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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Inquiry: Tomás Rivera and Esmeralda Santiago Session Author and Literary Works: Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago

Author Bio

Born in rural Puerto Rico in 1948, Esmeralda Santiago was the eldest of 11 children raised by a single mother. When she was 13, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Santiago quickly learned English. Accepted into the prestigious Performing Arts High School in Manhattan, she then spent eight years in community colleges before eventually winning a full scholarship to Harvard University. After graduating from a master’s program at Sarah Lawrence College, she and her husband, Frank Cantor, together founded Cantomedia, a film and media production company. Her writing career grew from her work there as a producer and writer of documentaries and educational films.

Santiago’s first book, the memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, was published in 1993 and received great critical praise. Her first novel, America’s Dream, followed in 1997. A year later, she published Almost a Woman, a second memoir that took up her life story at the point at which When I Was Puerto Rican ended.

Santiago writes: “I suppose that my life today is about looking at and trying to come to terms with ifs. Human beings are obsessed with the question of ‘who am I’? For someone like me, issues of identity are weighted and complicated by the event that has defined who I have become, because it was the migration from Puerto Rico to the United States that made me who I am.

“I was born in one place (Villa Palmeras) at a specific historical time (1948). I was raised in a rural environment (Macún, Toa Baja) that was becoming urbanized and developed to improve the island’s infrastructure (a highway destroyed most of our barrio). My first words were in Spanish, a language that, in Puerto Rico, was degrading into Spanglish. I was raised to conform to a culturally specific behavior of a time, a place, a language. It all changed in less than a day, and has had repercussions for the rest of my life.

“I was a different person in Puerto Rico from the one I became in the United States. Not better, not worse — different.”

In addition to her writing, Santiago is an active volunteer for public libraries, for arts programs for adolescents, and for battered women and their children. She lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband and two children.

Synopsis of "When I Was Puerto Rican"

Title of work: When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

Santiago’s memoir tells of her remarkable journey from the barrios of Puerto Rico to her graduation from Harvard University. A moving narrative of survival, When I Was Puerto Rican explores the universal immigrant theme of assimilation and its effects on family, culture, and identity.

The story begins in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. Santiago is the first of what will eventually be eleven children born to parents who are not married, and whose unmarried status is a source of constant tension in the household. Santiago describes her world, in both its beauty and its sadness, with a clear-eyed evocation of the tastes, smells, and sounds of the Puerto Rican countryside, and the rituals, concerns, and joys of her big, unruly family. For all its poverty and privation, however, Esmeralda is comfortable in this environment and knows who she is. But at 13, she moves with her mother and sisters to the alien, urban world of New York City. Here she must remake herself while struggling with a new language, a new culture, and a bewildering new set of rules and expectations of how a girl should behave.

“When I began writing this book, I had no idea it would result in a dialogue about cultural identity,” Santiago has commented. “But as I’ve traveled around the country talking about it, people tell me that, while the culture I’m describing may not be the same as the one they grew up in, the feelings and experiences are familiar, and some of the events could have been taken from their own lives. It has been particularly poignant to speak to immigrants who have returned to their countries only to discover how much they have changed by immersion in North American culture. They accept and understand the irony of the past tense in the title [of the novel], the feeling that, while at one time they could not identify themselves as anything but the nationality to which they were born, once they’ve lived in the U.S. their “cultural purity” has been compromised, and they no longer fit as well in their native countries, nor do they feel one hundred percent comfortable as Americans.

“When I returned to Puerto Rico after living in New York for seven years, I was told I was no longer Puerto Rican because my Spanish was rusty, my gaze too direct, my personality too assertive for a Puerto Rican woman, and I refused to eat some of the traditional foods like morcilla and tripe stew. I felt as Puerto Rican as when I left the island, but to those who had never left, I was contaminated by Americanisms, and therefore, had become less than Puerto Rican. Yet, in the United States, my darkness, my accented speech, my frequent lapses into the confused silence between English and Spanish identified me as foreign, non-American. In writing the book I wanted to get back to that feeling of Puertoricanness I had before I came here. Its title reflects who I was then, and asks, who am I today?”

Audio Clip with Esmeralda Santiago

It’s reading that saved my life. We had television, but it wasn’t watching television that allowed me to do the many things I have done that were never expected from someone like me. It was having access to books, it was having a library card and living at the library, it was being able to expand my world through this little object that I could throw in my purse and read at night under my blanket, or while I am having lunch. It was a way for me to be in a different place from where I was, and a way for me to see that the world was a lot bigger than our apartment in Brooklyn

Q & A with Esmeralda Santiago

What do you prefer writing, memoir or fiction?
Writing about my life and my experiences is something that just kind of flows, and it comes out very unedited and unjudged, whereas when I write fiction or when I write poetry, I am my own worst critic. Nothing is good enough. For some reason, writing memoir comes very easily and naturally. My nonfiction editor, who has been doing this for thirty years at least, says that in her experience, there are people who are either nonfiction writers or fiction writers — that are naturally one or the other. And she has always felt that I am a natural nonfiction writer. But I like novels, so it’s an interesting dilemma, because I think for me it’s a challenge to write fiction; whereas, writing memoir, it’s almost like an obligation.

What are some of your literary influences?
I think the biggest, biggest, biggest influence on me really is Homer. I constantly go back to The Iliad and The Odyssey whenever I am feeling sort of stuck, or when I am sad — or when I have read a book that had great promise but ended not being as good as I had hoped. I have four or five translations, including translations into Spanish, and I consult them all the time. And the way I consult is, either I’ll go to a favorite passage, or I’ll just open the book at random and begin to read, and read for five or ten minutes until I am back to feeling like myself. I also really love George Eliot, and I particularly love Middlemarch. That’s one of my favorite books of all time. I love Tolstoy, and I remember avoiding War and Peace for years, because I always thought, “a thousand-something pages, who has time?” There is just so much about life in it and humanity that I find very touching and very moving. And recently I’ve read some current fiction. This is unusual for me, because I pretty much tend to stay in the nineteenth century and earlier. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and really enjoyed it. I thought it was brilliant how he took the voice of this young Ukrainian boy whose first language is Ukrainian but is writing in English. His use of the syntax was absolutely wonderful.

[As] part of this research I am doing for a historical novel, I am also reading El Ingenio [a nonfiction work by historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals, published in Cuba in 1964]. [The author] went through every piece of paper he could about the day-to-day operations of a sugar mill in Cuba. The detail of everyday life for the people who worked in the sugar plantation is fascinating to me. I just love to create a life from this data.

Some literary scholars and educators have described a “Latina Renaissance.” Do you see it as such, and, if so, where do you fit in it?
Well, “Renaissance” implies that there was something, and it went away and came back. So it is not a renaissance. It is a real movement of women who share this Latina background who just refuse to be silent anymore. I think of it as this is long, long overdue, that these stories get told, and that women take control of telling their own stories. That’s why I began writing — I refused to be silenced and would do whatever it took to make sure that I was heard. Not because I felt like I had anything more important to say than anybody else did (there are people who are astoundingly talented), but I had some stories that did not exist in the literature, and I had to get them out there. And I think that that’s the case with many of these writers. It was this frustration at not seeing our lives reflected in the literature that drove us to make sure that we got these stories down. So maybe there will be a renaissance in 50 years, if we are forgotten, but it really is the birth of a new kind of literature. I think that along with people like Nicholasa Mohr and Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros, we were writing this work when no one was publishing it.

Information About Key References

This was the pre-Columbian name for the island of Puerto Rico.

Santiago grew up in this area of Puerto Rico before moving to New York.

The United States military has engaged in military training and bomb testing on this Puerto Rican island, against the protests of many Puerto Ricans and American citizens.

Hybridity and Acculturation
While traditional sociology and anthropology describe the immigrant experience as one of acculturation, the notion of hybridity describes a “multiple acculturation” process whereby immigrants acculturate to mainstream American society and, in turn, bring some of their own cultural practices into mainstream society. The idea of hybridity maintains that all cultures are very much alive and influential.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to "When I Was Puerto Rican"

Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir is as much an aesthetic text as it is a historical document and life story. The poetic language offers students an opportunity to use a reader-response approach in which they play with her phrases to create new meaning from the text. Students might take a particularly rich paragraph from the book and render it into verse or song.

A cultural studies exploration of the text might involve a study of the migration patterns of communities from the Caribbean and Latin America to the United States. Students might explore how and why people emigrate, and focus on stories of war, economy, trade, and colonization.

A critical pedagogy approach might explore the conflict with the United States over the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Students can read the excerpt of Santiago’s memoir describing the American invasion of Macún and then research the efforts of activists in Puerto Rico and the United States to stop the U.S. military from using Vieques as a military training site.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Santiago, Esmeralda. Almost A Woman. New York: Vintage, 1999.
Living in a New York City tenement with seven younger siblings, her grandmother, and her powerful mother, “Negi,” as Santiago’s family calls her, dreams of having her own life. Balancing the demands of being an American teenager with the strictures of being a good Puerto Rican daughter, Santiago evokes a teenagehood that is at once deeply personal and universal.

—-. América’s Dream. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Similar thematically to When I Was Puerto Rican, this novel tells the tale of a young girl, América Gonzales, who attempts to come to terms with her Puerto Rican past while living with a wealthy family in Westchester County, New York. América’s Dream explores the complexities of Puerto Rican womanhood and examines how cultural expectations are played out in both love and family relationships.

—-. When I Was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage, 1994.

—- and Joie Davidow (eds). Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Latino writers recollect their Christmas experiences.

—- and Joie Davidow (eds). Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers. New York: Knopf, 2000.
This collection of essays by Latin American writers focuses on the details of motherhood and family life.

Works about the Author

Aguinaco, Carmen. “Creative Tension: How Latina Writers Sense Two Worlds.” U.S. Catholic (1999): 34-35.
A critical discussion of Santiago’s place among other Latina writers.

Hernandez, Carmen. “Interviews with Writers.” Puerto Rican Voices in English. (1997): 157-169.
An interview with Santiago.

Martinez, Elizabeth Coonrod. “Maid in the USA.” Women’s Review of Books, 14 (1996): 22.
This article reviews América’s Dream.

Puleo, Gus. “Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean Literature Written in the United States.” Hispanic Review, 67 (1999): 407-411.
This article focuses on the dual identity of diasporic writers.

Szadziuk, Maria. “Culture As Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-Ethnic Space.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 32 (1999): 109-129.
This article reviews América’s Dream.

Esmeralda Santiago Homepage

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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