Student Essay 3: In Search of Lost Time

Eng 302-H06
When I was Puerto Rican


When I was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago is an autobiographical memoir about her childhood through the time of her mother’s emigration of her family without her father to New York through her eyes as a child. The authors’ process of assimilation parallels my process of rediscovery my ethnic roots. It is a coming of age book which helped me through my own family’s move from my extended Texan family to the foreign Virginia area where I now reside.

When I was Puerto Rican

by Lucia De Paolis

It was the summer of 1996; I was not going anywhere special for vacation. I decided that I would make the best of it and headed to the public library. I was not expecting to find anything in particular. The kind librarian at the desk handed me the summer reading list and there it was, a book whose title caught my eye: When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. I left that day with several other books but I can’t remember a thing about them.

I was fourteen years-old and going through adolescence without any illusions that I could conquer this period with ease. I was born in El Paso, Texas, "The path or step" in Spanish. I was four when my family moved to VA. I left all of my family behind. I felt like a twig being blown away by the wind from its tree. My parents were so concerned that I should learn English they would only speak to me in English. Can you imagine being four and fluent in Spanish to turning five and incapable of recognizing a single native word. They spoke so much English to me that I became fluent in English and English only. I was stuck being monolingual, only I switched the language. The irony is that my mother speaks English, Spanish, and some French; my father speaks Italian, German, English, and Spanish. That is what attracted me to this book, When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago; she struggled to assimilate into American mainstream culture while I struggled to rediscover my roots.

When I was Puerto Rican is a memoir of Puerto Rico which begins with its heroine Santiago came to the US at age thirteen with her mother and seven brothers and sisters. Her father stayed behind with his other family and children (Santiago). The memoir goes on into her years in New York, after the birth of four more siblings, and finally when she meets her goal to be admitted to New York City’s Performing Arts High School (Santiago). The book allowed me a comfort zone. Santiago struggled to find herself in between two cultures, what Szadiuk recalls the term “traveling cultures”—a dynamic coexistence of ethnics. Santiago’s return to Puerto Rico parallels my wish to be around the familiar—to hear the sound of rolling rs engulfing my ears. I longed to rejoin my family in Texas and relearn the language.

I remember reading the book as Santiago would describe all these situations she would stumble into on account of cultural differences. It wasn’t just that, but her innocence, not naivety, about the world. I enthralled by the book and all her excursions. Every day was a challenge, especially when her mother needed her to translate at the welfare office (Santiago, 249).

This dislocation of language profoundly affected me (Schultermandl). It is having an ability and then losing it. It was much deeper than just a language, but the power of word. Immigrants feel this clash the most—the language barrier. It is empowering to understand, to be understood, and to assert oneself. Santiago relates a time when she was put in a lower grade because she had not mastered English and the principal didn’t think she was capable of keeping up with her peers (Santiago). She made her case by articulating she was just as smart and more determined to succeed but not in the right words. Santiago was held back that year.

I, on the other hand, would hear my native language whose words were so familiar to me, yet I didn’t have the slightest clue what they meant. It was déjà vu. I remember hearing those words, a flutter of sentences of oscillating sounds like a beautiful song; I felt I was returning to a place I had been earlier but couldn’t remember if I had.

Sometimes I have to walk a tight rope between the two worlds of cultural differences and the expectations that come with it. Santiago said “In writing this book, I wanted to get back to that feeling of Puertoricanness I had before I came here” (Gale). This book is her memoir and in the first person. If it had been a narrative, it would not have been as powerful an influence in my adolescent years. I am grateful to the writer for that.

In When I was Puerto Rican, Santiago had internal clashes with what she thought was expected of herself and she dealt with extreme tensions that come with Americanization (Gale). I still admire and am fond of the book; I no longer see it as one of the greatest pieces of literature I have read. My youthful observations are not abandoned but are enhanced by maturation. I know now that this book was written with a certain audience in mind and was packaged in a certain way to attract recognition. I feel that parts were heavily edited. Santiago is a talented writer but now I feel a bit cheated. As a child, Santiago dealt with situations and cultural assimilation in a way that is almost unbelievable.

When I was Puerto Rican’s cover has changed. Before the cover was simple elegant lettering without a picture, and a coral background contrasting with aqua-green. Now the cover has a picture of a young girl with beach and a single palm tree as the backdrop. I can no longer find the actual edition I read at fourteen, but I remember it well. I studied the front cover as if it could transport me back to El Paso and return my lost language to me. Santiago successfully underwent culture-in-transition, moving from one place, Puerto Rico to another-New York (Szadiuk). I was not so lucky. My parents assimilated me into mainstream American society, but I failed to bridge my language along with me.

During the course of the book, Santiago becomes confident in her mastery of the English language and her achievement in academics. Although it takes her time to Americanize and her process of assimilation is not written in full, the memoir ends in an optimistic place with her attending Harvard on scholarship. When I was Puerto Rican helped me to see I shouldn’t be at odds with my myself and my lost language, but helped to give me an understanding of who I am. It is me, Lucia, and I know where I want to go with that.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. Bianco, Adriana. "Esmeralda Santiago: finding her voice." Americas, (English Edition). 60.2 (March-April 2008):61. 3 Nov. 2008 .
    In an interview, Santiago talks about being multi-ethnic, bicultural, and bilingual. She specifically talks about women finding their own identity. Santiago delves into the culture clash at the individual level as well as the globally. This is helpful background information on Santiago and gives a better understanding of her personality.
  2. "Esmeralda Santiago." Unsign article, Gale, Thompson, “Sidelights”. 11/11/2004. Contemporary Authors Online. 31, Nov. 2008.
    This is short biography/interview on Esmeralda Santiago. It is helpful in filling in some background information and her insight on her life. It gives biographical data on the awards she has won.
  3. Santiago, Esmeralda. When I was Puerto Rican. Vintage Books: New York, 1993.
    This is Santiago’s autobiography of her prepubescent years until she is accepted in NYC Performing Arts School. It is lighthearted and funny. Santiago deals with immigration and her assimilation into American society.
  4. Schultermandl, Silvia. "Rewriting American democracy: language and cultural (dis)locations in Esmeralda Santiago and Julia Alvarez." Bilingual Review. 28.1 (Jan. 2004):3. 3 Nov. 2008 .
    This is narrative and study which dissects and compares When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago, An American Childhood in the Dominican Republic, and How the Garcia Girls lost their Accent both by Julia Alvarez in relation to “where you’re from?” and “where you’re at?” This is an analysis of the three books taken from an anthropological and sociological viewpoint.
  5. Szadiuk, Maria. “Culture in Transition: Becoming a Woman in a Bi-ethnic Space”. Mosaic, 32.3 (Sept. 1999): 109-29. In Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Tom Burns and Jeffery W. Hunter. Vol. 193. Detroit: Gale 2005. 3 Nov. 2008 .
    The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago and Loving in the War Years by Cherries Moraga are analyzed in respect to culture-in-transition and feminine self-identification.

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