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Judith Ortiz Cofer: 1952—: Poet, Novelist, Educator

Discovered Poetry After College

In 1968, when Ortiz Cofer was 16 years old, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. After the 1968 riots in the Puerto Rican barrios of Paterson, Ortiz wanted to move his family to a safer location, far from the turmoil of the northeast. The move to Georgia meant many changes for the family, including the adjustment to yet another house and city and way of life. However, another important change occurred two years later when, in 1970, Ortiz Cofer enrolled at Augusta College. Years earlier, her father had given up his own plans for an education so that he could provide for his young family. Now, with Ortiz Cofer's admission to college, where she planned to study to be a teacher, her father's vision for his oldest child was coming to fruition. A year later, on November 13, 1971, she married Charles John Cofer. Ortiz Cofer continued with her studies, successfully combining school, marriage, and family, and in 1974, she received a B.A. in English. She and her husband also had a child, a girl, Tanya.

After graduation from Augusta College, Ortiz Cofer and her family moved to Florida, where she began a career teaching. She also enrolled in a graduate program at Florida Atlantic University to study English. The first year that Ortiz Cofer was in Florida, she worked as a bilingual teacher for the public school system in Palm Beach County. While she was living in Florida, her father was killed in an auto accident in 1976, shortly after he had retired from the Navy. After Ortiz Cofer's father died, her mother returned to Puerto Rico to live. The following year, in 1977, Ortiz Cofer received a masters degree in English from Florida Atlantic University. Her master's thesis, "Lillian Hell-man's Southern Plays," was a sociological-literary study of Hellman's plays. Also in 1977, Ortiz Cofer studied at Oxford University in England for one summer, where she earned graduate credits. Over the next ten years, Ortiz Cofer taught English, and occasionally Spanish, at Broward Community College, in Fort Lauderdale at Palm Beach Junior College, in Palm Beach, and at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

One of the most significant changes in her life occurred when she began to write poetry. Ortiz Cofer's maternal grandfather built homes, but he also wrote poetry and would read it to his granddaughter. Her maternal grandmother was a storyteller, who could adapt any story to her audience. Both grandparents had the gift of imagination and a talent for expression. In spite of this ancestry, Ortiz Cofer had not considered writing poetry until she was nearly at the end of her graduate studies. In a 1997 interview with Stephanie Gordon for the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, Ortiz Cofer told of how, when she was writing her thesis and "working with powerful words," she "started feeling a need that writing the thesis did not fulfill." She began to express these feelings by writing down ideas, which later became her first poems. Eventually, and on the advice of Betty Owens, her department chair, Ortiz Cofer began to submit her poems for publication. The New Mexico Humanities Review became one of the first professional journals to publish her work. In 1980 Ortiz Cofer published the first of three chapbooks or pamphlets of her poetry, Latin Women Pray. The two remaining chapbooks, The Native Dancer and Among the Ancestors were published the following year.

After ten years in south Florida, Ortiz Cofer and her family returned to Georgia to live. Not only had she fulfilled her father's goals of completing college, she had earned a graduate degree, and she had become a teacher and a published writer. With the return to Georgia, Ortiz was not only a published poet, but in 1984, she also became an English instructor at the University of Georgia in Athens. Also in 1984, her first chapbook of poetry, Latin Women Pray, became a three-act play when it was produced at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Over the next eight years, she would teach English at other Georgia colleges, including Macon College and Mercer University College. While she taught English to university students, Ortiz Cofer also continued to write. In 1986, Peregrina, her first professional published book of poetry, won the Riverstone International Poetry Competition. A second book of poems, Terms of Survival, was published the following year. In spite of her success with poetry, Ortiz Cofer did not limit herself to only that genre. Her first novel, The Line of the Sun, told a story with which its author was most familiar—the mixing of Puerto Rican and American life and the efforts to find a balance between two such disparate cultures. The Line of the Sun was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographyJudith Ortiz Cofer: 1952—: Poet, Novelist, Educator Biography - Childhood Filled With Confusing Moves, Discovered Poetry After College, Writing Focused On Maintaining Identity