When I Was Puerto Rican


Esmeralda Santiago

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When I Was Puerto Rican Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, a suburb of San Juan. Her family moved to Macùn when she was four. As When I Was Puerto Rican describes, Esmeralda's mother moved her growing family to and from the city a number of times before deciding to relocate permanently to Brooklyn. There Santiago attended New York City's Performing Arts High School. By the time she graduated, she was the oldest of 11 children. After studying at community colleges for eight years, she received a full scholarship and transferred to Harvard, graduating with honors in 1976. Soon after, she married Frank Cantor and with him founded CANTOMEDIA, a production company that focuses on documentary filmmaking. Initially, Santiago began writing essays and opinion pieces for newspapers, as well as writing for CANTOMEDIA's documentaries. An article she wrote about her mother attracted the attention of her first publisher, and the result was When I Was Puerto Rican. Santiago has since written two more autobiographies and several novels. Santiago describes herself as an active volunteer: she's spoken on behalf of public libraries, founded shelters for battered women, and designed community programs for adolescents. The Girl Scouts of America recognized her in 2002 for her community service endeavors. She suffered a stroke in 2008 while working on her novel Conquistadora. Santiago made a full recovery and was able to finish writing the book, which was published in 2012.
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Historical Context of When I Was Puerto Rican

As Papi explains to Negi, Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493. After Spain began colonizing Puerto Rico in the early 16th century, they forced the native tribes into systems of forced labor. The Spanish colonists soon began importing enslaved Africans to take the place of the dying natives on sugar plantations. Puerto Ricans began pushing for independence in the early 1800s, which led Spain to encourage non-Spanish Europeans to settle in Puerto Rico and quiet the unrest by diluting the dissenting populations. In 1898, Spain was forced to cede Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War. The United States passed the Jones Act in 1917, which gave Puerto Ricans born after 1898 American citizenship. The entirety of Puerto Rico's house of delegates opposed this act, stating that it was a way for the US to legally draft Puerto Rican men into the army for World War I.

Other Books Related to When I Was Puerto Rican

When I Was Puerto Rican is the first in a trilogy. It's followed by Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover, which follow Negi's story through her young adulthood and continue to develop the relationship between Negi's Puerto Rican heritage and her new life in America. Many other Puerto Rican writers explore similar themes and experiences. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood by Judith Ortiz Cofer details the author's experience growing up as the daughter of a Navy officer and splitting each year between Puerto Rico and New Jersey, and her struggle with the ensuing identity crisis. Marta Moreno Vega's When The Spirits Dance Mambo takes place entirely in New York at roughly the same time Negi's family moves to New York, though it seems unlikely that Mami would've allowed Negi to experience the Latin nightlife the author experiences. Esmeralda Santiago's work is often compared to that of other female Latin American authors such as Julia Alvarez (How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) and Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street). However, Esmeralda Santiago's work also shares broad thematic similarities with novels and memoirs from other authors who write about the experience of being an immigrant in America, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah and Eva Hoffman's memoir Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.
Key Facts about When I Was Puerto Rican
  • Full Title: When I Was Puerto Rican
  • When Written: 1990-1992
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1993
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Puerto Rico and Brooklyn, New York from 1950 to 1962
  • Climax: When Negi auditions for the Performing Arts High School
  • Antagonist: At various points Mami and Papi are arguably Negi's antagonists, though her more overarching conflicts are with sexism, racism, and social norms
  • Point of View: First person, narrated by Negi

Extra Credit for When I Was Puerto Rican

Hurricane Santa Clara. Hurricane Santa Clara was the first hurricane observed from the San Juan radar, and the warning for Santa Clara was the first to be broadcast on television in Puerto Rico.

Learning to Read... Again. When Santiago had a stroke in 2008, she lost the ability to comprehend English. She taught herself to read again over the course of 18 months using children's books, the same way she learned to read English the first time in When I Was Puerto Rican. Though not a complete anomaly, her recovery was notable enough to be featured in an issue of Neurology Now, a publication of the American Academy of Neurology.