When I Was Puerto Rican

Esmeralda Santiago’s story begins in rural Puerto Rico, where her childhood was full of both tenderness and domestic strife, tropical sounds and sights as well as poverty. Growing up, she learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of tree frogs in the mango groves at night, the taste of the delectable sausage called morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby’s soul to heaven. As she enters school we see the clash, both hilarious and fierce, of Puerto Rican and Yankee culture. When her mother, Mami, a force of nature, takes off to New York with her seven, soon to be eleven children, Esmeralda, the oldest, must learn new rules, a new language, and eventually take on a new identity.

One thought on “When I Was Puerto Rican

  1. Vivett Hemans says:

    Vivett Hemans
    LYST 220 / A – Literature in the Lives of Young Children
    Literature Circe 3 – World of Words (www.wowlit.org)
    Respectfully submitted to: Dr. Joan Zaleski, Ph.D
    Hofstra University
    December 9, 2011

    International literature is an important topic to explore in the reality of the global community in which we live. As educators, it sets the stage for discussing, with our students and amongst ourselves, the need for increased attention paid to the diversity of children’s and young adult literature we are implored to teach. World literature provides a viable foundation upon which to discuss the social injustices that are going on in the world around us; injustices that often go unnoticed and unaddressed in the cannon of literature we learn and teach everyday.
    Through global literature, children view the atrocities that result from war, immigration, natural disasters, racism, sexism, poverty, ageism, classism, and sickness on a daily basis. These issues can further be viewed through essential questions like: Do authors from different countries address the same issue in the same way? How are their viewpoints similar? How do they differ? What experiences inform their voice as a writer? How does reading their work inform / alter / strengthen our currently held views on the particular topic?
    I never thought about the notion of global literature in our curricula so concertedly before viewing the http://www.wowlit.org website. I must say, it’s quite sobering and exciting to think of the possibilities that such a trajectory of academic exploration provides to my students and myself. It lends itself to the type of higher order thinking and awareness that the State is mandating our students to exemplify, and more importantly, will make our students viable and positive contributors to society.
    One area in which global literature seems to already have permeated the novels we study in school districts across Long Island and New York City occurs during Women’s History Month. During this month, we explore the theme of gender, stereotypes, societal roles and expectations of women and girls, and much more. In the text I explored, the main character, a female, overcame several of these hardships and went on to Harvard University, where she graduated with the highest honors.
    In the district I work in, immigration / migration is an issue that my students deal with or have dealt with first hand. With that in mind and coupled with the focus of this literacy assignment, I chose to revisit a novel that I read and shared with a friend about 15 years ago: When I was Puerto Rican by Esmerelda Santiago. One of my dearest friends, Sacha, is from Puerto Rico. We have been friends for over 25 years and I’ve had the privilege of being intimately exposed to (her family’s version of) Puerto Rican culture, up close and personal.
    Similarly, the main character is the aforementioned auto-biographical text, Esmerelda, although technically an American (Puerto Rica is America’s oldest colony), educates the readers about the problems surrounding immigration. She provides a human face to this intense debate. Many meaning-making opportunities through the incorporation and exploration of other non-fiction, informational texts, make this book rich on many levels, both academically and socially. She highlights for the reader the tensions that exist for those who have chosen to leave or been forced to leave their homes and countries, hoping for economic success and upward mobility in the United States. Esmerelda’s experiences in the mainland United States illuminates the difficulty of forging her identity in a culture that often does/did not often value her traditions or ethnicity, specifically where and when she used her native language of Spanish.
    Another component Esmerelda addresses in her memoir that is crucial to our discussion of world literature is the commonality of problems, feelings, and sentiments we experience as humans, regardless of where we come from. In the text, Esmerelda, speaks openly, passionately, and at times, painstakingly about her parents tumultuous relationship, her father’s infidelity, and the birth of her half-sibling that ensued as a result of this affair.
    My favorite aspect of this memoir is how each chapter begins with a quote or adage, written in both English and Spanish. It sets the tone for the chapter and facilitates schema activation and student interest. In this novel, Ms. Santiago adds herself to my list of favorite (Latina) novelist that includes Julia Alvares, Sandra Cisneros, and Isabel Allende. Each of these women have written books that would form a great text set with which to explore the concepts of culture and identity.

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