Classic book review: Esmeralda Santiago’s “When I Was Puerto Rican”

Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican (De Capo Press) is a beautiful book – one whose beauty often comes from deep pain.

The book is a memoir of Santiago’s early childhood in Puerto Rico, where the country dwellers are called jibaros. She grew up poor, describing her home as “a rectangle of rippled metal sheets on stilts hovering in the middle of a circle of red dirt.”

Through the years, young Esmeralda – called Negi by her parents because she was so dark as a baby – moves from the country to the city and, eventually, to Brooklyn – as her unmarried parents separate and reunite repeatedly. Negi takes care of her seven younger siblings as she experiences school, impending womanhood and, in one amusing chapter, the food program from the United States.

The book’s strength comes from Santiago’s style of writing – so simple that the book is a fast read, yet so elegant in its gorgeous and inventive descriptions.

Take this passage when Santiago’s family flies to New York City:

“Several times I bumped into Mami as I walked backwards, unwilling to face the metal bird that would whisk us to our new life … Neither one of us could have known what lay ahead. For her it began as an adventure and turned out to have more twists and turns than she expected or knew how to handle. For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased and another one was created. The Puerto Rican jibara who longed for the green quiet of a tropical afternoon was to become a hybrid who would never forgive the uprooting.”

Although Santiago never feels sorry for herself, my heart broke for her all that she had to through in her young life. Fortunately, the great ending makes you grateful you went on the tough journey with her.

More about Esmeralda Santiago:

When I Was Puerto Rican was Santiago’s first book. She wrote two sequels, Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover, as well as several novels, including America’s Dream and Conquistadora.

Source: I purchased this book at Barnes and Noble.

Note: This review is part of a series of classic books by Latinas. (I’m running a bit behind.) Next up: Chicana Falsa by Michelle Serros.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classic Books, Non-Fiction

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