Judith Ortiz Cofer’s bicultural background and American assimilation experience are the most prominent themes in her writing. Because she dealt with adjusting to a new culture early, the process of adapting to new surroundings became a dominant characteristic of her childhood. Judith was born on February 24, 1952, to J. M. and Fanny Ortiz, in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico. Judith’s family was devoutly Catholic with deep roots in the religious community. She was immediately baptized into the same church her mother and grandmother had been baptized in and then placed in Catholic school early on.
Judith’s father joined the U.S. Navy while she was young and was subsequently posted to the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Taking his family with him, J. M. moved to New York, settling the family into a Puerto Rican community in Paterson, New Jersey. His career with the Navy meant that J. M. often went to sea for extended periods of time, and whenever he left, Judith’s mother would pack up Judith and her brother and return to Puerto Rico to their grandmother’s house. Through frequent trips between Puerto Rico and the United States, Cofer quickly adapted to her constantly changing surroundings. She learned to speak English and, together with her brother and father, actively took the role of facilitating American life and culture for her mother. Very early on, Cofer’s sense of heightened cultural awareness meant that she noticed cultural differences and problems that even now continue to influence her writing.
After graduating from Florida Atlantic University with an M.A. in English, Cofer began teaching, writing poetry in her spare time. She showed her first creative efforts to a colleague who urged her to send her work out, resulting in the publication of her first poem. Encouraged by her success, she continued to write and send out her work. Cofer’s first collection of poetry, the chapbook Peregrina, won the first place award in the Riverstone International Chapbook Competition in 1985. Its subsequent publication by Riverstone Press in 1986