Life of Emeralda Santiago

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When I was Puerto Rican is a memoir of Esmeralda Santiago’s (referred to as Negi in the book) childhood and how she overcame her struggles after moving from her home country of Puerto Rico to The United States. She lived a poor life in Santurce, Puerto Rico for 13 years before her mother decided to move Negi and her seven siblings to Brooklyn, New York in 1961, in hopes of a better life. When the family arrived in Brooklyn they did not know English making life hard for them.

Santiago’s mother managed to find a job but it was not anything permanent and she was unable to gain economic stability which forced her to seek welfare from time to time when work was not available for her. As she enters school we see the clash of Puerto Rican and Yankee culture. When her mother, Mami, takes off to New York with her seven, soon to be eleven children, Negi, the oldest, must learn new rules, a new language, and eventually takes on a new identity. She attended New York City’s Performing Arts High School, where she majored in drama and dance.

After eight years of part time study at community colleges, she transferred to Harvard University on a scholarship. This book highlights Esmeralda’s struggles of being a Puerto Rican native in New York and what it’s like for a Puerto Rican to return to her home country after many years and no longer being accepted because she acts to American. “Guavas. The taste brings you back to the time and place when you first had it. You can sense the surroundings, the scent of the air, trees, people passing by, laughing, taking and tasting with you the rich flavor of guava” (Santiago 1) In the book, Esmeralda often compares her life to eating guavas.

Her comparison of the two was not one of preference, but rather the experience of being one fruit wrapped into worlds. What she enjoyed she could no longer accept. The time was the 1950’s, where the second great Puerto Rican migration took place. This migration greatly increased the population of Puerto Rican communities and helped promote the concept of a cultural citizenship and equality. Many Puerto Ricans settled in other states besides New York, such as New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

These people did not want to leave their home of Puerto Rico but the country’s condition was not safe so many moved to The United States in hopes of a safer, happy life. When Esmeralda and her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, things were hard because they did not speak English. Her family suffered poverty and discrimination from Americans. In New York her darkness, accented speech, frequent lapses into the confused silence between English and Spanish identified her as foreign, non-American.

Her culture was different from Americans so it was easy for people to know she was not American. Life in New York was a struggle for Esmeralda because for thirteen years of her life she grew up in Puerto Rico and it was all she knew, moving to a foreign country, having to adapt to their customs, and learn their language was rough. After two years of living in New York she could finally speak English and life got better. This allowed to her to attend a Performing Arts High School.

She then attended community colleges for eight years and received a scholarship to Harvard University. Life was going well for Esmeralda and she prospered. After seven years of living in a foreign country, Esmeralda decided to visit her home country of Puerto Rico. Looking out of the airplane window as she landed it was not the same (Santiago 218). Things in Puerto Rico were much different from what they were when she left. Being in America for seven years she adapted their culture and lost some of her own.

People of Puerto Rico no longer considered her Puerto Rican; she was told she was no longer Puerto Rican because her Spanish was rusty, her gaze too direct, and her personality too assertive for a Puerto Rican woman, and she refused to eat some of the traditional foods like morcilla and tripe stew (Santiago 220). She felt as Puerto Rican as when she left the island, but to those who had never left, she was contaminated by Americanisms, and therefore, had become less than Puerto Rican. Since 1917 Puerto Ricans have been granted U. S citizenship but those native to Puerto Rico and those who were born in the U. S because their parents lived there are two different groups of people.

“There were two kinds of Puerto Ricans in school: the newly arrived like myself, and the ones born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican parents. The two types didn’t mix… To them, Puerto Rico was the place where their grandparents lived, a place they visited on school and summer vacations, a place which they complained was backward and mosquito-ridden. Those of us for whom Puerto Rico was a recent memory were also spilt in two groups: the ones who longed for the island and the ones who wanted to forget it as soon as possible.” (Santiago 230).

“I never told Mami that I was ashamed of where we lived, that in the Daily News and the Herald American, government officials called our neighborhood ‘the ghetto,’ our apartment building ‘a tenement. ’ I swallowed the humiliation when those same newspapers, if they carried a story with the term ‘Puerto Rican’ in it, were usually describing a criminal. I didn’t tell Mami that although she had high expectations for us, outside our door, the expectations were lower, that the rest of New York viewed us as dirty spicks, potential muggers, drug dealers, prostitutes” (Santiago 211-212).

Together these two quotes show readers the influence the American government and people have on Puerto Ricans who have lived in the U. S their whole life. The U. S government has made them feel they should be ashamed to be Puerto Rican because they are dirty, drug dealers, mugger’s etcetera. The “Brooklyn Puerto Ricans” now believe they’re inferior to those who are native to Puerto Rico because what they read about them in American Newspapers and the rotten things American government has to say about them.

Physical geography plays a big role in influencing how life is lived. For example if you live in the rural area and you have large amounts of land, you can grow your own fruits and vegetables, and maybe have your own chicken coop for fresh eggs. However if you live in the city or suburb where there is not much land, you have to buy all your vegetables and fruits at the market. When I was Puerto Rican clearly demonstrates the different geography landscapes, and how they change the style of living.

As Negi and her family move from rural areas of Puerto Rico to city life, back to rural, and finally find themselves in Brooklyn, New York, the audience can really get a feel for the different ways of life. Negi, at two years old, starts her life in the small ji? baro, or redneck, town of Macun. Macun is a poor community, where all the residents have no running water or electricity. For several years Negi lives without these luxuries because the government spends the money it has on the tourist attracted areas of the island, the areas where the land is flat and on the shore. Negi’s time spent in Macun was full of adventurous days. Since she lived in a not very populated area, she had a big yard. Her next door neighbor even had a fruit tree ranch.

Almost every day Negi would climb the fence and snatch a grapefruit from one of the trees. After a while Negi and her family move to Santurce directly outside the capital, San Juan. Living in Santurce, Negi and her family had a cramped life. Not only did they live in a small apartment, but it was a city, so all the buildings were very closely compact. The city was very densely populated because it was the capital and had the only airport on the island.

All the tourists and imports came in there because it was on the ocean. During Negi’s childhood she moved back and forth between Macun and Santurce. During her stay in Macun her town was hit by a Hurricane. The town was affected by this storm because they are closer to the shore than inland. However they were not directly on the shore so the town did not always get hit with the storms that came. Once Negi moved to Brooklyn she got a whole new sense of geography. Since Brooklyn is in Eastern New York, Negi got to experience snow for the first time.

Also New York City is so populated that they need skyscrapers to accommodate the amount of people. This shocked Negi, because when she got to her new apartment it had multiple rooms. “Our apartment, on the second floor, was the fanciest place I’d ever lived in” (Santiago 221). This quote from the story helps explain the differences in the way life was changes by the physical geography. This is because New York City does not have much land, they have to build upwards. Although they live in an apartment and not a real home it is nicer than anything she had lived in before.

Religious beliefs of the people feature were not mentioned in the book, when I was Puerto Rican. In this book the author used her memories as a working immigrant, the poor housing conditions, lack of work, difficulty to be accepted and determination to succeed to write book teaching readers her experience of discrimination and instability added to who she grew up to be. I believe Esmeralda wrote this book in hopes of making an impact on Latino women who are also struggling to find themselves and trying to blend into American culture without giving up her own and her past.

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