On December 30th, Puerto Rican writer Judith Ortiz Cofer passed away at the age of 64. Born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico and raised in Paterson, NJ, she leaves behind works of prose, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction, after a career that spanned four decades. Her writing received numerous awards throughout that time, including the inaugural Pura Belpré Award for Hispanic children's literature and a Pushcart Prize, which celebrates the work of small presses. She was also the first Puerto Rican to win the prestigious O. Henry Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer Award on two separate occasions. In the following reflection, writer Erika G. Abad, PhD, recalls the powerful influence of the writer's work on her own decision to become a writer while reiterating the importance of finding authors who can speak to an individual's experience.
"Ortiz Cofer was the first Boricua woman writer I read and loved who showed me our stories are worth telling."
I had gotten my first diary in second grade. I started writing when I was about 8 or 9. I would take notebooks from school and work to fill the pages at the end. By fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In fifth grade, our small catholic school english teacher didn’t teach us about grammar. She taught us about creative writing. I filled the folder with projects. Saturdays at the mall we spent the most time in bookstores. I ached, in those hours. I ached for last names, for characters, for settings that looked like my Latino, Puerto Rican world.
In middle school I continued to write in old school notebooks. During class, I would write what I thought was poetry, on the margins. I would invent characters on the bottom corner of math notes. In between calculating numbers for fun, I would map out what these characters would be, who their friends were. I would create their adventures. My mom hated the mess of those notebooks I saved. I demanded a computer instead. By then, divorced, she was the only one making money. Only when her employer got rid of old computers did we get one at home. I traded TV for hours in front of that blue screen, mapping out the lives of those characters. Saturdays at malls and at bookstores–this was a time before internet–I wondered what it would take to be on those shelves. I hungered for Latina writers. I wondered where they lived, if they existed and how and when I would be like them if they did.
It wouldn’t be until high school that I would read my first Latina fiction writer.
In high school, I was taking Spanish class and getting exposed to Latin American authors. Gabriel García Márquez, and Miguel Unamuno, among others. A friend in Spanish class was reading Esmeralda Santiago, Cuando era puertorriqueña. So we existed, yes! Puerto Rican women writers did exist. Despite it being assigned in her class, I didn’t read it. I wanted to read it in English first. I wanted to read Latina writers in the language they wrote in.
On one of my first trips home, my mother invited a coworker to our house. My hunger for Latina writers came up. She talked about her daughter’s books. Within days, they were dropped off at our house. I was a teenager holding a few collections of Tato Laviera’s pieces, a memoir by Nicholasa Mohr and Silent Dancing by Judith Ortiz Cofer. I knew Laviera’s story, but I didn’t know what he was doing with words just yet. It would take a few more years to appreciate it. In Silent Dancing, I found my mother’s stories. I found more like mine. I read the book from cover to cover.
Ortiz Cofer was the first Boricua woman writer I read and loved who showed me our stories are worth telling.
By the time I got to An Island in the Sun, I had grown accustomed to the immigration youth story. I had already read When I was Puerto Rican, among other coming-of-age Latina immigrant stories. I also started meeting writers I had read: Ana Castillo, Junot Díaz, and Achy Obejas in my first year at DePaul University. Lourdes Torres, among others, invited me to consider other types of writing. After that first year surrounded by Boricua and Latinx professors, I worked with sociologist Marixsa Alicea for two years. As a middle-working-class Latina with an overworked mom, being encouraged to pursue my PhD by other Boricua women with PhDs didn’t seem too far fetched.
So, almost twenty years after I confirmed to myself I was going to write for the rest of my life and more than fifteen years after Silent Dancing, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s death hits me. Writing about it now, I remember that young woman at Waldenbooks, searching for Rodríguez or Jiménez or Castro among the coming-of-age books. I remember looking for references to immigrant parents speaking two languages. I remember all of this and the grief consumes me for twenty minutes. Of all the childhood icons that died in 2016, Judith Ortiz Cofer affects me the most because of how strongly finding her shaped what I thought could be possible.
I still have An Island in the Sun, it has survived flooded basements, four states and a decade of neglect. An Island Like You, though, was light enough to carry everywhere I went, like the first poem’s images:
“...the girls [go] somewhere in a hurry,
fanning the sidewalk heat with their swinging skirts,
crossing single file over a treacherous bridge…” (Cofer, 1995)
Returning to the book, the feminist asks about why so many of the third-person characters are guys and first-person characters are women. Then, I read through the lines, finding my mother’s story of growing up in Chicago, finding echoes of others’ stories of making meaning in their barrios–whether Puerto Rican, Chicano, Cuban, Colombian or Dominican–a lot has happened with Puerto Rican writers since she published her books. A lot of Puerto Rican scholars have written about their use of Spanish, about the way they speak of Puerto Rico, of tradition, of leaving, and of returning. I can get lost in the dozens of books written about Puerto Ricans in my hometown and in the barrios of others.
Cofer’s death required a pause, a pause at the end of my first semester in which I reflect on what my teenage self set out to do and what remains for those still looking for writers who look like them. Though so many of books speak to the experience of being Latina and or Puerto Rican, she wrote and taught in Georgia. Aside from Cofer’s writing, I know little else. The gratitude for her lead me to so many others. But she was the first I read; the first time I felt I could write about leaving and returning. As Cisneros, the first Latina I read, concludes in House on Mango Street: “For the ones I leave behind and for the ones who cannot out.”
Reading Cofer, I realized, as a writer, I could leave and return. I could remember and celebrate. I could recover the guarded secret histories of an island so often forgotten, but an island that still breathes and dreams in all of us.
Click here to read a short biography of Ortiz Cofer available through the Poetry Foundation, along with five of the author's poems.