Stylistically fluid and finely detailed, “When I Was Puerto Rican” by Esmeralda Santiago takes its unique place in contemporary Latino storytelling. Santiago’s autobiographical account cinematically recaptures her past and her island culture in a manner most appropriate for Santiago who, according to the author’s note, is president of her own film company.
Choosing to use an almost documentary style, with episodes held together by a protagonist for whom we have concern as well as admiration, Santiago’s first major published work is a touching and revealing memoir of a Puerto Rican girl and the rites of passage she endures on her way to womanhood and, ultimately, Americanization.
Focusing early on image in “When I Was Puerto Rican,” Santiago opens with a fine chapter on the waves of memory brought forth by the mere fragrance and taste of guava. Then Negi (a fairly common term of endearment in Puerto Rican culture and a shortened form of negrita or “my dearest little dark one”), as Esmeralda is called in her childhood, unravels her first-person account of living in the poor barrio Macun in the early 1960s and of learning her family are jibaros (peasants or country dwellers in the rural sections of Puerto Rico). Jibaros are considered lowest in the social order of Puerto Rican society; the term jibaros has an equal in the term hillbillies.
However, Negi grows up to admire the humble existence of the jibaros, their crude yet intoxicating world of fruity perfume, fish-head soup, pan de agua and the poetry of Don Luis Llorens Torres, who began the Modernismo movement in Puerto Rico that followed World War I. Even when treated appallingly by a teacher in the nearby town Santurce, Negi proudly holds her ground, defending the integrity of the jibaros as a warrior would defend the tribe.
Negi, being the oldest, chronicles the birth of her eight brothers and sisters and the steady evaporation of Mami and Papi’s sometimes passionate, sometimes turbulent common-law marriage. She is emotionally torn between her parents: her mother is a decent, demanding, hard-working woman whose command Negi eventually questions; her father is a charming, restless laborer who writes poetry but is never able to be faithful to Negi’s mother.
Although Negi’s home in Macun looks like “a giant version of a lard can” she prefers this barrio and the freedom its countryside offers, when compared to the snobbishness she faces in Santurce and the dark, dangerous world she eventually goes to when her mother uproots the family and moves to Brooklyn to seek a new life and to withdraw completely from the man who will not marry her but is the father of all her children.
What is particularly appealing about Santiago’s story is the insight it offers to readers unaware of the double bind Puerto Rican Americans find themselves in: the identity in conflict. Santiago often alludes to Negi’s identity problems. Is Negi black or white? Is she rural or urban? Even more importantly, is she Puerto Rican or is she American?
In a very funny chapter, “The American Invasion of Macun,” the parents of the barrio attend a meeting “where experts from San Juan and the Jun-ited Estates would teach our mothers all about proper nutrition and hygiene, so that we would grow up as tall and strong as Dick, Jane, and Sally, the ‘Americanitos’ in our primers.”
For a relatively short work, “When I Was Puerto Rican” is densely packed with scenes that slowly flesh out Santiago’s Puerto Rican girlhood. Moments of discovery and moments of sheer sadness and shame are graphically clear: the realization that there exists a second wife and family, the one to whom Papi escapes; a barrio like El Mangle, where sewage drifts on a black lagoon in a surprising variety of shapes, sizes and colors; the ritual of closing the eyes of a dead infant, a ritual that can only be performed by a young girl like Negi.
The title “When I Was Puerto Rican” implies the passage of time has brought subsequent change. It is not clear by the book’s ending as to whether Santiago is still Puerto Rican. After reading Santiago’s work, one would wager that, yes, indeed, she is. Although she graduates from the Performing Arts School in New York City and from Harvard University, Santiago not only remembers the words to the Puerto Rican national anthem, but she is moved by the mere fragrance of guava. A reader can only be grateful that Esmeralda Santiago has chosen to explore her culture and share what she has found.