Claiming Life By Michelle Brown Claiming Life By Michelle Brown Judith Ortiz Cofer is a Puerto Rican whose writing often examines the conflict and the beauty of cultures mixing together, as people immigrate to America. Though she exhibits a strong connection to her Latin heritage, she often seems to also resent that part of her life. There are many standards and expectations in the Puerto Rican society which Cofer writes to subvert, viewing them negatively. As a Puerto Rican woman, Cofer often disagrees with the limits and expectations placed on a woman in Puerto Rican society, and this attitude is the subject of much of her work. In “Claims,” the speaker describes “Grandmother.” Cofer uses this poem to illustrate a family and describe an individual, as well as telling the reader about parts of Puerto Rican culture, such as its views on women’s roles and on sexuality.
On the surface, “Claims” is a poem about a Grandmother’s life. She has grown old, like a used, weathered “Bedouin tent.” After spending her life as a wife and mother, “Grandmother” finally has a chance to reclaim her own life. “Grandmother” seems to have been submissive, accepting her role throughout life to sacrifice herself for others, while all along wishing for her freedom. She considered each of her children a burden, but an acceptable one. She “had made a pact / with man and nature” to live as a wife and bear and raise children.
She kept her pact, waiting for the day when her children would leave the nest and her husband would pass away. In “Claims,” Grandmother’s time has come and her real self, the person she wants to be, is returning, like the sea rising with the tide. One can imagine the sand when the tide is out, as it is claimed by people and animals. The sea seems to be giving up part of itself, but it will return to claim the sand again. In the same way, the Grandmother has given her life, allowed other people to occupy days that were hers, but is reclaiming her “sand” in the poem.
Examining “Claims” on another lever, one finds messages speaking out against the portrayal of a good woman in Puerto Rican societies. Women are expected to sacrifice every aspect of their own lives for their husbands and children. The Grandmother accepted her role in society, but always had dreams of claiming her own life. “Grandmother” made a promise when she was married, and she kept her promise. She raised five children and led a life committed to a husband who was expected by society to wander.
But all along, Grandmother had dreamed of the day when she could secure her freedom. She dreamed of sleeping in her own bed and simply being herself. Her dream is finally realized in old age, as described in the poem. Grandmother “claimed the right” to be herself and live her life. Her days were constantly occupied by caring for her children and her nights were always invaded by her husband’s presence.
Now that her family has all moved on, Grandmother has her house and her life for herself. Each right that she has claimed has multiple meanings about her life and society, her dreams and true personality. The first right, that of sleeping alone and owning her nights, describes an internal conflict which Grandmother carried. While she truly loved her family, she yearned for space and freedom. She wanted to control at least some part of her life, but every moment was dedicated to her family. Her second right is “to never bear / the weight of sex again nor the accept / its gift of comfort.” For women in Puerto Rican society, there are many limitations because of their gender, but there are also many ways in which female sexuality is encouraged and praised. The role of wife and mother which Puerto Rican women are placed in is a very confining one.
Their entire lives are devoted to finding a husband to love, in spite of society’s expectations that he will stray, and to bearing and raising children. A “good” Puerto Rican woman gives her whole life to her family. Past that, she sacrifices even more to anyone else who is in need. The “weight of her sex” involves all the expectations and limitations placed on a woman by society because of her gender. However, there are other sides to society’s views of women.
One of these ideas is that a woman should appreciate her sexuality. This concept is often thought to be particularly evident in Latin societies, such as Puerto Rico. Women wear colorful, often risqu clothing. Their dancing is beautiful, complicated, and often seductive. Another aspect of the comfort of a woman’s sex is the close bond that women often share in a community. For example, women may look forward to seeing their neighbors at the grocery store or the laundromat.
This closeness provides a woman with comfort and a chance to relax and take time off from her family duties. There is also comfort in the guaranteed loving bond a woman has with her children and in knowing that her family is strong. The woman’s sex is a burden and a place of refuge, but Grandmother’s chance to abandon her sex is part of her dream of freedom. Cofer often illustrates cultural synthesis in her works. Some evidence of this can be found in “Claims.” For example, the poem is written mostly in English, but there are elements which imply a Latin culture.
The most obvious is the use of the word “nufragos,” which translates to “shipwreck victims,” to refer to her miscarriages. Most simply, the use of a Spanish word implies that Grandmother is part of a Latin society. Also, it is a reference to the closeness of island people to the ocean. They rely on it for food, business, and contact with other countries. There is also the fact that the poem is written in English, but it is about a Puerto Rican woman.
Though there is evidence of knowledge of the Puerto Rican society and definite respect for Grandmother, the speaker seems to be an American, living an American life while keeping a connection with her Puerto Rican heritage. Grandmother is a strong woman. She lived a life of sacrifice, giving of herself to every aspect of her family and community. She accepted the burdens and the gifts of her place in society. The language of the poem is not overly intellectual or complicated, showing the simplicity and honesty of Grandmother’s life. It is plainly written and flows, as Grandmother flowed through life, accepting her roles and society’s limitations.
The speaker has completely adapted to her new life, as one can tell by the mastery of the English language which is shown in the poem. Some of the isolated lines show bitterness which is felt by Grandmother, such as when she says that “Children .. / steal your days.” Another example is the last line of the poem, completely separated from the rest of the thought – “she is claiming back her territory.” One can find several emotions in that one line, from hostility about the time she sacrificed to relief that she can finally claim her time back. In her work, Cofer presents many issues of Puerto Rican society. She challenges gender roles and takes steps to unite the two cultures she lives in without losing either one. “Claims” tells several stories – the story of an old woman’s life and of a female’s place in Puerto Rican society, for example.
It has vivid imagery of the old woman, of the ocean, and of shipwrecks. “Claims” defends a woman’s right to be herself, rather than a slave of society and of her family. In this poem, Cofer once again challenges the expectations and limitations placed on women by society. It is a complicated work with many layers of meaning. Poetry.