Puerto Ricans in America
in English | en español
Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Ph.D:
From the hand-crocheted coverlet shown at the start to the home-sewn graduation dress, Masterpiece Theatre's Almost a Woman is a Nuyorican tale. The inspiring, sensitive screenplay, interpreted by Wanda de Jesús, Miriam Colón, and Ana María Lagasca, conveys one family's struggle to put food on the table, maintain traditional customs, and overcome the generational and societal culture barriers they encounter. These barriers are balanced by the warmth, support and unity found in this particular family.
Almost a Woman will undoubtedly become a classic for understanding the Puerto Rican emigrants' experience in New York City. It echoes the American immigration saga integral to this nation's history, but more significantly documents the uniqueness of the Puerto Ricans, American citizens since 1917.
In 1961, the adolescent Esmeralda (nicknamed Negi), her mother Ramona Santiago (Monin), younger sister and brother arrive at the Brooklyn tenement where they will live with their grandmother, Tata. While medical care for the boy's injured foot is the immediate reason for the move, the relationship between Monin and the children's father is also in trouble. To Negi, however, her father is an artist, a poet, the inspiration for her own writings and the source of everlasting homesickness.
When Monin, an experienced needle worker, answers an ad for a seamstress in Brooklyn, she takes Negi as her interpreter. Now Negi must play the part that many Nuyorican children did: that of the "go-between" -- the translator/mediator between adult family members and American authority figures -- doctors, employers, the school principal, the welfare department, the case worker. Negi becomes her mother's confidant and as she begins to comprehend the racist and judgmental attitudes held by Americans, or "white" people, towards Puerto Ricans, she begins to censor Monin's words, in an effort to save her from the harsh reality of prejudice.
By the 1960s globalization of industry had resulted in decreased production and labor market changes. Declines in manufacturing forced firms to leave New York and relocate to where labor was cheap and plentiful. Monin enters the job market as the city makes the uneasy transition from a manufacturing base to a financial and service economy.
Monin is employed as a piece, or section worker; she earns wages based on the number of pieces that she completes. Her skills place her in an occupation that offers unpredictable security and poor benefits. Shortly after, the factory closes.
Meanwhile, it is Negi's initial experience with the city school system that becomes the turning point in her life. If the garment industry was in trouble in 1961, so, too, was the school system, groaning under the weight of an influx of non-English-speaking students. With thousands of Spanish-speaking children overflowing classrooms every day during the largest Puerto Rican migration ever, there is no institutionalized system to deal with non-English speakers.
There is only a nascent system of bilingual education in the elementary schools Negi's brothers and sisters attend, and few, if any, English as a Second Language programs in the secondary schools. The common practice, as in Negi's case, was to enroll students from Puerto Rico in a lower grade, let them sink or swim, and Americanize them as soon as possible. Negi fights against demotion, citing her stellar academic performance in island schools, and challenges the authority of the principal. But Negi knows in her heart that she has shown "disrespect" to an elder, crossing into a realm of negotiation more American than Puerto Rican.
The conflict of identity, losing one's culture and becoming "white," is a major one in Negi's life. At this point in the Nuyorican experience, the multi-layered community incorporates a pioneer migrant generation, the first generation born in the city, and recent arrivals like Negi's family. Some cling to traditional ways while others are blending lo puertorriqueño with new aspects of New York life. Negi is caught between these currents. She can follow her friend Yolanda's street-smart example, or go the way of the girl gangs. She chooses neither, but begins to integrate an identity based on the synthesis of both cultures.
In so doing, Esmeralda's decision resonates with countless puertorriqueñas and Latinas who have come before her, and lights the way for many others yet to travel the complex, bicultural road towards womanhood.
Virginia Sánchez Korrol is professor and chairperson of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She is the author of From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City and Teaching U.S. Puerto Rican History and co-editor of The Way It Was and Other Writings. She has written many articles on U.S. Puerto Rican women and has served on curriculum development committees for the New York State Education Department. She is currently working on an historical encyclopedia of Latinas in the United States.
Sonia Nieto | Virginia Sánchez Korrol | Félix Matos Rodríguez
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Puerto Ricans in America | Puerto Rican Poetry | Esmeralda Santiago
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