Judith Ortiz Cofer: A Valediction by Rafael Ocasio

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Rafael Ocasio is the Charles E. Dana Professor of Spanish at Agnes Scott College.

Puerto Rican-born Latina writer Judith Ortiz Cofer, born in Hormigueros in 1952, passed on December 30, 2016 in her home in Louisville, Georgia. She had been bravely battling liver cancer.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a literary pioneer; in the early eighties, she headed the first generation of Latina writers to attract the attention of university and commercial publishing houses in the United States. Her first novel, The Line of the Sun (1989), published by the University Press of Georgia, won her a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. Previously she had published collections of poetry in chapbooks: Peregrina (1986), which won the Riverside International Poetry Competition in 1985; Among the Ancestors (1981); The Native Dancer (1981); and Latin Women Pray (1980). National acclaim for a poet of promise came with her collections Terms of Survival (1987) and Reaching for the Mainland (1987).

Silent Dancing (1990), a collection of essays and poetry, and The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993) explored the genre of creative non-fiction essays. In 1994 she was awarded the O. Henry Award for her story “Nada.” An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (1995) initiated her into the field of young people’s literature. It received the inaugural Pura Belpré Prize from the American Library Association in 1996.

Ortiz Cofer is the author of A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems (2005); Call Me Maria (2006), a young adult novel; The Meaning of Consuelo (2003), a novel; and Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000), a collection of critical essays. Her last published book, The Cruel Country (2015), published by University of Georgia Press, was described by the press director, Lisa Bayer, as “a haunting and beautiful memoir about grieving her mother’s death from cancer.”

She was Distinguished Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia until her retirement in 2013. In 2010 she was inducted into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame. She received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Lehman College, CUNY, on May 31, 2007.

At the time of her death, Ortiz Cofer was working on a new literary project of transcribing traditional Puerto Rican folktales, in a process that she described to me as “a translation of fábulas criollas with lots of poetic license involved.” Some of these Creole fables, popularly known throughout the island, she had heard as a child in Hormigueros from Mamá, the grandmother who populates many of her stories. True to her experimental nature, her fábulas, although retaining their original strongly didactic backgrounds, were updated versions of a still popular genre: “They are not just translations or re-tellings. I tried to be very creative with them.”

Thanks to my autographed copy of The Line of the Sun, I know the exact date Judith and I met. On October 7, 1989, she had come to Atlanta to read from her recently published novel at the iconic Oxford Bookstore, back then the city’s intellectual center for serious book buyers. After giving an exciting reading that, as I came to witness so many times later, mesmerized her audience with the funny and sincere passion of a consummated storyteller, Judith, like a Boricua High Priestess at Delphi, signed my copy with a foretelling of her own: “I hope this is the beginning of a long association for us.”

Our “association” soon began with Judith’s initial requests that I read her manuscripts in process. I still remember with awe the first time I went over one of her manuscripts, in which I barely managed to fix a couple of misplaced accents. However, as our friendship solidified, we started to engage in conversations of mutual benefit: I spoke as a gay Puerto Rican scholar handling critical subjects pertaining the sexual politics of counterrevolutionary Cuban exile literature; while she explored the narrative boundaries of autobiography—whether in poetry, fiction, or essays—as a political vehicle for women, particularly for women of color. These research explorations were taking place in the deep South and in fairly traditional teaching institutions.

Our conversations became formal interviews and my first academic publications. We met at her home institution, at the beautiful campus of the University of Georgia; more often, however, we chatted via email, it seems now, about trillions of subjects. I eventually became, as she liked to joke, her “fact checker” for all references to Puerto Rican culture. Her queries kept me busy. At the time of her death we had started chatting about the iconic Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández: “I was thinking of basing a children’s book on him, but have not found anything but brief entries on him.” She was also working on an essay on Puerto Rican work leaders. I had suggested Luisa Capetillo and Santiago Iglesias Pantín, who had had such an impact as leaders of workers’ unions in the early part of the twentieth century.

As the years passed, we started sharing concerns about our families: she about her mother, who had moved to Hormigueros; I about my own mother, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had undergone surgery, and had remarkably overcome overwhelming odds against her. Our mothers became our strongest personal connection and our relationship became a source of countless advice pieces, often anecdotal jokes, on how to “deal with a Puerto Rican mother.”

My last extended contact with Judith took place while reading and commenting on her manuscript The Cruel Country. A memoir that documents how Judith bravely faced the duties of taking care of her mother in the week prior to her mother’s death, its content resonated with many of our previous conversations about the healing power of literature. It is, above all, a loving ode that praises the influence not only of her own mother but of all mothers, for that matter, upon all individuals, and it is with this praise that she leads her mother to her final resting place.

Because of its complex nature, I read Judith’s manuscript several times. Coincidentally, or perhaps by divine intervention, I was in Puerto Rico, also taking care of a sick relative in a cold hospital similar to the one where Judith had spent time and effort navigating the island’s medical etiquette. True to her kind nature, she wanted to do something major for me. After much negotiation, I came up with my ideal “payment”: I wanted The Cruel Country to contain a passage highlighting my hometown of Old San Juan—not such an easy task, mind you, since the action of this memoir takes place in Hormigueros, which is on the western coast of the island, far removed (historically and geographically) from mi Viejo San Juan. She agreed, however, though not without giving me some grief using her characteristic sense of humor: “I feel like the genie in the bottle (I don’t see you as Barbara Eden, however). I promised you a gift and now you have asked me for one I must try to find the magic to realize. I will have to refresh my memory of Old San Juan, watch some youtube videos and look at photographs. Let me see what I can do, hijo.”

This is “my piece,” which I now treasure as much as I do our twenty-seven years of mentorship and friendship. I will forever miss our emails, our lunch visits at the University of Georgia, and my always-smiling “other Puerto Rican in Georgia,” as we jokingly liked to refer to each other:

May 31, 2013, at 12:39 PM, “JOCofer@aol.com” <JOCofer@aol.com> wrote:

Dear Rafael,

Here is the revised Old San Juan passage. I thought it’d be appropriate to send it to you as you leave your beloved old city. Gracias por todo.

Judith

I board the tiny propeller plane In Mayaguez. Looking down at that vast azul sea of variegated blues, I see the green eye of my island looking at me, fixing me with a vision of place I will take to my grave. In half an hour we are on the other side of the island. We pass over the old city of San Juan, on whose blue cobblestone streets fortune-seekers from all over the world have walked. There are the narrow alleys lined with old warehouses that once stored rum and spices and are now stores that sell trinkets to the tourists. There are the imposing condominiums and hotels, and there are the cruise ships disgorging the masses whose dollars keep the Island’s economy afloat. And just below us, as the avioneta dips and descends toward the airport in Isla Verde, is El Morro, the Spanish fort build by the Spaniards to defend their rich port. I watch it recede in the distance like a mirage, until it disappears. When it does, I look forward toward the horizon, letting my heart lift at the thought of home.

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