Esmeralda Santiago

Ida N. Torres

Esmeralda Santiago: Always a Puerto Rican
Ida N. Torres
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4

Talking candidly about feminism, cultural identity, class, and her family, Esmeralda Santiago admits that her literary success is attributed to her mother, the protagonist in her real life story that gave her the will and desire to succeed.

CONQUISTADORA IS AN HISTORICAL NOVEL that traces the life of a young Ana Larragoity Cubillas who, inspired by the adventures of her ancestors, travels from Spain to Puerto Rico. Ana confronts isolation, poverty, oppressive heat, disease and hard physical labor in Puerto Rico. As she faces each new challenge, Ana becomes stronger, and as she creates a place for herself on the island, she acquires a greater awareness and understanding of her true identity. Ana is a “conquistadora,” a woman who overcomes obstacles in order to reach her goals, and like Ana, Esmeralda Santiago, who immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York, from poverty to the ivory halls of Harvard, has found her place in American society and the literary world, creating a voice through characters that readers can believe in and ultimately see in themselves.

With the publication of her first book and memoir in 1993, When I Was Puerto Rican, Santiago’s body of work chronicles her development into womanhood and the many challenges she faced and confronted in becoming the successful woman she is today.

She was born in Puerto Rico, the eldest of eleven children raised by a single mother. When Santiago was 13 years old, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Within two years, she learned enough English to be accepted into the prestigious Performing Arts High School. She spent eight years studying part-time at community colleges while working full-time until she was accepted as a transfer student to Harvard University with a full scholarship and received her Master’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College. Upon graduating magna cum laude in 1976, she and Frank Cantor, her husband founded, CANTOMEDIA, a film and production company that has won numerous awards for excellence in documentary filmmaking.

Santiago’s writing career evolved from her work as a writer of documentary and educational films. Class, gender, race, culture, poverty, education, family and the migratory experience are all factors that impacted her development and identity. In When I was Puerto Rican, Santiago narrates her childhood in the rural town of Macún in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico through her adolescent years in Brooklyn. In 1998, Santiago published her second memoir, Almost A Woman. Here, she depicts the loosening of family bonds as she travels from Brooklyn to Performing Arts High School in Manhattan where she trains to become an actress. Almost a Woman received numerous “Best of Year” mentions, in addition to an Alex Award from the American Library Association. It was adapted into a film for Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, which premiered nationally on PBS on September 14, 2002.

In her third memoir, The Turkish Lover, Santiago separates from her controlling mother and demanding family life to live with her lover, Ulvi Degan, who is 17 years her senior. Ulvi becomes increasingly controlling, and she begins to liberate herself from him when, at the age of 25, she applies to Harvard University and is accepted as a transfer student. It was selected as a BookSense recommendation for September 2004 and appeared on several “Best of 2004” lists.

Besides her memoirs, Santiago has published two novels, America’s Dream (1996) and Conquistadora. In America’s Dream, the protagonist, América Gonzalez, is a housekeeper in a hotel in Puerto Rico when an opportunity arises to move to New York, and she leaves behind her alcoholic mother, abusive married lover and her rebellious teenage daughter. America’s Dream was an Alternate Selection of the Literary Guild.

Santiago’s recent book, Conquistadora, reads like an historical novel, where historical facts and the way of life in Puerto Rico during the 1800s become part of the story. Set mostly in Puerto Rico between 1844 and 1865, Conquistadora, the first of a planned trilogy, ends with Puerto Rico, Cuba and Brazil as the only colonies or countries yet to emancipate their slaves. In the novel, Ana, from an aristocratic Spanish family, is inspired by an ancestor, one of the earliest conquistadores, and inherits a struggling sugar plantation that relies on slave labor.

As in Santiago’s memoirs, Conquistadora explores cultural identification, mother-daughter relationships and abusive relationships. Ana is a woman who makes unconventional decisions in order to reach her goals. She gives up her comfortable life in Spain to live and work in the underdeveloped countryside of Puerto Rico. The acquisition and development of the land takes precedence over her son whom she gives to his paternal grandparents after her husband dies.

Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in national newspapers, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and in mass market magazines like House & Garden, Metropolitan Home, and Good Housekeeping. Santiago is also coeditor, with Joie Davidow, of the anthologies Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories (1998); and Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers (2001), both published by Knopf. She has done extensive work for victims of domestic violence, which includes the founding of a Youth Service Center and a shelter for battered women in Massachusetts. Santiago holds an Honorary Doctoral of Letters from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, Pace University in New York, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Currently, Santiago lives with her husband in the suburbs of Westchester County, 35 miles north of Manhattan. They summer in Maine (“my writing place,” she says) and winter in Puerto Rico or “someplace warm.” Their two grown children are professional musicians.

Santiago’s stories, both personal and fictional, are about the struggles of women who move from one culture to another and the many challenges they face in maintaining their identity and finding a path in life. The immigration experience, gender issues, race, education, family values, cultural values, and romantic relationships are all part of her stories. Esmeralda Santiago narrates the process of transformation and development of identity of her characters as strong women who struggle to live within the prescribed roles for women but whose actions often challenge traditional Puerto Rican cultural values.

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Amongst your literary work, you have three memoirs and two novels; your latest is an historical novel. Each one of these books is an exploration of your identity as a Puerto Rican and a woman. The theme of this issue of phati’tude, “¿What’s in a Nombre? Writing Latin@ Identity in America,” explores how Latinos or Hispanics see themselves and each other through literature and arts. The title of your first book, When I Was Puerto Rican, brings up the question, “What is a Puerto Rican?” What were you trying to convey about being Puerto Rican with this title?

Well, you cannot stop being who you are. The title actually is the single most frequently asked question about my work. Why is it past tense? It’s really not about “being” but about what happens to us . . . not just Puerto Ricans but anybody who leaves home . . . the process of hybridization that takes place for someone who migrates from one culture and language group to another. So that is one of the reasons why it’s in the past tense. I will never be as Puerto Rican as I was when I was living in Puerto Rico, a time when I didn’t have any contact whatsoever with a foreign culture. But the minute you leave and another culture begins to enter yours, whether you travel to it or it travels to you, you begin to lose some of your cultural identity as you begin to adopt some of the culture that is coming into your world. That’s part of the reason why the title is in the past tense.

The other reason is because of an experience I had that many migrants and immigrants experience, which is that after you leave, when you return, the people you left behind find you suspicious. For example, when I first returned to Puerto Rico, people would say things to me like, “You are no longer Puerto Rican,” “You don’t dress like a Puerto Rican,” “You have a slight accent,” and “Your Spanish is not as fluent,” but when you look in the mirror, you look exactly the same to yourself. There is this other sense that you have changed even though you don’t want to believe that you’ve changed. When these feelings come, you are shocked that you’ve become a different person in spite of every effort to remain exactly the same.

I think maybe it’s our curse. When it comes to the culture, the people who never leave are very unhappy about the people who have left them behind. They will criticize you and make it very, very difficult for you. This not only happened to me in the mid-1970s, but it still happens to me today, and other immigrants as well. Let’s say, a Dominican will tell me about going home after living in the United States for ten years, and when they return, their people are telling them they are no longer “Dominican.” This process is continuous and invisible to you, but it’s visible to the ones you’ve left behind.

Instead of making you a better person, this ordeal can make you into a different person in a negative way. Those kinds of issues, those kinds of questions, those kinds of scenarios, were part of my desire to begin a conversation about all of these things. So writing When I Was Puerto Rican was my attempt to get that discussion going. Naturally, at the time I didn’t realize it was a global issue, I thought it was just a Puerto Rican issue but have since learned that this happens pretty much all over. If you leave your home, it’s pretty hard to return as the person you “used to be.”

Our identities are forged by our life experiences, the environment we encounter, and being Puerto Rican is complex because of the social, economic, and cultural factors that are complicated by the fact that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. We are American citizens by law, but in some situations, we are not. When we come to the mainland and come in contact with mainstream American values, the conflicts get more complicated. When your mother brought you to New York when you were 13, which in of itself is a difficult age, what would you say were the biggest cultural and values conflicts you encountered?

I think for me the biggest issue was class. I was a jíbaro. We were a landless jíbaro family. I came from a rural part of Puerto Rico to the biggest city in the world, New York, right smack in the middle of Brooklyn. For me, personally, learning the language was not as difficult as learning the culture, and learning how society is divided between the poor and rich, the whites and the blacks. What do you call yourself when you are a jíbaro in Brooklyn? That person doesn’t exist here or does she? As a very curious, soul-searching kind of person, those were the kinds of things I was trying to figure out for myself.

I also felt the inequities between men and women. I was just entering adolescence and was beginning to understand these power issues. I lived with a woman who was both a mother and father to us, who worked just as hard as any man, who behaved with the freedoms that men had in the United States. Yet, she was also a woman who told her daughters to behave differently because she didn’t want us to grow up to be like her. I found these ideas very challenging and found myself constantly going against the “status quo.” I was trying to figure out and understand how I should behave, given those kind of rules that were running against my own ambitions. Yes, I was very ambitious and I was the kind of kid who had dreams for herself . . . in a sense, I was a visionary. I kept asking myself how do I fit in this new culture and these new friends, what is society telling me, and what am I learning at home? Those kinds of things I found emotionally exhausting, and it made things very challenging for me during my early and mid-adolescence years.

At the time you came to New York, the issue of class in Puerto Rico was more at the forefront than race. You came to New Your during the era of the Civil Rights and feminist movements, and when Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were struggling for access and equality in American society. You came to New York during a period of turmoil, especially around the issue of race. Did that make you more aware of your sense of identity in terms of color?

Yes, definitely I was very aware. If you look in the mirror, you have the awareness of who you are and what you look like outside of the mirror. Yes, I was very aware of that. I attended Performing Arts High School, and as I became heavily involved in the arts, I found that race was not as challenging as class issues. For example, my very best friends were a Black Puerto Rican woman and an African American man. I accepted them for who they were, accepted them for their talent as musicians and artists. What I found challenging was gender and class issues . . . poverty. It was harder for me to be poor than to be dark-skinned because I didn’t have access to the economic resources to do what I wanted to do in the arts. So, the concept of color was a little bit different, for me.

I think you are right. I arrived in New York at a time when these kinds of discussions were taking place, so I was extremely aware, and yes, while I suffered from prejudice and discrimination, for me it was more an issue of class, moving from being a jibaro into something else. My desire to reach a certain economic level was not to get rich but to obtain the resources that I needed for art — that was always the focus for me. My mother never said to us, “because your skin is dark, colored, you are never going to be able to make it.” She was more concerned about us doing our best, so we could obtain the resources we needed to succeed. This was the message I was getting. If you are born dark-skinned, you cannot become a white person — Michael Jackson tried that and failed tragically — but you shouldn’t let your color get in the way. It doesn’t matter if you are Indian, Asian, African or Latino and poor, you can still achieve certain things in life as long as you are willing and have the vision and desire to succeed.

Also, I have to add this: I don’t think I’m a person who is easily offended when somebody says something that’s humiliating. If someone says to me, “you stupid spic,” well, I know I’m not stupid. You can call me stupid all you want but I’m not going to become “French” all of a sudden to make them happy because in the end, people have to deal with me the way I am. Let’s just say I’m not easily offended by ignorant people, which is one of the reasons I’ve become the person I am today.

Your books would be considered feminist. The central characters are strong and resilient women. In your essay “First Born,” found in Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers, you also describe your mother in very vivid, colorful language. You describe her strengths and weaknesses and convey your mother’s love for you. You refer to the strict disciplinarian measures she used, and you write, “I could not excuse it, but I forgave it. I forced myself to look beyond resentment to who she was when she and we were growing up. And in looking at her life, I found lessons, chief among them: don’t dwell in the past or you will drown in sorrow.” (p.5) What other lessons did you learn from your mother?

It’s really funny because I am living close to my mom again, and I get to see her often, and she still tells me what to do. One thing is certain, she is still a feminist thinker and believes that a woman can do anything a man is capable of. She passed on to all her daughters that we are equal in terms of our abilities, our intelligence, our ability to work, our visions, our imaginations, our dreams, our ambitions, all those things. When she was growing up, these were things that were allowed only to men. She told us, “You and your brothers are equal in my eyes, and all of you can become who you want to be, so long as you have ambition, vision and the willingness to work,” something we have all shared and passed on to our children. This is why I believe there is absolutely no difference between men and women in terms of ambition and abilities.

Even today, my mother continues to talk to her granddaughters and great granddaughters about relationships. “Don’t stay in a bad relationship thinking that it’s going to get better,” she often says. And she should know, my mother had five husbands! Her thing was: If it didn’t work out you just move on, the world is full of men. [Laughs] She said this to my daughter when she was thirteen, and my daughter went “Oh my God!” she couldn’t believe her own grandmother was telling her this! My mother is always saying, “Live your life but don’t get stuck in it. If you’re stuck, get unstuck.” If things were not working out in a particular way, my mother would try to change the situation, so she could have different outcomes. This advice has always been very, very helpful to me.

In Almost a Woman, you write: “Mami drilled into me that I had only one asset. I wasn’t the prettiest of her six daughters, or the strongest of her children, but I was, she often said, intelligent. It was the power of the intelligence that I trusted” (p. 288). Intelligence was not a characteristic that was often attributed to girls; girls were more valued for their feminine assets and skills, a characteristic that many women do not recognize in themselves. How did being characterized as “intelligent” affect you?

That really was the biggest gift that my mother gave me, you know. Because the thing about being intelligent is that no one can take that away from you. They can call you names, they can torture you if they want to, they can do anything they want to you, but they cannot take away a quality or an ability of who you are because it is innate. My mother was very clear about this. So as long as I used my intelligence, I could make it work for me. Things could happen for me regardless of what people might say or do. I think this is an amazing gift to give to your daughters. Instead of telling us how beautiful we are, because beauty often fades, my mother told her daughters they are intelligent, which is actually better. The older you get, the smarter you become, and then you get wise as an old woman. She gave me the biggest gift that I could ever receive.

In the Turkish Lover you describe a scene where you are walking on Harvard Square, and you say “I belong here.” Your higher education experience can be considered nontraditional for a woman, especially a Puerto Rican woman from Brooklyn. You attended Manhattan Community College, transferred to Harvard at 25 years old, at a time when Harvard was just beginning to admit women. What made you so sure that you belonged in Harvard? What impact did the Harvard experience have on your life?

It changed my life. From the moment I arrived, I felt that I belonged there, I wanted to be there, and was happy that I did what I could to make it happen. I think it’s a question of recognizing that very often we are stopped by our fears. I could have very easily remained in the same place and continued to be terrified by my surroundings, so terrified that I could have said “I am not even going to try.” Even when I did get to Harvard, I could have easily given up and failed. But, when you have a sense of yourself, your ambitions, your desires and your abilities, this is what gets you through.

I have become very involved with women’s issues and women’s groups in New York, and one of the things I realized is that we defeat ourselves. That was one of the things I did not want to do. In a fair fight, if somebody else defeats me, I will accept defeat, but I will not defeat myself. I will not sabotage myself.

When I look back on my experiences at Harvard, I am so thrilled to have been there. When I read my journals from those times I find that I was upset a lot and cried often. I often faced a lot of humiliation, and there were moments when I just wanted to give up, but I didn’t. At the time I thought, “I don’t want to leave this place because it’s someone else who wants me to leave.” My attitude back then, as it is now, is they are going to have to deal with me. I always tried to use my own intelligence, rather than have other people use it. I think this attitude has helped me a lot.

As the oldest of eleven children, you were expected to be a role model, take care of them, and negotiate your place in the family with your siblings. Did this help or hinder your development?

I think it has both helped me and held me back. I can only describe it like dominoes that are lined up; if one falls, they all fall. That was the terror that my mother instilled in me. If you make a false step we all fail. It was really hard for me at times, and I was often afraid something bad would happen. I had to be really organized, have a plan “A,” plan “B,” and plan “C” on hand just in case, which helped me a lot. In terms of it having a negative impact, there was a lot of pressure on me from when I was a little kid. I was a very sensitive little girl, but I couldn’t express it. I didn’t cry easily. I wouldn’t show my weaknesses because if I was weak everyone else would see I was weak. I was the kind of person that had to pull back her emotions because it allowed everyone else to have los nervios. To this day, everybody in my family can fall apart except “Negi.” This is the attitude that is in our household. In my family, if I fall apart, they say we have to shore her up before we can get better. So that was the pressure, but strangely, it was also a comfort.

You have written three memoirs. How does your family feel about you telling their life story along with yours?

They have all been very supportive in every single way. Generous not only in their gratitude but in their celebration of the work I have done. This is especially true when I published my first book because there were things my family would have preferred I didn’t write about. But to their credit, they let me do what I felt I had to do. They gave me the strength to continue to do it after the first one. Let me put it this way: If they had been negative after I published When I Was Puerto Rican, it’s almost certain there wouldn’t have been an Almost A Woman, and other memoirs, because I care about them and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them.

I am lucky. My family has been nothing but generous, welcoming, and celebratory. They have never said, “You shouldn’t have done this,” or “You said something that’s a lie.” There might be some slight disagreement in the way a certain incident is perceived, but in terms of the big picture, they have been nothing but generous.

Your latest book, Conquistadora, is an historical novel. What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to explore Puerto Rican history and my Puerto Rican ancestry. But I didn’t want to do it like, listing a bunch of names and statistics. I was interested in how people lived and the history of their times. I wanted to learn more of what it might have been like for my great grandmother and great grandfather, or great aunts and uncles. That’s really how this book began. I didn’t set out to write an historical novel. I set out to find out more about the people I descended from and found a way to express it.

Would you say your books allow you to hold on to your sense of being Puerto Rican? Do the books keep on affirming your identity?

I don’t have to hold on to who I am. I am Puerto Rican. I don’t write for that reason. I write because I am a creative person, an imaginative person, and this is what I have chosen to do with my life. You could say that trying to learn more about my ancestors is a way of holding on to my Puerto Rican ancestors, but it’s also the curiosity of someone who is at a certain stage in her life who knows that more of my life is behind me than ahead of me.

When you get to a certain age, you begin to look back beyond yourself. I did that with the memoirs, but it’s much easier when you’re writing a novel. When you write this kind of book, you’re looking beyond your experiences into the experiences of the people who came before you and who made it possible for you to become the person that you are today. That includes, yes of course, Puerto Ricans, but it also includes Corsicans, Canarios, Asturianos, and in my case Catalanos, Bascos, Indios, and Africans. For me, my historical novel is my gift to my ancestors and to thank them for making it possible for me to become the person that I am today.

Would you consider yourself an American writer or a Latina writer?

I consider myself a Latina writer because I am a Latina. I am very specific that I am actually a Puerto Rican Latina. I don’t introduce myself as “Hi, I am Esmeralda. I’m a Puerto Rican / Black Latina / Black / woman writer.” I think these labels are imposed by other people, not by me. When someone asks me where I’m from, I say Puerto Rico. It’s okay if people want to do it, but I’m not going to spend my emotional energy arguing about it because I made the decision long ago it’s not how I want to spend my creative time. You can call me whatever you want.

Today, the literary scene is very different from when you began publishing. Today, we have other Latinos: Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Central and South Americans, who are publishing. Do you think that Latino/Puerto Rican literature has found a place in the American literary tradition?

Yes, definitely I think that writers whose ancestors are from Latin America are becoming a force in the publishing world. Unfortunately, it’s come at a time when publishing is changing very, very rapidly. So traditional publishers are completely baffled, and they are just as confused as everyone else with all this new technology, making it harder for anyone, regardless of culture, to find a spot in whatever is left of “traditional” publishing. But having said that, publishing has opened up for anyone that can blog, self-publish, use print-on-demand, and other kinds of possibilities we didn’t have fifteen years ago. Even with all of this confusion, a good writer will always find an audience. It may be more difficult because there are more writers searching for an audience, but I think there are many more opportunities for us to express ourselves in the literary arts, and it’s just a question of how we envision ourselves as writers. Do I call myself a writer because I’m a blogger that writes and publishes every single day, where people are reading my work and responding to it? I think the concept of being a “writer” has evolved dramatically and has become an individual and personal self-descriptor.

You recently had a health issue that affected your use of language. How has that affected you?

My stroke. It made me aware of how frail life is. We have to seize the day. Physically do what you need to do. Don’t dream about something: just go out there and do it. I’m out there trying to write three books at once because you never know what may happen. It has made the time issue very present for me, and has made me very aware of my health. I’ve become healthier as a result of having had a stroke, and it has made me very aware of how I eat, and I exercise to keep my weight down. The people I see around me, my sisters and my mother, suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health problems that are related to life style, and so I have changed my life, so I can live longer and continue to write books, because I still have stories to tell and share with others.

IDA N. TORRES has a B.S. degree from City University of New York and an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is an educator that focuses on the adult learner.

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