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The Science Survey

From Memoir to Masterpiece: Esmeralda Santiago’s Literary Legacy

Esmeralda Santiago, best known for her memoir ‘When I Was Puerto Rican,’ gives us insight into her written world and all the different elements that she has poured into it.
“It became clear that, since my arrival in the U.S, I’d felt invisible, and even as I entered middle age, that feelings hadn’t changed. Rather, it grew. I wrote memoirs so I could see myself,” said Esmeralda Santiago. (Photo Credit: David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)
“It became clear that, since my arrival in the U.S, I’d felt invisible, and even as I entered middle age, that feelings hadn’t changed. Rather, it grew. I wrote memoirs so I could see myself,” said Esmeralda Santiago. (Photo Credit: David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

I started my high school career with a book. It was the very first book I selected for Bronx Science’s summer reading assignment. I chose it because the girl on the cover looked like so many girls I’ve encountered before, the ones I grew up with, the ones I am. When I Was Puerto Rican was a book I saw myself in ways I haven’t been able to see myself in novels before, especially those that had been taught in my English classes. 

I didn’t know much about Santiago when I first began her memoir, but by the end of the book, I felt as if I’d known her all my life. Her writing style felt very intimate, like I was sitting across from her at a table and she was telling me her life story in its entirety, raw and thoroughly honest. 

She is most celebrated for her first memoir, but it’s important to recognize all the other facets of her work and the impacts that she has made on the literary world. Esmeralda Santiago is the author of a trilogy of memoirs featuring: When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, and Turkish Lover. She’s also written fictional pieces including Conquistadora and her most recently published novel Las Madres. 

Santiago was born in Puerto Rico, where the first half of When I Was Puerto Rican takes place. We’re whisked into her world through an essay on how to eat a guava. She tells us how the guava feels upon the first bite, how juicy it is, how sweet it is, and how the seeds can get in between your teeth. 

The guava tells us a captivating story. A guava picked and eaten by a child in Puerto Rico while it’s fresh and ripe is unlike the experience of buying guava at a store in the United States as an adult. By the end of this essay, Santiago tells us that she has grown up and has changed just as her environment has. From there, we’re taken back in time to when Santiago and her family lived in Macún, where her story officially begins. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Santiago in an interview, where I asked her about her inspiration to write her renowned memoirs. 

Though the topic of memories and the importance of keeping them alive is more commonly associated with her novel Las Madres since its publication in August 2023, this theme has been present in Santiago’s work since the beginning. 

It all started after Santiago became a mother and realized that her children were growing up in an environment completely different from what she grew up with. They were living in a predominantly white neighborhood and living in better financial circumstances than their mother did. 

“I wanted to make sure my kids would someday have a history of their mom’s life,” Santiago said. 

Her memoir trilogy came about fairly unexpectedly. She only anticipated publishing one memoir, but all the stories she wanted to tell, all the things she wanted to say, made the first draft too long. So, she split it up into the three books that she is most recognized for. 

“The number of memoirs emerges from the writing,” she said, describing how she chose to split the draft in the way that she did. Choosing which parts of the first draft would be grouped together was a natural progression, as life is. Our experiences as toddlers is incomparable to our experiences of growing into adults, and Santiago recognized that in her own work. 

“It was a different journey from the young girl, almost a woman, who has to make sense of all that on her own.” 

When I Was Puerto Rican, as mentioned before, depicts Santiago’s early childhood in Puerto Rico. We are introduced to her parents and her first two sisters, Norma and Delsa, and become familiar with their dynamics with one another. 

As the story progresses, we learn more about young Esmeralda and her worldview in the midst of her life’s ever-changing circumstances, especially after her family’s move to the United States once she turned thirteen. 

Her story speaks to the immigrant experience of having to adapt to a completely new environment, of having to adjust to living in a community where one is now a part of the minority group, of having to accommodate to a place that doesn’t speak your language or know much about your people. 

Santiago strove to write the type of story her younger self needed.  

 “I am alone in this experience in the U.S., and I’m trying very hard to be a good person…to be a good daughter to a woman who was also making a lot of sacrifices,” she said. She didn’t want others like her to feel that way anymore. 

Her work has done a lot to bring awareness to the different facets of life that many people have to face. These stories are of Santiago’s unique experiences, but there are definitely aspects of it that others can connect to. Whether the reader is someone who had to adjust to a new life in the United States while trying to remain connected to the culture they were born into, had to take charge in the family as the eldest child, or simply faced the numerous challenges Santiago brings up on her journey of growing from girl to woman, reading Santiago’s work is a way to pull themselves out of isolation. 

Her following two memoirs encapsulate the obstacles she faced on the journey toward becoming a woman. 

Almost a Woman is characterized by Santiago’s adolescence and her struggle to balance her Puerto Rican culture and her new American home in Brooklyn. She had to understand what it meant to almost be a señorita, a mature and respectful young woman, and felt the need to find a space between what was expected from her by U.S standards and what was expected from her by Puerto Rican standards. 

In this memoir, we see more of her relationship with her mother, Ramona, as they engage in a tug-of-war of interests for young Esmeralda’s future. On one hand, she’s on a journey to find independence and a sense of self amidst the tumultuous world she was thrown into. On the other hand, she must face her mother’s expectations for her academic success, behavior, overall safety, and familial duties. 

This internal battle makes for a story filled with tension, and struggle, but also love for her family and immense pride in her culture. 

Santiago’s story continues in Turkish Lover, where she once again faces off with her mother and decides to leave home at the age of twenty-one to live independently. In this memoir, she is swept off her feet by a Turkish man named Ulvi and they go traveling together. 

She is once more faced with the challenge of adjusting to an unfamiliar space and discovering new parts of her identity as she navigates this new relationship with Ulvi. The relationship doesn’t progress as well as she expected it to. Her independence is suppressed, and she is treated like property, but she is simultaneously  introduced to places and people she’s never seen before, far away from Brooklyn. 

Since then, she’s found herself in much happier circumstances with her current husband and children. She has thankfully found a good personal place to express what she loves about her identity and independent spirit.

This trilogy is full of intricate details of her life, and many may wonder how she was able to remember that much of her life when many of us can’t recall what we had for lunch yesterday. 

“I have a good memory for details and events, and since adolescence kept track of my life in journals and diaries I discarded when we moved. The process of writing about my experiences kept them fresh in my mind, I suppose, so it wasn’t difficult for me to recall many events, people, places,” Santiago said. 

To help her get started, Santiago read many memoirs to better understand the elements that go into writing such a personal piece. She noticed that, although the stories these memoirs told were well-written and interesting, these pieces were very surface-level. Santiago wanted to do more than that with her own work.

“I wanted to focus on just being honest,” she said. 

Santiago didn’t really begin with a hardline intention for her memoir; she just knew that there was a story to tell, and she had to be the one to tell it, “I was ready to write a memoir. I was a mature woman in her late 30s-early 40s whose life was unlike that of my closest friends and neighbors.” 

She had previously worked as a secretary for a variety of people, where she had already developed the skills required to write letters from someone else’s perspective. Additionally, she had further written experience through her time as a producer and writer for the documentaries she worked on with her husband, as well as some screenwriting classes she took at the time. 

She added onto this with the knowledge she obtained from her time at Performing Arts High School to draw on the emotions she felt at the time and place her writing is to be set in. All of this also helped her write from the perspective of her childhood and adolescent self ,rather than writing these memoirs as an adult looking and reflecting back on her life experiences. 

Facing one’s own memories can be quite difficult, and Santiago is no exception to that. It took a lot to be able to face all the truths in her life that she might not have thought about much before or didn’t want to think of again, but she indicated that she, “just really decided I might not get another chance to write a story like this, I might as well just do it.” 

One of the biggest things that needed to be addressed was her relationship with her parents, which is a major element of the entire trilogy. She often spoke with her parents while in the process of writing the memoirs, which helped move the project forward as she started to understand more of their point of view during those integral times of her life. She had a complicated relationship with her parents, as we see from the first memoir to the last. Santiago having the ability to go back to them as an adult and speak with them about her life was intrinsic to developing her memoirs’ narratives. 

“It allowed me then to very specifically speak to my parents and say I forgive you and I hope you forgive me,” she said.

At last, after the research, the discussions, and the emotional turmoil brought about by facing all the ups and downs she’d grown up with, her first memoir was published, and the moment she held a physical copy of her work was the moment in which Santiago officially saw herself as a writer. 

And now we have Santiago’s most recently published novel, Las Madres. Las Madres focused on a tightly-knit group of women that call themselves las madres, the mothers, and las nenas, the girls. We follow the story of Luz, mother of Marysol, and Ada, and Shirlie, mothers of Graciela, and how they navigate the world together. Much of the novel follows Luz and her journey with brain damage that resulted from a tragic car accident in her youth. We later see how their dynamics with one another work to help them brave Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the devastation that followed. 

Santiago wove an intricate story including particular characteristics of Puerto Rican/Latino culture, intergenerational dynamics and connections, different types of families, and more. She wrote of the sense of unity within families that Santiago grew up with, where any relative could stay with them or multiple family members, even distant, lived under the same roof or showed up unexpectedly and the normalcy surrounding this. She also wrote about a matriarchal household and noted that the wisdom from woman to woman, from mother to child, is a very precious and crucial thing. 

A further theme we find in Las Madres is that of the topic of memory and the importance of keeping memory alive. The novel raises the question “who are we without our memories?” and there is no clear answer. We see that Luz doesn’t simply disappear while she’s experiencing short-term memory and achaques, moments where she tunes out completely and seems to be reliving a memory she will forget once the phase is over, she’s still there.  Fortunately, with the guidance of the people around her, Luz is able to formulate at least some sense of self. 

She likes to paint, she knows she loves the other madres and las nenas, and she has made a habit to journal and sketch so that fragments of memory stay alive even when she can no longer possess them in her mind. 

The concept of memory is present in all of her work. Her memoirs keep her earliest memories alive for her children and for the public, while Las Madres keeps the memory of Hurricane Maria’s devastation alive so that nobody forgets what it might’ve been like to live through it and its aftereffects. 

Las Madres and the memoir trilogy all have a focus on Puerto Rico and its culture, placing a spotlight on the topic of representation. The representation of people of color in literature is a very hotly debated topic at the moment, especially as states are banning books and cutting library funding. 

To push back against the lack of representation in English curriculums, Santiago suggests that, “students who are good readers can recommend books to their teachers and professors, especially if the student is in the race/culture/language minority at school. Educators work hard to find material for their classes, but they might not come across our books unless they’re specifically looking for them.” 

It’s up to the public to push the titles they want to see on the shelves and in their classes, as oftentimes administration will not do it on their own volition. 

Representation issues occur at the publishing stage as well. 

“My biggest challenge as a writer now is that the lives and vicissitudes of Puerto Rican life are not as interesting to editors and marketing directors as they are to me and to my devoted readers. Publishers go toward the familiar like moths toward a flame. They forget once they reach the fire, the moth dies,” Santiago said. 

It’s infuriatingly frustrating to have to fight twice as hard to get the stories one wants and needs to see out on the shelves and into classrooms, especially in an industry that likes to stick to what they’re most comfortable and familiar with, which is unfortunately predominantly white and heteronormative. 

It’s a difficult road to follow, a challenging journey to embark on, but success isn’t impossible. Esmeralda Santiago might have had an unconventional beginning to her life as a writer, but she made it to her destination nonetheless and has reaped beautiful fruit from it. She might not write with specific messages in mind for her readers, she may have to experiment a bit before figuring out which idea she would like to commit to and why, but the point of the matter is this: she found her calling as a writer and put in the hard work to bring the stories she found imperative to tell into the world, and it is quite possible for other aspiring writers to do so as well.

She is most celebrated for her first memoir, but it’s important to recognize all the other facets of her work and the impacts that she has made on the literary world. Esmeralda Santiago is the author of a trilogy of memoirs featuring: When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, and Turkish Lover. She’s also written fictional pieces including Conquistadora and her most recently published novel Las Madres. 

About the Contributor
Ruby Moran, Staff Reporter
Ruby Moran is a Copy Chief for ‘The Science Survey.’ She believes that journalistic writing is essential for educating the public on crucial issues affecting all types of communities around the world. She enjoys a multitude of creative hobbies such as prose writing and creating visual artwork, as well volunteering in her free time. Ruby plans on continuing her volunteer work to advocate for environmental issues and marginalized voices in creative fields. In college, she is interested in studying business administration. She hopes for a future in which she continues to pursue what she loves while creating positive change for future generations.