Esmeralda Santiago emancipates her feelings

In an interview with Bob Minzesheimer of USA Today, Esmeralda Santiago says she never thought she would create or love a heroine who owned slaves.

Then she imagined Ana Larragoity Cubillas, headstrong Spanish heroine of her epic novel Conquistadora (Knopf, $27.50), set mostly in Puerto Rico between 1844 and 1865. The first of a planned trilogy, it ends with Puerto Rico, Cuba and Brazil as the only colonies or countries yet to emanicipate their slaves.

“When you consider the situation I put Ana in (owning a sugar plantation), she’d have to be a slave owner,” Santiago says. “I had to get over myself. I had to consider what could make a person live with something like that. We’re all products of our history.”

Santiago, 63, left Puerto Rico for New York with her mother and seven younger siblings 50 years ago. Within a year, she taught herself English and went on to win a scholarship to Harvard, write three memoirs, including the best-selling When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), and a novel, América’s Dream (1996), about a woman from Puerto Rico who becomes a nanny in suburban New York.

Now, she and husband Frank Cantor (documentary filmmaker whose Writing a Life, about his wife, was shown on PBS) live here in the suburban woods, 35 miles north of Manhattan. They summer in Maine (“my writing place,” she says) and winter in Puerto Rico or “someplace warm.” Their two grown children are professional musicians.

That’s in contrast with Santiago’s own dirt-poor childhood outside of San Juan. She knows little of her family history, composed of “landless peasants, campesinos, who left few written records.”

But they left other clues: “My father was very dark. His ancestors probably came from Africa. My mother was very fair, with European roots, probably Catalan or Basque.”

As a child on the island, she was taught little of Puerto Rican history prior to the 1898 U.S. invasion, when it was won from Spain in the Spanish-American War, and where she plans to end her next novel.

Santiago’s simple question “Where did I come from?” grew into a “preoccupation” with history, back to the Spanish conquistadores, who, as Santiago writes in the novel’s prologue, “trampled through the yuca, smoked the people’s tobacco, and raped the women.”

In the novel, Ana, from an aristocratic Spanish family, is inspired by an ancestor, one of the earliest conquistadores, and inherits a struggling sugar plantation that relies on slave labor.

In a rave review, Publishers Weekly calls Conquistadora a “Puerto Rican Gone With the Wind,” which makes Santiago laugh. She sees “some similarities, but not others.”

Compared with Margaret Mitchell, she has a less romantic view of slavery and history.

She loves “all those big fat Russian novels,” as well as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, set in the 19th-century British midlands, “for its ability to create an entire community.” Which she set out to do for 19th-century Puerto Rico, from the perspectives of slaves, slave owners and all the complexities in between.

Ana isn’t inured to the slaves’ suffering: “She felt it, even if she wouldn’t sacrifice her own ambitions to change their circumstances.” She’s upset when Spanish authorities issue Bando Negro, the 1848 Proclamation Against the African Race, aimed at “the ferocity of the stupid African race.” It stipulates military trials for any black or brown person, slave or free, accused of a crime against a blanco.

Santiago says that comes straight out of history: “I was chilled when I read it.”

Two years ago, in the midst of finishing the novel, Santiago suffered a stroke. “I’m fine now,” she says, “but something that’s life-threatening makes you more tenacious to finish what you start.”

Like Ana?

She laughs. “There’s a lot of Ana in me, and me in Ana.”

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