Gathering voices: storytelling and collective identity in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood.
Borrowing from Gloria Anzaldua's theories of border identity, many of the critical studies on Silent Dancing have primarily focused on Ortiz Cofer's formation of a bicultural identity and on the role that gender plays in its composition. (3) However, the texts that comprise this memoir are explorations of selfhood that closely involve the author's relationships and community as well as her rewriting and shaping of them. By examining the past and reinterpreting it as an observer and a participant, Ortiz Cofer remembers the people that influenced her throughout her childhood. In revisiting them through her memories and creative imagination, the author gives voice to the numerous individuals who allowed her to succeed in fife, including many that found themselves oppressed and marginalized by society. Silent Dancing is also a text about their experiences of alienation, isolation, and survival of rigid gender roles, racial discrimination, and harsh economic realities.
Throughout her memoir, Ortiz Cofer reflects upon the traditional gender roles embedded in her memories and reinforced by the stories she heard as a child. In the opening vignette, "Casa," the author conjures up the memory of her grandmother's house. Located in a small village of Puerto Rico, the house is depicted as the center of family life and the place where women gathered to tell stories about "what it was like to be a woman, more specifically, a Puerto Rican woman" (14). Known to all as Mama, Ortiz Cofer's grandmother is presented as the primary storyteller of the family. The tale of Maria la Loca, a woman who went mad after being left at the altar by her rich fiance, is the first of Mama's didactic stories to appear in Silent Dancing. Ortiz Cofer recalls her grandmother directing the tale to her young Aunt Laura, who at seventeen, was already engaged to a man who had left for New York after promising her marriage:
They were planning to get married in a year; but Mama had expressed serious doubts that the wedding would ever take place. In Mama's eyes, a man set free without a legal contract was a man lost. She believed that marriage was not something men desired, but simply the price they had to pay for the privilege of children, and of course, for what no decent (synonymous with "smart") woman would give away for free. (16)
Mama's skepticism is partially based upon the fact that a date for Laura's wedding has yet to be set. This oversight causes her to call into question whether or not Laura has remained chaste. As this passage suggests, chastity was an attribute that was highly valued and expected among women in the Puerto Rico of the 1950s and 1960s that Ortiz Cofer recreates in Silent Dancing. Indulging in premarital sex or "giving it away for free," as Mama suggests, could result in a breach of contract since men are only thought to enter marriage for the sake of offspring and sex. The intended moral behind Mama's story is that a smart Puerto Rican woman should, therefore, practice abstinence before marrying. Otherwise, a woman could run the risk of ending up like Maria la Loca, who Mama warns "was only seventeen when it happened to her" (17), emphasizing the pronoun "it" as an ominous and monitory reference to sex and to Maria la Loca's failed betrothal.
Maria la Loca grew up to be "a town 'character,' a fat middle-aged woman who lived with her old mother on the outskirts of town." In a social environment where a woman's worth is based upon having a husband and children, Maria la Loca embodies the widely popular though negative and injurious Puerto Rican stereotype of la jamona: a woman who never marries. She endures insults from everyone in the village. According to Ortiz Cofer, Maria la Loca still "walked and moved like a little girl" despite her age, so that "the kids yelled out nasty things at her, calling her la Loca, and the men who hung out at the bodega playing dominoes sometimes whistled mockingly as she passed [...]." Maria la Loca's childlike physical movement seems to indicate that her development into full-fledged adulthood has somehow been stifled by never marrying and having children and thus she has become the object of mockery. Perhaps even more disturbing to today's reader is the fact that she is considered the culprit of her own demise for, as Mama states, she allowed a man to make a fool out of her and ruin her life. Ironically, Mama, the matriarch and supreme authority of her household, seems to support and perpetuate the established female code of behavior by insinuating that Maria la Loca is solely to blame for her single and childless status. Ortiz Cofer's rethinking of the story, however, offers a more understanding view of her grandmother's objectives:
Mama told of how the beautiful Maria had fallen prey to a man whose name was never the same in subsequent versions of the story; it was Juan one time, Jose, Rafael, Diego, another. We understood that the name, and really any of the facts, were not important, only that a woman had allowed love to defeat her. (20)
What Ortiz Cofer underscores in Mama's moral tale about Maria la Loca is a woman's means of survival. In a culture that places such a high value on chastity, marriage, and motherhood as the primary goals to which women should aspire, a young woman must tread carefully through adolescence because the consequences of succumbing to one's own desires could prove too great a price to pay. The root of Maria la Loca's madness, according to Mama, was "a fever that would not break" in the days following her abandonment at the altar, a symptom produced by the lovesickness to which the young girl too easily yielded.
Nonetheless, Ortiz Cofer questions Mama's message in the poem titled "The Woman Who Was Left at the Altar." Here Maria la Loca exposes her large breasts in church "to show the silent town / what a plentiful mother she could be" (22) had she not been unequivocally dismissed as a potential mate and chastised so severely for breaking the strict code of female sexual conduct. In the poem she also avenges her fiance's disappearance:
She hangs live chickens from her waist to sell, walks to the town swinging her skirts of flesh. She doesn't speak to anyone. Dogs follow the scent of blood to be shed. In their hungry, yellow eyes she sees his face. She takes him to the knife time after time.
The poetic voice assumes the position of Maria la Loca to highlight the injustices that she has tolerated. Though once engaged to the wealthiest man in town, Maria is forced to peddle chickens in a village where no one will talk to her. But as Laurie Grobman observes, Ortiz Cofer "imparts an inner rebelliousness to Maria la Loca" (45). The poem grants her retribution, allowing her to administer punishment in retaliation for her suffering.
The plight of Maria la Loca is sharply contrasted by the triumph of the legendary Maria Sabida, a positive female role model whose story is also told by Ortiz Cofer's grandmother to the women of her family. (4) Maria Sabida was the smartest girl in all of Puerto Rico; she "came into the world with her eyes open" and was at the age of fifteen "a beautiful girl, with the courage of a man" (69-70). She became famous for pursuing the infamous thieves that terrorized her hometown, ultimately outsmarting and conquering them by marrying their leader. Even after converting the chief villain into a loving husband and father, Maria Sabida was said to have always slept with one eye open, watchful and aware of the need to maintain a sense of individuality and self-reliance: "Maria Sabida became the model Mama used for the 'prevailing woman' [...]. Her main virtue was that she was always alert and never a victim. She was by implication contrasted to Maria La Loca, that poor girl who gave it all up for love, becoming a victim of her own foolish heart" (76). Mama teaches the women of her family survival skills and empowerment through the stories of Maria Sabida and Maria la Loca. As Marisel Moreno states in her analysis of space, both material and imaginary, in Silent Dancing, "it is in the space created by the imagination through storytelling that the women in the narrator's family find the freedom that they lack in their daily lives" (441). The protagonists of Mama's stories stay within the social framework of the island without dismantling the expected female gender roles of the time. Maria Sabida does, after all, fulfill her role as a wife and mother, and Maria la Loca is chastised for her failure to accomplish hers. At the same time, however, these stories provide insight into how women learned to protect and enable themselves within the patriarchal order by disclosing the dangers of losing one's sense of self and depending on another for love and happiness. Mama too demonstrates this lesson through her own life experience in the vignette entitled "More Room."
Ortiz Cofer's grandmother rebels against the duties dictated by society upon her gender. "More Room" describes the organic nature of the casa, a house that grew in size to accommodate the growing number of children in Mama's family. It is the story that Ortiz Cofer's mother and aunts retold many times: the account of "Mama's famous bloodless coup for her personal freedom" (26) after giving birth to eight children. Each time a child was born, Mama had asked her husband to build a new room in the house in order to create more space for the family. Mama "got the house that she wanted, but with each child she lost in heart and energy" (27). Faced with the prospect of depleting herself of her own life by continuing to foster the lives of others, Mama ingeniously has her husband build his own room. Ortiz Cofer reflects upon her grandmother's decision with deep admiration:
[...] Mama discovered the only means of birth control available to a Catholic woman of her time: sacrifice. She gave up the comfort of Papa's sexual love for something she deemed greater: the right to own and control her body, so that she might live to meet her grandchildren ... so that she could give more of herself to the ones already there, so that she could be more than a channel for other lives [...]. (28)
Upon severing the conjugal bed, Mama forgoes sexual pleasure in order to reclaim control of her body. In the process, she frees herself from the obligations forced upon women by religious dogma and social conventions in order to experience "the kind of joy that can only be achieved by living according to the dictates of one's own heart." In "Claims," Ortiz Cofer's celebratory poem regarding her grandmother's journey to personal freedom, Mama's wisdom is passed on to her daughters with both humor and conviction:
Children are made in the night and steal your days for the rest of your life, amen. She said this to each of her daughters in turn. Once she had made a pact with a man and nature and kept it. Now like the sea, she is claiming back her territory. (29)
Mama's comical yet keen observation echoes the tone of a religious proverb by ending with an emphatic "amen," a term that is used to express a truth or one's faith with complete certainty. But here, the word "amen," as well as Mama's clever maxim and demand to regain control of her body, are used to once again scrutinize rigid gender constructs. Specifically, they challenge the notions that a woman's role as a wife is to provide her husband pleasure and children and that the female body is strictly a life-giving vessel Upon remembering her own adolescence, Ortiz Cofer continues to question the gender codes presented in the stories of Maria la Loca, Maria Sabida, and Mama that hinder a woman's right to sexual enjoyment and personal freedom.
In the vignette "The Looking-Glass Shame," titled after an excerpt from Virginia Woolf's memoir, Moments of Being, Ortiz Cofer reflects upon her coming-of-age as a young woman in Puerto Rico and mainland United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The ensayo recalls Woolf's childhood dream of an encounter before a mirror in which she saw a frightening image of herself that she did not wholly recognize or comprehend. For Ortiz Cofer, this strange sense of detachment between the mind and developing body experienced in puberty is heightened among bicultural adolescents. The author tells us that in Puerto Rico, prepubescent girls were watched closely for signs of eminent danger and that her mother told her that "she was now a 'senorita' and needed to behave accordingly; but she never explained what that entailed" (125). This privation of knowledge concerning a woman's reproductive power and the lack of self-awareness and sense of shame that it provokes is examined in the poem "Quinceanera":
My dolls have been put away like dead children in a chest I will carry with me when I marry. I am to wash my own clothes And sheets from this day on, as if the fluids of my body were poison, as if the little trickle of blood I believe travels from my heart to the world were shameful. Is not the blood of saints and men in battle beautiful? Do Christ's hands not bleed into your eyes from His cross? (50)
The text transmits the voice of an adolescent girl who has menstruated for the first time and does not yet fully comprehend the biological changes that have taken place in her body. The girl's toys have been taken away and she has been assigned a new household task. Ironically, the poetic voice describes these events by emulating adult speech and repeating what little explanation and vague assurance was given to her: that she will take her dolls with her upon marrying and that she must begin to wash her own clothing and sheets. The speaker's assertion that her blood travels from her heart to the world, however, reminds the reader that she is still a child and that menstruation does not represent a girl's immediate transition into adulthood. Her intuitive observations regarding her own blood and the blood shed by religious figures and icons underscore her ignorance and need for knowledge. Moreover, these questions challenge the feelings of fear and shame that an adolescent girl may experience due to societal values that associate the onset of female sexuality with danger and potential promiscuity.
The accepted though highly questionable assumption that sex should not be discussed with adolescent girls is perhaps best exemplified in the poem "Fulana." The Spanish term for "Mrs. So-and-So," fulana can also mean "tart" or "whore" in familiar speech or slang (86). In Ortiz Cofer's text, Fulana is a girl who grew up too quickly:
She was the woman with no name. The blank filled in with Fulana in the presence of children. But we knew her--she was the wild girl we were not allowed to play with, who painted her face with her absent mother's make-up, and who always wanted to be "wife" when we played house.
The adults fear that Fulana's precocious behavior is somehow contagious. They do not utter the girl's name so as not to call attention to her dangerously early development, and forbid their children to play with her. But as in the poem "Quinceanera," Ortiz Cofer ridicules the adults' preventative measures by describing them from the perspective of the children they sought to protect. The collective "we" in the poem represents the voice of the children, who intuitively ascertain the reason that Fulana worries their parents. The children note, for example, that Fulana prefers to play "wife" (and not "mother") while playing house, indicating that they understand the different responsibilities required in each of these roles.
At first glance, the poem's last stanza appears to confirm the adults' trepidation over Fulana's conduct as well-founded, for the first verse states that "she would grow up careless as a bird / losing contact with her name during the years / when her body was fight enough to fly." As the stanza progresses, however, Fulana's carelessness, her lightness of being, and flight become symbols for independence and the fulfillment of erotic pleasure. Ortiz Cofer exalts female sexuality by playfully mocking the opinion that it ought to be averted and silenced. Fulana, "whose name should not be mentioned / in the presence of impressionable little girls / who might begin to wonder about flight" (86), is thus inverted as an image of sexual freedom.
The lessons on how to be a good Puerto Rican woman that Ortiz Cofer learned as a child on the island are questioned even further by the author as she recalls her high school years in New Jersey and how her classmates interacted with members of the opposite sex. As a teenager, she noticed the other girls from her Catholic school "get into cars with public school boys" and go to "skating rinks, basketball games, pizza parlors," activities in which she was not allowed to participate because they were not considered appropriate (125). This clash between the norms of behavior imposed upon young women on the island and those considered typical in the United States is confirmed in the ensayo entitled "Silent Dancing." In this particular vignette, which shares the same title as the book, the author recalls moving to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1954 after her father joined the United States Navy. The essay is a pastiche that combines Ortiz Cofer's early memories and reflections of life on the mainland with images from a silent movie taken at a relative's New Year's Eve party and with the voices of her mother, aunt, and cousin. The author admits to having dreams of this home movie for years:
In a recurring scene, familiar faces push themselves forward into my mind's eye, plastering their features into distorted close-ups. And I am asking them: "Who is she? Who is the woman I don't recognize? Is she an aunt? Somebody's wife? Tell me who she is. Tell me who these people are." (95)
The haunting figures captured in the film are women that represent varying degrees of acculturation and assimilation into mainstream American society. Their interactions with others, and specifically with men, differ greatly depending on the duration of time that they have spent in the United States. This is revealed when the author cedes her voice to transmit those of the women who appear in the movie.
The first narrative voice recreated in the vignette describes one of the author's cousins, a newly arrived immigrant who "lowers her eyes as she approaches the camera like she's supposed to." This cousin behaves in accordance with the female gender role prescribed by Puerto Rican society of the 1950s. The speaker notes that she expresses "humility in all of her actions" and that her soon-to-be husband is "lucky to have met her only a few weeks after she arrived" because "if he marries her quickly, she will make him a good Puerto Rican-style wife." This observation discloses the image that many Puerto Ricans had at the time of women in the United States: that American women had questionable morals and could negatively influence or taint young Puerto Rican girls. The idea that women on the mainland are too assertive, independent, disobedient, and promiscuous is embodied by Ortiz Cofer's cousin, who unlike the humble girl "just up from the island," explains with her own voice how she has adapted to mainland culture:
I'm an American woman and I will do as I please. I can type faster than anyone in my senior class at Central High, and I'm going to be a secretary to a lawyer when I graduate. I can pass for an American girl anywhere--I've tried it--at least for Italian, anyway. I never speak Spanish in public. I hate these parties, but I wanted the dress. I look better than any of these humildes here. My life is going to be different. I have an American boyfriend. He is older and has a car. My parents don't know it, but I sneak out of the house late at night to be with him. If I marry him, even my name will be American. I hate rice and beans. It's what makes these women fat. (96)
This Americanized cousin supports the previous narrator's implication that Puerto Rican women are corrupted by more liberal standards of conduct upon moving to the United States. The passage presents the extreme opposite of the preceding testimony by portraying this cousin as having totally assimilated into mainstream American culture by acquiring a job, passing as an Italian American, speaking English, dating a gringo, and thus denying nearly all aspects of her Puerto Rican heritage. The veracity of this cousin's declaration of independence, however, is comically questioned in the paragraph that follows, in which the alleged truth about the Americanized cousin is unveiled: her boyfriend was a married schoolteacher and she "was growing an Americanito in her belly when this movie was made" (97). The text goes on to state that after terminating her pregnancy, the cousin was sent back to a village in Puerto Rico to avoid further scandal: "A real change of scenery. She found a man there. Women like that cannot live without male company. But believe me, the men in Puerto Rico know how to put a saddle on a woman like her. La gringa, they call her. Ha, ha, ha. La gringa is what she always wanted to be...."
The image of assimilation depicted in this story is highly negative. The Americanized cousin's punishment is twofold: not only is she exiled to a remote village in Puerto Rico, but she is also broken or tamed of her fervor for independence by a man. But the tragedy is sharply undercut upon recognizing that the narrator of this tale is Ortiz Cofer's great-uncle's common-law wife, whom he abandoned on the island and who crashed the party depicted in the film. This revelation causes the reader to doubt the validity of the common-law wife's words. Moreover, her testimony clearly demonstrates the selective properties of memory by disclosing what facts the narrator carefully chooses to tell and omit and at the same time diminishes the belief that the gender roles on the island and mainland truly differ. The uncle's abandoned wife shares more in common with the assimilated cousin than she is willing to recognize. Both women, like Maria la Loca, allowed themselves to be deceived by love, or rather its semblance.
It is also important to note that the common-law wife's voice is the one that most haunts the author: "The old woman's mouth becomes a cavernous black hole I fall into. And as I fall, I can feel the reverberations of her laughter. I hear the echoes of her last mocking words: La Gringa, La Gringa!" Ortiz Cofer, like her Americanized cousin, was raised in a bicultural world. While moving back and forth between Puerto Rico and New Jersey, she had to learn to negotiate between the contrasting values regarding gender and sex that existed in each environment. Together the women in the film symbolize opposing views of what it means to be a Puerto Rican woman, but none accurately and positively represents the bicultural identity of a Puerto Rican American woman. The women in the movie are all trapped by rigid cultural values that impede their independence and personal development. The disdain expressed by the Americanized cousin toward her ethnicity suggests that for the larger community of Paterson, New Jersey, Puerto Rican culture was not respected and total assimilation was preferred, making it difficult to develop a dual identity.
The women in the film haunt and summon the author, who then recreates their voices and in turn recognizes their plight. As Guillermina Walas has noted, the Americanized cousin (and one could add the common-law wife) and the newly arrived novia represent polar opposites, identifiable through the well-known duality of "prostituta/virgen" (68). For Walas, Ortiz Cofer's mother, who also appears in the silent movie, occupies an intermediate position between these two extremes as a wife and parent, thus representing the archetypal role of the "good" Puerto Rican woman advocated by Mama in her stories. (5) But marriage and motherhood came at a high price for Ortiz Cofer's mother: exile.
As far as affirming a bicultural identity is concerned, it is clear that the author's mother never adapts to life on the mainland, leaving the author to do so on her own. According to Ortiz Cofer, her mother rarely left their apartment in Paterson, where she did her best to recreate the environment of Mama's house. Ortiz Cofer's mother viewed the mainland as a prison; she was "'doing time'" and "kept herself 'pure' for her eventual return to the island by denying herself a social life" and "by never learning but the most basic survival English" (127). As a result, her daughter becomes her interpreter and messenger while her husband serves on tours of duty in the navy. This role provides the author with more independence than she would otherwise have enjoyed with her father at home and gives her numerous opportunities to interact with other members of the community.
Vida, Providencia, and Salvatore are three residents of the barrio in Paterson who are chronicled in the vignette entitled "Some of the Characters." Their presence in the life of the young author represented change from the daily routine directed by her parents and teachers and keen insight into the environment outside of her family's apartment. Though they appear to have very little in common, these characters break the rules and social norms set forth by the Puerto Rican community in Paterson and their stories of survival, recreated by Ortiz Cofer, evoke empathy and tolerance.
The first of the three individuals identified in "Some of the Characters" is Vida, "a beautiful Chilean girl who simply appeared in the apartment upstairs with her refugee family" (101). Little is said about her life before moving to the United States, only that "there must have been an interesting story of political exile there," but that the author was too young to notice (102). She rived in E1 Building with her sister, her sister's husband, their baby, and a grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment. At sixteen years of age, Vida had already finished secondary school in Chile. She spoke no English, had not yet received permission to work in her new country, and received little emotional support from the family members with whom she lived. When asked once about her parents, "she said that her mother was dead and that she did not want to speak of the past" (103). Despite her difficult circumstances, Vida possessed a zest for life that charmed Ortiz Cofer, her family, and numerous others who fell under her spell. Her name reflected her personality; she was a "vibrant human being" for whom "nothing seemed impossible" and who "thought only of the future" (102-103). Vida often spoke of her dream of becoming a Hollywood film star and awed the young Ortiz Cofer by emulating actresses and fashion models.
The author admired Vida's powerful beauty, open sensuality, and independence, qualities that also threatened the values of humility and chastity expected of the young women in the barrio. The residents of El Building, including Ortiz Cofer's family, eventually disfavored and mistrusted Vida because of her venturous behavior. She seduced older men in return for gifts, convinced Ortiz Cofer's family into letting her live with them until her wedding after her sister and brother-in-law refused to accept her fiance, and stayed at the author's home even though she secretly broke off the engagement and was seeing other men. But Vida utilized the only skills available to her at the time for survival: her captivating looks and wit. At the same time, she never allowed love to defeat her: "she was not totally naive" and limited amorous encounters to "kissing and petting" (105). Like Maria Sabida, she knew how to use her beauty as a commodity and her cleverness to her advantage. Though ultimately Vida went to work in a dungaree factory, she nonetheless continued to follow her dream of becoming a star. The author tells us that the last time she saw Vida was on a poster:
It announced her crowning as a beauty queen for a Catholic church in another parish. Beauty contests were held by churches as fundraisers at that time, as contradictory as that seems to me now: a church sponsoring a competition to choose the most physically attractive female in the congregation. I still feel that it was right to see Vida wearing the little tiara of fake diamonds in that photograph with the caption underneath: Vida wins! (108-109)
At sixteen, Vida managed to survive on her own despite being orphaned and having to live with a sister and brother-in-law who were too busy trying to meet their own needs to guide or take care of her. Although her participation in a church beauty contest may seem vain and perhaps even objectionable to contemporary readers, Vida's victory, like her job sewing dungarees, affirms her strength. Winning a beauty contest sponsored by a Catholic parish also suggests that she eventually learned to express her beauty and sensuality openly without threatening the rules of the community, yet another indication of her tenacity and will to survive.
The second character from El Building to whom we are introduced is Providencia. She too grew up without parents but was not as fortunate as Vida. Ortiz Cofer's memory of Providencia is "strictly visual," for she was not permitted to speak to her. Providencia lived on the seventh floor with her numerous children and was "the whispered joke told by women in their kitchens, she was the social worker's nightmare and a walking threat to the ideals of marriage and fidelity" (111). The women of El Building discussed and sometimes tried to determine the fathers of Providencia's children, but they never delved too far into discovering their identities because revealing them could become "a matter of personal concern to the wives and mothers." Ironically, the possibility that the married men of El Building could have fathered Providencia's children is not questioned. Instead, male infidelity is treated as an unavoidable and accepted behavior, while Providencia, "who seemed to be always pregnant," is blamed, despised, and shunned for her promiscuity.
To the young Ortiz Cofer, however, Providencia resembled the Virgin Mary with child. Providencia wore a "beatific smile" and presided over her children peacefully, unaware of the rumors and the poverty surrounding her as though she were "disconnected from reality" (112). Upon remembering the barrio Madonna, the author suggests that Providencia may have suffered from mental illness, but in a community with so many problems where people have a hard enough time struggling with their own rives, her condition was ignored and she was simply labeled a poor wretch. In the poem "Why Providencia Has So Many Kids," Ortiz Cofer explores untold and forgotten aspects of Providencia's life story:
I heard that as a young girl Providencia had been left alone in dark, unheated rooms while her mother worked the streets. I imagine her loneliness, tangible as breath on a cold night, and how she talked to the shadows moved by streetlights. Perhaps the first time was a result of violence, and as she listened to her body's new pulse she felt less alone [...]. (14)
Ortiz Cofer explains why Providencia had so many babies in a way that sharply contrasts with the disparaging gossip told by the other women of El Building. Providencia grew up quickly in a cycle of isolation, poverty, violence, and abuse. Her mother made a living as a prostitute, leaving her alone and lonely at night in a less than adequate home. The poem also suggests that Providencia's first pregnancy resulted from being sexually assaulted and that the infant born as a consequence of the violation nevertheless brought her a sense of comfort and diminished the feelings of loneliness and abandonment that she experienced throughout her childhood. Providencia's many children were her only company and provided her a raison d'etre in an otherwise bleak and solitary existence. Ortiz Cofer's text reveals how Providencia unknowingly broke the rules of conduct in her community and was subsequently chastised for doing so by the very women these rules also subjugated. In rewriting her story, the author not only summons compassion for her, but also calls for social change by denouncing the neglect and abuse Providencia experienced as a child and as an adult.
Like Vida and Providencia, Salvatore was another individual who was viewed as an outsider by the residents of the barrio. He was a superintendent in the apartment building the author's family moved into after leaving El Building. A good-hearted and nurturing man, Sal looked after the author's family while her father was serving tours of duty, bringing them Italian delicacies from his kitchen and garden. Sal's kindness, however, was disregarded by most of the tenants in the building he supervised, who remained distant and sneered at him because of his sexuality. Ortiz Cofer explains: "The word 'gay' was not in use then, and the concept of homosexuality was so mysterious and frightening to most of the people I knew as a child that the only references I heard to it were derisive or humorous, that is, when it was referred to at all" (116). Sal did not follow the strict gender codes of the barrio community, where homosexuality was considered aberrant. Thus Sal lived an extremely private life. He "kept his hands busy all day but he acted like a lonely man" and had no friendships with the men in the building "for whom he was an object of derision" (118). However, Ortiz Cofer expresses gratitude and admiration for Sal. Though he paid for his sexual freedom with silence and solitude, having lived in a time and place where being gay was not only disdained but also unspeakable, Sal nonetheless taught the author that one did not have to follow the rules regarding gender and sex set forth by society.
Marino, a boy whose mother forced him to live as a girl, also offers a more open and flexible view of male and female gender roles. Marino's experiences from having been raised as a girl provide him with a keen sense of empathy and understanding toward women. He too defies social conventions despite having been victimized by them during the first fifteen years of his life due to the fact that he possessed traits associated with both sexes. Marino's story is presented in the penultimate vignette of Silent Dancing and functions as a bridge between the adult Ortiz Cofer and her mother. In the vignette's opening paragraph, the author describes as antipathetic her annual visits to Puerto Rico once her mother returned to the island after her father's death: "These yearly pilgrimages to my mother's town where I had been born also, but which I had left at an early age, were symbolic of the clash of cultures and generations that she and I represent" (151). Frequent arguments emerge between mother and daughter when they discuss their opposing definitions of the words "woman" and "mother" (152). Ortiz Cofer's mother, a "Penelope-like wife" who "was always waiting, waiting, waiting, for the return of her sailor," cannot comprehend her daughter's desire "to experience life as an individual" (152). Although she is proud of her daughter's accomplishments as a scholar and writer, she also questions the author's commitment to her family as well as her fulfillment of spousal and parental responsibilities. On a particular sojourn to the island to meet her "loving adversary," Ortiz Cofer goes out for a reconciliatory walk with her mother and sees Marino with his granddaughter. The author's mother recounts how Marino escaped from his delusional mother's grasp by eloping with the mayor's daughter Kiki, with whom he had played and bathed in the river when they were adolescents. The author and her mother both agree that Marino would have been a good husband. They surmise that because he had lived as a girl, Marino would possess a greater awareness of what it was like to be a woman and thus would know "what it takes to make a woman happy" (160). Hence the story of Marino unites Ortiz Cofer and her mother in their "search for the meaning of the word woman," providing them a new position from which to define womanhood.
In addition to disclosing the socially constructed barriers regarding gender and sexuality experienced by the women and men of her community, Ortiz Cofer's memoir also recalls the hardships of many Puerto Ricans caused by racial discrimination and grim economic conditions on both the island and the mainland. One of the first vignettes in Silent Dancing involves the author's paternal grandfather, a descendant of Spanish criollos whose family history included "tales of wealth and titles" and whose only remaining asset was his European ancestry (39). Although her grandfather died before her birth, Ortiz Cofer conjures up his memory upon retelling the story of her aunt Felicita's betrothal. At the age of sixteen, Felicita fell in love with a black man who asked the author's grandfather for his daughter's hand in marriage. Felicita's father reacted violently to the proposition: "the old man pulled his machete and threatened to cut Felicita's suitor in half with it" and then "beat both his daughter and wife (for raising a slut), and put them under house arrest" (43). After piecing together several versions of Felicita's story, Ortiz Cofer discovers that her grandfather not only opposed Felicita's suitor because he was black, but also because it was rumored that "the groom may have been fathered by the old man, who kept mistresses but did not acknowledge their children." Ortiz Cofer's account of her grandfather dismantles the falsely accepted notion that racial discrimination is not present in Puerto Rican culture and society. (6) At the same time, however, Ortiz Cofer reveals how racism is often tempered on the island upon recounting how her grandfather's violent conduct resulted in "an elopement in which half the town collaborated, raising money for the star-crossed lovers and helping them secure transportation and airline tickets to New York." Aunt Felicita's story reflects the complexity of race relations in Puerto Rico, where one's socioeconomic class, often more so than the color of one's skin, can determine how individuals are perceived and regarded by the community. (7) Ortiz Cofer encounters the intricate link between class position and discrimination based on skin color firsthand while in school on the island.
The vignette "Primary Lessons" recounts Ortiz Cofer's personal introduction to Puerto Rican attitudes toward poverty and race. The author recalls her family's move to Mama's house in Puerto Rico during one of her father's numerous tours of duty. The young Ortiz Cofer quickly and effortlessly became her teacher's pet:
I was a privileged child in her eyes simply because I rived in "Nueva York," and because my father was in the Navy. His name was an old one in our pueblo, associated with once-upon-a-time landed people and long gone money. Status is judged by unique standards in a culture where, by definition, everyone is a second-class citizen. (56)
The author's residence on the mainland and her father's naval career are associated with wealth, while her Spanish lineage provides her with social standing despite the family's lack of money and material possessions. While Ortiz Cofer's skin color is not directly identified as a factor in determining her position of privilege among her teachers, her reference to being the offspring of immigrants attests to her European background. Ortiz Cofer attributes this method of assigning social status to Puerto Rico's colonial situation and its effects on its people, who as lesser or inferior citizens of the United States, search for ways to distinguish and identify themselves.
The author's socioeconomic status provided her preferential treatment in the first-grade classroom over another teacher's pet: a black boy named Lorenzo, a "bright, loving child" who the author affirms "should have been chosen to host the PTA show that year instead of me" (57). But she is nonetheless selected over Lorenzo, not simply because he is black, but mainly because he is poor. As a result of his tattered clothing, Lorenzo is disdained and ridiculed by students and teachers alike: "everyone could see that his pants were too big for him--hand-me-downs--and his shoe soles were as thin as paper." As Ortiz Cofer learns upon eavesdropping on her teachers' conversation, Lorenzo is disregarded for being destitute and dark-skinned:
"He is a funny negrito, and, like a parrot, he can repeat anything you teach him. But his Mama must not have the money to buy him a suit."
"I kept Rafaelito's First Communion suit; I bet Lorenzo could fit in it. It's white with a bow tie," the other teacher said.
"But, Marisa," laughed my teacher, "in that suit, Lorenzo would look like a fly drowned in a glass of milk."
"What about the Ortiz girl? They have money." (58)
The teacher's use of the diminutive "negrito," as well as her comparison of the boy to a parrot who merely mimics, are without a doubt highly disparaging comments based on Lorenzo's skin color. However, the fact that Lorenzo's mother does not have enough money to purchase proper attire for her son's participation in the PTA show appears to be the principal reason that he is not selected for the leading student role. The schoolteachers never mention Ortiz Cofer's skin color, only that her family has money, or at least a sufficient amount to provide her with the appropriate dress. Ironically, the two factors that provide the author with preferential treatment on the island, her father's profession and ethnic background, are ineffective in New Jersey.
The passages in Silent Dancing that recall the Ortiz family's experiences while living in New Jersey underscore the racism that they often encountered when looking for housing. Their struggle to find a place to live even leads Ortiz Cofer's father to hide his darker-skinned wife and children when meeting potential renters (63). Upon telling one prospective landlord his ethnicity when asked if he was Cuban, he is turned down: "Same shit. And the door closed. My father could have passed as European, but we couldn't" (89). Despite his fair skin and light brown hair, his accent-free English, and navy uniform, Ortiz Cofer's father was frequently denied apartments; his surname as well as his wife and children were enough to warrant the landlords' objection. Meanwhile, the author's lighter-skinned cousins, referred to humorously as those possessing traits from the alleged German side of the family, have better luck finding a place to five, a testament to how Puerto Rican families, who do not clearly fit into mainland categories of white and nonwhite, struggle with the issue of race.
The language barrier experienced by Puerto Ricans who cannot speak or understand English often worsens the prejudice that many experience on the mainland. This is perhaps best exemplified by the story of the author's uncle Hernan, who was recruited to pick fruit in Los Nueva Yores, or upstate New York. Hernan and other Puerto Rican laborers were lured to the United States by corrupt mainland growers. They were offered a free ticket and promised decent wages but were then exploited and kept in confinement as though they were prisoners: "They lived in tents while they waited for the fruit to be ready for picking. Though they were given provisions, the cost was deducted from their paychecks, so by the time they were paid, their salary was already owed to the grower" (35). The men's lack of English language skills made it nearly impossible for them to protest or threaten to strike. Only after Mama's nephew and a social worker from Buffalo arrived at the farm and initiated an investigation into the growers' illegal practices was Hernan able to escape.
Ortiz Cofer endures an experience similar to Hernan's situation on the farm when she returns to school in Paterson, New Jersey, after having rived in Puerto Rico. She too finds herself in a position of disadvantage and is easily manipulated because she does not speak or understand English. Upon returning to the mainland after having gone to school on the island, Ortiz Cofer finds herself having to relearn English in an unruly classroom. She is easily betrayed and mistreated by a classmate and a teacher:
I felt a pressing need to use the bathroom and asked Julio, the Puerto Rican boy who sat behind me, what I had to do to be excused. He said that Mrs. D. had written on the board that we could be excused by simply writing our names under the sign. I got up from my desk and started for the front of the room when I was struck on the head hard with a book. Startled and hurt, I turned around expecting to find one of the bad boys in my class, but it was Mrs. D. I faced. (66)
Like Hernan, Ortiz Cofer is victimized because of her inability to communicate in English. She is manipulated by a fellow student who lies to her regarding the teacher's classroom policy and is subsequently treated unjustly by Mrs. D., who physically punishes her for misunderstanding the rules. But just as the author learned how to empower herself and survive as a woman from her grandmother's stories, she learns the power that one can attain from the acquisition of language, specifically English. She "instinctively understood then that language is the only weapon a child has against the absolute power of adults" and rapidly increased her "arsenal of words by becoming an insatiable reader of books." The experience highlights the importance of words and language, converting them into tools of survival and resistance. According to Guillermina Walas, "siendo el lenguaje visto como arma, se refuerza a lo largo del relato la idea de que es necesario aprender a usarlo para que no se tome en contra del sujeto mismo" (70). Learning English helps the author adapt to mainland culture, while at the same time it provides her a means of self-defense and a vehicle through which to preserve her Puerto Rican heritage.
The power associated with the acquisition of the English language is reflected in the poem "Schoolyard Magic." The poetic voice is that of the young Ortiz Cofer upon relearning and appropriating English. The poem recreates a December afternoon outside P.S. No. 11, where the speaker avidly watches African American girls as they jump rope: "I let my blood answer the summons of their song, / drawing my hands free from all my winter folds, / I clap until my palms turn red, / joining my voice to theirs, / rising higher than I ever dared" (67). From her classmates, the young Ortiz Cofer learns to use her voice without fear and to claim the English language as her own.
The responsibility that goes along with acquiring language and power is the subject of "El olvido," which warns against the perils of negating one's cultural inheritance and completely assimilating into American culture. The poem is also about remembering and honoring one's ancestors, as well as giving voice to those who lacked one: "It is a dangerous thing / to forget the climate of your birthplace / to choke out the voices of dead relatives / when in dreams they call you / by your secret name" (68). Language is the instrument with which one can acknowledge and transmit the stories and lives of a culture and is the means of preserving one's heritage, as reiterated in the poem "Common Ground":
Blood tells the story of your life in heartbeats as you live it; bones speak in the language of death, and flesh thins with age when up through the pores rises the stuff of your origin. These days, when I look in the mirror I see My grandmother's stern lips Speaking in parentheses at the corners of my mouth of pain and deprivation I have never known. (161)
The poetic voice recognizes the physical features of her relatives in her own body upon looking into a mirror, remembering their hardships, and maintaining their tools of survival through language by communicating the stories of their lives.
In the tradition of Latina autobiographical writing, Ortiz Cofer weaves tales drawn from memory, popular folklore, and her own imagination in tracing her path toward becoming an adult and a writer. As the book's subtitle suggests, however, the text is only a partial memory of the author's upbringing. The memoir is also in part a communal history of the struggles and triumphs experienced by the many individuals whose fives touched hers and who as negative and positive role models taught her strength and endurance. By conjuring and exploring childhood recollections through the oral tradition of storytelling and through poetry, Ortiz Cofer gives voice to her community and specifically to those who helped shape her life, while creating and affirming a collective identity that exists somewhere between island and mainland cultures. But what makes Silent Dancing a unique and significant contribution to the growing corpus of Latina self-writing is the author's questioning and subversion of her community's attitudes toward gender, sex, race, and class in the poems that are strategically placed between the memoir's vignettes or ensayos. This technique of rewriting stories and personal memories through poetry and of juxtaposing contrasting interpretations of people and events in the book's prose and poetic compositions results in a highly experimental and original text that both challenges and redraws the boundaries of traditional autobiographical and literary genres.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Aparicio, Francis. "From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: A Historical Overview of Puerto Rican Literature in the United States." Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States Vol. 1. Ed. Nicolas Kanellos and Claudio Esteva-Fabregat. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993. 19-39.
Buss, Helen M. Repossessing the World: Reading Memoirs by Contemporary Women. Ontario: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2002.
Derickson, Teresa. "Cold/Hot, English/Spanish: The Puerto Rican American Divide in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing." MELUS 28.2 (2003):121-137.
Fitzpatrick, Joseph P. Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.
Grobman, Laurie. "The Cultural Past and Artistic Creation in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing." Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura 11.1 (1995): 42-49.
Ortiz Cofer, Judith. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990.
--. Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer. Athens & London: U of Georgia P, 2000. Lopez, Iraida H. "Formas femeninas de la biculturacion: Borderlands/La Frontera y Silent Dancing." Letras femeninas 27.2 (2001): 85-101.
--. La autobiografia hispana contemporanea en los Estados Unidos: A traves del caleidoscopio. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.
Moreno, Marisel. "More Room: Space, Woman and Nation in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing." Hispanic Journal 22.2 (2001): 437-446.
Perez, Janet. "Biculturalismo, resistencia y asimilacion en la poesia y dialogo intertextual de tres poetas puertorriquenas transterradas." Studies in Honor of Myron Lichtblau. Ed. Fernando Burgos. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2000. 275-288.
Torres, Lourdes. "The Construction of the Self in U.S. Latina Autobiographies." Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1991. 271-287.
Walas, Guillermina. Entre dos Americas: Narrativas de Latinas en los '90s. Lahnhalm, Maryland: U of America P, 2000.
(1) In the prologue, Ortiz Cofer cites Virginia Woolf's concept of "poetic truth," a writing of remembered events that fuses "memory, imagination, and strong emotion" to create one's ideal version of the past. See p. 11.
(2) Lourdes Torres identifies communal representation as another characteristic of Latina self-writing. Torres notes that "Latina autobiographers do not create a monolithic self, but rather the construction of the self as a member of multiple oppressed groups, whose political identity can never be divorced from her conditions. The subject created is at once individual and collective" (274). Memoirist and literary critic Helen M. Buss also analyzes the integration of the personal and public in women's memoirs. In addition to recognizing it as a practice that is accessible and open to experimentation, Buss argues that the memoir "[...] may concern itself as much with the life of a community as with that of an individual. It uses a style that is at the same time narrative and essayistic, descriptive and imagistic, factually testimonial and anecdotally fictive. It bridges the typical strategies of historical and literary discourses in order to establish necessary connections between the private and the public, the personal and the political." Helen M. Buss, Repossessing the World: Reading Memoirs by Contemporary Women (Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2002) 2-3.
(3) For a sampling of analyses that examine the construction of a bicultural female identity in Silent Dancing, see Aparicio, Derickson, Lopez, Perez, and Walas.
(4) In her essay "The Woman Who Slept with One Eye Open," Ortiz Cofer identifies many of the stories she heard as a child, such as the legend of Maria Sabida, as folktales of European origin that were translated into Spanish and shaped to reflect the cultural mores of the island. See Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000) 73.
(5) As the author notes, "It was not that Mama endorsed marriage as the only choice for women; it was just all she had been brought up to expect for herself, her daughters, and now, her granddaughters." The only alternatives were to become a nun or a prostitute. "Of course there were some professions a woman could practice--nurse, teacher--until you found a man to marry" (141).
(6) For an overview of the long-standing and widely debated question of racial prejudice among Puerto Ricans, see Joseph E Fitzpatrick's discussion of the issue in "The Problem of Color," Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.) 104-116.
(7) Fitzpatrick attributes this phenomenon to various cultural and historical antecedents that resulted in the practice of social intermixing and intermarriage, particularly among Puerto Ricans occupying a lower class standing, arguing that "the class relationship rather than the color defines how the person will be treated." See "The Problem of Color," 106-108.
Patricia M. Montilla
Western Michigan University
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|Author:||Montilla, Patricia M.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2003|
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