Judith Ortiz Cofer: 1952—: Poet, Novelist, Educator
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.
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.
- Judith Ortiz Cofer: 1952—: Poet, Novelist, Educator - Discovered Poetry After College
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