Santiago, Esmeralda 1948-

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SANTIAGO, Esmeralda 1948-

PERSONAL: Born May 17, 1948, in San Juan, Puerto Rico; daughter of Pablo Santiago Diaz (a poet and carpenter) and Ramona Santiago (a factory worker); married Frank Cantor (a filmmaker), June 11, 1978; children: Lucas David, Ila. Ethnicity: "Puerto Rican."

Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1976; Sarah Lawrence College, M.F.A., 1992. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, opera, theater, long walks, regional and local history museums and exhibits, the paintings of Francisco Goya, world and classical music, salsa dancing, yoga.

ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 679, Amawalk, NY 10501. Agent—Molly Friedrich, Aaron Priest Literary Agency, 708 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Journalist, memoirist, and novelist. ACCION/AITEC, Cambridge, MA, bilingual secretary, 1974-76; H/M Multi Media Co., Boston, MA, producer, 1975-76; Cantomedia Corp., Boston, cofounder and president, 1977—. Advisor, Massachusetts Film Bureau, Boston, 1984-89, and Massachusetts Cultural Alliance, Boston, 1986-90; Massachusetts Small Business Advice Council, Boston, advisor and appointed member, 1985-89. Radcliffe Quarterly advisory board, 1986-2000; Alianza Hispana, member, board of directors, 1978

AWARDS, HONORS: Silver Award, International Film and TV Festival, 1980; Gold Award, Houston International Film Festival, 1984; New England Minority Businesswoman of the Year, and Minority Small Business of the Year, U.S. Department of Commerce, both 1988; Leadership Award, Massachusetts Latino Democratic Committee, 1989; achievement award, Westchester Hispanic Democrats, 1994; award from Coalition of Hispanic American Women, 1995; Guanín award, Sales and Marketing Executives International, and achievement award, Latin American Confederation of Marketing Executives, both 1996; Best Book about Puerto Rico Life and Culture, Club Civico, for When I Was Puerto Rican, 1996; Women Rise! Award, Wider Opportunities for Women, 1998; fellowship, National Hispana Leadership Institute, 1990; American Library Association Alex Award, and Westchester Library System Best Books selection, both 1999, both for Almost a Woman; Latina of the Year in literature, Latina, 1999; Literary Arts Award, Teatro Circulo, 1999; Orgullo Hispano, Univision Network, 2001; Radcliffe Association Alumnae Recognition Award, 2001; Women of Distinction Award, Girl Scouts of America, and All Star Award, Women in Communications, both 2002; Artist award, Westchester Arts Council, 2003; honorary degrees from Trinity College, 1994, Pace University, 1999, and Metropolitan College, 2004.


When I Was Puerto Rican (memoir), Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1993.

América's Dream (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

(Editor, with Joie Davidow) Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, illustrated by José Ortega, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

Almost a Woman (memoir), Perseus (Reading, MA), 1998.

(Editor, with Joie Davidow) Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Also author of screenplays Beverly Hills Supper Club, 1980, and Button, Button, 1982. Contributor to anthologies, including Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own, edited by Steve and Sharon Fiffer, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995; Perspectivas Sobre Puerto Rico en Homenaje a Muñoz Rivera y Muñoz Marín, Fundacíon Luis Muñoz Marín, 1997; Body, edited by Steve and Sharon Fiffer, Avon, 1999;Metropolis Found, Crown, 2003. Contributor of articles and short stories to periodicals including, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Latina, Metropolitan Home, House & Garden, Good Housekeeping and have been published in Spanish-language publications; books have been published into seven different languages.

ADAPTATIONS: Almost a Woman was filmed for Exxon Masterpiece Theater's American Collection, 2002.

WORK IN PROGRESS: The Turkish Lover (memoir); A Baby Doll Like Jenny's (illustrated children's book), publication expected in 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: The oldest of eleven children, Esmeralda Santiago moved with her mother and siblings to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1961. Her memoirs, which include 1998's Almost a Woman, chronicle her experiences of growing up in a large, turbulent, and mobile household in Puerto Rico before relocating to New York when Santiago was thirteen. Santiago has also published a full-length novel, América's Dream, as well as two screenplays and various short stories.

Together with 1993's When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman focuses on Santiago's youth; the first volume concentrates on her childhood in Puerto Rico and treats the move to New York City briefly, while the second volume completes the story of the family's move and Santiago's struggles with American culture and language, and her drive to success, first at the High School for Performing Arts in New York City and at various jobs and part-time study at community colleges. When I Was Puerto Rican not only tells the story of Santiago's life but looks at the tensions that Americanization brings, both in the new land and on return trips to the homeland.

When I Was Puerto Rican begins with Santiago's description of growing up in many different households, one centered in the rural barrio of Macun and the others closer to her mother's family in a town called Santurce. In Macun the family lived in a "home [that] was a giant version of the lard cans used to haul water from the public fountain. Its windows and doors were also metal, and as we stepped in, I touched the wall and burned my fingers." Macun was the home of Santiago's father, Papi, a laborer and poet who was father to Esmeralda and all of her siblings, but who, after vacillating through nine pregnancies, finally refused to marry her mother. Mami and Papi's relationship was a "sometimes passionate, sometimes turbulent common-law marriage," according to Yvonne V. Sapia in the Los Angeles Times. Esmeralda, called "Negi" ("little dark one"), likes the country life, the "crude yet intoxicating world of fruity perfume, fish-head soup, pan de agua and the poetry of Don Luis Llorens Torres, who began the Modernismo movement in Puerto Rico that followed World War I," according to Sapia.

It is only during the times when, after one of many serious quarrels with Papi, Mami moves the family to Santurce that Esmeralda finds out that she and her siblings are considered jibaros, or peasants, the lowest tier in Puerto Rican society. The increasingly long and frequent stays in town are painful, as Santiago must tolerate the ridicule of her more affluent fellow students. Mami ultimately moves the entire family to Brooklyn, New York, where her own mother lives. While the transition was terrifying at first, Santiago manages to impress her teachers and win their help gaining admittance to the New York High School of Performing Arts.

Santiago's visits back to Puerto Rico open her eyes to alterations in her identity. As she wrote in When I Was Puerto Rican, "I was told I was no longer Puerto Rican because my Spanish was rusty, my gaze too direct, my personality too assertive…. Yet in the United States, my darkness, my accented speech, my frequent lapses into confused silence between English and Spanish identified me as foreign, non-American. In writing the book I wanted to get back to that feeling of Puertoricanness I had before I came here."

Critics were much taken with Santiago's first memoir. Sapia called it "stylistically fluid and finely detailed" and deserving "a unique place in contemporary Latino storytelling," while a contributor to Publishers Weekly commented that "Santiago's portraits are clear-sighted, the Puerto Rican ambience rich, and her immigrant experience is artfully and movingly told." And a Kirkus reviewer praised When I Was Puerto Rican as "clear eyed, quietly powerful, and often lyrical: a story of true grit."

Santiago's next memoir, Almost a Woman, picks up her experience upon coming to New York and extends it. At age thirteen, the eldest of her mother's then eight children, she helps her younger siblings negotiate their way through their new environs in Brooklyn; they have their poverty in common with most of their new neighbors, but as new immigrants they face challenges beyond their income level. Quick to begin learning English, Santiago accompanies her mother to the welfare office to translate for her, ensuring the family's survival. Mami's attempts to keep her children safe and in-line with her culture's traditions come through clearly; she forbids her eldest daughter to go out with boys until she is seventeen, but while Santiago tries to be obedient, her independent spirit and quickness to assimilate make for conflicts. Almost a Woman chronicles the author's experiences at the New York School of Performing Arts, where she trains as an actress and achieves a small role in the film Up the Down Staircase. It also, despite Mami's rules, "details several romantic involvements, including an affair with a Turkish filmmaker," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

Donna Seaman, reviewing Almost a Woman for Booklist, appreciated its depiction of Santiago's relationship with Mami as "the fulcrum of Santiago's balancing act between life in their brimming barrio apartment and life in the wider world, where she discovers the joy and frustrations of artistic pursuits and the puzzlements of love." And a Library Journal contributor noted that "Santiago's descriptive prose and lively dialog draw the reader in; we are reminded of the pains and pleasures of adolescence and wonder what happens next in her life."

Published between the two memoirs, Santiago's América's Dream tells the story of a Puerto Rican woman who is trying to break the cycle of early pregnancy and domestic violence in which she is caught, as her mother was, and as she fears her daughter will be. América works on the Puerto Rican resort island of Vieques, cleaning hotel rooms; she lives with the abusive Correa, the father of her teenage daughter. In a chapter called "Correa's Gifts" the reader discovers that all of his gifts have followed assaults: "The size and expense of the gifts is usually in proportion to the severity of the beating. Electronics typically means he knows he's really hurt her, but chocolates always mean she deserved it." When the hotel manager recommends América for a nanny position for some wealthy American guests, she recognizes that if she leaves, it must be for good; Correa will kill her if she ever returns.

But she takes her chances, hoping to be able to bring her daughter with her and to show her a new life free of violence and fear. Her time in New York City increases her critical consciousness and her savvy. When Correa tracks América down in New York City, prepared to do his worst, she is better able to face him than ever before.

Respectful reviews greeted Santiago's first full-length novel. Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez wrote in the Women's Review of Books that América's Dream "takes its place alongside other major works by Latina writers such as [Sandra] Cisneros, [Denise] Chavez, Ana Castillo and Julia Alvarez. Like other contemporary novels, this one begins in adult life and looks back, an artistic strategy that pulls the reader in to acknowledge the destructive violence that many women still endure." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews noted that "Santiago's acute eye and feel for the telling detail make this a work of fine reportage, as well as an engrossing if often somber tale with a quiet but always tenacious heroine." And Sylvia Brownrigg wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that "what begins as a bleak study of a beaten, hapless woman evolves into a detailed portrayal of the life of a Latina empleada working for New York's wealthy elite. The subtlety of Santiago's writing reveals itself, as she describes the fear of violence and the indignities of domestic employment on the mainland."

In addition to her memoirs and novel, Santiago has edited two books with Joie Davidow, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, and Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers. In Las Mamis Latino authors describe their fondest holiday memories, depicting a wide variety of thoughts and emotions. Some describe special traditions and holiday meals (with recipes included). Others describe how traditions changed when they moved to the United States. Booklist reviewer Toni Hyde observed, "As diverse as the authors themselves, every story is richly fulfilling and offers many variations on a common theme. Despite its Latin focus, Las Christmas, does not discriminate, but rather captivates readers regardless of their heritage."

Las Mamis is a collection of fourteen essays by Latin American authors, such as Marjorie Agosin and Jose Vasconcelos, and includes photographs of each author's mother. The true stories vividly capture the experiences of the authors as they related to their mothers. A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote, "From rich mamis to poor ones, loving to relentless, this collection of essays eloquently captures the diversity of Latino culture, while paying tribute to its most enduring characteristic: amor a madre." "The voices are so personal that you keep turning back while you're reading to look at the photo at the start of each story," wrote Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman. Rochman concluded, "It's that combination of family, folklore, and self-discovery that makes these stories universal."



Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 43, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.

Notable Hispanic American Women, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Booklist, August, 1998, p. 1957; October 15, 1998, Toni Hyde, review of Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, p. 374; March 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers, p. 1299.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1993, p. 1058; March 1, 1996, p. 327.

Library Journal, October 1, 1998, pp. 105-106; May 1, 2000, Rene Perez-Lopez, review of Las Mamis, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1993, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, September 13, 1993, p. 114; June 15, 1998, p. 47; April 3, 2000, review of Las Mamis, p. 74.

Times Literary Supplement, June 27, 1997, p. 21.

Women's Review of Books, January 1997, p. 22.


Esmeralda Santiago Official Web site, (November 6, 2003).

LaGuardia Community College Web site, (November 6, 2003).

Puerto Rico Herald Online, (November 6, 2003), "Esmeralda Santiago."

Vintage Books Web site, (November 6, 2003).

Voices from the Gaps Web site, (November 6, 2003), "Esmeralda Santiago."

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Santiago, Esmeralda 1948-

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