Esmeralda Santiago is a Puerto Rican-American who made her mark in literature by recounting her experiences acculturating to the US in the 1950s and 60s. Her work is a reminder of the hurdles immigrants and refugees continue to face.
Santiago was born in 1948 and moved to the US in the 1960s. She eventually attended Performing Arts High School, whose building now contains the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School for International Careers (yes, it’s the high school that inspired Fame.)
Santiago’s memoirs include When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), Almost A Woman (1998), and The Turkish Lover (2004). In these works, she talks about her memories in Puerto Rico, growing up in New York City, and finally leaving an abusive relationship.
I discovered her work during a recent trip to NYC, where I realized I was also staying in one of the neighborhoods she lived in growing up.
Elder daughters, in particular, may resonate with these themes – after all, the parentification of immigrant children isn’t new. There’s always pressure involved in attempting to translate complex themes in high stakes situations.
Perhaps one of her most poignant pieces for me is Almost A Woman. In it, Santiago shares tidbits of her life between the ages of 13 and 20. She describes the environment in New York City during those turbulent years, including the Civil Rights Movement and what it was like having to deal with her local welfare office, a house full of people, and school bullies.
Elder daughters, in particular, may resonate with these themes – after all, the parentification of immigrant children isn’t new. There’s always pressure involved in attempting to translate complex themes in high stakes situations. No matter what part of the US we grow up in, no matter when we arrived here, it’s scary to realize just how big and cruel the world can be at such a young age.
Young immigrant women often find ourselves trying to live up to standards from our home countries and our new ones. This can create such a restricted space with our acceptable behavior double policied to the point where it feels like there’s no way to please everyone (or anyone).
Santiago uses her memoirs to describe her love for her culture, the neglect she experienced, and how she came to reconnect with her community.
In her work, Santiago reveals that she trained in drama at Performing Arts High’s rigorous program. She even learned several Indian dances. She was a struggling theater actor and did what she could to find work. In fact, she scored a small paying gig in the 1967 film Up the Down Staircase and describes what it was like to work alongside Oscar-winning actors. After that, she was a theatre actor and even went on tour.
It’s clear that Esmeralda Santiago has lived an extraordinary life and that her background and family poised her to have experiences immigrants can still relate to today. Santiago uses her memoirs to describe her love for her culture, the neglect she experienced, and how she came to reconnect with her community. She may not have grown up to be an actor as she planned in her teenage years, but storytelling was always a gift for her.
Santiago dealt with a stroke that took her ability to read in 2008. But she relearned how to read and write, enabling her to continue on with her work. Her memoirs are a great read and she even as a new novel out, Las Madres, which is getting great reviews and a lot of attention.