In 1961 Esmeralda Santiago moves to New York City from rural Puerto Rico with her mother and six siblings.
At thirteen, Esmeralda (nicknamed "Negi") is the oldest child, shouldering the responsibility of learning English as her mother's interpreter and guide through the challenges of their new life in America. Mami, Negi's passionate, beautiful mother, moves the family to the US seeking medical care for her son's chronically infected foot, which doctors in Puerto Rico want to amputate. Negi's stoical grandmother, Tata, is the matriarch of the American branch of the family.
Negi suffers a crisis of identity as a new immigrant, learning that she is lumped into a vague category called "Hispanic" that ignores the rich cultural distinctions of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, and other Latino traditions. In her mother's eyes she is also casi una mujer -- almost a woman -- an uncertain status that requires Mami's constant vigilance.
Though Negi is gripped with typical teenage anxieties about appearance and dating, she is still more obsessed with escaping the only existence she has ever known: poverty.
Fortunately, a junior high guidance counselor recognizes her potential and encourages her to apply to Manhattan's prestigious Performing Arts High School.
Given Negi's heavily accented English, it is a leap of faith for the counselor -- and also for the audition judges at Performing Arts, who dispense with Negi's painfully prepared monologue and ask her to let herself go in a pantomime of Christmas tree decorating. Though she has never had a Christmas tree in her life, she is enchantingly convincing and is admitted.
As Negi struggles through school, Mami works as a seamstress. Always in search of better living conditions, she moves her large family from apartment to apartment. The film ends with Negi's graduation from Performing Arts and her life poised on the brink.
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