When I Was Puerto Rican is Emeralda Santiago’s memoir of a childhood spent between rural Macún, Puerto Rico and the cramped neighborhoods of San Juan. Known by her family as Negi — a nickname derived from negra, the Spanish word for black, Santiago’s early years are defined by the state of her parents’ volatile relationship and the responsibilities heaped upon her as the oldest child in a large family. Written in a lilting, evocative voice, Santiago’s story encompasses the duality of yearning to both embrace independence and reject adulthood in order to remain in the protection of her family’s affection.
The majority of When I Was Puerto Rican takes place in Puerto Rico, but the last quarter of the book details Santiago’s experience immigrating with her mother to Brooklyn, New York, struggling to learn English, and find her place in a new city.
“From the beginning of December, Mami spent most of her time in the kitchen. For weeks the house smelled of crushed onions, fresh oregano, and cilantro. Relatives I’d never met appeared to sit for hours at the kitchen table with Mami and, if he were visiting, Papi, to eat rice with pigeon peas, pasteles wrapped in banana leaves, crispy fried green plantains, and boiled yucca. After dinner they drank anisette and I was given the crunchy diamonds that formed in the sugarcane strings inside the bottles. Aunts and uncles came up the alley trailed by girls in white patent-leather shoes and flouncy dresses, their hair rolled into finger curls. The boys hung back, their pomaded hair and scrubbed faces serious, their pressed pants making them look stiff as paper dolls. Within minutes the girls were plating house with Delsa and Norma, while I chased the boys up and down the alley, getting good and dirty.”
Esmeralda Santiago is a Puerto Rican novelist and memoirist; her books include When I was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, The Turkish Lover, and America’s Dream. Born in Santurce in 1948, she immigrated to Brooklyn in 1961. She currently lives in New York.
Length: 270 pages
Main Settings: Macún and Santurce (San Juan), Puerto Rico
Secondary Setting: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
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