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Book Review: Cuando era puertorriqueña by Esmeralda Santiago

13 Apr

It took me a while to get to this year, but I finished my annual Spanish language read in just under a month. I was reading another book at the same time so I may have been able to finish it faster, but I think the short-story format was good for a slower pace. I found this book at a used book store in New Orleans when I was there for a conference. My copy is from World Book Night 2014 and says ‘Not for resale’ on it quite clearly but I don’t think that shop owner really cared.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cuando era puertorriqueña (When I Was Porto Rican) by Esmeralda Santiago

Summary from Goodreads:

Esmeralda Santiago’s story begins in rural Puerto Rico, where her childhood was full of both tenderness and domestic strife, tropical sounds and sights as well as poverty. Growing up, she learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of tree frogs in the mango groves at night, the taste of the delectable sausage called morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby’s soul to heaven. As she enters school we see the clash, both hilarious and fierce, of Puerto Rican and Yankee culture. When her mother, Mami, a force of nature, takes off to New York with her seven, soon to be eleven children, Esmeralda, the oldest, must learn new rules, a new language, and eventually take on a new identity. In this first volume of her much-praised, bestselling trilogy, Santiago brilliantly recreates the idyllic landscape and tumultuous family life of her earliest years and her tremendous journey from the barrio to Brooklyn, from translating for her mother at the welfare office to high honors at Harvard.

At first, I thought the stories and memories Santiago shared weren’t connected and I wasn’t sure I was going to get a good picture of her life and how things changed. I realized that this book was more of a love story to her mother and the changes she brought them through. We start with Negi (Esmeralda’s nickname) as a child, the oldest of three, with a loving father and mother living in rural Puerto Rico. As she grows up and her family expands, she sees the stress her mother is under to survive and how unreliable her father is. She becomes independent and smart and we start to see the Harvard graduate we know she will become. The stories along the way are sometimes funny and often sad. They speak a lot to the culture that raised Santiago and the identity she struggles to hold onto. The title is very moving and makes me want to learn more about a woman who no longer feels she can claim her homeland.

I felt Santiago was honest about her family. We don’t get a lot of character development from anyone besides her mother, father, and herself. Even her siblings tend to meld together. She sees her father through the eyes of a loving child when she is young and it’s only slowly that we see the fragile relationship between her mother and father and realize that he isn’t the amazing man she saw when she was younger. Her mother develops in the opposite way. At first, she’s overly strict and meek but she grows very strong and her strictness is her love. She shows herself to be an amazing and resilient woman who Esmeralda grows to admire.

Mami was my favorite character. She bucked tradition when needed and complied with it as much as she could. When the culture told her not to be a single, unwed mother who worked, she turned up her nose and did what she needed to do for her family. She relied on relatives and neighbors when she needed to but she never stopped being a devoted mother to her children.

Negi was easy to relate to as a child. I’m also the oldest, though of two, not eleven, and found her resentment of attention paid to younger siblings relatable. I always felt like my mom was more concerned about my brother because he was younger. Of course, you realize later that it’s never true and Negi realized it, the same as me.

Esmeralda Santiago
Image via the University of Michigan

Maybe it’s a recency bias, but the end of the book, Negi’s time in New York, was my favorite. Seeing her take control of her future and learn English the way she did was amazing and inspiring. The ways she helped her mother and siblings were remarkable and seeing the large burden placed on new immigrants was humbling.

When Mami went back to Negi’s father, I got frustrated. I thought she was finally strong enough to get away from him and had done what she needed to create a new life for her and the kids. When she went back, I wanted it to work. I wanted the reconciliation to stand. But it was obvious so quickly that it wasn’t going to last. I was glad when she was stronger in New York and stuck with Francisco when her mother was adamantly opposed. It was good to see her stand up for her happiness.

Based on the title, this book is almost in mourning of what the author feels she lost. She was Puerto Rican when she was a girl and is sharing her Puerto Rican heritage with us and celebrating her childhood. It’s one that’s unique someone growing up where she did in the time she did. She recognizes as well that she isn’t that person anymore. Moving to New York and her later experiences have clearly shaped her into someone who doesn’t identify as Puerto Rican any more. The book is a celebration of her childhood but leaves the reader wondering what comes after.

Writer’s Takeaway: Using short stories is a great way to share a childhood. There are certain events from my childhood I remember well and I feel I could write a similarly detailed story though a lot of my memories are blurs. I liked how Santiago used significant events to focus her stories but was also able to weave a longer narrative through them. It worked well as short stories and it also worked well as a cohesive memoir.

I enjoyed this book a lot and felt Santiago gold her story well. Four out of Five Stars

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
When I was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago | Emily’s Reads
When I was Puerto Rican: Reflection 1 | Amethyst in Academia
When I Was Puerto Rican: What effect does the past tense of the title have on the reader? At the end of the book, Esmeralda Santiago calls herself a hybird. Is their anger in her conclusion, as well as pride in her own achievement? | RAAA!!! Weblog
“When I was Puerto Rican” | Benweber’s Blog
Puerto Rican Migration | Ice74’s Weblog