43 pages 1 hour read

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Call Me Maria

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | YA | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide



Published in 2004, Call Me María by Judith Ortíz Cofer is a young adult novel written in a combination of prose and verse. The story follows a Puerto Rican teenager named María as she navigates the complexities of moving to New York City and adjusting to a multicultural setting. During her lifetime, Ortíz Cofer was a prolific author who focused much of her writing on investigations of identity. Like Call Me María, Ortíz Cofer’s other works are close, personal narratives that explore the nature of womanhood, Puerto Rican culture, and family relationships. As a young adult novel, Call Me María deals with all of these themes in an age-appropriate way for pre-teen and teen readers. Call Me María was named an Honor Book in the 2004 Americas Award for Young Adult Literature.

This study guide refers to the first edition of Call Me María, published by Orchard on October 1, 2004.

Plot Summary

Set in the 2000s in New York and Puerto Rico, Call Me María is told from the first-person perspective of a teenager named María who has moved to New York City to live with her father in an apartment building. María has chosen to leave her mother in Puerto Rico because New York City is the place that offers María the best chance of pursuing her dream of going to college and building a good career. As María navigates the new cultures in her school and neighborhood, she builds relationships and matures in her sense of self, an evolution that is primarily articulated through the interplay of her increasing fluency in English and Spanglish, in addition to her native Spanish.

Throughout the novel, Ortíz Cofer uses María’s reflective narration to make it clear that the protagonist’s perspective and understanding of self are constantly changing. María’s narrative is punctuated by her descriptions of the different versions of herself: María Triste (sad María), María Alegre (happy María), and just plain María. Another important feature of María’s identity is her bilingualism; she comes to the US speaking English and Spanish and slowly adapts to have a firmer grasp of what both languages mean to her within these new cultural contexts. Several sections of the novel focus on María’s experiences of learning new grammatical structures in English and using these new sentences to tell her story in different ways. Throughout her immersion in American culture, María’s increasing fluency and social experiences in school also support her development as a poet.

One of the central tensions of Call Me María is the Complex Relationships With Parents. This is clearly illustrated in how she navigates her relationships with her own parents, who are separated from one another, and whose relationship grows increasingly distant until María’s mother eventually decides to get a divorce and pursue a new relationship with a man in Puerto Rico. María’s understanding of this separation evolves over the course of the novel, as does her ability to express her feelings about her identity to both parents. María’s mother, Mami, lives in Puerto Rico, where she teaches English. Meanwhile, Papi, whose childhood was spent in the US, has chosen to live in New York City, where he is the superintendent for an apartment building. Over the course of the novel, María gains perspective about Complex Relationships With Parents and begins to build better boundaries for herself around her parents’ feelings toward each other. Toward the conclusion of the novel, María’s resolves some of the more complicated feelings about her family and herself by incorporating all of her different identities into one outfit for a dress-up day at school. Her pride and lack of self-consciousness in this moment emphasize just how far her sense of self has evolved since her move to New York City. From this point, her narrative takes on a new tone of confidence that is reflected in her more nuanced interactions within her family’s shifting dynamics.

As a young adult novel, Call Me María focuses on key concerns in adolescents’ lives. Throughout her time in New York City, María is engrossed in her friendships with Whoopee and Uma. She is also very invested in the respective romantic interests of her two friends as the three of them grow to be adolescents. As she gains new practical experiences and better understands her environment in New York City, she focuses on observing the actions of her different teachers and analyzing her own interactions with her peers. Ortíz Cofer deals with these topics in a sensitive way, narrating them from María’s perspective and showing the ways in which María resolves minor and major conflicts in her different interactions. María’s poetic descriptions incorporate quotes and ideas from her friends, parents, and teachers, a habit that illustrates the strong influence of external social relationships on her developing sense of self.

One of the most interesting aspects of Call Me María is the ability of María’s narration to span multiple genres and languages; the novel is punctuated by her poems, letters, and stories, in which she integrates Spanish, English, and Spanglish to develop her descriptions. María’s identity as a poet solidifies toward the end of the novel, giving greater meaning to Ortíz Cofer’s use of verse throughout the story. María’s confidence as a writer contributes profoundly to the development of her identity and her growing maturity as she develops her own voice in the world. Thus, Ortíz Cofer uses the character of María as a role model for readers who may also come from a multicultural background and may experience similar struggles to bridge the gaps between the various worlds they must inhabit each day. Poetry in particular plays a central role in this dynamic, and throughout the novel, Ortíz Cofer’s stylistic choice to shift rapidly between contrasting styles and voices serves to emphasize the disparate aspects of María’s own identity. By the story’s conclusion, it is clear that although there will always be different “Marías” within the protagonist, she has succeeded in melding those different selves together into a beautiful whole whose every part is fully celebrated and valued.