Daughter of Ramona Santiago and Pablo Santiago Díaz; married Frank Cantor, 1978; children: Lucas David
Being the oldest of 11 children may have had an impact on Esmeralda Santiago's desire to write. She not only became a surrogate mother to younger children, but also the assistant and translator for her mother in her new English-speaking society. Santiago greeted each experience with eyes wide open, examining everything and putting it to memory. "Being a writer is like being a collector," she told the Los Angeles Times. "Instead of baseball cards, I collect memories, colors. And I carry my collection everywhere I go."
Memories are important to Santiago in documenting the Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican-American experience. Her first and third books are memoirs, the first, When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), of her childhood in Puerto Rico (she came to New York City at the age of thirteen). Her recent book, Almost a Woman (1998), is a reminiscence of her teenage years in New York. In between, Santiago published a long novel, América's Dream (1996), which is based on the life of a hotel maid in Puerto Rico who flees her abusive spouse to become a nanny and housekeeper for an upstate New York family. In the 1970s, after finishing her bachelor's degree at Harvard University, Santiago volunteered at a center for battered women, and must have learned firsthand the experiences of her character América, who has difficulty leaving the man who beats her. This novel prompted the Boston Globe to label Santiago "one of the most powerful new voices in American fiction."
Santiago says she wants her readers to know how people live life, and in fact in her extensive novel several issues are examined, both for Latin Americans and for U.S. Americans. In her memoirs Santiago introduces the reader to the scent and feel of guava, the bloody contents of her mother's spicy morcilla sausage, and to the reaction of Puerto Ricans on the island who were taught the four food groups by U.S. health employees in the 1950s. Many of the suggested items in the food groups were not found on the island and therefore seemed as foreign as the English language.
In her second memoir, Almost a Woman, Santiago displays the roach-ridden apartments and welfare inspections of Brooklyn, in the second stage of her life, an experience that also included the fists and spit of her classmates. Although she was a bright student, she was placed in a low-intelligence class in New York because she could not "spik inglis." But Santiago excelled in overcoming any obstacle. After high school she attended the Performing Arts school in New York, participated in experimental theater, and found work as a dancer. She appeared on Broadway at age nineteen and had a small role in the 1967 movie Up the Down Staircase. Later in life she preferred producing documentary film, her major at Harvard.
Now Santiago is considering writing a third memoir with experiences from her twenties. Her principal language as an adult is English, but it does not keep her from sharing her culture in any and all forms. "If you don't exist in the arts of a people," she told the Washington Post, "you don't exist in a culture." On another occasion, in an interview for the Boston Globe, she said her "emotional life is still in Spanish."
In 1998, shortly after Almost a Woman was published, Santiago released another book, coedited with Joie Davidow and titled Las Christmas, the word Spanish-speakers give to the Christmas festivities. This book includes 25 essays in English by various U.S. Latino authors about their remembrances as a child and the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Mexican-style Christmas celebrations still held in their homes. In the introduction Santiago notes that for Latinos, the Christmas season is more about getting together with people and eating than it is about shopping and exchanging gifts. She also explains that the Christmas season begins 12 days before December 25 and does not end until January 6, Three Kings' Day. The editors bring several women together to prepare a huge feast with each of their traditional specialties, which is enjoyed at the end of the book. Home and hearth are fond themes for Santiago; she describes a childhood's worth of closets and closetlike spaces in a collection of mini-memoirs by several authors titled Home, published in 1995. Half the editors' book proceeds go to homeless assistance groups.
Santiago has also undertaken something few authors do, which is the translation of her own books. She has translated When I Was Puerto Rican and América's Dream into Spanish, and these books are now distributed throughout Spanish-speaking countries. Santiago lives in a small town in upstate New York.
Marquis Who's Who Biographies (1987).
Americas (Sept./Oct. 1996). Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingue (Spring 1998). Book Report (Mar./Apr. 1995). Boston Globe (20 Sept. 1998). Hispanic (May 1994, Dec. 1998). "Latino Writers Ponder Meaning of Community," in LAT (14 Dec. 1998). New Orleans Times-Picayune (5 Apr. 1998). People (22 July 1996). PW (25 Mar. 1996). Sacramento Bee (17 Jan. 1999). Seattle Times (9 June 1997). WP (12 Nov. 1998). WRB (Jan. 1997).
—ELIZABETH COONROD MARTINEZ