Female Identity in Ortiz Cofer’s “Quinceanera”

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer (1952-2016), who wrote Quinceañera, was a Puerto Rican American author critically acclaimed for her poetry, short stories, essays, fiction, and autobiography. She was born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, in the family with a military father, J. M. Ortiz Lugo, who took his closest relatives, including his wife Fanny Morot Ortiz, to Paterson, New Jersey to advance his career (Acosta-Belen). Most of Ortiz Cofer’s childhood was spent traveling between the United States mainland and Puerto Rico. The constant moving back and forth developed both American and Puerto Rican cultures in Ortiz Cofer, which became a crucial part of both her fiction and poetry.

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When Judith turned fifteen years old, her family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where the girl subsequently earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Augusta College. She liked Georgia because it was rich in colors and vegetation as compared with the always gray weather and cold concrete buildings of Peterson. Later, Ortiz Cofer earned a Master’s in English from Florida Atlantic University and completed a graduate course at Oxford University through a fellowship (Gale 18). In 1984, Ortiz Cofer joined the University of Georgia faculty in the role of the Franklin Professor of English and Creative writing (Acosta-Belen). Having dedicated twenty-six years to teaching undergraduate and graduate students, she retired from the University of Georgia in December 2013.

The writer said that she had inherited her skills of storytelling from her grandmother, as suggested by the appearance of the strong and powerful character of a grandmother in The Line of the Sun as well as other narratives. Ortiz Cofer said that her Abuelita was always telling stories to her grandchildren, and they were learning a lot from them. Such a way of teaching enhanced the development of storytelling as an empowerment form since women in Ortiz Cofer’s family were dedicated to transferring power from the older generation to younger ones through stories and fables. In this way, the women tried to teach each other how to cope with their lives and deal with restrictions that came along their way.

Thus, it is not surprising that the most prominent characters developed by Ortiz Cofer are Puerto Rican women who wanted to break free from the restrictions of their cultural and social conventions to develop strategies of dealing with sexism in their own lives.

While Ortiz Cofer is known for her creative nonfiction work, her career in writing started with poetry that, in her opinion, contained “the essence of language” (qtd. in Poetry Foundation). Her chapbook Peregrina published in 1986, was awarded at the Riverstone International Chapbook Competition. The author also published poetry collections such as Terms of Survival (1987), Reaching for the Mainland (1995), and A Lover Story Beginning in Spanish (2005).

The key theme in most of Ortiz Cofer’s work is the exploration of the gaps and splits that develop between the cultural heritage of an individual. The author’s immersion into both American and Puerto Rican cultures allowed her to develop a multi-genre approach to writing, in which all fiction works, prose, and poetry were combined into one style. Ortiz Cofer’s work The Latin Deli, which one of the nominees for a Pulitzer Prize, explored the range of genres through combining the author’s personal narrative with poetry and short fiction. In addition to this, Ortiz Cofer also wrote children’s books.

“Quinceañera” Analysis

Quinceañera by Judith Ortiz Cofer is a poem that focuses on the feelings of a girl that is turning fifteen. The celebration of Quinceañera (fiesta de quince años) is a traditional ceremony held on a Catholic girl’s fifteenth birthday and is celebrated widely throughout the Americas. The fifteenth birthday is usually celebrated differently because the tradition holds that at this particular age, a child becomes a woman. Historically, prior to turning fifteen, girls were taught how to cook, weave, as well as that they would have to have children and become wives. However, Ortiz Cofer wanted to show that there are feelings that transcend the tradition of Quinceañera and that young girls are highly sensitive to them turning fifteen, as this means that everything would change irrevocably.

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In the poem, a girl who is about to turn fifteen is mourning the fact that her childhood had come to an end and is extremely wary about her becoming an adult. It is a complicated time for the poem’s protagonist as the choice of words points to the feeling of ambivalence and doubt about the entire process of transition. The skillfulness of Ortiz Cofer as a writer is reflected in the use of literary elements that reinforce the key theme of the poem (Tarrant County College 472). For instance, the element of simile was used for comparing putting away childhood toys with a burial:

“My dolls have been put away like dead

children in the chest I will carry

with me when I marry” (Ortiz Cofer 11).

Such a simile reinforces the unspoken fears of the girl that her new stage of life would bring joy since all the fun and exciting things associated with childhood would be far gone. As the girl ponders about losing her childhood and moving into adulthood, she is reminded that womanhood as a compulsory stage in her life was forced upon her. For example, as the girl reaches under her skirt to feel her slip made of satin, “it is soft as the inside of my thighs,” she understands that the coming of age now meant that she would have to dress like a lady (Ortiz Cofer 11). In addition, this simile method also underlines the growing sexuality of the girl who becomes aware of her body and its sensuality.

While the transition to womanhood is an exciting process, the uncertainty and dread prevail in the girl’s feelings. Ortiz Cofer reinforces these emotions through the use of death-like metaphors in order to inspire aversion to the girl’s forced entering into adulthood. “My hair has been nailed back with my mother’s black hairpins to my skull,” “as if fluids of my body were poison,” “is not the blood of saints and men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands do not bleed into your eyes from his cross?” (Ortiz Cofer 11).

Such words as skull, poison, blood, and battle are associated with death and suffering and create the essence of hopelessness and that nothing can be turned back. Comparisons between the preparations for Quinceañera and a death ritual suggest that the girl is no longer in control of how she looks and must look perfect for the celebration. It is notable that no one asked the girl about her preferences, which is another sign of the loss of control of herself and the requirement to obey her future husband.

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The girl is left to mourn that she would be the one to wash her sheets and clothing “from this day on” (Ortiz Cofer 11). It is evident that none of the adults cared to explain to her that being older means having more responsibilities, which is why she thinks that her menstrual blood is “shameful” for some reason and is destructive to her identity as a female (Ortiz Cofer 11). The girl’s words show that her mother and, most likely, other relatives have shown little to no empathy for her problems and did not provide guidance on how to overcome the doubt and the fear of the future.

The narrator questions why some blood is honored while some must be washed in private, away from everyone’s eyes. The negative emotions of the narrator are reinforced through the use of references to battles and religious imagery; in addition, the Catholic background of the girl is apparent from the poem. Like any other teenager at the stage of adulthood, the protagonist of the poem accepts her mixed feelings about the new stage in her life. The opposition of emotions is strengthened with the help of the simile that ends Quinceañera:

“I am wound like the guts of a clock,

waiting for each hour to release me” (Ortiz Cofer 11).

To conclude, Judith Ortiz Cofer brilliantly explores issues that trouble young women at their coming of age. The lack of attention to the emotional state of Quinceañera’s narrator suggests that the girl is left on her own to deal with the established tradition and had no say in deciding her future. The theme of women battling against cultural and social norms is prominent in Ortiz Cofer’s writing, which is why the poem is a valuable representation of the author’s work.

Works Cited

Acosta-Belen, Edna. “Judith Ortiz Cofer (1952-2016).New Georgia Encyclopedia. 2019. Web.

Gale. A Study Guide for Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Hour with Abuelo.” Cengage Learning, 2017.

Ortiz Cofer, Judith. Terms of Survival. Arte Publico Press, 1995.

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Poetry Foundation. “Judith Ortiz Cofer.Poetry Foundation. Web.

Tarrant County College. Text to Text Writing about Literature. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.

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