Identity in Conflict: Activities
"I don't belong here. I don't belong there. I don't belong anywhere."
Esmeralda, to her teacher
- Central to both the memoir and the film is Esmeralda's struggle to integrate a sense of self rooted in two languages and cultures. In the book, Esmeralda defines her struggle to define a home as "a rider on three horses, each headed in a different direction" (Puerto Rico, Brooklyn, and Manhattan). In the film, the same struggle is conveyed when Esmeralda, rehearsing her role as Cleopatra, says, in frustration,
It's impossible to act when I'm already acting . . .. I'm the English-speaking Esmeralda Santiago . . . [an] Americanized teenager who looks people in the eye even though it's disrespectful . . .. At home . . . I'm the Spanish-speaking humble, traditional girl with eyes down.
Consider the metaphor in the book of Esmeralda as a rider heading in different directions, and the definition in the film of Esmeralda as an actor in simultaneous but conflicting roles. Have students create a poster, graphic organizer, collage, sculpture, identity box, or other visual representation of the different aspects of Negi's identity. Which identity emerges as the most prominent? Which, if any, is Negi's "true" identity?
- Divide the class into small groups and have each group choose one of the following poems: "Coca-Cola and Coco Frío" by Martín Espada, "Here" or "Not Neither," both by Sandra Maria Esteves. After discussing their poem, have each group consider the poem in the context of Almost a Woman. How are the ideas or emotions in the poem the same or different than those in Almost a Woman? What would Esmeralda think of the poem? Have each group present a dramatic reading of the poem and their analysis.
- What are the images of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in American popular culture today? How have they changed in the past 50 years? Begin by asking students to brainstorm a list of associations about Puerto Rico and its culture. Then ask the class to design a multimedia research project by examining different aspects of Puerto Rican-American culture: music, plays and movies, literature, fashion, dance, food, etc. Have students present their findings in a variety of ways: a dramatic reading of a play, a movie review, a cooking class, a dance demonstration, etc. Ask students to conclude their presentation by explaining how the film Almost a Woman contributes to the image and understanding of Puerto Ricans in the U.S.
- Analyze the scene from Almost a Woman in which Esmeralda is beaten by girls belonging to a gang. The girls accuse Esmeralda of wishing to be a blanquita (white girl), and insult her by calling her a "spick" (pejorative term against Hispanics with an accent) and a jíbara (Puerto Rican country dweller). Why do you think they are so hostile to Esmeralda? What peer pressures does Esmeralda face? As a class, develop a "manifesto" in response to the incident as if it had occurred in your school.
- What prejudices do Esmeralda and her family experience? Ask students to create a list. How do these experiences affect Esmeralda? Now have students refer back to the interviews they did with immigrants. (See Before Viewing Activity 3.) Did they face discrimination? How did they deal with it? Compare and contrast their experiences with Esmeralda's.
- Explore the development of Negi's identity despite the conflicts between two seemingly contradictory roles:
- Rural Puerto Rico/Urban New York
- Puerto Rican/Hispanic
- Spanish (to express emotions)/English (to develop professional discipline)
- Loyalty to Puerto Rican culture/Assimilation to the American way of life
- Private, familiar spaces at home/Public spaces where a performance is required
- Subservient Puerto Rican daughter (Negi)/Assertive American student (Esmeralda)
Ask students to recall examples of these aspects of Negi's life in the film. How does Esmeralda try to integrate them? What might you have done if you were in Negi's position? Imagine you are Negi's friend, sister, or brother. How might you respond to her struggle? Have students put their reactions or advice in the form of a letter to Negi.
- When Mami confronts Esmeralda about wearing makeup, she says, "How dare you dress like . . . those American girls?. . .The last thing I expected from you is to throw away our culture because I brought you here." Esmeralda responds, "It's different here." Discuss how her family's "culture" and American "culture" are different. How does Negi seek to retain her culture? How does she rebel against it? Recall as many scenes as you can in order to answer the question. Write a letter to a future child of yours. What family "culture" would you want him or her to keep?
- In her poem "The Other," Judith Ortiz Cofer evokes the image of a "sloe-eyed dark woman" who "shadows" her throughout the day. Who is this woman? In another poem by the same writer, "The Changeling," Cofer addresses another aspect of traditional gender roles within Latino culture. After reading these two poems, discuss what the expectations are for women in Puerto Rican society. How does the film portray those roles? What aspects of those roles does Esmeralda embrace and what aspects does she reject? Ask students to choose another female character from a book they have read recently. What might Esmeralda and this character say to each other? Write a dialogue between the two in which they discuss their feelings about being "almost a woman."
- When Esmeralda graduates, she offers her diploma to her mother, saying, "This is as much yours as it is mine." What debt do you think Esmeralda owes her mother, if any? Is Mami a role model for Esmeralda? If so, how? Write a description of Mami from Esmeralda's point of view. Now write about Mami as if you were the principal of the school, the factory boss, or the welfare worker. How did your description change?
- Esmeralda tells her friend, "I want to go back, but my mother [doesn't]." Why do you think Esmeralda wants to return to Puerto Rico? Do you think she should? Why or why not? Why do you think her mother does not want to return? Read Martín Espada's poem "We Live by What We See at Night," which describes his father's "craving for that island birthplace." Have you ever wanted to live elsewhere or are you happy where you are? Draw a picture or take a photograph of a place you "crave" and write a caption explaining why.
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