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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 2: Engagement and Dialogue - Judith Ortiz Cofer and Nikki Grimes
Authors and Literary Works
Judith Otriz Cofer
Nikki Grimes
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Authors and Literary Works

As a child, Judith Ortiz Cofer moved constantly between two worlds. Even before her birth in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico in 1952, her father had joined the U.S. Army, believing that America offered his family a better life. Later, when he switched branches and was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the family lived together in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. But during his frequent deployments overseas, the family would move back to Puerto Rico to live in Ortiz Cofer's grandmother's house. Her mother worked hard to maintain their island heritage for her children, whereas her father believed that, for the children to get ahead educationally, they had to distance themselves from Puerto Rico. Ortiz Cofer says she grew up feeling that she was a "perpetual student," always shifting between languages and cultures. "I lived with ... conflictive expectations: the pressures from my father to become very well-versed in the English language and the Anglo customs, and from my mother not to forget from where we came."

Though Ortiz Cofer did not begin to write seriously until graduate school, she always had a deep respect for the cuento -- the story, a cornerstone of social life in Puerto Rico. "My mother's favorite thing to do is to pull me down and say: 'I have a cuento for you. You gotta hear this.' And whatever she's describing becomes embroidered with all kinds of details, and she loves to laugh. And one of the things that I try to infuse into my stories is the sense that, yes, there's a lot of sadness and tragedy, but there's also a lot to laugh about. And so I would say that my early education in storytelling came directly from my Puerto Rican relatives, particularly the women in the family."

When she began writing, the author says, it "took a while for me to think of myself as someone who had a worthy story that a lot of people would want to read. But luckily, most artists are ... driven and possessed by the need to tell stories. So even when my novel was rejected by every publisher in New York, I still felt like writing my stories and writing my poems. It was just a thing I needed to do in the same way my grandmother needed to tell her stories, in the same way my mother needs to tell her stories. We tell stories so that we know where we are in the world."

Ortiz Cofer writes frequently about biculturalism, identity, and how intertwined identity is with one's memories. "I write in English," she says, "yet I write obsessively about my Puerto Rican experience... That is how my psyche works. I am a composite of two worlds." Ortiz Cofer tries to fight stereotypes by offering a "more interesting set of realities." When she published her first book, The Line of the Sun, she was conscious that others might think she was "trying to sell the story as sociology" -- a look at "the poor Puerto Ricans." Instead, "what I was saying was, 'Look at these people. They may be poor, but they share your feelings. You want to know about your Puerto Rican neighbors? Well, they're not just the people whose food smells funny to you. They have real lives.'"

Though she considers poetry her "first love," Ortiz Cofer moves easily among genres. She has published poetry, essays, short stories, novels, and works of creative nonfiction. As a Latina writer, Ortiz Cofer is notable because she did not "come up" through the traditional channels for Puerto Rican writers and intellectuals in New York City. Instead, she published her work in small journals or with independent publishing houses.

She has been honored as a Scholar of the English-Speaking Union at Oxford University, a John Atherton Scholar in Poetry, a fellow of the Fine Arts Council of Florida, and a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholar. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, a Georgia Council for the Arts fellowship, and a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry.

Ortiz Cofer's first novel, a coming-of-age story called The Line of the Sun, won several prizes, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was listed as one of the New York Public Library Outstanding Books of the Year. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood received a Pushcart Prize and a PEN Martha Albrand Special Citation for Non-Fiction.

Judith Ortiz Cofer is a graduate of Augusta College and holds an M.A. in English from Florida Atlantic University.

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