Santiago, Esmeralda Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Since the publication of her memoir in 1993, Santiago has become one of the most studied Latina writers in the United States. Her work illuminates the reasons Puerto Ricans have immigrated to the United States and the challenges immigrants–particularly women–face in negotiating their cultural identity.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1948, Esmeralda Santiago was the eldest of eleven children of her single mother, Ramona Santiago. In 1961, she moved with her family to New York City. Her first book, When I Was Puerto Rican (Santiago)When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), is a memoir of her childhood in Puerto Rico, in particular the effects of Operation BootstrapOperation Bootstrap, a U.S. policy during the 1950’s and 1960’s that transformed the island’s agricultural economy into one based on manufacturing. Her narrative describes the colonial status of the island and the policy that resulted in the displacement of rural Puerto Ricans to San Juan, which eventually led to their migration to the mainland United States. Santiago concludes her story describing her own displacement in Brooklyn, her struggles to adapt, and her ultimate triumph, as she not only is accepted to the Performing Arts High School despite knowing little English but also graduates from Harvard University.Santiago, EsmeraldaPuerto Rican immigrants;Esmerald Santiago[Santiago]Santiago,EsmeraldaPuerto Rican immigrants;Esmerald Santiago[Santiago][cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Santiago, Esmeralda[cat]WEST INDIAN IMMIGRANTS;Santiago, Esmeralda[cat]LITERATURE;Santiago, Esmeralda[cat]BIOGRAPHIES;Santiago, Esmeralda

In 1997, Santiago published her first novel, América’s Dream (Santiago)América’s Dream, an alternate selection of the Literary Guild that was published in six languages. The protagonist of this novel, América, is a hotel housekeeper who escapes her alcoholic mother, abusive boyfriend, and resentful daughter to come to the United States in search of a new life. As a live-in nanny for a wealthy family, América struggles to escape her past and understand her devalued position in her new country. The novel deals with not only the search for identity but also the desire for independence, while at the same time providing a profound reflection on the relationships between mothers and daughters.

Santiago next published Almost a Woman (Santiago)Almost a Woman (1998), a continuation of her first memoir that details her search for independence and the struggles of growing up bicultural, both of which are tied to her relationship with the women in her family. Almost a Woman won numerous awards from the American Library Association, was adapted into a film for the Public Broadcasting Service’s Masterpiece Theater, and was awarded a Peabody Award. In 2004, Santiago released her third memoir, The Turkish Lover. Picking up where she left off in Almost a Woman, Santiago describes her years after high school, her independence from her mother, and her seven-year romance with her domineering lover, Ulvi. Despite the obstacles, Santiago once again emerges triumphant.

Santiago’s books share common themes: the experience of immigration, the negotiation between two cultures and languages, the struggles of women living in a patriarchal society, and the difficult journey of women in search of independence. Her work shares much in common with that of other Puerto Rican writers in the United States; at the same time, it has much in common with the larger body of American Latina literature that, while also negotiating biculturalism, challenges patriarchal society. Santiago is also the author of the children’s book A Doll for Navidades (2005) and is the editor of two anthologies, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories (1998) and Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authos Remember Their Mothers (2000).Santiago, EsmeraldaPuerto Rican immigrants;Esmerald Santiago[Santiago]

Further Reading
  • Hernández, Carmen. “Esmeralda Santiago.” In Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
  • Keavane, Bridget. “Puerto Rican Existentialist in Brooklyn: An Interview with Esmeralda Santiago.” In Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Juanita Heredia and Bridget Kevane. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
  • Rodríguez-Mangual, Edna. “Esmeralda Santiago.” In Latino and Latina Writers, edited by Alan West-Durán. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Alvarez, Julia

Danticat, Edwidge


Latin American immigrants

Latinos and immigrants

New York City

Puerto Rican immigrants

Women immigrants

Categories: History