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

Home | Author | Teaching | Study | Resource



Writer Esmeralda Santiago shared much of her life with her readers in two memoirs, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman. Together, these memoirs tell the story of Santiago's coming of age from her childhood in Puerto Rico to her adolescence and adulthood in the United States. Santiago's rich prose and descriptive narratives tell the story of Puerto Rico in the 1950s and New York in the 1950s.

Santiago embodies the struggle of many Puerto Ricans who migrated to the mainland United States in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, seeking better economic circumstances. Her personal story moves from the quiet rural village of Macun to the throbbing intensity of Brooklyn, New York. Embedded in Santiago's personal story is a larger context of the political history between the United States and Puerto Rico, of the tension between island-born Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans in New York, of the definition of "American," of the struggles of "immigration," of the situation for single mothers in both the United States and Puerto Rico, of working class history and of the heartfelt coming-of-age issues faced by a teenage girl.


Esmeralda Santiago was born on 17 May 1948 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her parents are Pablo Santiago Diaz and Ramona Santiago, known as "Papi" and "Mami" in the book (the Spanish words for "father" and "mother"). Esmeralda was the oldest of eleven children: Esmeralda, Delsa, Norma, Héctor, Alicia, Edna, Raymond, Franky, Charlie, Cibi and Ciro.

You will read all about Santiago's life in Puerto Rico as a child growing up in both small cities and in rural areas of the island. This narrative is punctuated by her complicated familial relations and the difficult relationship between her mother and father. As Santiago grows, so does her consciousness about the relationship between her parents, her relationship to the other people in her community, her relationship to her own changing body, and her expected social and familial role.

In 1961, Santiago, her mother and Delsa, Norma, Héctor, Alicia, Edna and Raymond moved to Brooklyn, New York. Santiago writes that she moved more than twenty times during the first twenty-one years of her life (1). Among the places she lived in Brooklyn were: McKibbin Street, Varet Street, Pitkin Avenue, Stanhope Street, Glenmore, and Fulton Street. Santiago's four other siblings, Franky, Charlie, Cibi and Ciro were born in the United States.


When I Was Puerto Rican ends with Santiago's acceptance to New York City's Performing Arts High School where Santiago majored in drama and dance. Santiago overlaps the ending story of When I Was Puerto Rican with the beginning story of Almost a Woman. The first memoir focuses on Santiago's memories as a child; her narrative is punctuated with the ideas and thoughts of a child as she experiences many things for the first time.

In Almost a Woman, Santiago presents a more mature narrative, grappling fully with issues of social class, sexuality, familial relations and the political circumstances of her life in New York. For example, in the second book, Santiago explores racial issues in more detail than in When I Was Puerto Rican. She writes "I was neither black nor white; I was trigueña, wheat colored. I had 'good' hair and my features were neither African nor European but a combination of both" (57). Santiago writes about being aware of race for the first time. While she was called "Negi," short for "Negrita," (loosely translated as "little black one") in When I Was Puerto Rican, this nickname took on more significance in a New York society filled with a more heterogeneous racial mix. Frustrated by the expectations of race and nationality, Santiago writes, "In my secret life I wasn't Puerto Rican. I wasn't American. I wasn't anything" (84). Her frustrations are common, often expressed by many people who move to the United States and try to combine their old lives and cultures with new cultural and social expectations.

Santiago's second book moves quickly through her career at the New York City Performing Arts High School, culminating in a role in the movie Up The Down Staircase immediately after her graduation. After this role, Santiago held several jobs including: working in the mailroom of Fisher Scientific, telemarketing, working for the Advertising Checking Bureau, modeling for a photography school, selling shoes, and working as an office assistant at Lady Manhattan.

She also had roles in two traveling productions put on by the Children's Theater International Company, Babu and A Box of Tears. Much of the narrative of Almost a Woman focuses on Esmeralda's life as an aspiring actress.

She writes extensively of her feelings about living two different lives, one outside of the home where she worked to fit into New York society and one inside the home where she was still subject to the expectations of her mother. She explains, "I wiped off my makeup, then stripped. Esmeralda Santiago remained in the folds of each garment I took off and put away. Naked, nameless, I lay on my bed and slept. Half an hour later, Negi emerged, dressed in the comfortable clothes I wore at home. Another performance was about to begin, this one in Spanish" (169). As part of Santiago's work toward becoming an actress, she attended Manhattan Community College before transferring to Harvard University.


She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1976. She also received her M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Since her graduation, Santiago's professional life has been divided into two parts: film and writing.
Working as partners, she and her husband, Frank Cantor, founded a film and production Company called Cantomedia. Santiago has authored two screenplays, Beverly Hills Supper Club (1980) and Button, Button (1982). In 1980, Santiago received a Silver Award from the International Film and TV Festival; in 1984, Santiago won a Gold Award from the Houston International Film Festival.

Santiago's first memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican was published in 1993. This was followed by a 1996 novel, América's Dream, about América Gonzalez, a maid who flees the island of Vieques from her abusive lover to live in Westchester, New York as a maid. In the Audio section of the resources, you can hear an interview with Santiago in which she talks about a real life experience employing a maid. Santiago, with Joie Davidow, next edited a collection of holiday stories entitled Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, in 1998. Davidow and Santiago also edited Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers in 2000. Santiago's second memoir, Almost a Woman, was released in 1998. This book has been made into a film for PBS' Masterpiece Theatre and will be aired on 15 September 2002.

A widely published author, Santiago has written essays and short stories in addition to her other work. Her essays and short stories have appeared in magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, House & Garden, Metropolitan Home, and Good Housekeeping.

On her personal web site, Santiago also emphasizes the importance of being involved in the community. Her web site states, "In addition to her literary endeavors, Ms. Santiago is an active volunteer. She is a spokesperson on behalf of public libraries. She has designed and developed community-based programs for adolescents, and was a founder of a shelter for battered women and their children. She serves on the boards of organizations devoted to the arts and to literature, and speaks vehemently about the need to encourage and support the artistic development of young people." ( Accessed on 28 October 2002.)


All of the information on this site is either quoted directly or summarized from When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman and Esmeralda Santiago's personal web site. It is our hope that this information will provide a brief overview for you about Santiago's life and work and will stimulate your interest in Santiago. You should read other work by and about Santiago for your own research if you are interested in learning more about her.

Santiago, Esmeralda. Almost a Woman. New York: Vintage, 1999.
---. Home Page. (Accessed on 28 October 2002.)
---. When I Was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage, 1994.


The cover photograph of When I Was Puerto Rican belongs to Vintage Books & Anchor Books, A Division of the Knopf Group, Random House, Inc. This image is used with permission.

The photograph of Brooklyn comes from the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives New York City Housing Authority Collection. Photograph ID Number: 02.015.15473.

The photograph of the palm tree, "Cocoanut palms" comes from the Library of Congress, American Memory: Historical Collection. The original image was taken by Detroit Publishing Co. in 1949. Library of Congress Call Number: LC-D4-16743.

The photograph of Esmeralda Santiago belongs to Vintage Books & Anchor Books, A Division of the Knopf Group, Random House, Inc. This image is used with permission.


Santiago, Esmeralda. Almost a Woman. New York: Vintage, 1999.
---. América's Dream. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
---. Home Page. (Accessed on 28 October 2002.)
---. Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers. Ed. with Joie Davidow. New York: Knopf, 2000.
---. Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories. Ed. with Joie Davidow. New York: Knopf, 1998.
---. When I Was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage, 1994.

LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York
31-10 Thomson Ave./Long Island City, NY 11101
Site Developed by:
Arthur C. Lau ( and J. Elizabeth Clark (
Technical Consultant: Abigail Schoneboom (Center for Teaching and Learning)