Academic journal article MELUS

New Transnational Identities in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Autobiographical Fiction

Academic journal article MELUS

New Transnational Identities in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Autobiographical Fiction

Article excerpt

Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian-Jewish immigrant Mary Antin implicitly asserted that migration offered her access to a clearly defined national identity of her own choice. This choice entailed a decision between two national alternatives in which only one identity could stay alive and the other literally had to die. Her 1912 autobiographical novel The Promised Land proclaims her complete transformation to Americanism as a "second birth" in which any former national association, including Zionism, has to die in order for the new national (American) self to be "re-born." The Latina women we encounter in the narratives of Judith Ortiz Cofer are not bound in the same way. (1) "My father could never resolve the fact that he could only be happy on the island but needed to be in the United States to ensure that his children had a future," explains Ortiz Corer in a 1992 Kenyon Review interview. Here she emphasizes the generational and political differences between her father's and her own position toward migration. Acknowledging the pain of her father's exile, yet also stressing the optimism of her transnational identification, she adds, "He died without resolving that. I just brought the island with me" (Ocasio, "Puerto Rican" 48).

Indeed, in an era when multiple identities have become more widely accepted and theorized, Antin's (as well as many of her contemporaries') mutually exclusionary choices between national alternatives appear no longer necessary or desirable. Like other recent writers of contemporary migration experiences, Ortiz Cofer finds it difficult to speak of any particular "national identity" among the transnational identity positions a female migrant may assume.

But if Antin had to deal with one problem relating to identity, Ortiz Cofer has to deal with others. The shift from modern national identity positions to postmodern transnational identity positions has not entirely eliminated identity problems. On the one hand, "identity" gives way to diverse forms of "identification," which causes confusion over humanistic forms of stable identities and poststructuralist identity politics. On the other hand, a similar difficulty has arisen with defining both "nation" and "femininity." These are not merely theoretical difficulties, but rather the day-to-day difficulties with which contemporary migrants, whether actual or fictional, must engage. Given the additional problematics of gender, female migrants not only have to deal with conflicting demands put upon them by their nations of origin and their nations of settlement as women, but they also encounter contradictory models of citizenship inflected by gender. Nations use both feminist and feminine metaphors, such as "Mother India," to their own ends and yet marginalize women citizens as "other." This otherness, and with it the very notion of citizenship, has become more complicated in the age of globalization, when the nation-state itself has become of questionable validity. In short, whereas Antin's early twentieth century uncritical adoption of an American nationalism that promised "full" citizenship in the nation-state enabled her to conceive of herself as "citizen" of the "Promised Land," and in denial of her gender as a "brother of George Washington," the contemporary female migrants that Ortiz Cofer describes arrive in much less clearly bounded spaces where it is unclear to them what membership in the nation might mean.

For Anzia Yezierska, another early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant, the choice between national identities was more complicated than for Antin, shaped not only by competing models of citizenship in the wake of multicultural movements in early twentieth-century America, but also by issues of gender, an intersection of ideas that is central to Ortiz Cofer's work. In Yezierska's treatment of this political-literary theme of migrant identity in her autobiography Red Ribbon on a White Horse, her autobiographical novel Bread Givers, and her short story collection Hungry Hearts, both the culture of a migrant's origin and the culture of settlement could be seen to constrain particular feminine identities in the name of citizenship and nation. …

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