When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago


Title: When I Was Puerto Rican
Author: Esmeralda Santiago
Genre: Memoir, Coming of Age
Topics: Mother-daughter relationships, Puerto Rico
Triggers: Sexual abuse, assault
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publishing Year: 2006
Pages: 270
Format Read: Paperback
My Rating: 4/5

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a memoir and “When I Was Puerto Rican” reminded me of the power and importance of reading about another person’s life narrative and inhabiting their world temporarily. Santiago is a natural and powerful storyteller whose beautifully evocative prose takes you and places you in the Puerto Rico of her childhood. Her incredible writing summons vivid colors, tastes and smells and paints a nostalgic but not rose-colored portrait of a Puerto Rico. It is a narrative that draws you in easily and will stay with you after you have turned the last page. 

Summary: 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.

Each chapter is loosely titled and based on the memory of an incident and arranged in chronological order like the birth of a sibling, visiting a relative etc. We see the the narrative play out from young Esmeralda’s perspective which gives us an almost sneak look at the adult Puerto Rican world around her. Scenarios are often presented in a way that Esmeralda as a child might not fully comprehend but we as readers get the benefit of analyzing through an adult lens. For example we see marital strife, Continental US and Puerto Rico relations, gender tensions and sexual assault. My favorite chapter in particular follows a pre-election period when suddenly a barrage of nutrition and anti-poverty programs are unleashed upon the island often lead by white Americans without any knowledge of Puerto Rican culture (You should eat more lettuce and less rice and beans!) which results in some hilarious and some cringe worthy interactions, only for the programs to be cancelled once the election is over. 

My only quibble is that although the synopsis makes it seem like the crux of the book is the culture clash that results in moving from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn and Santiago’s rise to ivy-league triumph this is not the case. While these things are mentioned they are only the last 50 or so pages and are covered quickly. Where the book truly shines is in exploring mother/daughter and male/female relationships within the Puerto Rican context. Through the memories Santiago chooses to highlight we explore the connections between different  generations of women and the norms and traditions that each woman chooses to preserve or pass on. Norms like self-sufficiency, sexual agency and family structure. There us something here for everyone to ponder even if you are not Puerto Rican.

Throughout these chapters we see that Esmeralda’s relationship with her mother is a complex one. That this relationship is a theme that serves as the backbone of the narrative. There is love and support but there are also anger and tears and some parenting techniques that probably would not fly nowadays. We see Esmeralda and her mother change throughout the book as they each navigate and grow in their roles of daughter, sibling, provider and sexual beings. This is esentially a woman centric The idea of womanhood is deeply explored from many different angles  

The somewhat abrupt ending left me feeling like I wanted to find out what happens next. The chapters go by quickly and although it ends with a positive glimpse into Santiago's future it feels a bit abrupt. I will definitely be picking up Santigo’s next two memoirs: Almost a Woman and and The Turkish Lover and get back into the narrative Santiago has masterfully woven.