Book Review

Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood. - book reviews

MELUS,  Summer, 1993  by Geta LeSeur

One selection, "More Room," from Judith Ortiz-Cofer's Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood received the 1990 Pushcart Prize for the essay. Published originally in Puerto del Sol, "More Room" is an excellent sample of what and how Cofer writes in this volume of thirteen "ensayos" (essays of a life). All thirteen are finely written and capture what "compels us to examine and reexamine our lives" (12). Ortiz-Cofer goes on to say, "I wanted the essays to be, not just a family history, but also creative explorations of known territory. I wanted to trace back through scenes based on my moments of being' the origins of my creative imagination" (12).

In the short preface, the author refers appropriately to Virginia Woolf's intent and method, which was to trace one's past through our emotional responses to those things that have left a lasting impression. Obviously then, this declaration announces to the reader that this remembrance will highlight the incidents that had a long and lasting impact on Ortiz-Cofer, which molded her and made her passage into awareness, in retrospect, remarkable.

Since one of the tenets of the autobiography is to reconstruct the subject, the reader is led very nicely through the varied but wellarranged "ensayos" to a sense of wholeness by the end of the book. The organization is done to hold our interest and guide us down the passages of Ortiz-Cofer's life and world, but never horizontally. Childhood memories, family, friends, places, incidents step in with the tales of other voices in the narratives. Each of the essays is followed by one or two poems that complement, echo or extend the spirit and content of the preceding tale or experience. The poems are good and could be published by themselves, like the autobiographical/biographical poems in Rita Dove's Thomas and Buelah (1986).

Ortiz-Cofer (nee Ortiz) spent her childhood shuttling between New York ("Los Nueva Yores") and Puerto Rico. The annual, often more frequent, trips with her mother and brother usually took place whenever her father, a career navy officer, was away at sea. The journeys gave her exposure to two worlds, that of her parents and grandparents and that of the United States. Whether living in New York, New Jersey or Puerto Rico, however, the sounds, smells, rhythms and faces of the homeland surrounded her. She captures both the authenticity of city life in Paterson's ethnic areas as well as the richness of its mixtures. The Puerto Ricans in "El Building" (her apartment house) slowly replace the Jews who were its first inhabitants and whose presence, along with that of African Americans, helped make Ortiz-Cofer sensitive to "Others."

In both Puerto Rico and the United States she, like the Barbadian--American girl, Selina, in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), enjoys grown-up talk; women's culture, the "cuentos" of their early years; gossip; favorite foods like meat and plantain pasteles and gandules seasoned with sofrito; love triangles; laughter and frowns. Like Selina, or any other girl growing up in two cultures at odds with each other, there are some things she hates, like rice and beans and Puerto Rican parties. These details give the narrative its truthful and realistic touch.

Central to Ortiz-Cofer's development is her special relationship with her grandmother, affectionately called "Mama." As a child Ortiz-Cofer spends many hours with her, and it is obvious that her gift for storytelling comes from her grandmother. "More Room" tells of a special room in her grandmother's house that is solely hers. Mama had had her husband build it, letting him think it was for himself. Her purpose, like Virginia Woolf's, was to find a "space of one's own," a place where he would leave her alone and not destroy her body with children year after year. That room becomes, in effect, a Throne Room" that reflects power, wisdom, femininity and feminism and contains a "chifferobe [that] kept secrets no one dared to open" (22). Also important are the creative gifts she gets from her grandfather, a Mesa Blanca Spirit (Santeria/Espiritismo), who wrote poetry and, according to her grandmother, was a "hopeless case."

"The Black Virgin" tells of Ortiz-Cofer's mother, a woman who married her father at 15, never becomes self-sufficient and gravitates completely to the island culture. She, Ortiz-Cofer says, "carries the island of Puerto Rico over her head like the mantilla she wore to church on Sunday..." (I 21). In f act, as Judith grows up the mother does resettle in Puerto Rico permanently and becomes the true link to the island and "home."

Some of the other essays become "cuentos en cuentos" called Tales under the Mango Tree" and are very entertaining. This adds to and extends the oral tradition so common in Third World cultures. We learn about "wicked" women like Maria Sabida, who pretends to be "a prometida" fiance, sweetheart) and destroys the bad guy; Fulana "who paints her face with mother's make-up ... and dresses in yellow feathers" (82). But there are also real-life characters like Vida, Ortiz-cofer's first girlfriend, sinful, lusty and ambitious to become a movie star; Providencia, the "magna mater," "ultimately maternal and sensuous" (105), caught in the welfare cycle; and Salvatore, the homosexual Italian superintendent who plants vegetables in the tenement's small yard.

The reader feels the author's strong attachment to her father, but none of the essays is specifically about him. His story is interspersed throughout. If she is trying to enlist us to feel his physical absence in her life, it works fairly well. He is handled with special care and compassion, so much that we never get to really know him. He is not, we suspect, a "typical Puerto Rican" because he is blond, very fair and Anglo-looking. He is an intellectual who chooses the Navy as a career. Ortiz-Cofer's first love is, like her father, a boy out of her reach--a white boy. Whether these facts are connected we don't know. What we do know is that her father exists that he is a good father, that she loves him and that there is a special intimacy between father and daughter, which is captured quite poetically in the text.

Despite the fact that this book is called an autobiography, it is very instructive. The reader gets a feel for the dual-culture conflict of America's immigrants; for ethnic prejudices; for the problems of acculturation; for colonial attitudes; for the color question of "cafe con leche" (brown) people; for Puerto Rican women's culture; for "the Quinceanera" --the ceremony that transports girls to womanhood; for language; for religion and other concerns of gender, race, and class.

Ortiz-Cofer says:

Much of writing begins as a meditation on past events. But memory for

me is the "jumping off" point; I am not in my poetry and fiction writing,

a slave to memory (12).

It seems, therefore, that this slim volume of memories is anchored in the tradition of the Kunstlerroman, the so-called "novel" of the development or growth of the artist which records the author's personal emotions, experiences, and remembrances tangentially and episodically. This is to say then, that Silent Dancing is Ortiz-Cofer's record of the recollections that shaped her, her imagination and her creative gifts. It is the search of the gifted orchid for ways of expressing and finding a special place which is hers. This book is her tale told from "under the Mango tree."

COPYRIGHT 1993 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Geta LeSeur "Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood. - book reviews". MELUS. . 21 Sep. 2008.

Publishers Weekly

The essays and poems in Ortiz Cofer's latest collection bridge the gap between autobiography and fiction, between personal remembrance and social commentary. As she shuttles between her village in Puerto Rico and the concrete high-rise ``barrio'' in Paterson, N.J., where her family lived half of each year, Ortiz Cofer faces the displacement that all military children--her father was in the U.S. Navy--must endure. But her cultural dichotomy is more acute. Indeed, it forms the narrative structure of the book, providing the context for the timeless themes of coming of age. In ``The Looking-Glass Shame,'' she contrasts her mother's implacable ties to island tradition with her own freedom to break them. Yet while America, ``Los Nueva Yores,'' opens up new vistas for the author, it also threatens to eradicate her ancestral foundations, her deepest, most poignant childhood memories. Poet and novelist Ortiz Cofer ( The Line of the Sun ) recovers the warp and weft of her experience in stellar stories patterned after oral tradition. Essays appeared previously in the Georgia Review and other publications. (July)