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Review of  Judith Ortiz Cofer and Aurora Levins Morales: The Construction of Identity through Cultural and Linguistic Hybridization

Reviewer: Andrea Eniko Lypka
Book Title: Judith Ortiz Cofer and Aurora Levins Morales: The Construction of Identity through Cultural and Linguistic Hybridization
Book Author: Juanita Rodríguez Betancourt
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 28.2896

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

In “Judith Ortiz Cofer and Aurora Levins Morales: The Construction of Identity through Cultural and Linguistic Hybridization,” Juanita Rodríguez Betancourt investigates the evolving diasporic Puerto Rican identity negotiations in the self-writings of Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales. The four chapters in this book, part of the author’s doctoral dissertation, bring together various aspects of Puerto Rican Diasporic journeys in the US, including the historical and economic circumstances (Chapter 1), theoretical developments of the concepts of identity and hybridization (Chapter 2), and analyses of the interrelationship among various cultures, languages, ethnicity, race, and gender negotiated “in-between” spaces and within transnational migration milieus (Chapters 3-4). Through the examination of distinct characters, events, stories, and physical spaces in two autobiographies, “Analyses of Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of Puerto Rican Childhood” by Ortiz Cofer and “Getting Home Alive” by Levins Morales, Rodríguez Betancourt problematizes how dominant discourses on social class, gender, race, and assimilation intersect with diasporic journeys and identities. As such, identity is conceptualized as a social performance and a self-making navigation process between two linguistic and cultural spaces. The analysis of autobiographical narratives reveals that these authors strategically drew on nontraditional knowledge, linguistic and cultural practices to construct their social status, “separate from the insular conceptualization of being a Puerto Rican woman while never fully assimilating to the new environment in the US” (p. 7).


The book by Juanita Rodríguez Betancourt consists of four chapters, including an acknowledgment and introduction, followed by Chapters 1-4, a conclusion, appendix, and bibliography sections.

Chapter One, “Puerto Rican Diasporic Literary Production in the United States,” summarizes a rich historical account of the Puerto Rican diasporic literary production from the 1800s. The author first introduces works by expatriate intellectual authors and journalists in New York, who supported Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain, such as Eugenio María de Hostos, Gerardo Forrest, Sotero Figueroa, cigar maker Flor Baerga, and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, an advocate for the African diaspora. Following the US takeover of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, Jesús Colón and Bernardo Vega, two activist cigar makers with interrupted formal education narrated about social prejudice against Puerto Ricans in terms of class and political affiliation and racial discrimination. Between 1946-1964, the Sojourners, such as René Marques and Enrique Laguerre, chronicled a pessimistic view of the diaspora and viewed living in New York as a threat to migrant morality. From 1965 to the present, poets Pedro Pietri and Miguel Algarín, representatives of the Nuyorican Movement, denounced discrimination and the lack of opportunities for the Puerto Rican middle-class diaspora and recognized the importance of mixing languages. In their autobiographical works, Nicholasa Mohr, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Aurora Levins Morales, and Esmeralda Santiago describe the complexities of bicultural and bilingual identity formation and problematize gender issues in relation to class, race, and ethnicity in everyday life within the Puerto Rican Diaspora in the US.

In Chapter Two, “Theoretical Framework: Cultural and Linguistic Hybridization,” Rodríguez Betancourt traces the concept of hybridity, using definitions from the fields of genetics, linguistics, anthropology, and history to present the theoretical framework of cultural and linguistic positioning and hybridization that guides her analysis of the autobiographical writings by Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales. Drawing on Homi Bhabha’s (1981) hybrid identity and Third space of enunciation, Fernando Ortiz’ (1995) transculturation, García Canclini’s (2005) process of hybridization, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) linguistic hybridity concepts, she questions hierarchical, fixed, and predefined identity categories, arguing that identities can be fused in an in-between space to create alternative ways of being.

Chapter 3, “Analysis of Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood,” includes an analysis of the memoir, a blend of essays, stories, and poetry written by Judith Ortiz Cofer in 1990 about her bicultural/multicultural upbringing. The themes of moving back and forth between Puerto Rico and New Jersey, questioning gender roles, and negotiating cultural and linguistic markers are evident in this narrative. Specifically, accounts of cautionary tales or ‘cuentos’ about moral values, the rules of courtship learned through observations, and mixing of words from Spanish, such as ‘ensayo’ (practice), ‘casa’ (home), ‘cafe con leche’, and ‘pueblo’ signify culturally and linguistically mediated places and practices that influence diasporic bilingual identity development.

Chapter 4, “Analysis of Getting Home Alive: Segments Written by Aurora Levins Morales”, showcases eight essays and poems that proclaim Levins Morales’ ties with multiple identities and ancestors. For example, in the essay “1930,” Levins Morales evokes the struggles her grandparents faced as immigrants in New York, such as the lack of access to food. In “The Meeting of So Many Roads,” Levins Morales identifies her father’s Jewish heritage as well as Caribbean, American, Latin American, Taíno, African and European identities that influence her sense of self. The poem “South” reaffirms identity layers connected to past and indigenous Taíno roots, by mixing Taíno words, such as ‘guaraguao’ and ‘guyaba’ with English words.

In their autobiographical narratives, both Judith Ortiz Cofer and Aurora Levins Morales pay tribute to stories passed down by generations and childhood memories to make sense of their evolving identities in the present. The vivid descriptions of holiday traditions, such receiving Christmas gifts on Three Kings Day, religious practices, such as weddings and burials, the process of cooking and food, and the coexistence of Standard English with Spanish words, such as ‘sofrito’ (a seasoning base), ‘pilón’ (mortar with pestle), as well as some terms not explained or translated into English, reaffirm the acceptance of linguistic and cultural identities, identities that may not be negotiable for the monolingual, Anglo reader. In her book, Rodríguez Betancourt delves into dissecting complex, sometimes ambivalent identity negotiations of diasporic experiences.


Overall, “Judith Ortiz Cofer and Aurora Levins Morales: The Construction of Identity through Cultural and Linguistic Hybridization,” explores the crucial roles of language and culture in identity building. It contributes to the literature on transnational, hybrid identity, particularly for contextualizing the works of Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales within a chronological timeline of the Puerto Rican Diaspora in the US. By doing so, it provides a critical discussion about the influence of family, alternative ways of seeing the world, and cultural practices interact with wider discourses on English language learning, formal education, and social mobility.

As a graduate student with a research interest in second language learner identity, I found this book unique because of its insights on the theoretical framework (Chapter 2), thematic unity, and analysis of diasporic experiences (Chapters 3-4). Though this work focuses on the diasporic Puerto Rican community, the theoretical and analytical frameworks can be expanded to culturally and linguistically diverse populations. Rodríguez Betancourt problematizes binary definitions of identity and describes how two bilingual Puerto Rican Diaspora authors draw on diverse literacy, cultural, and linguistic resources to negotiate their identities in a reader-friendly manner. The relevant examples from personal essays and poems illustrate how Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales drew on a wide array of lived experiences, informal knowledge practices, among other resources to maintain multilayered relationships and communicate their identity struggles in their autobiographical works. Puerto Rican Diaspora struggles to negotiate identities within the island and the US links the narrative accounts of Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales. Importantly, these chapters highlight the importance of emic perspectives, individual accounts of identity negotiations and exercising agency, in bilingual second language acquisition research.

Though in the Acknowledgements section Rodríguez Betancourt signals that the identity negotiations of Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales prompted her to come to grips with her own evolving identities, the author does not describe in detail her development in relation to these works. The author’s interrogation of her identity negotiation would allow for a better comprehension of some of the concepts, such as ‘cultural schizophrenia’ and ‘child of Americas,’ addressed by Ortiz Cofer and Levins Morales. Additionally, this work would benefit from a discussion about future research on diasporic experiences. Overall, this book is a cohesive and well-written analysis that uncovers the complexities and contradictions of diasporic experiences. It furthers the dialogue on hybrid identity by advocating for a nuanced, self-reflective approach. I would highly recommend this book for graduate students and researchers interested in exploring the relationship among diasporic identity, culture, language, and everyday experiences.


Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas.

Fernando Ortiz. (1995). Cuban counterpoint, tobacco and sugar. Duke University Press.

Canclini, N. G. (2005). Hybrid cultures: Strategies for entering and leaving modernity. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Andrea Lypka is a PhD candidate in Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology at University of South Florida. Her research focuses on visual research methods, second language learner identity and agency.