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Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago is a writer I hadn't heard of before a couple of weeks ago, when J, one of the teachers at the educational program I volunteer with in Holyoke, said she was coming to give a talk at Holyoke Community College. "I was hoping you could talk her up in your creative writing session and get some of the students to come."

He handed me the sheet on her, and wow:

Esmeralda Santiago grew up in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico in a one-room shack with a dirt floor and tin roof. Her family moved to New York when she was thirteen years old. The eldest of eleven, Esmeralda learned English from children’s books in a Brooklyn library. A teacher encouraged her to audition for Performing Arts High School, where she majored in drama and dance. After eight years of part-time study at community colleges, Esmeralda transferred to Harvard University with a full scholarship and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1976. Shortly after graduation, she and her husband Frank Cantor founded CANTOMEDIA, a film and media production company that has won numerous awards for excellence in educational and documentary filmmaking. With the publication of her first memoir When I was Puerto Rican, the Washington Post hailed Esmeralda as “a welcome new voice, full of passion and authority.” Her first novel, America's Dream, has been published in six languages and made into a movie by executive producer Edward James Olmos. Her second memoir, Almost a Woman, received an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and was made into a Peabody-award winning movie for PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s “American Collection.”

In the end, I got four people from the class I volunteer in to come, and we all went together with J to Holyoke Community College.

The auditorium was packed: there were students at the college, plus students from area high schools, and even students from a high school in Boston. And it was so gloriously, energizingly diverse--people of **lots** of shades, ages, sizes. I felt YES, this is the country I want to live in.

"How many of you came here from somewhere other than the continental United States?" Esmeralda asked, and a forest of hands went up. "And how many of you spoke another language at home?" Same.

She talked about having to code switch with her whole body. "In my neighborhood [in Brooklyn], this is how you walked down a street"--and she demonstrated an insouciant hip-swinging walk. "But this is how we walked in Manhattan"--much more businesslike walk. And she talked about thinking about why she switched. She talked about realizing that she was the one who got to make herself--that she was in charge of who she'd be ([personal profile] sovay, this is part of what made me latch onto that similar line in your recent movie review). She told the audience, "Ask yourself, who is this person I'm creating?"

She took questions in both Spanish and English, and when a question was asked in Spanish, she answered in Spanish, then paraphrased her answer in English (I was pleased to be able to understand almost everything she said in Spanish before she gave the translation.)

This woman asked about what things were helpful and what things weren't. Esmeralda described herself as stubborn and said she didn't like it when people told her what she should do. " 'Should' is often 'should' for the person who's saying it, not for you," she said.

question about the people who helped her

This woman asked her about Hurricane Maria--she's helped out a lot with that.

question about Hurricane Maria

(And look; I loved this--there was someone signing the talk, too. She signed the applause as well.)


I bought a copy of When I Was Puerto Rican and started dipping into it, and I can tell I'm going to love it:

Another group of girls wore heavy makeup, hitched their skirts above their knees, opened one exra button on their blouses, and teased their hair into enormous bouffants held solid with spray ... Those bold girls with hair and makeup and short skirts, I soon found out, were Italian ... The black girls had their own style. Not for them the big, pouffy hair of the Italians. Their hair was straightened, curled at the tips like Miss Brown's, or pulled up into a twist at the back with wispy curls and straw straight bangs over Cleopatra eyes. Their skirts were also short, except it didn't look like they hitched them up when their mothers weren't looking. They came that way.

That's near the end, when she's in Brooklyn.

The people from my class who went--three women (one in her late 20s, one in her 40s, and one in her 60s) and one man (in his 30s), all Puerto Rican--loved the talk, and I did too. And I felt a swirl of gratitude and pride, pride because if I hadn't persuaded them to come, they wouldn't have gotten to, and gratitude, because if it wasn't for their coming, I wouldn't have probably gone.

It was a Good Experience.

Esmeralda Santiago
(photo source: centerforfiction.org)

This entry was originally posted at https://asakiyume.dreamwidth.org/881353.html. Comments are welcome at either location.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 31st, 2018 12:43 pm (UTC)
Awesome writeup. Seems like a very wonderful author.
Mar. 31st, 2018 01:10 pm (UTC)
She really is!
Mar. 31st, 2018 07:47 pm (UTC)

Thank you!

Apr. 1st, 2018 01:57 am (UTC)
My pleasure!
Apr. 2nd, 2018 04:06 pm (UTC)
And it was so gloriously, energizingly diverse--people of **lots** of shades, ages, sizes. I felt YES, this is the country I want to live in

分かりますよ、それ。 Thanks for writing it up -- looking forward to more snippets from the book, too!
Apr. 2nd, 2018 05:53 pm (UTC)
I'll definitely share more as I read!
Apr. 9th, 2018 06:40 am (UTC)
She told the audience, "Ask yourself, who is this person I'm creating?"

This is what I try to get my kids to think about.

Apr. 9th, 2018 07:52 am (UTC)
It's a very abstract question and at the same time very fundamental.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )



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