The two opening chapters of Silent Dancing serve as a type of Scylla and Charybdis—equally hazardous alternatives—for women who are coming of age.
While the men were at work and the boys played baseball, the women and girls would congregate over coffee at Mamá’s and listen to stories being told; Ortiz Cofer traces her belief in the power of storytelling to these charmed afternoons.
In the first essay, “Casa,” Ortiz Cofer recounts a story that was recounted to her countless times by her grandmother, Mamá. According to the story, María la Loca, the crazy lady who wanders around the village, serves as the example of the woman who allows love to defeat her. As a young woman, María fell in love with a rich man in the village (his name changes with every retelling of the story), but he abandoned her at the altar. From that moment, so the story goes, María became crazier every day, and she ended up alone, childless, and outside the social life of the community.
The second essay centers on Mamá and her desires for some sort of private life within marriage and motherhood. After she had her eighth child, three of whom died in infancy or childbirth, Mamá turned to the “only means of birth control available to a woman of her times”: she gave up the comforts of sleeping with her husband and moved to a separate room in the house so that “she could be more than a channel for other lives.” María and Mamá serve as the diametrically opposed roles available to women, both of which are dangerous to the spirit: the harmful solitude that results from choosing poorly in love and the equally harmful servitude that comes from loving too many people. Ortiz Cofer does not judge any of these women or any of the choices people make, but she does emphasize the power of love to ruin lives or create difficult choices.
One of the most moving essays in the memoir, “Some of the Characters,” contains a section on Salvatore, who is the superintendent in an apartment that the Ortiz family rented in Paterson, New Jersey, during the Cuban missile crisis. This essay reveals the difficulties that men...
(The entire section is 877 words.)
Early in Silent Dancing, which in 1991 won the PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation for Nonfiction and was included in New York Public Library’s 1991 Best Books for Teens, Ortiz Cofer warns her readers that she is not interested in “canning” memories. Rather, like Woolf in Moments of Being(1976), she writes autobiographically to connect with “the threads of lives that have touched mine and at some point converged into the tapestry that is my memory of childhood.”
Silent Dancing is not an autobiography as such; it does not progress linearly from the moment of birth to the day before the final revision is done. It is instead a collection of thirteen stories and a preface, with eighteen poems scattered amid the stories. The book’s elements are interconnected but are also discrete. The sequence in which they are read need not be Ortiz Cofer’s sequence, although she obviously spent considerable thought on arranging the book’s disparate components as she moved toward publication.
“Casa,” the lead story, explains elements of the book’s genesis. The family has gathered, as it does every day between three and four in the afternoon, for café con leche with Mama, the term everyone uses in referring to Ortiz Cofer’s grandmother. In the comfortable parlor that Mama’s husband built to her exact specifications, drinking coffee together provides the adults with the pretext for spinning yarns,...
(The entire section is 423 words.)