On October 23, from 12:00 noon until 2:00pm, Puerto Rican writer Esmeralda Santiago will be at the Genre Auditorium at the University of Connecticut Stamford (1 University Place, Stamford, Connecticut) for a reading, Q&A, and book signing event. Erin Kayata writes about the author for the Stamford Advocate. Here are excerpts:
Motherhood can cause a shift in perspective. For author Esmeralda Santiago, she began to realize her children wouldn’t know her life. They wouldn’t know about her time growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They wouldn’t know how at 13, she moved to New York with her mother and seven siblings. They wouldn’t know about how she was accepted to New York City’s Performing Arts High School and then studied part-time at community colleges for eight years before she received a full scholarship to Harvard. So Santiago began to write. She started with personal essays that were published in places like the Boston Globe and The New York Times. Then she was approached to write a memoir.
At first, the Westchester County resident was hesitant. How could she write about a time so long ago, so different from now? But as she started, the words began to flow. “When I came to the United States, one of the things I was looking for was stories about girls like me — in a big family, single mother, family, culture, climate — all those kind of things that all of a sudden were challenges for me,” she said. “I couldn’t find it. I did not exist in American culture. When I began writing, it was from perspective that I don’t want another little girl in the same situation…By writing, creating art, you’re placing yourself in the middle of the culture.”
[. . .] Santiago’s first memoir about life in Puerto Rico and moving to Brooklyn “When I Was Puerto Rican” was published in 1994 and her second memoir about her time at New York’s Performing Arts High School “Almost A Woman” came out in 1999. “It was not easy because when I began writing memoirs, there were not very many people from Latin America or Latinx (people) who had written memoirs,” said Santiago, 70. “It was considered almost in bad taste to be talking about the things you went through…I found when I first began doing this, it was harder when I went out on the road. Some, especially the older generation, challenged me for airing my dirty laundry. I had to let them know how important it is to share our stories because we’re all human.”
In the quarter of a century since her first memoir debuted, reactions to Santiago’s work have warmed as more Hispanic authors share their personal stories. Her own memoirs are now being taught at colleges worldwide as a way to show the differences and similarities in the human experience.
“It’s gotten a lot better because many young writers are writing about their lives and experiences,” she said. “That’s helping in the process of figuring out their experiences in the United States.”
“Every year, my books are in more schools,” she added. “More people are picking up on the idea…to introduce these kinds of books, not just to those students who come from those parts of the world, but all parts of the world. It helps in the process of empathy. If you’re not from any of those countries and have never experienced somebody who looks different from you, all of a sudden you’re in their head and you begin to understand more about them.”
UConn-Stamford Director Terrence Cheng said the school is pleased to have Santiago visit on Tuesday. “We invited Ms. Santiago to come to UConn-Stamford because she is a preeminent contemporary author,” Cheng said. “Her books resonate with readers of different cultures, backgrounds, genders and life experiences. Ms. Santiago’s personal story is also one that has moved so many. ‘When I Was Puerto Rican’ is an important book on various levels, a work that rings true to a diverse campus population like ours, and a culturally rich city like Stamford. Our faculty, staff and students are thrilled to host her for this event.”