Call Me Maria by Judith Ortiz Cofer is about a teenaged Puerto Rican girl named Maria and how she processes her changing world. Ortiz Cofer artfully creates a soap opera-like feel in this work, which she accomplishes by using various genres – part novel, part poetry – to her advantage, as she shifts between scenes and changes focus among the story’s characters.
Maria is sweet, innocent, and sensitive, and her character exudes a certain shyness that might make her seem simple. However, she is pensive, observant, intelligent, and possesses a mature awareness about the issues impacting her family dynamics and her personal circumstances.
The plot is driven by the gulf between her father, who is of Puerto Rican descent and was born and largely raised in the mainland United States, and her mother who was born and raised on the island, and has the stronger command of the English language. In many ways the family tries to have its cake and eat it too by trying to allow each adult character to follow individual paths and live as each prefers. Yet, this way of moving forward is complicated because there is a child who is part of the equation, and in that sense, this work embodies the consequences that adults’ choices have on the children they share.
As if processing one’s parents’ relationship struggles is not enough, Maria relocates to foreign surroundings, which are as different in setting as they are in climate. Maria remains undaunted as she strives to embrace her new normal after leaving Puerto Rico, and assumes her new responsibilities, as part new kid in school, part apartment building leasing office secretary, and part architect of her new life.
Maria has a drive to succeed in whatever she does and she is as thoughtful in her decision-making as she is caring about others. Her determination and self-imposed sense of responsibility are admirable and it is almost as if she is acutely aware that she must succeed because of and in spite of her circumstances. People often talk about there being “easy” kids versus “challenging” kids to raise – either because they are resilient, or have better coping strategies, or they never talk back or are inherit rule-followers. Maria certainly falls into the former category in that the story could have easily gone a different direction had she made different choices about how to process the changes in her life.
There are important themes to draw from in this novel that would make great essay topics. Changing family dynamics, fitting in, being a new kid, intercultural competence – these are all crucial topics that children live through and which are intelligently and sensitively portrayed in this fairly short young adult novel. Indeed, this work seems like it would be perfectly geared for readers in their first year of middle school. Language arts teachers, child therapists, and others working with this age group during this pivotal point could really leverage the fact that the readers would all be in the same position as Maria – being the new kid in a new environment – to explore how Maria dealt with change and ask them to discuss their own ways of coping with and adapting to a new environment.
Written by Judith Ortiz Cofer
2004, Scholastic Inc.
Page Count: 144
The Honorable Luis Maldonado graduated from Stetson University, magna cum laude, with a degree in English, and the University of Florida, Levin College of Law, cum laude. Since 2004 he has worked in the nonprofit and public sectors, having served as an advocate for domestic violence victims and foster children, as well as counsel for the State of Florida in dependency hearings. He began his federal government service in 2006; during that time he has handled administrative trial and appellate matters, federal litigation, and served in advisory and management roles. He was appointed to the bench in 2020 and serves as an Immigration Judge in Memphis, Tennessee. Judge Maldonado is a member of Stetson University’s Board of Trustees.