When I was Puerto Rican

Almost a Woman
by Esmeralda Santiago

Vintage, 1993. ISBN 0679756760;
Vintage, 1998. ISBN 037570521X.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 08/10/2003

Nonfiction: Memoir; Teen/Girls; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

A few months ago, when I was in Puerto Rico, I missed an opportunity to meet Ms. Santiago, and now that I have read two of her books, I very much regret it.

When I was Puerto Rican is a coming-of-age memoir which takes place in rural Puerto Rico. Ms. Santiago writes of loving/feuding parents and an increasingly large number of younger siblings with candor, spirit and love. I learned of local customs, ingenious methods of surviving poverty, and how relationships between siblings are the same no matter where people live and in what circumstances.

Ms. Santiago, a Harvard graduate, finds herself entering puberty and New York City about the same time. She sets about learning English and growing up with the same drive and enthusiasm. After only a few months, she finds herself the spokesperson for her family while, paradoxically, under the strict rule of a strong, unorthodox [working] woman who succumbs to her heart and tells her daughter to "do as I say, not as I do."

Her first day of school in New York gives a taste of this strong young woman.

"Meester Grant," I said, seizing the moment. "I go eight gray six mons. Eef I no lern inglish, I go seven gray. Okay?"
"That's not the way we do things here," he said, hesitating.
"I good studen. I lern queek. You see notes." I pointed to the A's in my report card. "I pass seven gray."
So we made a deal.

Almost a Woman continues Esmeralda's saga as she proves herself bright enough to transfer to New York's Performing Arts High School and discovers how differently others can live. She writes of her blossoming physically, intellectually and artistically using her second language with lyricism and skill. And she writes poignantly of her inevitable loosening of family bonds and her growing independence.

Santiago captures the chaos and warmth of barrio living as well as the struggle to both retain elements and move beyond. She leaves the reader with a greater understanding of immigrant life through her use of detail and humor. These are good books for both the young and the mature woman.

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