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“The Traumatic Experience of Maturation in Quinceanera” by Cofer

Quinceanera is a poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer, published in 1991. The poem vividly represents the Hispanic tradition of celebrating a teenage girl’s coming of age. This transition is a rather troublesome and confusing experience, as the narrator balances between the polar opposite emotions. The author applies several literary elements, which effectively reinforce the poem’s message. Through the use of metaphors, hyperboles, and similes, Cofer asserts that maturation is a highly complex and traumatic process.

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First of all, it is necessary to address the biographical profile of the author to reach a comprehensive understanding of the poem’s message. To begin with, one must observe that Cofer was a Puerto Rican who moved to the U.S. as a child. Born in 1952, the author spent her childhood “traveling back and forth between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland” due to her father’s military career (“Judith Ortiz Cofer”). As a result, by reaching her teenage years, Cofer became “a cultural chameleon” (“Author Biography”, p. 3). Consequently, it made a profound impact on her future career and entire life, since the Puerto Rican and the U.S. features formed an intricate blend of her personality. For instance, the author constantly “weaves Spanish words, expressions, and names in her poems as a way to capture artistic truth” (Nelson, p. 399). Moreover, she always tends to construct her characters as “hybrid identities”, which results from their “linguistic and cultural amalgamations” (Betancourt, p. 205). In other words, the author’s writings constantly focus on her searchers for one’s true self within a complex framework of a bilingual and bicultural personality. Cofer’s literary approach strongly relies on the combination and interaction of the Puerto Rican and U.S. heritage, which naturally stems from her childhood.

At the age of 15, her family eventually moved to Georgia, where Cofer earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Augusta College. Further, she received an MA at Florida Atlantic University and won a fellowship in English literature at Oxford University (“Author Biography”). As one can observe, Cofer obtained a strong educational background in humanities, which eventually enabled her to work successfully in different genres. Cofer died in 2016, having left an extensive literary heritage, including only poetry, but also short stories, autobiographical essays, and novels. Apart from the problems of a multinational personality, the author also extensively addresses the issues of “the role of women in Latino worlds” (Nelson, p. 398). In her writings, Cofer argues that women play a decisive role as vehicles and keepers of culture despite their traditional inferiority in the Latin American community.

As mentioned above, Cofer’s writings demonstrate a versatile genre approach. However, it was poetry that heralded the inception of Cofer’s literary career back in college. In this context, the author claimed that “poetry contains the essence of language” (“Judith Ortiz Cofer”). In particular, her poems provide valuable insights into the author’s personal experience and feelings. Quinceanera vividly depicts the literary reconsideration of Cofer’s coming of age. The Spanish word “quinceanera” refers to the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday as it implies her transformation into a woman and entering adult life. This rite is a very important event in the Latin American communities, and the author shares her cultural experience with the readers. The narrator is a fifteen-year-old girl, whose ambivalent feelings on this matter represent the complexity of the maturation process. These feelings include fear and hesitance about becoming a woman, as well as yearning for her lost childhood. The author deliberately uses the Spanish word in the title of the poem to demonstrate a complex untranslatable concept from the Hispanic culture, reflecting its unique traditions and customs. In such a manner, Cofer aspired to approximate the Puerto Rican and U.S. elements within her identity.

The poem relies on several strong metaphors. For instance, the girl’s doll metaphorically stands for her childhood. By contrast, the satin slip, which the narrator touches under her skirt, is a metaphor for her upcoming womanhood. As a result, the dolls and the slip metaphors form a pivotal conflict between the two worlds in the poem. At the same time, the girl admits, “it is soft as the inside” of her thighs (Text to Text, p. 472). In other words, the slip gradually becomes a common and even an integral object in the narrator’s world, although it is still an unusual experience to wear it. Thus, the author implies that her body’s transformation is quite natural and inevitable.

The mother’s hairpins constitute one more essential metaphor, which reflects the girl’s world perception. Cofer deliberately dramatizes the traumatic process of the girl’s hairdressing before the “quinceanera”: “My hair has been nailed back with my mother’s black hairpins to my skull” (Text to Text, p. 472). Hence, her mother’s hairdressing tools and manners focus on a closadherence to the customs of the celebration. However, the traditional hairdo turns into a painful and uncomfortable experience for the girl. Furthermore, the mother’s hands also become a metaphorical representation of strict rules: “Her hands stretched my eyes open as she twisted braids into a tight circle at the nape of my neck” (Text to Text, p. 472). As one can observe, the author uses these metaphors to highlight the narrator’s perception of traditions as an oppressive burden, whose meaning the teenager does not fully understand.

Moreover, the author extensively applies hyperbole to render her message. For example, the narrator undergoes significant physical changes, and her body transforms in a highly rapid manner: “At night I hear myself growing” (Text to Text, p. 472). In the next lines, the narrator further exaggerates the girl’s dramatic physical development, as she tries “to soothe skin stretched tight” over her bones (Text to Text, p. 472). Besides, the narrator perceives her first period highly dramatically: “the little trickle of blood I believe travels from my heart” (Text to Text, p. 472). Thus, the author uses hyperbole to emphasize the fast-paced maturation and the girl’s profound emotional stress from this process.

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The simile is another effective literary element in the poem. For instance, Cofer uses similes to compare the narrator’s dolls to dead children: “My dolls have been put away like dead children in a chest I will carry with me when I marry” (Text to Text, p. 472). As one can observe, putting away the girl’s dolls represents the symbolic burial of her childhood. One cannot bring a dead child back to life. In much the same manner, it is impossible to recover one’s childhood. Hence, by using this simile, the author highlights the irreversible nature of maturation.

Another important simile refers to the narrator’s feeling of anxiety. Indeed, she remarks: “I am wound like the guts of a clock” (Text to Text, p. 472). In such a manner, the author expresses the girl’s profound tension and uneasiness. The narrator is aware that now she will have household responsibilities, including washing her “clothes and sheets from this day on,” which virtually is about to prepare her for marriage (Text to Text, p. 472). Moreover, the girl is afraid of these upcoming responsibilities and yearns for this ceremony to be over: “waiting for each hour to release me” (Text to Text, p. 472). Thus, the narrator emphasizes that she does not want to grow up and still childishly hopes to avoid the burden of adulthood after the end of the celebration.

Yet another essential simile relies on the comparison between the menstrual blood and that of Christ, the saints, and warriors on a battlefield. The narrator’s first period launches her transition to womanhood, and for a young girl, this is an event of paramount importance. That is why, she compares it to such tragic and crucial episodes as martyrs’ suffering, men’s fights in battles, and even The Passion of the Christ. However, the narrator immediately opposes her case to these masculine deeds. Indeed, she perceives her bleeding as a shameful phenomenon unlike the majestic and beautiful bleeding of “saints and men in battle,” and the Christ (Text to Text, p. 472). In other words, the girl does not yet understand the significance and the genuine meaning of a woman’s menstrual cycle, which is to give life. Hence, due to the use of this simile, the girl’s bleeding acquires a strong and sublime implication of saving humanity, which is actually in concordance with the Christian virtues and Jesus’ sacrifice.

Thus, Cofer’s poem conveys a message that maturation is a crucial turning point in everyone’s life. This process usually involves a teenager’s confusion, lack of understanding, and unwillingness to change. In particular, a girl’s entrance to adulthood is one of the most difficult periods in her life. The author of Quinceanera demonstrates this complex mixture of feelings through the skillful application of metaphors, hyperboles, and similes, which work in tandem to represent the traumatic experience of maturation. In such a manner, Cofer manages to depict her emotions from the coming of age period and demonstrates to her readers the internal struggle within her split multinational personality. The author implies that it is essential to comprehend the growing-up process, and eventually to reconcile the multifaceted dimensions of one’s self.

References

  1. “Author Biography.” A Study Guide for Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Bad Influence.” Cengage Learning, 2016, pp. 3–4.
  2. Betancourt, Juanita Rodriguez. “Language and the Construction of Hybrid Identities in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 33, no.1, pp. 200–205.
  3. “Judith Ortiz Cofer.” Poetry Foundation.
  4. Nelson, Emmanuel S. Ethnic American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Students. ABC-CLIO, 2015.
  5. Text to Text: Writing about Literature for Tarrant County College. English 1302: Composition II. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

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StudyCorgi. "“The Traumatic Experience of Maturation in Quinceanera” by Cofer." January 14, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/the-traumatic-experience-of-maturation-in-quinceanera-by-cofer/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "“The Traumatic Experience of Maturation in Quinceanera” by Cofer." January 14, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/the-traumatic-experience-of-maturation-in-quinceanera-by-cofer/.

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