A MELUS Interview: Judith Ortiz Cofer

Article excerpt

The last few decades have witnessed literary historians and critics in the United States engaged in the formidable task of redefining the American literary experience to recognize the presence and integrate the multiple voices of vital but neglected minority cultures. Specific issues regarding the reconceptualization and opening of the traditional canon, critical approaches, curriculum content and pedagogical practices, the place of writings in languages other than English, and the intellectual and political implications of selecting certain works above others, characterize the ongoing debate and search for explanatory models to account for the distinctive cultural experiences of minority groups, and for a more faithful definition of what constitutes the total cultural practice of the United States. Within this process, feminist criticism, minority discourse theory, and the writings of women of color occupy a prominent and unique place insofar as they allow for a more multifaceted approach to understanding the dialectics of oppression and the articulation of various layers of marginality and subordination found in the cultural production of these groups.

The writings of Latina authors represent an excellent illustration of how issues of gender, race, culture, and class become intertwined, expanding the terms in which marginalized groups construe their identity in relation to the U.S. mainstream society. For ethnic/racial minorities, coming of age in America implies facing the internalization of stigmatized self-images based on racial and cultural differentiations that are ingrained in the fabric of the American mainstream. With a long history of racial segregation and discrimination, U.S. society is still striving to reconcile with its true multicultural character and the need to properly acknowledge the multiple presence and contributions of immigrant groups that have come and continue to arrive at its shores. Coming from cultures in which women are burdened by patriarchal traditions that struggle to perpetuate themselves in the face of the many pressures and changes implied in the immigrant experience, minority women writers juggle with the tensions arising from these cultural dualisms, from the compounding layer of gender subordination found within the same cultures they are trying to validate, and from the collective socioeconomic and racial survival struggles of their own groups within the context of U.S. society. This emerging consciousness of the multiple forms of oppression confronting women characterizes the work of Latina writers in recent decades and entails a process not entirely exempt from contradictions. While women writers attempt to demythify the cultural roles, values, and icons manufactured by a patriarchal ideology and subvert limiting cultural beliefs about family, sexuality, and moral behavior, they are also trying to reaffirm their marginalized cultural heritage as part of the wider ethnic revitalization movement among U.S. minorities.

As Latina writers are beginning to find increasing visibility and a wider audience, Judith Ortiz Cofer joins them in telling her visions about straddling between the Puerto Rican culture of her parents and ancestors and a U.S. culture often blinded by its own prejudices and undiscerning capacity to acknowledge its own pluralistic nature. The author was born in 1952 in the small town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, a semi-urban municipality in which the religious fervor of being the custodians of the sanctuary of the famous Virgen de Monserrate, visited by thousands of devoted pilgrims every year, is mixed with the spontaneous, irreverent, passionate, and contradictory moralities of a small town. Growing up in the same town myself gives me a privileged advantage in capturing the resonance of a much too familiar world left behind and now being reclaimed and invoked from a distance by an engrossing literary imagination.

Both a prose fiction writer and poet, Ortiz Cofer's literary production has continuously expanded since she published her first chapbook, Peregrina, in 1985 and won the Riverstone International Poetry Competition. …

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