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Almost a Woman

Scheduled broadcast: September 15, 2002
(Confirm with your local station)

Almost a Woman is Esmeralda Santiago's memoir of leaving rural Puerto Rico at the age of thirteen for New York City with her mother and seven younger siblings. Quick to learn English and urban ways, she becomes her family's liaison to the challenges of a daunting new life.

Discussion Questions

Almost a Woman
by Esmeralda Santiago (1998)

  1. What different groups does Esmeralda identify herself with during the course of her narrative? How does she define herself at the memoir's end?

  2. Mami says that Esmeralda's cousins Alma and Corazon are Americanized (p. 12). What does Mami mean by "Americanized," and why does the word have such negative connotations for her? Why is she so afraid of Esmeralda's becoming Americanized too? Doesn't she also wish for Esmeralda and her siblings to enter into American life and to succeed there?

  3. How does Mami's trip to the welfare office make Mami look? Does the image that Mami presents to the welfare agent resemble the Mami that we have come to know from the book? Does this scene, and your knowledge of Mami's character, change or affect your ideas about welfare recipients and the welfare system?

  4. Listening to Mami, says Santiago, "had taught me that men were not to be trusted" (p. 14). The same could be said of Esmeralda's observations of her father, and of some of the other men in her community. What mixed messages about men, women, and love does Esmeralda pick up, as a child, from her parents? How does her mother's example affect her own relationships with men and boys? Why does she never feel "affection" for any man outside her family until she meets Allan -- although she is not in love with him -- whereas she has been in love with several other men?

  5. Mami has high expectations for her daughters: that they will remain virgins until marriage, that they will find good husbands, and that they will get married in a church. Yet the example Mami herself has provided is very different: eleven children by three different men, none of whom has married her. Is Mami entirely unreasonable on this subject? Do you have any sympathy for her and the discrepancy between her standards and her behavior?

  6. How can you explain the fact that Esmeralda accepts the marriage proposal of Jurgen, a man she has known only a few hours, when by her own admission she is deeply distrustful of men in general?

  7. How can you explain her affair with Ulvi and her willingness to go along with his dominating manner, his wish to separate her from family and friends, his rules and regulations? What of her special needs does Ulvi, alone among all the men she knows, meet?

  8. The relationship between Mami and Esmeralda is a complex one. "I felt guilty," Santiago remembers, "that so much of what little we had was spent on me. And I dreaded the price" (p. 86). What price does Mami try to exact? What does she expect of Esmeralda, and how far is Esmeralda willing to go to please Mami? What concessions does Esmeralda refuse to make when it comes to her own life? Do you find that the relationship between Mami and Esmeralda resembles that between Tata and Mami? In what ways is it different, and why?

  9. The film version of Almost a Woman begins entirely in Spanish, with subtitles in English, and ends almost entirely in English with some Spanish. How does this technique effect the viewer? What do these shifts represent? Imagine the film had been completely in English or Spanish. How would that have affected the impact of the film?

  10. The film ends with Esmeralda's high school graduation, while the book continues until just before her 21st birthday. Does the graduation scene in the book differ from the same scene in the film? How do you feel about each ending? How do the different endings change your experience of the story and its characters?

Questions 1-8 provided courtesy of Vintage Books

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