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Esmeralda Santiago, the oldest of 11 children, grew up moving back and forth between the countryside and the city in Puerto Rico. She came to the United States in 1961, attended junior high school in Brooklyn and Performing Arts High School in New York City. She received degrees from Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College. Santiago now lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband and children.
An interview with Esmeralda Santiago
When an editor suggested she write her memoirs, Santiago started a journey through her childhood. Her first book, When I Was Puerto Rican, tells of her poverty-stricken but happy upbringing in Puerto Rico. Its sequel, Almost a Woman, carries the story into her challenging adolescence in Brooklyn, where she moved with her mother and siblings in 1961, when she was thirteen.
Both books have become classics in the literature of emotional and cultural awakening, and have won Santiago an enthusiastic readership.
Santiago has also written a highly praised novel, América's Dream; she is currently working on her second novel and her third volume of memoirs.
What prompted you to write about your life?
It was the experience of returning to Puerto Rico right after I graduated from Harvard. This was about twelve years after I had come to the United States, and I had not been back in all that time. I was very proud of myself -- the daughter of the island of enchantment returns! But to my surprise, I had a very negative reception. Many Puerto Ricans questioned my 'Puerto Rican-ness,' because I had lived in the United States for so long. The Puerto Rican culture that I had with me was the one of twelve years earlier, and that's the one that I was functioning in, not realizing that everything had changed. So when I came back to the United States, I began to write about these issues, really for myself so I could understand them. Two or three years later, I was by then married and had a child, and I began to think about my mother and what it must have been like for her. At the same age, she had already had nine children. That's when I began to write these personal essays that I thought were good enough to be published. The first one was about how my life is lived in English, but my internal life is in Spanish. A few years later, I was discovered by [book editor] Merloyd Lawrence, who saw one of the essays in the Radcliffe Quarterly and offered me the opportunity to write a book of memoirs.
How were you able to remember your childhood in such rich detail?
When Merloyd asked me to do the first book, I said to her, 'Merloyd, I don't remember my childhood! I only have two strong memories, and I don't think I can build a book around two strong memories. She said, why don't you take those two strong memories and write them out and see where they lead you?' That's exactly what happened. I began the book when my family moved to Macún [Puerto Rico] when I was four. I touched the sunny side of the metal wall of the house and burned my fingers; that was the first strong memory. The second one was also a tactile memory, of closing a dead baby's eyes, which happened when I was around nine or ten. So I began with the first memory, and before I knew it I had written a couple of hundred pages. I was surprised at how much I remembered and how accurate the memory was, because later on, when my sisters and brothers read the book, none of them argued with the way I remembered things.
What is it like to see your life turned into a movie?
It is the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to me! It is so strange to see scenes from your life being played out by somebody who looks the way you did, because Ana Maria Lagasca looks a lot like I did at that age. Plus everything is so distilled and compressed and combined. Something that might have taken place over the space of a year happens within two minutes. Those things were bizarre for me. I had to constantly be reminded by [executive producers] Marian Rees and Anne Hopkins that, in fact, this was a movie; it was not a documentary. And also I had to control myself not to get emotionally involved in the process of the film, because it would have interfered with my ability to be of use to the filmmakers. So it was an emotionally exhausting time for me.
Since you were trained as an actress, were there aspects of the performances that you particularly liked?
I loved the way Wanda De Jesus conveyed the dignity that my mother has. No matter how many times people tried to beat her down, she just wouldn't stay down. And I think Ana Maria was very successful in capturing my bewilderment, innocence, and wide-eyed wonder. Also, in their scenes together, there is this prickly relationship that mothers and daughters have; they did a wonderful job conveying that. It's a very complex relationship, and I think a lot of it came through.
Do you get a lot of mail from people who read your books?
I get a lot of mail from all ages, in both English and Spanish, because my books are in published both languages. It's really remarkable to see the variety of experiences that are related to me in response to what I write. That is the dream of any writer -- to make that very personal and intimate connection with your reader.
Do your readers tend to identify with your life?
They tend to compare the experiences in the book to similar incidents in their lives. For instance, somebody would write and say, I grew up in Kentucky, but when I went to school in Connecticut it was like learning a whole new culture. The letter has nothing to do with being Puerto Rican, or a woman, or having Spanish as a first language, or moving to New York. It really has to do with an experience that is universal: the experience of being faced with something new in which your identity is challenged. People do make these leaps based on my writing, and that is so satisfying.
You're in wide demand for school appearances...
My books are in a lot of schools -- high schools and colleges mostly. I've done long tours, talking to students and to the professors that teach them. And I also talk to a lot of librarians and teachers' groups.
The questions from the younger groups, in middle school, tend to reflect more what's going on in their own lives. They'll say something like, when your uncle touched you inappropriately, why didn't you tell your mother? They're interested in the things that are left out of the story, situations where the behavior would be different today than it would have been in 1961. When I get into the older groups, they're much more interested in the craft of writing. If I talk to college students, they ask, how did you remember so much? How did your family react to your books? What was it like to say so many intimate things in such a public forum? So it really varies by the age group.
What other feedback do you get from readers?
Many times I'll get letters from kids who'll say, 'In our class we had to read the prologue and the first two chapters of your book. But I liked it so much I read the whole thing!' I get letters from people who say, 'this is the first book I have ever read cover to cover.' This might be from kids who've been in gangs or young women who got pregnant at fourteen and are dealing with life as a single mother. I've gotten letters from people in prison who've been sent the book. I get a lot of mail from people who find the book serendipitously, on their aunt's bedside table or someplace. The reactions I love the most are the ones that say, 'your book has inspired me to continue my education; your book has taught me that even though there is prejudice and racism, and people treat me badly because I'm poor, or short, or blind, or whatever, I know I can succeed.' They thank me for sharing a story that ultimately helps them feel inspired to do something that is very, very difficult to do. It's so great to get that kind of reaction. When I was a young woman struggling with a lot of these issues, I so wished that there had been a book like this to help me feel that way.
In Almost A Woman, you say the first book you ever bought was The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, which sounds like it served that function for you...
I was desperate. There was no one I could turn to for help through this morass of my life. If you belong to a church at least you have God, but I didn't even have that. So I was just searching for a way to learn if people like me had ever existed, and if they had existed, what happened to them? I must have been sixteen or seventeen. The reason it came to my attention was because it was a popular book at the time.
What this book did was tell me that I didn't have to look outside myself for a role model; I could look inside and if that person didn't exist, I could be that person. I don't know that I entirely understood everything the book was saying. But at the time it was the perfect book for me, because it gave me very specific things to do in order to get where I wanted to go. It talks about setting goals, making lists, being organized -- all the things that I didn't have in my life. I didn't get them from anywhere else. It's the example of the right book at the right time.
When you were younger, you were very influenced by Archie comics...
Archie was my best friend. The thing that was great about Archie is that it had these bubbles with dialog, where I actually could read the slang of my generation -- very clean slang, not like the slang that was being spoken on my street. I really looked forward to going to my cousin's house, because she had a subscription to Archie. To me the characters were real people. They were American kids.
Did you have any contact with people like that?
Not at all. The very first time I did was when I was in my early twenties and living in Lubbock, Texas. I was in a neighborhood of ranch houses and very neat streets. That's when I said to myself, oh my God, I am in Archieland! Later, I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, for six or seven months, and I said, I am in Archieland again! The way people behaved, the way teenagers were, the way they dressed wasn't really that far from what I had imagined from the Archie comic books.
Was your mother's strictness unusual for a mother in your neighborhood?
I think it was not at all unusual for that generation. It isn't unusual now if you look at some of the families coming up to the United States from Mexico, Guatemala, and similar places. They have a lot of the same values, especially for male/female roles, protection of virginity, and that sort of thing. My mother thought that the kids who were allowed to run all over the place were the unusual ones. She would say that the United States has done this to them, that in American culture families don't stick together; they don't love being with one another every second of the day. To her, family values meant that we were this little tribe. I think of the circumstances in which I grew up as like a village; it was a village of eleven children and three adults. When I left the apartment, I literally left the village and was in a completely different culture.
And when you went to high school in Manhattan?
I was just wide-eyed. My graduating class from high school has recently started getting together for reunions. So I have come to know a lot of those people who were not my friends when I was there, because I was not part of that culture. Now, as I talk to them, the things they say about me are so funny. They talk about my being very innocent and happy. They say, 'you were just always smiling!' I remember my adolescence as the most miserable time of my life! But somehow I managed to convey something completely different.
Did any of your high school classmates become famous?
There are several who are musicians in orchestras around the country. One of the men had a long stand on Sesame Street before he died. A couple classmates have been working actors. So none of us has reached the kind of fame, perhaps, that we dreamed about. They talk about me as being the most famous in our graduating class, in terms of public recognition. But, you know, I think we all wanted to be Jennifer Lopez, but not one of us reached that goal.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm working on a historical novel that follows five generations of a Puerto Rican family, beginning in 1844 and ending in the late 1990s. For me, it's a way of exploring the Puerto Rico of another era before I was born; and then the generation that I am a part of will make up the last third of the book. The research involved is tremendous. I was saying to somebody yesterday, if I ever say I'm going to write a historical novel again, shoot me first!
Will there be a third volume of your memoirs?
Yes. I'm about one-fifth of the way through it. It's about creating an identity from the raw materials that have been given to you. I will talk about the kinds of adventures that I had as a mature woman. Some of them happened to me because of my innocence; and some of them happened to me because I chose to do certain things. It was a very long and painful process and it's also a book that I don't think will be appropriate for some of my younger readers. I will devote myself to it after I finish the novel, which I hope will be this summer (of 2002).
What became of your parents?
My father is still alive and lives in Puerto Rico and is still married to the woman that he married right after we left. We've stayed in touch. He's very proud of the work that I do, and he's just thrilled with the film.
My mother lives in Florida.
Did she ever learn to speak English?
Yes. She speaks very good English, but she refuses to do it around us because she's very proud, and she thinks she doesn't pronounce it well. She has a job in Orlando, where she works in social services, and I know that she has to speak English. We used to speak in English to each other so that she wouldn't know what we were saying, until we finally figured out that she knew exactly what we were saying.
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