Judith Ortiz Cofer Selected Nonfiction
Rituals: Immigration, Family, and Identity in Writing of Judith Ortiz Cofer
The American Dream―a phrase that was once the foundation of many immigrants’ hopes for a new life now feels fanciful and almost cruel. Not only do immigrants face economic difficulties upon arrival to the U.S., but they also face a world where their appearances and customs separate them and drive them into a cultural limbo. The reality is that immigrants step into a country whose government doesn’t protect their interests as best it could. This unfortunate truth is evident in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Rituals: A Candle, a Prayer, and a Notebook”. Cofer tells of her and her family’s struggles as Puerto Rican immigrants, as they try to find a happy medium between assimilating American culture and maintaining their own Puerto Rican identity. Cofer’s own personal journey demonstrates the ways in which political decisions in housing, education, and even the enforcement of the Constitution has stripped families like hers of their cultural identity.
Housing in the United States is one of the greatest indicators of cultural divides perpetrated by political decisions―the lack thereof, in this case. In the 1930s, the federal government failed to intervene in the housing market and its redlining approach that ended up segregating neighborhoods; this explains why predominantly black or latino neighborhoods tend to have houses with lower property values, while white neighborhoods have greater property values. One might question Cofer’s father’s decision to leave a comfortable Puerto Rican community to move into a European immigrant community. However, with the current housing situation, her father was trying to find the upward mobility that was unfortunately tougher to find in the latino neighborhood. In doing so, Cofer’s family ended up outsiders in which their “exclusion was as evident as a new silence as one enters a room” (Cofer 550). Often times, this is the case with many families of different cultural backgrounds. The things that are part of their identity―from the catholic spanish rituals and the must-have plantains and yuccas for meals―become the things that make them subject to discrimination or isolation. So what if the government had acted and stopped the housing market’s racial segregation that would set the foundation for future neighborhoods and their property values? People wouldn’t have to worry about having their skin color or cultural background dictate where they must reside in order to find prosperity.
Unfortunately, housing directly affects schooling. State governments decide that public schools are primarily funded through local property taxes, which means schools in impoverished neighborhoods―usually predominantly black or latino―end up with few resources due to low funds. These children end up disadvantaged due to circumstances that are beyond their control, and are made to feel as if their identity makes them deserving of a lower quality education. Again, Cofer’s father makes the decision to enroll his children private Catholic schools in a European immigrant community despite not being able to afford a house. The schools are filled with “driven and overachieving offspring of Nazi camp survivors and Irish and Italian immigrants”, as Cofer describes them (550). While their good work ethic is a positive influence on hers, she still feels the loneliness most when they can attend to their “complex family life and all the attending ceremonies” and she can’t (Cofer 550). She could have had the comfort of a public school in a Puerto Rican community, but the reality is that a school in that neighborhood wouldn’t have had the resources that her private school did. This caused her identity to suffer, in that she couldn’t relate to anyone in school or have a community to lean on―especially when the people around her viewed her as an outsider. Many immigrant children find themselves in the same situation, often questioning their cultural identity―what are the “right” clothes to wear and the “right” words to speak.
Perhaps the most particularly destructive political decision was the disillusionment of immigrants who were made to believe they would be treated equally and given equal opportunities. The Constitution itself says all men are created equal, which implies that one’s cultural identity will not disadvantage him or her. However, the government and people in power have not upheld this notion to its fullest extent. This false hope has the ability to drive families apart and make them feel like outsiders when they don’t find what they are looking for. Cofer’s own family feels this division. Cofer’s father insists upon the American Dream when he says, “‘We have a better life here… There is nothing there for us to go back for’” (Cofer 552). But Cofer’s mother feels the pangs of loneliness as she responds, “‘What did I know about la maldita soledad? Mi amor, can it really be that bad for us in our own country?’” (Cofer 553). She agreed to start a new life in the United States with her husband―most likely under the same impression most immigrants have of finding prosperity―but in the end she realizes the undoubtedly present division of people of different backgrounds. There is no one around to share her love of romantic novelas and catholic rituals; even her husband shuns these interests, as a means of assimilating American culture. What her husband has picked up on, is that in the U.S., one’s own culture can often times become an impediment in attaining prosperity, and so he tries to keep it hidden to fit in. He has realized that the U.S. government doesn’t protect everyone’s interests and perpetuates a cultural divide; it’s disheartening that the country that’s supposed to be a proud “melting pot” in which everyone is equal, can’t seem to fully follow its own set of guidelines.
In the end, immigrants find themselves torn between the comfort of their motherland and the new lives they’ve created in the United States. But do they really have to be caught between two extremes? Must it be one or the other? It’s easier said than done for immigrants to keep their customs and comfortable communities without having discrimination’s incessant presence looming over their shoulders. Such a reality would finally bring peace to immigrants’ minds and reassurance to their cultural identities. If the government actually worked to create true, absolute equality for all, as its written foundation claims to uphold, perhaps the American Dream could actually have some truth to its name.