LaGuardia Community College 2002-03 Common Reading
Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican

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Study Questions for the "Angels on the Ceiling" Chapter
  1. Esmeralda flew on an airplane from Puerto Rico to New York for the first time in her life. She met some stewardesses and they gave her an impression that they were not friendly. Find the sentences that show that they were cold and remote.

  2. When Esmeralda met Tata, her grandmother, for the first time at the airport, she described the experience as follows:

    "On the fringes of the crowd a tall woman with short cropped hair, a black dress, and black open-toed shoes leaned against a beam that had been painted yellow... I pressed against her and felt the sharp prongs of the rhinestone brooch on her left shoddier against my face. She held me longer than I expected, wrapped me in the scratchy softness of her black lace dress, the warmth of her powdered skin, the sting of her bittersweet breath, pungent of beer and cigarettes." (p. 215)

    How would you characterize Esmeralda's first impression of Tata?

  3. On the cab ride to Tata's home in Brooklyn, Esmeralda felt disappointed and Mami also made fun of her. Summarize what happened and what was on Esmeralda's mind. (p. 217 - 218)

  4. Esmeralda described the Brooklyn neighborhood that she arrived in:

    "We stopped in front of a brick building. Here, too, battered trash cans were chained to a black lamppost, only these were filled with garbage, some of which had spilled out and lay scattered in puddles of pulpy trash. The door of the building was painted black, and there was a hole where the knob should have been." (p. 218)

    How did the description here help you form an image of the neighborhood that Esmeralda had moved into?

    Building on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn after rehabilitation. 13 April 1964. NYCHA Photograph ID: 02.015.15833
    (The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives New York City Housing Authority Collection)

  5. After a day of travel and busy activities, the Esmeralda family finally settled in and went to sleep. She laid wide awake for a few moments, and noticed there were four naked cherubs on the ceiling. Why was this observation important to her? (p. 220 - 221)

    Images from

  6. Esmeralda met Mr. Grant at the school that she was enrolled in, and struggled to fight for her rights. She remembered this incident with a sense of self-depreciating humor. Study their dialog and discuss how she approached the situation. (p. 226 - 227)

  7. Esmeralda was assigned to class 8-23, and she was not happy about it. Why?

  8. The education system in our society routinely assigns students to levels, tracks and streams based on arbitrary test scores. Discuss the impact this may have on students' psyche and learning outcome.

  9. What is your evaluation of the effectiveness of Miss Brown as a teacher? (p. 228 - 229)

  10. Esmeralda and her family were living in an ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood, and she experienced prejudice and distance among different groups. Summarize her observations. (p. 224 - 225, p. 228 - 230)

  11. "On October 7, 1961, Don Julio, Mami, and I went to the airport to pick up Delsa, Norma, Hector, and Alicia." (p. 231) Esmeralda seldom recalls dates in the book with such precision. Why do you think she remembered this date so vividly?

  12. Esmeralda told the readers about the changes in her body when she reached puberty. (a) Why was she sharing such private moments in the book? (b) Why are writers of memoirs willing to share their private, embarrassing and sometimes painful chapters of their lives?

  13. Esmeralda developed into a leader in her family (p. 234 - 237). Discuss how this happened. Do you think this had any impact on her later success in life as a writer and actress?

  14. Mami had a new boyfriend, Francisco, but Tata disapproved of it because Francisco was younger than Mami. Do you think this is a valid reason to object to their relationship? Why do many people in our society think this way? What do YOU think about the situation?

  15. At the end of this chapter, Esmeralda mentioned Marilyn Monroe's suicide and the truck driver outside of her apartment. What was she really trying to tell the reader?

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