Following the enchanting story recounted in When I Was Puerto Rican of the author’s emergence from the barrios of Brooklyn to the prestigious Performing Arts High School in Manhattan, Esmeralda Santiago delivers the tale of her young adulthood, where she continually strives to find a balance between becoming American and staying Puerto Rican. While translating for her mother Mami at the welfare office in the morning, starring as Cleopatra at New York’s prestigious Performing Arts High School in the afternoons, and dancing salsa all night, she begins to defy her mother’s protective rules, only to find that independence brings new dangers and dilemmas.
About the Author
Esmeralda Santiago is the author of two memoirs, When I Was Puerto Rican and The Turkish Lover, and the novel Conquistadora. A resident of Westchester County, New York, she is married to filmmaker Frank Cantor and is the mother of two adult children, jazz guitarists Lucas and Ila.
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Almost a Woman
By Esmeralda Santiago
VintageCopyright © 1999 Esmeralda Santiago
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu familia te apartes."
In the twenty-one years I lived with my mother, we moved at least twenty times. We stuffed our belongings into ragged suitcases, boxes with bold advertising on the sides, pillowcases, empty rice sacks, cracker tins that smelled of flour and yeast. Whatever we couldn't carry, we left behind: dressers with missing drawers, refrigerators, lumpy sofas, the fifteen canvases I painted one summer. We learned not to attach value to possessions because they were as temporary as the walls that held us for a few months, as the neighbors who lived down the street, as the sad-eyed boy who loved me when I was thirteen.
We moved from country to city to country to small town to big city to the biggest city of all. Once in New York, we moved from apartment to apartment, in search of heat, of fewer cockroaches, of more rooms, of quieter neighbors, of more privacy, of nearness to the subway or the relatives. We moved in loops around the neighborhoods we wanted to avoid, where there were no Puerto Ricans, where graffiti warned of gang turfs, where people dressed better than we did, where landlords didn't accept welfare, or didn't like Puerto Ricans, or looked at our family of three adults, eleven children and shook their heads.
We avoided the neighborhoods with too few stores, or too many stores, or the wrong kind of store, or no stores at all. We circled around our first apartment the way animals circle the place where they will sleep, and after ten years of circling, Mami returned to where we began the journey, to Macun, the Puerto Rican barrio where everyone knew each other and each other's business, where what we left behind was put to good use by people who moved around less.
By the time she returned to Macun, I'd also moved. Four days after my twenty-first birthday, I left Mami's house, the rhyme I sang as a child forgotten: "Martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu familia te apartes." On a misty Tuesday, I didn't marry, but I did travel, and I did leave my family. I stuffed in the mailbox a letter addressed to Mami in which I said goodbye, because I didn't have the courage to say goodbye in person.
I went to Florida, to begin my own journey from one city to another. Each time I packed my belongings, I left a little of myself in the rooms that sheltered me, never home, always just the places I lived. I congratulated myself on how easy it was to leave them, how well I packed everything I owned into a couple of boxes and a suitcase.
Years later, when I visited Macun, I went to the spot where my childhood began and ended. I stepped on what was left of our blue tiled floor and looked at the wild greenness around me, at what had been a yard for games, at the corner where an eggplant bush became a Christmas tree, at the spot where I cut my foot and blood seeped into the dust. It was no longer familiar, nor beautiful, nor did it give a clue of who I'd been there, or who I might become wherever I was going next. The moriviv? weeds and the culantro choked the dirt yard, creepers had overgrown the cement floor, pinakoop climbed over what was left of the walls and turned them into soft green mounds that sheltered drab olive lizards and chameleons, coqu? and hummingbirds. There was no sign we'd ever been there, except for the hillock of blue cement tile on which I stood. It gleamed in the afternoon sun, its color so intense that I wondered if I had stepped onto the wrong floor because I didn't remember our floor being that blue.
"Something could happen to you."
We came to Brooklyn in 1961, in search of medical care for my youngest brother, Raymond, whose toes were nearly severed by a bicycle chain when he was four. In Puerto Rico, doctors wanted to amputate the often red and swollen foot, because it wouldn't heal. In New York, Mami hoped, doctors could save it.
The day we arrived, a hot, humid afternoon had splintered into thunderstorms as the last rays of the sun dipped into the rest of the United States. I was thirteen and superstitious enough to believe thunder and lightning held significance beyond the meteorological. I stored the sights and sounds of that dreary night into memory as if their meaning would someday be revealed in a flash of insight to transform my life forever. When the insight came, nothing changed, for it wasn't the weather in Brooklyn that was important, but the fact that I was there to notice it.
One hand tightly grasped by Mami, the other by six-year-old Edna, we squeezed and pushed our way through the crowd of travelers. Five-year-old Raymond clung to Mami's other hand, his unbalanced gait drawing sympathetic smiles from people who moved aside to let us walk ahead of them.
At the end of the tunnel waited Tata, Mami's mother, in black lace and high heels, a pronged rhinestone pin on her left shoulder. When she hugged me, the pin pricked my cheek, pierced subtle flower-shaped indentations that I rubbed rhythmically as our taxi hurtled through drenched streets banked by high, angular buildings.
New York was darker than I expected, and, in spite of the cleansing rain, dirtier. Used to the sensual curves of rural Puerto Rico, my eyes had to adjust to the regular, aggressive two-dimensionality of Brooklyn. Raindrops pounded the hard streets, captured the dim silver glow of street lamps, bounced against sidewalks in glistening sparks, then disappeared, like tiny ephemeral jewels, into the darkness. Mami and Tata teased that I was disillusioned because the streets were not paved with gold. But I had no such vision of New York. I was disappointed by the darkness and fixed my hopes on the promise of light deep within the sparkling raindrops.
Two days later, I leaned against the wall of our apartment building on McKibbin Street wondering where New York ended and the rest of the world began. It was hard to tell. There was no horizon in Brooklyn. Everywhere I looked, my eyes met a vertical maze of gray and brown straight-edged buildings with sharp corners and deep shadows. Every few blocks there was a cement playground surrounded by chain-link fence. And in between, weedy lots mounded with garbage and rusting cars.
A girl came out of the building next door, a jump rope in her hand. She appraised me shyly; I pretended to ignore her. She stepped on the rope, stretched the ends overhead as if to measure their length, and then began to skip, slowly, grunting each time she came down on the sidewalk. Swish splat grunt swish, she turned her back to me; swish splat grunt swish, she faced me again and smiled. I smiled back, and she hopped over.
"T? eres hispana?" she asked, as she whirled the rope in lazy arcs.
"No, I'm Puerto Rican."
"Same thing. Puerto Rican, Hispanic. That's what we are here." She skipped a tight circle, stopped abruptly, and shoved the rope in my direction. "Want a turn?"
"Sure." I hopped on one leg, then the other. "So, if you're Puerto Rican, they call you Hispanic?"
"Yeah. Anybody who speaks Spanish."
I jumped a circle, as she had done, but faster. "You mean, if you speak Spanish, you're Hispanic?"
"Well, yeah. No ... I mean your parents have to be Puerto Rican or Cuban or something."
I whirled the rope to the right, then the left, like a boxer. "Okay, your parents are Cuban, let's say, and you're born here, but you don't speak Spanish. Are you Hispanic?"
She bit her lower lip. "I guess so," she finally said. "It has to do with being from a Spanish country. I mean, you or your parents, like, even if you don't speak Spanish, you're Hispanic, you know?" She looked at me uncertainly. I nodded and returned her rope.
But I didn't know. I'd always been Puerto Rican, and it hadn't occurred to me that in Brooklyn I'd be someone else.
Later, I asked. "Are we Hispanics, Mami?"
"Yes, because we speak Spanish."
"But a girl said you don't have to speak the language to be Hispanic."
She scrunched her eyes. "What girl? Where did you meet a girl?"
"Outside. She lives in the next building."
"Who said you could go out to the sidewalk? This isn't Puerto Rico. Algo te puede suceder."
"Something could happen to you" was a variety of dangers outside the locked doors of our apartment. I could be mugged. I could be dragged into any of the dark, abandoned buildings on the way to or from school and be raped and murdered. I could be accosted by gang members into whose turf I strayed. I could be seduced by men who preyed on unchaperoned girls too willing to talk to strangers. I listened to Mami's lecture with downcast eyes and the necessary, respectful expression of humility. But inside, I quaked. Two days in New York, and I'd already become someone else. It wasn't hard to imagine that greater dangers lay ahead.
Our apartment on McKibbin Street was more substantial than any of our houses in Puerto Rico. Its marble staircase, plaster walls, and tiled floors were bound to the earth, unlike the wood and zinc rooms on stilts where I'd grown up. Chubby angels with bare buttocks danced around plaster wreaths on the ceiling. There was a bathtub in the kitchen with hot and cold running water, and a toilet inside a closet with a sink and a medicine chest.
An alley between our bedroom window and the wall of the next building was so narrow that I stretched over to touch the bricks and left my mark on the greasy soot that covered them. Above, a sliver of sky forced vague yellow light into the ground below, filled with empty detergent boxes, tattered clothes, unpaired shoes, bottles, broken glass.
Mami had to go look for work, so Edna, Raymond, and I went downstairs to stay with Tata in her apartment. When we knocked on her door, she was just waking up. I sat at the small table near the cooking counter to read the newspapers that Don Julio, Tata's boyfriend, had brought the night before. Edna and Raymond stood in the middle of the room and stared at the small television on a low table. Tata switched it on, fiddled with the knobs and the antenna until the horizontal lines disappeared and black-and-white cartoon characters chased each other across a flat landscape. The kids sank to the floor cross-legged, their eyes on the screen. Against the wall, under the window, Tata's brother, Tio Chico, slept with his back to us. Every so often, a snore woke him, but he chewed his drool, mumbled, slept again.
While Tata went to wash up in the hall bathroom, I tuned in to the television. A dot bounced over the words of a song being performed by a train dancing along tracks, with dogs, cats, cows, and horses dangling from its windows and caboose. I was hypnotized by the dot skipping over words that looked nothing like they sounded. "Shilbee cominrun demuntin wenshecoms, toot-toot" sang the locomotive, and the ball dipped and rose over "She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes," with no toots. The animals, dressed in cowboy hats, overalls, and bandannas, waved pickaxes and shovels in the air. The toot-toot was replaced by a bow-wow or a miaow-ow, or a moo-moo. It was joyous and silly, and made Edna and Raymond laugh. But it was hard for me to enjoy it as I focused on the words whizzing by, on the dot jumping rhythmically from one syllable to the next, with barely enough time to connect the letters to the sounds, with the added distraction of an occasional neigh, bark, or kid's giggle.
When Tata returned from the bathroom, she made coffee on the two-burner hot plate. Fragrant steam soon filled the small room, and as she strained the grounds through a well-worn flannel filter, Tio Chico rose as if the aroma were an alarm louder and more insistent than the singing animals on the television screen, the clanking of pots against the hot plate and counter, the screech of the chair legs as I positioned myself so that I could watch both Tata and the cartoons.
"Well, look who we have here," Tio Chico said, as he stretched until his long, bony fingers scraped the ceiling. He wore the same clothes as on the day before: a faded pair of dark pants and a short-sleeved undershirt, both wrinkled and giving off a pungent, sweaty smell. He stepped over Edna and Raymond, who barely moved to let him through. In two long-legged strides, he slipped out to the bathroom. As he shut the door, the walls closed in, as if his lanky body added dimension to the cramped room.
Tata hummed the cartoon music. Her big hands reached for a pan, poured milk, stirred briskly as it heated and frothed. I was mesmerized by her grace, by how she held her head, by the disheveled, ash-colored curls that framed her high cheekbones. She looked up with mischievous caramel eyes and grinned without breaking her rhythm.
Tio Chico returned showered and shaved, wearing a clean shirt and pants as wrinkled as the ones he'd taken off. He dropped the dirty clothes in a corner near Tata's bed and made up his cot. Tata handed me a cup of sweetened cafe con leche and, with a head gesture, indicated that I should vacate the chair for Tio Chico.
"No, no, that's okay," he said, "I'll sit here."
He perched on the edge of the cot, elbows on knees, his fingers wrapped around the mug Tata gave him. Steam rose from inside his hands in a transparent spiral. Tata served Edna and Raymond, then sat with her coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, talking softly to Tio Chico, who also lit up. I brought my face to the steaming coffee to avoid the mentholated smoke that curled from their corner of the room to ours, settling like a soft, gray blanket that melted into our clothes and hair.
I couldn't speak English, so the school counselor put me in a class for students who'd scored low on intelligence tests, who were behavior problems, who were marking time until their sixteenth birthday, when they could drop out. The teacher, a pretty black woman only a few years older than her students, pointed to a seat in the middle of the room. I didn't dare look anyone in the eyes. Grunts and mutters followed me, and although I had no idea what they meant, they didn't sound friendly.
Excerpted from Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago Copyright © 1999 by Esmeralda Santiago. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Esmeralda Santiago's Almost a Woman, the sequel to her moving and powerful memoir When I Was Puerto Rican. We hope they will provide you with a number of ways of looking at—and talking about—this vibrant story of an ambitious, headstrong teenager as she moves slowly out of the loving and safe but constricting grip of her Hispanic family and community and into the large and unimaginably different world of Manhattan.
1. "In the twenty-one years I lived with my mother, we moved at least twenty times" [p. 1]. Santiago feels that this fact kept her and her family from attaching too much importance to possessions, or even to friends. What other effects did the family's many moves have on their outlook on life, their relationships to one another and to outsiders, and, in particular, on Esmeralda's developing character?
2. After her discussion with a neighborhood child soon after her arrival in Brooklyn, Esmeralda reflects, "Two days in New York, and I'd already become someone else" [p. 5]. What does the two girls' conversation reveal about categories of identity? Is group identity, in a multicultural place like New York, seen to be primarily racial? National? Linguistic? Regional?
3. What different groups does Esmeralda identify herself with during the course of her narrative? How do her experiences at the Performing Arts High School change her ideas about hierarchy and group identity? How does she define herself at the memoir's end?
4. Mami says that Esmeralda's cousins Alma and Corazon are Americanized. "The way she pronouncedthe word Americanized, it sounded like a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs, another algo to be added to the list of 'somethings' outside our door" [p. 12]. What does Mami mean by "Americanized," and why does the word have such negative connotations for her? Why is she so afraid of Esmeralda's becoming Americanized too? Isn't it true that she also wishes for Esmeralda and her siblings to enter into American life and to succeed there?
5. Listening to Mami, says Santiago, "had taught me that men were not to be trusted" [p. 14]. The same could be said of Esmeralda's observations of her father, and of some of the other men in her community. What mixed messages about men, women, and love does Esmeralda pick up, as a child, from her parents? How does her mother's example affect her own early relationships with men and boys? Does it make her more passive? Wary? Fearful? Impulsive? Why does she never feel "affection" for any man outside her family until she meets Allan—although she is not in love with him—whereas she has been in love with several other men?
6. What does Esmeralda learn about "another United States—the trim, horizontal suburbs of white Americans" [pp. 26-7]—from Archie comics? How much of the imaginary picture she constructs of the white suburbs is a true one, and how much is simple fantasy? In what ways is Esmeralda's life deeply different from those of real suburban teenagers?
7. How, according to Santiago, do race relations and racial consciousness differ between Puerto Rico and New York? Have the racial attitudes and stereotypes encountered by Esmeralda in the 1960s changed over the ensuing decades? Are things better, worse, or much the same?
8. How does Mami's trip to the welfare office [pp. 43-4] make Mami look? Does this image that Mami presents to the welfare agent resemble the real Mami that we have come to know from the book? Does this scene, and your knowledge of Mami's character, change or affect your ideas about welfare recipients and the welfare system?
9. Mami has high expectations for her daughters: that they will remain virgins until marriage, that they will find good and responsible husbands, and that they will get married in a church. Esmeralda is not even allowed to date until the age of twenty. Yet the example Mami herself has provided is very different: eleven children by three different men, none of whom has married her. "Whenever we discussed it at home, it was agreed by the adults around the kitchen table that 'the Pill' was nothing more than a license for young women to have sex without getting married. The fact that my mother, grandmother, and almost every other female relative of ours had sex without marriage was not mentioned" [pp. 156-7]. Is Mami entirely unreasonable and exasperating on this subject? Do you have any sympathy for her and the discrepancy between her standards and her behavior?
10. Why, as an actress, does Esmeralda refuse to venture into her deeper self [p. 74]? What is she afraid of finding? Is there any part of her teenage life during which she does not feel it necessary to act a role?
11. Jaime, who acts with Esmeralda in Babu, is a political activist who promotes Puerto Rican culture in New York. What is it in Esmeralda's life and experiences that make her resist his perorations, and to believe that "I could be of no help to 'my' people until I helped myself" [p. 288]?
12. How can you explain the fact that Esmeralda accepts the marriage proposal of Jurgen, a man she has known only a few hours, when by her own admission she is deeply distrustful of men in general?
13. "Why him?" Esmeralda asks after losing her virginity to Ulvi. "Why not Otto or Avery Lee or Jurgen" [p. 272]? Can you answer her question? What of her special needs does Ulvi, alone among all the men she knows, meet? Why does she go along with his dominating manner, his wish to separate her from family and friends, his rules and regulations? Does Iris have a point when she says Esmeralda's bracelet, a gift from Ulvi, reminds her of shackles? Or do you agree with Santiago's own retrospective opinion that Ulvi served as a substitute father for her?
14. "Esmeralda's observations of her own family and community have taught her that "love was something you get over. If Ulvi left, there would be another man, but there would never, ever be another Mami" [p. 310]. Why, then, does she opt to leave with Ulvi? Does this move amount to an out-and-out rejection of Mami? What else is she leaving behind when she leaves her mother and family?
15. How has the lack of a father during her formative years affected Esmeralda's life, her character, and her dealings with the rest of the world? How might her life have been different if her father had been present? How might she, as a person, have developed differently?
16. The relationship between Mami and Esmeralda is a complex one: in some ways it is the classic mother-daughter story, while other elements of it are more unusual. "I felt guilty," Santiago remembers, "that so much of what little we had was spent on me. And I dreaded the price" [p. 86]. What price does Mami, in fact, try to exact? What does she expect of Esmeralda, and how far is Esmeralda willing to go to please Mami? What concessions does Esmeralda refuse to make when it comes to her own life? Do you find that the relationship between Mami and Esmeralda resembles that between Tata and Mami? In what ways is it different, and why?
Comparing When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman
1. Almost a Woman could be described as in essence a search for identity, as Santiago changes from Negi, the little Puerto Rican girl she once was, to the young adult, part Puerto Rican and part American, whose persona she herself has gone far to create. In what ways are little Negi and adult Esmeralda different? What characteristics, on the contrary, does Santiago keep all her life? At the end of Almost a Woman, do you feel that Esmeralda has become the woman she will be, or is her character still in a state of flux?
2. The Santiagos felt that in New York, they would have a "better" life than they had in Macún. In what ways does their American life turn out, indeed, to be better? In what ways is it a less satisfactory life? Santiago, at the beginning of Almost a Woman, says that Mami would eventually return to Macún after ten years in New York. Do you think that was the right decision for her?
3. How might you compare the Latino experience of assimilation with those of, for example, Chinese, Jewish, Irish, or Haitian immigrants? How might the cultural barriers between these groups and mainstream America differ? What roles do race and language play in the process?
4. In what ways does the Puerto Rican extended family, as represented by the Santiagos, differ from its American counterpart? Does it provide more support, or less? Is the family more constricting? More powerful? More protective? How do the conceptions and ideals of certain roles—mother, father, daughter, son—differ between the two cultures?
5. In Brooklyn, Esmeralda finds that she wants more things, is more ambitious, than she was in Puerto Rico. Why is this? Is this feeling of wanting, of striving, a particularly American state of mind, or is it rather a characteristic of urban culture in general?
Suggestions for further reading Isabel Allende: The Infinite Plan; Julia Alvarez: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; íYo! ; Claude Brown: Manchild in the Promised Land; Lorene Cary: Black Ice; Denise Chávez: Face of an Angel; Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street; Julia Ortiz Cofer: The Latin Deli; Jill Ker Conway: The Road from Coorain; True North; Janet Frame: An Angel at My Table; Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career; Cristina García: Dreaming in Cuban; Lorraine Hansberry: To Be Young, Gifted, and Black; Jamaica Kincaid: Annie John; Autobiography of My Mother; Oscar Lewis: La Vida; Nicholasa Mohr: Nilda; Pat Mora: House of Houses; Rosario Morales and Aurora Levins Morales: Getting Home Alive; Edward Rívera: Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic; Earl Shorris: Latinos: A Biography of the People; Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Amy Tan: The Joy Luck Club.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago, takes place in New York as the main character, Negi, grows up. The character is very believable and reading from her point of view lets the reader in all her thoughts and into the story. You feel as if you are growing up along with her. Negi moves to New York from Puerto Rico and deals with poverty, lack of privacy, racism, and feeling homesick.She lives with seven younger siblings and a strict mother in a 3 room apartent. As she gets older she becomes an aspiring actor, a dancer, and dates many guys. She becomes independant after being in the shadow of her mother all her life and gets involved in American ways. The ending of the story leaves you hanging, by never telling the decision Negi makes, but its an intersting book. The thing I liked about this book was the topic. However I disliked that it had some Parental Advisory scenes. It was a great book but, I wish it hadnt ended so soon.
this book was so good. ever sins i red it ive been wanting to go to Porta rico i will some day get there. till that day comes i will keep on getting books that like this one. you should get this book so you can have a taste of what it is like to live in a place very diferent from the place you live now.
I really loved this book. I loved how much I could relate to this story. I see so much of my mother in this book minus all the children. My mother would say some of the same things and was so strict. A wonderful book that I could read over and over.
This is one of my favorite books ever. Being Puerto Rican I could identify to the relationship issues especially with there being two different cultures. Almost a Woman is a must read!!! E. Santiago's writing style is siliar to D. L. Blanco's novel, Single Latina Female which is a really good book, too.
this book was so much fun to read. it had such great detail which made you feel as if you were part of negi's life. it kept me entertained and had many laugh out loud moments. esmeralda santiago is a great story teller and i look foward to reading her next book 'my turkish lover'.
This was the first memoir Ive ever read and it was really good. I liked how Esmeralda wrote. This book was very entertaining and had a lot of emotion which I liked.
This book has taken me on a beautiful journey of memories!Plus some of them smell like a Puma Rosa!I love the way you write,I sometimes feel trapped in two cultures,but my heart always remembering who I am.In your books I have walked ,with you in your journeys. Muchas Gracias Que Dios La Bendiga
I graduated from Roberto Clemente High School in 1993 and I wish that this book was required reading. I just picked up the book at my local library in 2002 and I haven't been able to put it down. It should be required at every school. It would have made my life not feel so difficult coming from a family of eight.
Ms.Santiago made me feel the warm breath of a Latino kitchen, the fear of reprimand from an overbearing Mami, the love/hate relationship with an absent father and all the experiences of being uprooted from her homeland. May there be a part three!! I must know how she made it into Harvard from her meager beginnings!! More please!!
That's all I gotta say, ya gotta get it! It's a great book. Big-ups to Esmeralda Santiago! You go Chica!