48 pages 1 hour read

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance Of A Puerto Rican Childhood

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1990

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1990, the creative memoir Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood explores the childhood and adolescence of author Judith Ortiz Cofer. This study guide uses the second edition published in 1991 by Arte Público Press.

Born in Puerto Rico, Cofer grew up moving between a Puerto Rican village and Paterson, New Jersey, where her father was stationed with the US Navy. Through a series of essays and poems, Cofer examines this lifestyle and how it shaped her and her writing. Although ostensibly autobiographical, the book contains as much fiction and imaginative writing as it does straightforward recollection. In fact, Cofer makes this something of a mission statement; her intention is not simply to recall facts but to explore the familial and emotional connections of her past through creative storytelling. This intent is greatly influenced by her grandmother’s oral tradition, which focused on emotional resonance and educational parables over factual accuracy, shaping Cofer’s voice and setting her on the path to writing Silent Dancing. The resulting memoir is a complex, poetic text that reflects the dualisms and fragmentation of its subject through characterization, symbolic allusions, and a commitment to a higher poetic truth.

The Preface discusses the unreliability of memory and explains Cofer’s intent to embrace that fallibility, augmenting it with imagination to arrive at a higher truth. The early chapters focus on her childhood in Puerto Rico and especially her grandmother, known to everyone as Mamá. A powerful matriarch, Mamá was a compelling and evocative storyteller, the center of her family and the node around which Cofer’s life in Puerto Rico revolved. Through her, Cofer first learned the power of words and was educated on how to be a Puerto Rican woman and navigate the complexities of Puerto Rico’s patriarchal society, one of the book’s recurrent themes. As the text progresses, Cofer includes chapters focusing on her grandfather, a gentle, scholarly “spiritist” who ceded much of his authority to his wife.

In examining the power of storytelling and gender roles, these chapters find a point of intersection in the subtle ways women use language to assert autonomy in Puerto Rico’s patriarchal society. These themes are exemplified through Mamá, who shares cautionary tales about the ways of men to educate the younger girls and women, and who directs Papá to build a separate bedroom for himself to assert her physical autonomy and avoid further pregnancies.

Chapters 4 to 7 introduce Cofer’s mother and father, detailing their family histories, their early marriage, and their differing personalities. Cofer’s father left Puerto Rico to serve in the US military before Cofer was born and did not meet her until she was two years old. Seeing no opportunities for his family in Puerto Rico, he turned his back on his birthplace, determined to assimilate into US society. When he was not on active maneuvers, his family joined him in Paterson; they returned to Puerto Rico when he returned to sea. This unsettled existence gave Cofer a sense of dualism and fragmentation, of never wholly belonging in either location, always marked as different by her accent, her language skills, her cultural expectations. This sense of dislocation was exacerbated by her mother, who refused to assimilate into US culture, wanting to keep herself “pure” for her birthplace by never learning English or adopting American customs. Cofer served as her link to wider society when in Paterson, something that reinforced Cofer’s sense of living on the border between two worlds. These chapters also continue developing Cofer’s ideas about the power of stories and gender roles, particularly how gender expectations differ in Puerto Rican and US society.

Later chapters continue building upon these themes, with Chapters 8 to 10 exploring Cofer’s adolescence in Paterson and surveying the social dynamics she encountered there. Chapter 11 contrasts those experiences with Cofer’s adolescence in Puerto Rico, where she often felt restricted by patriarchal traditions. The final chapters track how Cofer developed a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a woman in Puerto Rico, and how women make subtle assertions of independence through storytelling and community. These chapters also examine the relationship between Cofer and her mother, and how they navigate their divergent ideas of womanhood.