Ortiz Cofer Essay

Judith Ortiz Cofer led an Operation Homecoming workshop at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judith Ortiz Cofer is the author of A Love Story Beginning in Spanish:  Poems (2005); Call Me Maria (2006), a young adult novel; The Meaning of Consuelo (2003), a novel; Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000), a collection of essays; An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (1995), a collection of short stories; The Line of the Sun (1989), a novel; Silent Dancing (1990), a collection of essays and poetry; two books of poetry, Terms of Survival (1987) and Reaching for the Mainland (1987); and The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993).  Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Glamour and other journals. Her work has been included in numerous textbooks and anthologies including: Best American Essays 1991, The Norton Book of Women’s Lives, The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, The Pushcart Prize, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Judith Ortiz Cofer is currently the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.

“The Myth of the Latin Woman” by Judith Ortiz Cofer has been a favorite reading for many of my students since one of my students suggested I teach it back in 2004. It’s in the reader we use, 50 Essays edited by Samuel Cohen, and my students read it once again this semester. This essay works particularly well in tandem with the essay by Brent Staples “Black Men and Public Space” which is also in 50 Essays.

On a bus trip to London from Oxford University where I was earning some graduate credits one summer, a young man, obviously fresh from a pub, spotted me and as if struck by inspiration went down on his knees in the aisle.  With both hands over his heart, he broke into an Irish tenor’s rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story.  My politely amused fellow passengers gave his lovely voice the round of gentle applause it deserved.  Though I was not quite amused, I managed my version of an English smile: no show of teeth, no extreme contortions of the facial muscles – I was at this time of my life practicing reserve and cool.  Oh, that British control, how I coveted it.  But “Maria” had followed me to London, reminding me of a prime fact of my life:  you can leave the island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are a Latina, especially one like me who so obviously belongs to Rita Moreno’s gene pool, the island travels with you. (1)

This is sometimes a very good thing – it may win you that extra minute of someone’s attention.  But with some people, the same things can make you an island – not a tropical paradise but an Alcatraz, a place nobody wants to visit.  As a Puerto Rican girl living in the United States and wanting like most children to “belong,” I resented the stereotype that my Hispanic appearance called forth from many people I met. (2)

Growing up in a large urban center in New Jersey during the 1960s, I suffered from what I think of as a “cultural schizophrenia.”  Our life was designed by my parents as a microcosm of their casas on the island.  We spoke in Spanish, ate Puerto Rican food bought at the bodega, and practiced strict Catholicism at a church that allotted us a one hour slot each week for mass, performed in Spanish by a Chinese priest trained as a missionary in Latin America. (3)

As a girl, I was kept under strict surveillance by my parents, since my virtue and modesty were, by there cultural equation, the same as their honor.  As a teenager I was lectured constantly on how to behave as a proper senorita.  But it was a conflicting message I received, since the Puerto Rican mothers also encouraged their daughters to look and act like women and to dress in clothes our Anglo friends and their mothers found too “mature” and flashy.  The difference was, and is, cultural; yet I often felt humiliated when I appeared at an American friend’s party wearing  a dress more suitable to a semi-formal than to a playroom birthday celebration.  At Puerto Rican festivities, neither the music nor the colors we wore could be too loud. (4)

I remember Career Day in our high school, when teachers told us to come dressed as if for a job interview.  It quickly became obvious that to the Puerto Rican girls, “dressing up,” meant wearing their mother’s ornate jewelry and clothing more appropriate, (by mainstream standards) for the company of Christmas party than as daily office attire.  That morning I had agonized in front of my closet, trying to figure out what a “career girl” would wear.  I knew how to dress for school (at the Catholic school I attended, we all wore uniforms), I knew how to dress for Sunday mass, and I knew what dresses to wear for parties at my relatives’ homes.  Though I do not recall the precise details of my Career Day outfit., it must have been a composite of these choices.  But I remember a comment my friend (an Italian American) made in later years that coalesced my impression of that day.  She said that at the business school she was attending, the Puerto Rican girls always stood out for wearing “everything at once.”  She meant, of course, too much jewelry, too many accessories.  On that day at school we were simply made the negative models by the nuns, who were themselves not credible fashion experts to any of us.  But it was painfully obvious to me that to the others, in their tailored skirts and silk blouses, we must have seemed “hopeless” and “vulgar.”  Though I now know that most adolescents feel out of step much of the time, I also know that for the Puerto Rican girls of my generation that sense was intensified.  The way our teachers and classmates looked at us that day in school was just a taste of the cultural clash that awaited us in the real world, where prospective employers and men on the street would often misinterpret our tight skirts and jingling bracelets as a “come-on.” (5)

Mixed cultural signals have perpetuated certain stereotypes – for example, that of the Hispanic woman as the “hot tamale” or “sexual firebrand.”  It is a one dimensional view that the media have found easy to promote.  In their special vocabulary, advertisers have designated “sizzling” and “smoldering” as the adjectives of choice for describing not only the foods but also the women of the Latin America.  From conversations in my house I recall hearing about the harassment that Puerto Rican women endured in factories where the “boss men” talked to them as if sexual innuendo was all they understood, and worse, often gave them the choice of submitting to their advances or being fired. (6)

It is custom, however, not chromosomes that leads us to choose scarlet over pale pink.  As young girls, it was our mothers who influenced our decisions about clothes and colors – mothers who had grown up on a tropical island where the natural environment was a riot of primary colors, where showing your skin was one way to keep cool as well as to look sexy.  Most important of all, on the island, women perhaps felt freer to dress and move more provocatively since, in most cases, they were protected by traditions , mores, and laws of a Spanish/Catholic system of morality and machismo whose main rule was:  You may look at my sister, but if you touch her I will kill you. The extended family and church structure could provide a young woman with a circle of safety in her small pueblo on the island; if a man “wronged a girl, everyone would close in to saver her family honor. (7)

My mother has told me about dressing in her best party clothes on Saturday nights and going to the town’s plaza to promenade with her girlfriends in front of the boys they liked.  The males were thus given an opportunity to admire the street women and to express their admiration in the form of piropos:  erotically charged street poems they composed on the spot.  (I have myself been subjected to a few piropos while visiting the island, and they can be outrageous, although custom dictates that they must never cross into obscenity.)  This ritual, as I understand it, also entails a show of studied indifference on the woman’s part; if she is “decent” she must not acknowledge the man’s impassioned words.  So I do understand how things can be lost in translation.  When a Puerto Rican girls dressed in her idea of what is attractive meets a man from the mainstream culture who has been trained to react to certain types of clothing as a sexual signal, a clash is likely to take place.  I remember the boy who took me to my first formal dance leaning over to plant a sloppy, over-eager kiss painfully on my mouth; when I didn’t respond with sufficient passion he remarked resentfully:  I though you Latin girls were supposed to mature early,” as if I were expected to ripen like a fruit or vegetable, not just grow into my womanhood like other girls. (8)

It is surprising to my professional friends that even today some people, including those who should know better, still put others “in their place.”  It happened to me most recently during a stay at a classy metropolitan hotel favored by young professional couples for weddings.  Late one evening after the theater, as I walked toward my room with a colleague (a woman with whom I was coordinating an arts program), a middle-aged man in a tuxedo, with a young girl in satin and lace on his arm, stepped directly into our path.  With his champagne glass extended toward me, he exclaimed, “Evita!” (9)

Our way blocked, my companion and I listened as the man half-recited, half-bellowed “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”  When he finished, the young girl said:  “How about a round of applause for my daddy?”  We complied, hoping this would bring the silly spectacle to a close.  I was becoming aware that our little group was attracting the attention of the other guests.  “Daddy” must have perceived this too and he once more barred the way as we tried to walk past him.  He began to shout-sing a ditty to the tune of “La Bamba” – except the lyrics were about a girl named Maria whose exploits rhymed with her name and gonorrhea.  The girl kept saying “Oh Daddy” and looking at me with pleading eyes.  She wanted me to laugh along with the others.  My companion and I stood silently waiting for the man to end his offensive song.  When he finished, I looked not at him, but at his daughter.  I advised her calmly never to ask her father what he had done in the army.  Then I walked between them and to my room.  My friend complimented me on my cool handling of the situation, but I confessed that I had really wanted to push the jerk into the swimming pool.  This same man – probably a corporate executive, well-educated, even worldly by most standards – would not have been likely to regale an Anglo woman with a dirty song in public.  He might have checked his impulse by  assuming that she could be somebody’s wife or mother, or at least somebody who might take offense.  But, to him, I was just an Evita or a Maria:  merely a character in his cartoon-populated universe. (10)

Another facet of the myth of the Latin woman in the United States is the menial, the domestic – Maria the housemaid or countergirl.  It’s true that work as domestics, as waitresses, and in factories is all that’s available to women with little English and few skills.  But the myth of the Hispanic menial – the funny maid, mispronouncing words and cooking up a spicy storm in a shiny California kitchen – has been perpetuated by the media in the same way that “Mammy” from Gone with the Wind became America’s idea of the black woman for generations.  Since I do not wear my diplomas around my neck for all to see, I have on occasion been sent to that “kitchen” where some think I obviously belong. (11)

One incident has stayed with me, though I recognize it a s a minor offense.  My first public poetry reading took place in Miami, at a restaurant where a luncheon was being held before the event.  I was nervous and excited as I walked in with notebook in hand.  An older woman motioned me to her table, and thinking (foolish me) that she wanted me to autograph a copy of my newly published slender volume of verse, I went over.  She ordered a cup of coffee from me, assuming I was the waitress.  (Easy enough to mistake my poems for menus, I suppose.)  I know it wasn’t and intentional act of cruelty.  Yet of all the good things that happened later, I remember that scene most clearly, because it reminded me of what I had to overcome before anyone would take me seriously.  In retrospect I understand that my anger gave my reading fire.  In fact, I have almost always taken any doubt in my abilities as a challenge, the result most often of being the satisfaction of winning a convert, of seeing the cold, appraising eyes warm to my words, the body language change, the smile that indicates I have opened some avenue for communication.  So that day as I read, I looked directly at that woman.  Her lowered eyes told me she was embarrassed at her faux pas, and when I willed her to look up at me, she graciously allowed me to punish her with my full attention.  We shook hands at the end of the reading and I never saw her again.  She has probably forgotten the entire incident, but maybe not. (12)

Yet I am one of the lucky ones.  There are thousands of Latinas without the privilege of an education or the entrees into society that I have.  For them life is a constant struggle against the misconceptions perpetuated by the myth of the Latina.  My goal is to try to replace the old stereotypes with a much more interesting set of realities.  Every time I give a reading, I hope the stories I tell, the dreams and fears I examine in my work, can achieve some universal truth that will get my audience past the particulars of my skin color, my accent, or my clothes. (13)

I once wrote a poem in which I called all Latinas “God’s brown daughters.”  This poem is really a prayer of sorts, offered upward, but also, through the human-to-human channel of art, outward.  It is a prayer for communication and for respect.  In it, Latin women pray “in Spanish to an Anglo God/With a Jewish heritage,” and they are fervently hoping/that if not omnipotent,/at least He be bilingual.” (14)

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Gwendolyn Alley aka Art Predatorjudith ortiz cofer, Judith Ortiz Cofer "The Myth of the Latin Woman", Myth of the Latin Woman

This paper analyses the short story “American History” written by Judith Ortiz Cofer and initially published in 1993. The story-teller, Elena, is a fourteen year old young girl going through puberty, experiencing the offensive pressures of high school, managing the rejection, experiencing her primary crush, and feeling puzzled about not realizing how to feel about the bereavement of President John F. Kennedy.

The center of this account is inner conflict within Elena herself, and the huge gap between her hopes and dreams and the brute reality, which the young girl has to face due to her ethnicity. Ethnicity is also apparent in the external conflict in the manner in which Eugene's mother treats Elena when she visits his house, and is foreshadowed by Elena's mother, who warns daughter about what she is heading towards. Additionally, the death of Elena’s hopes is obviously paralleled with the demise of John F. Kennedy, who himself attempted to campaign for equality.

Ethnicity Conflict in American History by Judith Ortiz Cofer

In American History the theme of cultural isolation and xenophobic attitudes in the large US city is reflected through the fresh eyes of a teenage Puerto Rican girl. During Skinny Bones’s initial attempts to adapt to living in Paterson, the theme of cultural isolation is investigated on different levels. Therefore, the challenges she has in adapting are geographical (Skinny Bones is unused to the bitter cold of the Northeast), interpersonal (she is still learning another culture’s codes), and familial (the girl confronts her mother’s incapability to provide feminine advice in the foreign society). Through retelling own daily-life experiences she finds out that all these matters are related to one another and are complicated parts in the forging of her own individuality as a young Puerto Rican female growing up in the USA (Davis, 2002).

The theme of ethnicity and racism is evident in this narrative (Vázquez, 2011). Elena's relatives are Puerto Rican migrants, who live in gray, old town named Paterson, New Jersey. Elena calls this place the Puerto Rican apartment building asserting that this is a place for people like her. This demonstrates that there are houses meant for some individuals and others created for another class of humans. Being migrants, Elena's relatives can only afford to live in this old construction in old town. This also demonstrates that as Eugene's family was not the migrant family, if anything was to happen, Skinny Bones was to suffer as she could never match herself up to Eugene as he came from the totally different race.

The large gap between Skinny Bones’s hopes and dreams and the brute reality, which young girl has to face due to her ethnicity is obvious from the beginning of the book. Basically, Skinny Bones is a teenaged Puerto Rican young girl attempting to get used to living in the apartment building in Paterson. She lives in a previous Jewish neighborhood, which is now inhabited typically by African Americans and Puerto Ricans. As a loner, Elena is attracted to marginalized people just like herself. She encounters her soul-mate in Eugene, a shy boy, who has recently come from South Georgia. Moreover, due to his noticeable southern accent he is soon teased “the Hick,” and he becomes school’s object of mockery, joining Skinny Bones as the outcast (Cofer, 1993). As a matter of fact, Skinny Bones falls in love with this boy, and they soon become indivisible, in spite of their cultural dissimilarities. Eugene, a good student, tutors Skinny Bones in a few subjects. Though Skinny Bones is a good student, she is not allowed to attend the advanced courses as English is not her first language. The account’s climax takes place when Skinny Bones accepts Eugene’s invitation to tutorial session at his house, right across from her apartment building. She accepts willingly as she has been wishing to get acquainted with Eugene’s relatives. After having watched his kitchen from her own apartment, Skinny Bones is especially interested in Eugene’s mother, “a red-headed tall woman” (Cofer, 1993).

Skinny Bones’s interest in documenting her everyday living, including her inner conflicts, leads her to make a journal in which she introduces the booklover to dissimilar characters and locales. Her major focus is her globe at “Public School Number 13”, the impersonal educational facility where she initially experiences racial conflicts with African American students (Cofer, 1993). For that reason, they give her a nickname that she hates in order to avoid using her real Spanish name. At the same time Skinny Bones demonstrates the inclination toward feminine issues, such as the process of becoming a young female. These issues combine with the account’s thematic axis that revolves around how humans from dissimilar cultures respond to each other and what aspects of their conduct can be treated as xenophobic (Davis, 2002). Skinny Bones does not presuppose the judgmental role even though all the non-Puerto Rican characters reflect alien cultures, which influence her living. African American teenagers stand out as they represent the struggle by both groups to avoid cultural assimilation into the unremarkable US melting pot.

Elena is passing through teenage years and complains concerning her “flatchested body” (Cofer, 1993). For this reason, she also tells how she envies black girls at school and how quick they were (Cofer, 1993). Consequently, she is suffering concerning being always cold and she feels everybody else has it better than she does counting the black students who she declares “always appeared to be warm whilst I froze” (Cofer, 1993). Elena has an inclination for suffering and does it once again when she encounters Eugene. She depicts him as the single “source of light and beauty for me” (Cofer, 1993).

Skinny Bones’s crush on Eugene may also be treated as, and was probably even caused by, her jealous admiration of those who she thinks are better than she is. Elena appears familiar with a sense of being inferior to richer humans; as she comes to Eugene she is “prepared for refusal, snobbery, and the worst” (Cofer, 1993). Thus, Elena observes the lives of old couple and Eugene’s relatives in admiration, putting focus on mere things, which appear majestic to her like sitting reading at Eugene’s breakfast table. This theme of inferiority is very important as it is illustrated at the beginning, in the middle, and lastly in the finale when Eugene’s mother does not wish her child associating with Elena as she learns that Elena inhabits El Building, a house known as low-income housing. Additionally, this is foreshadowed by the manner in which Elena's mother warns her child about what she is heading towards: You are forgetting who you are. I have seen you looking at that boy's home. You are heading for humiliation and pain (Cofer, 1993).

The Major Parallel of American History

The death of Elena’s hopes is clearly paralleled with the murder of John F. Kennedy, who attempted to campaign for equality. The American History represents the sharp contrast, considering the fact it describes at the period when President John F. Kennedy is killed. In spite of this heartbreaking event, Elena is concentrated on Eugene, her new neighbor and an object of her fresh source of happiness. This demonstrates likewise a sharp contrast in a sense that an unlucky event happens in the murder of the president, an event, which calls for grief yet Elena is cheerful to have encountered Eugene. Moreover, when Depalma comes to tell the students the awful news that Kennedy had been murdered, some of the students respond with laughter upon seeing DePalma’s tears (Cofer, 1993). Similarly, this again demonstrates contrast as this is an event, which ought to attract pain and resentment yet the students are smiling after being told the news.

The passing away of John F. Kennedy was an event, which shook the globe, but to a teenager like Elena it does not, in fact, mean anything. In the 1960’s, the US citizens both loved and esteemed the presidents and for John F. Kennedy to be taken like that, left millions crying like they would for the demise of one of the closest relatives. The American History helps the readers to identify with Elena and understand how she must have been feeling (Bruce-Novoa, 1991). Whether President was alive or not was not going to influence her existence in any way that she would be capable to notice, so why should she spend her time and thoughts on it? At this moment, Eugene is Elena’s primary priority and she has all her energy and hope invested in advancing things among her and her crush. However, once Elena attends her friend Eugene that evening, she suffers own personal drama in the form of discrimination and racism. This is a resemblance in terms of the events, which are happening at the same time. In this regard, the nation is engulfed in disaster after the President is killed whilst Elena is similarly facing prejudicial disaster (Bruce-Novoa, 1991).

As Elena becomes emotionally closer to Eugene, she becomes more hopeful of becoming more than merely friends with each moment they spend together. This mood, or the emotion evolved in readers by Judith Cofer, is feeling of being inferior to others. Together with that, there was jealousy and that grief that comes over a human being only during those precise disappointments in living you never forget. If the emotional scars remain with one forever, then later every great dissatisfaction shapes one’s personality and overall life. There is no doubt that Elena was altered forever in a way that day. The mood of the overall account would be the sense of unimportance. Therefore, young girl is at the cross road in her existence, she is moving through puberty, she is growing up and becoming a woman, she is on a whole new level in dealing with her initial huge crush, she is experiencing the rage of chauvinism, and this giant globe event has occurred with the demise of John F. Kennedy, and she is just one unimportant little human being fighting with the troubles of her life.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this account does not have a happy finale, which merely cements how realistic it actually is as in living there are no happy endings. The author does a remarkable job in maintaining the narrative convincing and exciting. This excellent short account is, in fact, centered on inner conflict within Elena herself, and the huge gap between her hopes and dreams and the cruel reality, which young girl has to face due to her ethnicity. This is also manifested in the external conflict in the manner in which Eugene's mother treats Elena when she visits his house, and is foreshadowed by the manner in which Elena's mother warns her daughter about what she is heading towards. Thus, it is Elena's conflict that is between her hopes that she has for herself and her friendship with Eugene, and the death of her hopes is obviously paralleled with the demise of President John F. Kennedy, who himself attempted to campaign for equality.

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