Judith 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; Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000), a collection of essays; An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (1995), a collection of short stories; The Line of the Sun (1989), a novel; Silent Dancing (1990), a collection of essays and poetry; two books of poetry, Terms of Survival (1987) and Reaching for the Mainland (1987); and The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993). Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Glamour and other journals. Her work has been included in numerous textbooks and anthologies including: Best American Essays 1991, The Norton Book of Women’s Lives, The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, The Pushcart Prize, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Judith Ortiz Cofer is currently the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
“The Myth of the Latin Woman” by Judith Ortiz Cofer has been a favorite reading for many of my students since one of my students suggested I teach it back in 2004. It’s in the reader we use, 50 Essays edited by Samuel Cohen, and my students read it once again this semester. This essay works particularly well in tandem with the essay by Brent Staples “Black Men and Public Space” which is also in 50 Essays.
On a bus trip to London from Oxford University where I was earning some graduate credits one summer, a young man, obviously fresh from a pub, spotted me and as if struck by inspiration went down on his knees in the aisle. With both hands over his heart, he broke into an Irish tenor’s rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story. My politely amused fellow passengers gave his lovely voice the round of gentle applause it deserved. Though I was not quite amused, I managed my version of an English smile: no show of teeth, no extreme contortions of the facial muscles – I was at this time of my life practicing reserve and cool. Oh, that British control, how I coveted it. But “Maria” had followed me to London, reminding me of a prime fact of my life: you can leave the island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are a Latina, especially one like me who so obviously belongs to Rita Moreno’s gene pool, the island travels with you.
This is sometimes a very good thing – it may win you that extra minute of someone’s attention. But with some people, the same things can make you an island – not a tropical paradise but an Alcatraz, a place nobody wants to visit. As a Puerto Rican girl living in the United States and wanting like most children to “belong,” I resented the stereotype that my Hispanic appearance called forth from many people I met.
Growing up in a large urban center in New Jersey during the 1960s, I suffered from what I think of as a “cultural schizophrenia.” Our life was designed by my parents as a microcosm of their casas on the island. We spoke in Spanish, ate Puerto Rican food bought at the bodega, and practiced strict Catholicism at a church that allotted us a one hour slot each week for mass, performed in Spanish by a Chinese priest trained as a missionary in Latin America.
As a girl, I was kept under strict surveillance by my parents, since my virtue and modesty were, by there cultural equation, the same as their honor. As a teenager I was lectured constantly on how to behave as a proper senorita. But it was a conflicting message I received, since the Puerto Rican mothers also encouraged their daughters to look and act like women and to dress in clothes our Anglo friends and their mothers found too “mature” and flashy. The difference was, and is, cultural; yet I often felt humiliated when I appeared at an American friend’s party wearing a dress more suitable to a semi-formal than to a playroom birthday celebration. At Puerto Rican festivities, neither the music nor the colors we wore could be too loud.
I remember Career Day in our high school, when teachers told us to come dressed as if for a job interview. It quickly became obvious that to the Puerto Rican girls, “dressing up,” meant wearing their mother’s ornate jewelry and clothing more appropriate, (by mainstream standards) for the company of Christmas party than as daily office attire. That morning I had agonized in front of my closet, trying to figure out what a “career girl” would wear. I knew how to dress for school (at the Catholic school I attended, we all wore uniforms), I knew how to dress for Sunday mass, and I knew what dresses to wear for parties at my relatives’ homes. Though I do not recall the precise details of my Career Day outfit., it must have been a composite of these choices. But I remember a comment my friend (an Italian American) made in later years that coalesced my impression of that day. She said that at the business school she was attending, the Puerto Rican girls always stood out for wearing “everything at once.” She meant, of course, too much jewelry, too many accessories. On that day at school we were simply made the negative models by the nuns, who were themselves not credible fashion experts to any of us. But it was painfully obvious to me that to the others, in their tailored skirts and silk blouses, we must have seemed “hopeless” and “vulgar.” Though I now know that most adolescents feel out of step much of the time, I also know that for the Puerto Rican girls of my generation that sense was intensified. The way our teachers and classmates looked at us that day in school was just a taste of the cultural clash that awaited us in the real world, where prospective employers and men on the street would often misinterpret our tight skirts and jingling bracelets as a “come-on.”
Mixed cultural signals have perpetuated certain stereotypes – for example, that of the Hispanic woman as the “hot tamale” or “sexual firebrand.” It is a one dimensional view that the media have found easy to promote. In their special vocabulary, advertisers have designated “sizzling” and “smoldering” as the adjectives of choice for describing not only the foods but also the women of the Latin America. From conversations in my house I recall hearing about the harassment that Puerto Rican women endured in factories where the “boss men” talked to them as if sexual innuendo was all they understood, and worse, often gave them the choice of submitting to their advances or being fired.
It is custom, however, not chromosomes that leads us to choose scarlet over pale pink. As young girls, it was our mothers who influenced our decisions about clothes and colors – mothers who had grown up on a tropical island where the natural environment was a riot of primary colors, where showing your skin was one way to keep cool as well as to look sexy. Most important of all, on the island, women perhaps felt freer to dress and move more provocatively since, in most cases, they were protected by traditions , mores, and laws of a Spanish/Catholic system of morality and machismo whose main rule was: You may look at my sister, but if you touch her I will kill you. The extended family and church structure could provide a young woman with a circle of safety in her small pueblo on the island; if a man “wronged a girl, everyone would close in to saver her family honor.
My mother has told me about dressing in her best party clothes on Saturday nights and going to the town’s plaza to promenade with her girlfriends in front of the boys they liked. The males were thus given an opportunity to admire the street women and to express their admiration in the form of piropos: erotically charged street poems they composed on the spot. (I have myself been subjected to a few piropos while visiting the island, and they can be outrageous, although custom dictates that they must never cross into obscenity.) This ritual, as I understand it, also entails a show of studied indifference on the woman’s part; if she is “decent” she must not acknowledge the man’s impassioned words. So I do understand how things can be lost in translation. When a Puerto Rican girls dressed in her idea of what is attractive meets a man from the mainstream culture who has been trained to react to certain types of clothing as a sexual signal, a clash is likely to take place. I remember the boy who took me to my first formal dance leaning over to plant a sloppy, over-eager kiss painfully on my mouth; when I didn’t respond with sufficient passion he remarked resentfully: I though you Latin girls were supposed to mature early,” as if I were expected to ripen like a fruit or vegetable, not just grow into my womanhood like other girls.
It is surprising to my professional friends that even today some people, including those who should know better, still put others “in their place.” It happened to me most recently during a stay at a classy metropolitan hotel favored by young professional couples for weddings. Late one evening after the theater, as I walked toward my room with a colleague (a woman with whom I was coordinating an arts program), a middle-aged man in a tuxedo, with a young girl in satin and lace on his arm, stepped directly into our path. With his champagne glass extended toward me, he exclaimed, “Evita!”
Our way blocked, my companion and I listened as the man half-recited, half-bellowed “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” When he finished, the young girl said: “How about a round of applause for my daddy?” We complied, hoping this would bring the silly spectacle to a close. I was becoming aware that our little group was attracting the attention of the other guests. “Daddy” must have perceived this too and he once more barred the way as we tried to walk past him. He began to shout-sing a ditty to the tune of “La Bamba” – except the lyrics were about a girl named Maria whose exploits rhymed with her name and gonorrhea. The girl kept saying “Oh Daddy” and looking at me with pleading eyes. She wanted me to laugh along with the others. My companion and I stood silently waiting for the man to end his offensive song. When he finished, I looked not at him, but at his daughter. I advised her calmly never to ask her father what he had done in the army. Then I walked between them and to my room. My friend complimented me on my cool handling of the situation, but I confessed that I had really wanted to push the jerk into the swimming pool. This same man – probably a corporate executive, well-educated, even worldly by most standards – would not have been likely to regale an Anglo woman with a dirty song in public. He might have checked his impulse by assuming that she could be somebody’s wife or mother, or at least somebody who might take offense. But, to him, I was just an Evita or a Maria: merely a character in his cartoon-populated universe.
Another facet of the myth of the Latin woman in the United States is the menial, the domestic – Maria the housemaid or countergirl. It’s true that work as domestics, as waitresses, and in factories is all that’s available to women with little English and few skills. But the myth of the Hispanic menial – the funny maid, mispronouncing words and cooking up a spicy storm in a shiny California kitchen – has been perpetuated by the media in the same way that “Mammy” from Gone with the Wind became America’s idea of the black woman for generations. Since I do not wear my diplomas around my neck for all to see, I have on occasion been sent to that “kitchen” where some think I obviously belong.
One incident has stayed with me, though I recognize it a s a minor offense. My first public poetry reading took place in Miami, at a restaurant where a luncheon was being held before the event. I was nervous and excited as I walked in with notebook in hand. An older woman motioned me to her table, and thinking (foolish me) that she wanted me to autograph a copy of my newly published slender volume of verse, I went over. She ordered a cup of coffee from me, assuming I was the waitress. (Easy enough to mistake my poems for menus, I suppose.) I know it wasn’t and intentional act of cruelty. Yet of all the good things that happened later, I remember that scene most clearly, because it reminded me of what I had to overcome before anyone would take me seriously. In retrospect I understand that my anger gave my reading fire. In fact, I have almost always taken any doubt in my abilities as a challenge, the result most often of being the satisfaction of winning a convert, of seeing the cold, appraising eyes warm to my words, the body language change, the smile that indicates I have opened some avenue for communication. So that day as I read, I looked directly at that woman. Her lowered eyes told me she was embarrassed at her faux pas, and when I willed her to look up at me, she graciously allowed me to punish her with my full attention. We shook hands at the end of the reading and I never saw her again. She has probably forgotten the entire incident, but maybe not.
Yet I am one of the lucky ones. There are thousands of Latinas without the privilege of an education or the entrees into society that I have. For them life is a constant struggle against the misconceptions perpetuated by the myth of the Latina. My goal is to try to replace the old stereotypes with a much more interesting set of realities. Every time I give a reading, I hope the stories I tell, the dreams and fears I examine in my work, can achieve some universal truth that will get my audience past the particulars of my skin color, my accent, or my clothes.
I once wrote a poem in which I called all Latinas “God’s brown daughters.” This poem is really a prayer of sorts, offered upward, but also, through the human-to-human channel of art, outward. It is a prayer for communication and for respect. In it, Latin women pray “in Spanish to an Anglo God/With a Jewish heritage,” and they are fervently hoping/that if not omnipotent,/at least He be bilingual.”