When I Was Puerto Rican


Esmeralda Santiago

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on When I Was Puerto Rican can help.

Women, Sex, and Power Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Identity Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Women, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Romantic Love and Relationships Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in When I Was Puerto Rican, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women, Sex, and Power Theme Icon

Though much of Negi's coming of age is linked to her physical development and the responsibilities she's asked to shoulder since she's the oldest child, Negi's developing understanding of sex and the female experience deserves special consideration. Her world is one in which there are clear differences between men and women, and also between the roles they're expected to play in society. She's also acutely aware that there's a double standard when it comes to sex, and that sex is, more than anything, a power struggle between men and women.

Negi learns at a young age that there's only one type of man: the sinverguënza, or shameless sexual being. Women, however, are divided into several categories: longsuffering wives, future wives, jamona (spinsters), and the scorned "putas" (whores, either in the literal sense of prostitution or as used in the derogatory sense). Though Papi is regularly referred to as a sinverguënza, it isn't until Negi is much older that she has any real problem with his constant absences to see other women. Further, as a young child, Negi is led to believe that her neighborhood is made up of only wives and future wives—she's told that Macún has no putas, though this is almost certainly not the case. As a result, Negi nurses a secret desire to see a puta in real life so she can understand better how their power over men works. She's led to believe that "bad" women have a vast amount power over men, while women like Mami and her other adult female neighbors are helpless to keep their husbands from leaving them for these other women.

As Negi gets older, she naturally becomes very curious about sex and has her first sexual experiences with a neighbor boy, Tato. Though Negi and Tato initially consensually engage in viewing each other's genitals, when Negi decides she's had enough, Tato tries to forcibly touch her. This is the first time that Negi is made personally aware of the power dynamic involved in sexual relationships. It’s made very clear to her that as a female, she has something that men want, and she's responsible for keeping it from them. This lesson continues when Gloria, the neighbor woman who cares for Negi and her siblings, explains menstruation and where babies come from. Though Negi had seen animals have sex and give birth before, she'd never connected what she'd seen to the possibility of human sex. Notably, when Negi makes this connection, she phrases it in terms of power: in her understanding, sex is something that men do to women, not something that men and women agree to. Not long after making this connection, Negi begins to feel less warmly towards Papi. Though she was previously able to love her father despite knowing he's a sinverguënza, her new understanding of sex makes it difficult for her to see him as a loving person when she thinks she understands what goes on in private between her parents (it's important to note, however, that though Negi's understanding of sex is connected to power and fear, there's never any indication that Papi and Mami's sexual relationship is anything but consensual).

What follows throughout the rest of the memoir are highly uncomfortable sexual experiences in which Negi is catcalled, groped, or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable by the men around her. She struggles to reconcile her changing pubescent body with the unwanted male attention she receives because of it. What Negi deems her first true sexual experience is extremely confusing for her, and rightly so: she did nothing to attract the attention of a man sitting in a truck watching her and masturbating, yet Negi understands that he seemed to enjoy the experience anyway. This final sexual experience of the memoir leaves Negi's sexual development in a precarious place, as she struggles to understand how she can protect her body from men who want to use her body for their own pleasure, even when there's a great deal of physical distance between them. This offers the final, chilling note that Negi isn't really in control of her sexual body. Though Negi knows that she does have the power to seduce men, at least in theory, she understands that her power is minimal compared to that of the men around her.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Women, Sex, and Power ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Women, Sex, and Power appears in each chapter of When I Was Puerto Rican. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire When I Was Puerto Rican LitChart as a printable PDF.
When I Was Puerto Rican PDF

Women, Sex, and Power Quotes in When I Was Puerto Rican

Below you will find the important quotes in When I Was Puerto Rican related to the theme of Women, Sex, and Power.
2. Fighting Naked Quotes

Chief among the sins of men was the other woman, who was always a puta, a whore. My image of these women was fuzzy, since there were none in Macún, where all the females were wives or young girls who would one day be wives.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami, Papi, Provi
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:
5. Why Women Remain Jamona Quotes

"What do they call a man who never marries?" I asked as we settled ourselves in the front of the publico.
"Lucky," the driver said, and the rest of the passengers laughed, which made me mad, because it felt as if he were insulting me in the worst possible way.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Papi
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

I wondered if Mami felt the way I was feeling at this moment on those nights when she slept on their bed alone...whether the soft moans I heard coming from their side of the room were stifled sobs, like the ones that now pressed against my throat...

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami, Papi, Abuela
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

It seemed to me then that remaining jamona could not possibly hurt this much. That a woman alone, even if ugly, could not suffer as much as my beautiful mother did.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami, Papi, Abuela
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:
6. Mami Gets a Job Quotes

But until Gloria asked, I'd never put it together that in order for me and my four sisters and two brothers to be born, Papi had to do to Mami what roosters did to hens, bulls did to cows, horses did to mares.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami, Papi, Gloria
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:
10. Dreams of a Better Life Quotes

Each man who did a double take or pledged to love her forever, to take her home with him, to give his life for her, took her away from me. She had become public property—no longer the mother of seven children, but a woman desired by many.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

The women suffered. Frequently they were orphaned, brought up by nuns or stepmothers who made them do all the housework. In spite of this, they were cheerful and optimistic, never doubting that if they were pure of heart, life would eventually get better.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker)
Related Symbols: Armando and Ricardo
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

I called up the images of Armando or Ricardo, and with Mami and Papi's shrill fights as background, I imagined a man and woman touching one another gently, discovering beauty in a stubbled cheek or a curl of hair, whispering adoring words into each other's ear, warming one another's bodies with love.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami, Papi
Related Symbols: Armando and Ricardo
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:
11. Angels on the Ceiling Quotes

I hadn't done any of the things women did to get men interested. I'd been minding my own business at home...It was alarming, and at once I realized why Mami always told me to be más disimulada when I stared at people, which meant that I should pretend I wasn't interested.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Men only want one thing, and until then, I thought it was up to me to give it up. But that's not the way it was.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker)
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:
12. You Don't Want to Know Quotes

"Hit me, go ahead. You can kill me if that makes you feel better," I screamed loud enough for the world to hear. I stood in front of her, shaking all over, hands at my sides, martyrlike, fully aware of the dramatic moment that might backfire but willing to take the chance.

Related Characters: Negi (speaker), Mami, Tata
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis: