Judith Ortiz Cofer is a Puerto Rican immigrant and a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. Cofer has written many books, poems and essays in her career. As the author of “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria”, she shows how society uses stereotypes to deny individualism of certain minority groups. In this essay Cofer describes the injustices that Latina women suffer in this country as a result of cultural differences and mythical stereotypes.
Cofer initiates her essay narrating an incident that occurred on a bus trip to London where a random young man started to sing “Maria” from West Side Story. Although she acted cool and calm, she was very displeased with the young man’s performance. Cofer realized a fact in every Latina woman’s life; that is, “you can leave the island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are a Latina the island travels with you” (366). Far from being a positive thing; in most cases, it’s the opposite because society will look at Latina women in ways they might think is normal and even treat them as an object instead of a human being. Cofer’s experiences of her early years as an immigrant made her suffer from what she called “cultural schizophrenia” (366). She grew up in New Jersey but her life was designed by her parent’s way of living back at the island. In her teen years she had a hard time trying to fit into society because of her appearance and the cultural differences. She often felt humiliated when she arrived at birthday parties overdressed for the occasion. Cofer explains her parents strict ways of showing her “how to behave as a proper senorita” (366), and at the same time expecting for her to act like a woman and dress in clothes culturally acceptable in Puerto Rico, but seen “as too mature and flashy” (366) by others to the point that she would get verbally attacked at school for that same reason.
Cofer continues her essay stating one of the most common stereotypes Latina woman suffer “for example, that of the Hispanic woman as the hot tamale or sexual firebrand” (367). As a result of these objectionable adjectives, Latina women become victims of sexual harassment mainly in their workplace. Sometimes their bosses try to engage into a sexual relationship with them. If they don’t accept or summit to the harassment, they end up being fired. The differences in cultures are noticeable. While in the United States it’s humiliating for young girls to dress more mature, in Puerto Rico “showing your skin was one way to keep cool as well as to look sexy” (367). Although women were more liberal and dress provocative, they were defended by their family members, traditions and customs if a guy would of disrespect her. In the island women dress to impress men and give them the chance to “express their admiration in form of piropos: erotically charged street poems they compose on the spot” (367). Unfortunately when a Latina meets with men away from her culture, it doesn’t have the same effect; therefore, she gets compared to a “hot tamale” (367) or worse: an object. Cofer once had an incident with a man at a classy hotel, and he started to sing a dirty version of “La Bamba” rhyming the name Maria with gonorrhea. She felt humiliated, yet managed to stay calm and realized that he “would not have been likely to regale an Anglo woman with a dirty song in public” (368). But, unfortunately, for him she was only a Latina, something that gave him the power of embarrassing her in front of everyone.
Cofer finalizes her essay explaining the common stereotype of the Latinas as the domestic woman or housemaid. Although “it’s true that work as domestic, as waitresses, and in factories is all that’s available to women with little English” (368) it doesn’t always happen that way. Many Latinas raised in the United States have the opportunity of getting a better education. Cofer is one of the lucky ones for being able to master a career which has open many doors in her life. But in despite of all her education, she’s “been sent to that kitchen” (368) where some think she belongs just for her looks. Cofer remembers an incident on her first public poetry reading. Before the event, she was confused for a waitress, and a lady order a cup of coffee from her without even asking if she worked there or not. Cofer didn’t take it as a major offense and knew “it wasn’t an intentional act of cruelty” (368). At the end of the reading, the lady apologized and they shook hands as to make peace. The incident helped Cofer realized she had to get strong to overcome all the obstacles that she was about to face in her career path.
Cofer’s experience as an immigrant raised in the United States shows what Latina women suffer day to day, and the vicissitudes they encounter due to stereotypes without valid arguments along with a lack of cultural knowledge of the society. Through her work, Cofer wants to change the world’s views and opinions of the Latinas. She wants the society and the media to see past beyond the skin color, clothes or culture, and focus on the interesting and respectful aspects of the Latin woman to see she has to offer as a person. Regardless of a cultural background, a woman is a woman, and only for that fact she deserves to be respected, admired and valued. If many years ago society abolished slavery, destroyed racism; then, it is time that society also eliminates stereotype.