Esmeralda Santiago and The Latino Collective Memory

by Ana Leonor Rojo



Imagine a cold, dark winter morning in Brooklyn. It’s six a.m., and a young girl of only fifteen runs six blocks to catch the train that would take her to the Performing Arts High School. Encumbered by her books and dance gear, she climbs the stairs for the elevated train, reaches the turnstile, digs in her bag to find her pass, waves it at the conductor, runs another flight of stairs and lands on the platform just as the train is pulling away.

“I know I’m going to be late for school, and I’m just sweating, just going crazy with all these emotions... In my mind I was going through all the should haves: should have taken a shorter shower, should have not run back for the book I forgot. Should have, should have, should have.”

It was then when Esmeralda Santiago, now one of the best known Latina writers in the United States, had an epiphany: There would be another train.

“It was one of those life-changing moments when I realized ‘What is the sense of blaming myself for what I’ve just done, if it’s not going to change the outcome of what I’m doing right now?’,” Esmeralda recalls, munching on a hurried repast while being interviewed.

Not many people gain this much insight about life at such an early age. For many, it takes years of walking and stumbling - but then again, the road that Esmeralda had already traveled was full of bumps and potholes.

The oldest of eleven children, Esmeralda arrived in New York from Puerto Rico when she was thirteen years old. In her third book, “Almost a Woman,” Esmeralda narrates her journey to womanhood - a poignant, hopeful story that forced the author to confront the difficulties of her young life.

She tells of the nervousness a young girl feels when translating for her mother at the welfare office. She tells of a poor Puerto Rican girl attending a wealthy, mostly white high school. She tells of discovering the feminine powers over men. But mostly, she tells of a life filled with constant embarrassment, a typical teenager living on the edge of a dramatic explosion.

“Shame is a very big part of being adolescent,” Esmeralda explains. “By virtue of being a teenager, embarrassment, self-consciousness and shame are part of your everyday life, no matter what else is going on. Add to that you’re poor, you’re the eldest of ‘x’ number of children, your grandmother is an alcoholic, you don’t speak the language, you’re from the countryside but you’re in the city... All these things add pressure and tension and opportunity for that sort of I-could-have-died embarrassing moment.”

Memoirists, like Esmeralda herself admits, are a particular breed of narcissistic critters. All this digging in the backyards of their pasts, searching for clues that may reveal a bit more about themselves. A piece of glass, a broken chair, anything that could make the pieces of the puzzle fit better.

But in the process, this wave of Latino memoirists such as Pat Mora, Sandra Cisneros, John Phillip Santos and Judith Ortiz Cofer are helping an entire generation of newly-coined Latino Americans build their collective memory and see their lives validated. And that’s why, in Esmeralda’s opinion, Latino writers are more popular than they had ever been.

“My generation wants to read about this experience, we want to communicate it to our kids,” she says. “A lot of what I write is almost documenting my life for other kids, for the next generation.”

The next generation is grateful to see their experiences in print, Esmeralda reckons. There are so many young people who approach her and thank her for her writings, for her stories that so resemble their own.

“I really want young people to see that these feelings you have right now, other people have felt them - maybe the person sitting next to you. But also that you can get over them, write about them and not be embarrassed by them. I’m not ashamed of that anymore.”

Writing a memoir is “a very emotional process,” Esmeralda admits. Through the exercise, we have to confront the ghosts of our past and reflect on what we’ve become. “I can’t imagine anyone who writes memoir who’s not touched by the evolution of their life, from the time they’re writing about to the time they’re actually writing,” she says.

It is a given that growing up Latino in the United States is often a disadvantage. But for this generation of writers to take the next step in their creative journey, Esmeralda believes Latinoness should stop being portrayed as a burden.

“It’s happening already,” she smiles. “I just think we need to be less conscious of the hardships. I think that [ethnicity] should not be all we worry about. I’d like to see life concerns that have nothing to do with ethnicity.”

Life’s smiling on Esmeralda. She’s currently working on the third installment of her memoir and on a novel. Her oldest son, Lucas, just went off to college and her daughter Ila has begun high school. Esmeralda smiles back, optimistic and confident that there are many more trains yet to come.

© 2000 El Andar Magazine