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‘Conquistadora’ Paints Epic Tale of Love, Adventure in Puerto Rico

August 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The new novel "Conquistadora" paints a picture of love and adventure as a young women travels from Spain to Puerto Rico where her husband has inherited a sugar plantation. Jeffrey Brown speaks with author Esmeralda Santiago about the epic story and her own tale of teaching herself to read and write again after a stroke.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, a tale of history with a personal twist.

I recently sat down with author Esmeralda Santiago. Here’s our conversation.

Set in the 1800s, the new epic novel “Conquistadora” tells two coming-of-age stories: one of its heroine, Ana Cubillas, the daughter of Spanish aristocrats who becomes head of a plantation in the new world, and the other of Puerto Rico itself.

Its author, Esmeralda Santiago, came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was 13. She is author of the memoirs “When I Was Puerto Rican,” “Almost a Woman” and “The Turkish Lover,” and the novel “America’s Dream.”

And she joins me now. Welcome.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO, “Conquistadora”: Thank you.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this is an ambitious, big story. Did you set out with the idea of telling such an epic — so much scope?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well, I started out by trying to understand my ancestors because I come from…

JEFFREY BROWN: Your own ancestors?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: My own ancestors.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: I come from poor landless peasants who left no records. And so I began to read the story of Puerto Rico.

And the more I read the story, the more I realized I would never find my own ancestors, but I could make my imaginary ancestors. And so the book emerges as a result of my trying to create them, to create the people that might have been.

JEFFREY BROWN: So did you know much of the history before that?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Not as much.

I left when I was 13, and so whatever I learned in Puerto Rico in the schools, that’s all I — that’s all I remembered about the history. But the — the older I became, the more curious I was, and so I would buy books about the history, which I would — brought — bring back to the United States whenever I went there.

And so I owned a lot of it, and I didn’t read all of it until I was — became completely obsessed with the idea of finding my roots.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tell me about this — the main — the heroine, Ana. There was an interview I read where you said, “I worried I was creating a character who would have been impossible in that time and that place.”

And, yet, there she is, right?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: And there she is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well, I do believe that women like that existed. I just don’t think we have any records about them.

One, they really didn’t write. They were too busy doing what they needed to do. And, secondly, the literature in the 19th century in Puerto Rico, 99 percent was written by men, and women were just kind of sitting around embroidering most of the time in their books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: So, I knew that women like this existed. We just hadn’t heard about them. And so I had to create someone who was like — was a 19th century woman, but also who was modern.

JEFFREY BROWN: A 19th century woman who runs a plantation, and therefore has to deal with one of the overarching themes historically and in your novel, slavery.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Yes.

And she — when she comes to Puerto Rico, she knew — she had heard, of course, that there was slavery, but it wasn’t until she was there living among the slaves that she really understood what it meant. And she had to — she had a lot of conflicts about it, but she managed to get over it, because she kept thinking to herself, I have to do this. I have to work. I have to continue my work here. And these are my tools.

And that’s how she envisioned the slaves, were as the tools that she needed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about for you, thinking — you felt the need to explore this history, obviously, particularly slavery.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Yes. Yes.

Well, obviously, I come from African descendants at some point. My dad is very dark. My mom is very fair. So I know that somewhere along the lines on my father’s side at least, there would have been Africans. And so I wanted to know who they were and how they lived and what happened to them.

And it was difficult. I have to admit that when I was reading the history, and then when writing about it, I went through the entire gamut of emotions, from shame, embarrassment, to rage, anger, to also just admiration that they survived under the circumstances that they actually lived.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are, of course, not going to walk through the whole story here.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: No.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But I’m curious, when you go back and you look at the history, and then you create this, does it have reverberations for today?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well…

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you learn about yourself and about our society and about Puerto Rico today?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Right.

Well, you know, it’s really interesting that I became — I started this with a question, how did we become Puerto Ricans? And, of course, the first question is, who are the people? And the people were very, very mixed, from — not just from Spain. People think, you know, we all came from Spain.

No. There were people from Ireland, from Germany, from Italy. We are just a real mixture with the native population and with the Africans. And so that was really exciting to read just how — how mixed we are and how many different cultures came to our little island and made Puerto Rico what it is.

I also — I also — I didn’t know the history, so it was very poignant for me, because I realized, you know, at my age, I know more about American history than I did about this history of my island. And that was where embarrassment and shame mixed…

(LAUGHTER)

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: … but also joy in the possibilities of learning about my ancestors and knowing just a little bit more about me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of you, there is another part of this personal story, which I didn’t know about until recently, but I gather, when you were finishing this, you had a stroke?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you lost your ability to read and write?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: To read or write, yes, for — for about a year. And I had to teach myself how to read and write all over again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Relearn. Wow.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: I had to relearn it.

And I did it. If I had not come to the United States at 13, if I had not had to learn the language, I would have not have realized that it was very much the same experience when I first came here. I knew the alphabet. I would look at a book, and the words made no sense, because it was a language I couldn’t understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so you were relearning now the way you learned at 13?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: I was relearning. Yes, it was comprehension.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: My stroke completely affected comprehension.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: And so, even though I knew that the things were written and they made sense, they didn’t make sense to me.

And so I began by reading children’s books all over again…

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: As I did when I first came, and trying to connect the words to the objects. And, little by little, I relearned it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now you are OK?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: I’m OK. I was able to finish the book.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And you are here with us.

(LAUGHTER)

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one last thing. Did I read correctly; this is the first of a trilogy? Is that — is there more planned here?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well, I — there’s more planned, because the history was so fascinating and these characters continue to emerge into my imagination and to talk to me. And so I would love to write another book that includes some of these characters, not all of them, and that continues the history of Puerto Rico and how we became who we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The book is “Conquistadora.”

Esmeralda Santiago, nice to talk to you.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Very nice to see you. Thank you.