When I Was Puerto Rican Book Summary - When I Was Puerto Rican Book explained in key points

When I Was Puerto Rican summary

Esmeralda Santiago

Brief summary

When I Was Puerto Rican is a memoir by Esmeralda Santiago that explores her journey from growing up in rural Puerto Rico to adapting to life in New York City. It is a profound and inspiring story of resilience and personal growth.

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    When I Was Puerto Rican
    Summary of key ideas

    Beginning in Puerto Rico

    In Esmeralda Santiago's memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, we see through the lens of Esmeralda herself, from childhood to adolescence, as she navigates life in Puerto Rico. As the eldest of seven children, Esmeralda is initially raised by her hardworking mother and unreliable father in a small rural village. Here, she learns about the traditions, customs, and folklore of her people, while also witnessing the harsh realities of poverty, abuse, and infidelity.

    Esmeralda's mother struggles to hold their family together amidst a turbulent relationship with her father, who is often absent. Yet, despite the turmoil of their home life, Esmeralda finds moments of joy in the vitality of her culture, the rich landscapes of her homeland, and the simplicity of rural life. However, this idyllic childhood is shattered when Esmeralda's mother decides to move the family to Santurce, a bustling, urban barrio of San Juan, after her father abandons them.

    Transition from Rural to Urban

    Life in Santurce is drastically different from the rural existence Esmeralda has been accustomed to. The move proves challenging as Esmeralda tries to adapt to her new surroundings. Her mother's struggle to provide for the family intensifies, and they endure periods of hunger and hardship. In the midst of these challenges, Santiago paints an evocative picture of the colorful sights, sounds, and smells of her new environment, embedding us firmly within the bustling, vibrant world of urban Puerto Rico.

    Despite their challenges, Esmeralda continues her education. School provides a haven from her home life but also presents a new set of difficulties. Here, she faces academic struggles, cultural expectations, and the prejudices of classmates who consider her a “jíbara,” or country bumpkin. This period of her life is marked by her struggle to understand her identity in a culture that values conformity.

    Immigration to New York

    Faced with escalating troubles in Puerto Rico, Esmeralda's mother makes the difficult decision to relocate the family to New York. Leaving behind the familiarity of their homeland, Esmeralda and her siblings are thrust into an entirely new environment. Santiago vividly captures the bewildering and disorienting experience of immigrating to a different country and trying to assimilate to a new culture, language, and way of life.

    Esmeralda's adolescence in Brooklyn is marked by her continuing struggle with identity, now amplified by her status as an immigrant. Amidst the challenges of cultural adjustment, Esmeralda finds strength in education and the promise it offers of upward mobility. Still, she grapples with the tension of straddling two distinct cultures and the simultaneous longing and resistance she feels towards assimilation.

    The Quest for Identity

    Throughout When I Was Puerto Rican, Santiago's primary struggle is with her identity – as a woman, an immigrant, and a Puerto Rican. This journey of self-discovery comes to a head when she embarks on the formidable challenge of applying to New York City's prestigious Performing Arts High School. Santiago portrays this experience as a symbolic rite of passage, demonstrating her determination to defy expectations and carve a path of her own.

    Upon reflection of her journey from Puerto Rico to New York, Santiago embraces the complexities of her dual identity. She recognizes that being Puerto Rican and also a New Yorker does not make her less of either. Santiago beautifully encapsulates the immigrant experience with all its inherent struggles and also its promise. By sharing her deeply personal experience, Santiago provides a window into the broad, chaotic, often painful yet rich and rewarding saga that is the life of an immigrant.

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    What is When I Was Puerto Rican about?

    When I Was Puerto Rican (1993) is a memoir by Esmeralda Santiago that tells the story of her childhood in rural Puerto Rico and her journey to New York City. It explores themes of identity, family, and the challenges of assimilation, offering a compelling and insightful look into the author's experiences.

    Who should read When I Was Puerto Rican?

    • Readers interested in exploring personal and cultural identity
    • People curious about Puerto Rican culture and history
    • Individuals looking for a compelling coming-of-age story with rich sensory details

    About the Author

    Esmeralda Santiago is a writer and political activist of Puerto Rican descent. She is best known for her memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, which explores her childhood on the island and her journey to the United States. Santiago has written several other books, including Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover, which further delve into her personal experiences and cultural identity. Her works have been widely acclaimed for their rich storytelling and insightful reflections on family, belonging, and the immigrant experience.

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