's life can take" (148). The multiple representations of courtship provide numerous choices to empower a young girl who can decide for herself how to interpret the situation of courtship on whichever shore she finds herself. At the same time, a young girl has to remember that some interpretations lead to specific consequences. Though the above situation is portrayed in a playful, nostalgic manner, it is clear that the potential for ruin on the young girl's part is no laughing matter. The narrator establishes this when she fears afterward that the boy might tell others and humiliate her; however, her saving grace is that her daring act, should the boy have mentioned it to others, would also have humiliated him because he had refused her kiss (147).
If there are dangers in Cofer's work associated with young girls' sexual knowledge, it is in how such knowledge can be defined in demeaning and damaging terms if a young woman is humiliated or ruined. In "Fulana," readers learn yet another version of the results for women who are not protected or who do not protect themselves. Fulana literally translates into a Mrs. or Ms. so-and-so as it refers to a woman who is indecent or an embarrassment because of her sexual life. In the poem, however, Fulana is a "wild girl" because she paints her face and wants to play the wife when the children play house; she wants to be a dancer and a bird and eventually loses "contact with her name during the years / when her body was light enough to fly" (86). The young girl wants to call herself by names that are more akin to what her changing body feels. The flight and dance refer to sexual knowledge of her own body as well as the bodies of men; yet, she must remember her name in the same way she must remember her character and reputation. The risk is that she will be named by others as a Fulana, who is:
Sex or sexual knowledge is never mentioned directly in the poem, but the title alone names what should not be named and subtly indicates how loaded the term is in its cultural construct. Fulanas are neither chastised nor celebrated in the poem; they are named and made real. The emphasis on naming and language indicates how cultures define sexual knowledge and the women who have it, without implicating only Latin American cultures. At the same time, while the term is used to name a woman without directly naming her, Cofer uses this term in the poem specifically to name a woman, her actions and complexities, while maintaining the flavor of her promiscuity, which rests not in sexual acts but acts of desire and freedom.
The worst case scenario for women who acquire sexual knowledge outside of marriage is that they literally become whores or prostitutes. Cofer, however, finds parallels between the work of prostitutes and priests, which subverts the negative connotations associated with prostitution. In "Las Magdalenas," the narrator observes the prostitutes who enter church for the early morning mass and
The portrayal of prostitutes is neither sympathetic nor judgmental. They are juxtaposed to the church and its religious figures, and the priest's fine garments are likened to those of the women to whom he offers communion, and places the prostitutes on the same level as him in terms of the elaborate attire required for their work. The poem hints that prostitutes need not be degraded for clothing that resembles the priest's in its finery. Additionally, the prostitutes' attendance at church is as ritualistic as the priest's, though their hope as they "bow their heads" is to "accept what was promised Magdalene": forgiveness for their sins (83). Ironically, though the prostitutes' attempts for absolution and forgiveness appear sincere, it is also clear that the work requiring such forgiveness will continue. In the poem, both the priest and the prostitutes are bound by a life of servitude, but the prostitutes' very presence in church belies their lot as sinners because they have the same possibilities for redemption as Mary Magdalene. The language in this poem presents these women both as redeemed and sinful, as innocents and outcasts, but never singularly defined. In the same breath that they are pitiable and humble, they assert their place in church and continue practices that mark them as outcasts.
In a poem diametrically opposed to "Las Magdalenas," "Saint Rose of Lima" examines the irony of women who devote themselves, not to men, but to God's service and the divinity of others. The poem elaborates a woman's failure as a devotee in the most denigrating terms: she is "the joke of the angels—a girl crazy enough for God," for she inflicts self-torture to attain glory (The Latin Deli 155). The joke rests in the woman's assuming the path to God and holiness consists only in the torture of her physical person and in the self-abnegation of earthly pleasures. The woman envisions her "Master / whom she called Divine Bridegroom, Thorn / in My Heart, Eternal Spouse" (155), but when God's image began to fade she "would dip the iron bar into the coals, / and pass it gently like a magician's wand over her skin" (156). Whether in her imagination or otherwise, she equates Christ's appearance before her with self-torture, which she defines as passion. Passion, for her, is suffering and sacrifice and not unpurposefully aligned with the Christ husband. The God husband and the human husband may often solicit the same response from women who are taught by their culture and the church that suffering at male hands is to be expected; however, this poem denigrates the notion that suffering is an inherent part of worship by referring to the woman in it as a joke and a lunatic. In previous poems, faith provides comfort to women; in this case, worship reveals faith as confining, and physically and emotionally debilitating. Both are, however, possible interpretations for women. Both represent choices women have and can make or revise at will.
Whether as nuns, prostitutes, wives, or mothers, the women in Cofer's work have a support network of other women who are vital to their survival. If one woman's example proves unbearable to her, there are other examples to counteract this. If one woman subverts notions of womanhood, as in "Fulana" or "Marina," there are both successful and unsuccessful examples of this. There are enough choices and options, in other words, to provide each woman in a community with increased possibilities for autonomy and agency. The truth of individual situations, definitions, or interpretations remains and rests in the dynamic female-identified community that creates multiple possibilities. The very word truth resists a literal translation in Cofer's work, particularly when she combines the poetic form with the essay form, which is meant to distinguish fictional from lived experiences, but which the author melds through shared subject matter. The truth of the form is as unstable as the truth of the subjects regarding the multitude of representations of women as both negative and positive. There is no characterization of women that embodies the truth. Instead, there is a series of truths that resists singular interpretations and judgments in the same way women both conform to and resist the roles their cultures assign them. While the Virgin Mary is a holy figure to whom young girls aspire on the island in "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica," she is simultaneously a real woman "who was never pretty" when her image moves to the United States (3); while the prostitute represents the worst of all possible options to young girls, in the poem "Why Providencia Has Babies" (Silent Dancing), the narrator, like her mother is forced to work the streets to provide for a daughter who becomes "the welfare madonna" and "the women's joke" (114). In "Orar: To Pray" (Latin Deli 28), women often seem at the mercy of unfaithful or abusive husbands; as wives, they also make proactive choices about their own lives and bodies. In the poem "Claims," for example, the grandmother, without any ill feelings on her or her husband's part, claims "the right to sleep alone...for the luxury of stretching her bones" and to avoid pregnancy (29).
As we have seen, the women in Cofer's poems are multiplicitous and complex, and they are active negotiators of the demands made upon them. Cofer's use of language specifically makes this multiplicity possible as it moves across cultural boundaries and significations. As Marta Ester Sánchez asserts, many writers combine two languages so that readers can also directly experience how the two cultures conflict (21). The primary use of English creates a situation in which readers come across Spanish terms and are forced to stop and reconsider the foreign, textual situation, and then to consider the cultural context of those terms in order to derive meaning from them. The shifting signs creates an instability that forces readers to "adopt a mobile approach to the text that could be called a habit of movement" which reflects Cofer as author and persona (93-4). Additionally, Bruce-Novoa notes how Cofer is able to resist enacting in her work, "practices which, while identifying her with her ethnic heritage, would constitute socially symbolic acts of acceptance and confirmation of the repressive system that enslaves women" (96). Cofer's use of language immerses the women characters within the mainland and the island—and the traditions of each—but, while she relies on language for meaning, she also resists fixed meaning by playing up the possibilities for semantic and symbolic flux so that individual words such as woman, mother, wife, or prostitute are continually under (re)consideration to circulate multiple definitions. For example, Cofer's emphasis on marriage as a legitimate means of bearing children finds critical support in the work done by Chicana feminists like Anzaldúa, who asserts that "the onus is still on woman to be a wife/mother...[w]omen are made to feel total failures if they don't marry and have children" (17). In many of Cofer's poems those women who are ruined by men are ruined because they are unable to bear children legitimately, and consequently, legitimate their roles as sensual/sexual women. As already noted, however, women do have options that rest outside the traditional and the stereotypical as "Marina" indicates. Where the word woman appears, the attuned reader recognizes that the word continually represents an interpretation that does not remain stable. The fluidity of words and phrases fuels Cofer's work and points to the larger cultural contexts that support such instability, thus demanding that the reader define and redefine assumptions about (con)textual meaning—where women are concerned—in order to enter a dialogue with the text as a whole.
Cofer herself recognized early on instances of cultural communication and conflict as evinced through language. In an interview, she recalls reading the Cinderella story as a child and discovering that the same story appeared in revised versions in cultures like Africa and China where the heroines did not all "have pink skin and gold hair... sometimes they had braided kinky hair and sometimes they had Asian features" ("The Art" 70). What Cofer gleaned from her exposure to diverse literatures at a young age was the assurance that in her reality, "the world was populated by people as different-looking as I thought I was" (70). And what she identified with was not just the figure of Cinderella, but with "the woman rising out of her condition and situation in life" (71). As a writer, Cofer elaborates the situation of both Cinderella and women in general through her admitted obsession with:
The storytelling tradition into which Cofer was born derives from the women in her family and it is within that tradition that her own stories are created.
In the same way that Cofer's representations of women are multiplicitous, they also indicate the real consequences of each for women. To chose certain roles means to accept the position each role is assigned in a community, such as the Fulana, who subverts and resists traditional notions of the nameless. Cofer herself reveals a cruel lesson she learned about language in the essay "One More Lesson." As a child in an English speaking classroom, she had to relieve herself, but was unable to read the warning her teacher had written on the board that the children were to remain seated. A peer told her that she could be excused if she wrote her name on the board. In doing so, however, the young Cofer was assaulted in the back of a head by a book thrown by her teacher. Though the situation was explained to both the teacher and Cofer, Cofer learned that "language is the only weapon a child has against the absolute power of adults" (Silent Dancing 66). The experience also led her to build an "arsenal of words" by reading insatiably (66).
As a woman, Cofer's arsenal of words contributed to the narration of women's lives and of the diverse choices that they have as negotiators in their cultures and faiths. Cofer recognizes the rather stifling situation that institutions such as marriage can be for young women, but she is clear that there are other options, in fiction and in the world. Citing her poem "The Woman Who Was Left at the Altar," Cofer intimates that, "you can just accept the fact that you are a woman who was left at the altar" or you can choose something else, like one of the characters in her essays, Maria Sabida, the mystical woman who marries and then reforms a murderer after he tries to murder her ("An Interview" 65). The assassin husband in the tale represents "anything or anyone who deliberately tries to keep you from your work," which is not to say that men or husbands or the demands of marriage and family are oppressive; rather, the artist sleeps, like Maria Sabida, "with one eye open, you're always leading the examined life, and exhaustedly so" (65). Ironically, however, while Cofer would call her grandmother a "feminist," she asserts that she herself is not one because she is not "a man basher" (65). Cofer's interpretation of feminism is, I would argue, a limited, stereotyped view of feminism, but it reveals how Cofer emphasizes what women have to learn from each other and the choices they can make to be content, as individuals, as wives, and as mothers, outside of their relationships to men. In the same way that stories about women have served as lessons and examples for the narrator, they also serve as lessons and examples for readers who are presented with a full range of women's roles, behaviors, and expectations that range from the strictly traditional to the radical. The focus in Cofer's work is on the notion that there is a juggling of sorts that occurs where women and their roles are concerned between the multiple interpretations of the sentience of womanhood, within, across, and between cultures.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. "Judith Ortiz Cofer's Rituals of Movement." The Americas Review 19.3-4 (1992): 88-99.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. "The Art of Not Forgetting: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." By Marilyn Kallet. Prairie Schooner 68.4 (1994): 68-75.
—. "An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers. By Jocelyn Bartkevicius. Ed. by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger and Maurice Lee. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. 65.
—. "Judith Ortiz Cofer." Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers. Carmen Dolores Hernandez. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. 95-105.
—. The Latin Deli. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1993.
—. "Puerto Rican Literature in Georgia? An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." By Rafael Ocasio. The Kenyon Review 14.4 (1992): 43-50.
—. Silent Dancing. A Partial Remembrance of Puerto Rican Childhood. Houston: Arte Arte Publico Press, 1990.
Moschkovich, Judit. "But I Know You, American Woman." This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Ed. by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Foreword by Toni Cade Bambara. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color, 1983. 79-84.
Sánchez, Marta Ester. Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to An Emerging Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.