David Remnick: For decades, the author, Esmeralda Santiago, has written both in memoir and fiction about Puerto Rico immigration and identity. Santiago was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York as a kid, and one of her admirers is staff writer Vinson Cunningham.
Vinson Cunningham: Esmeralda Santiago especially in her early memoirs of moving from rural Puerto Rico to the hustle and bustle of New York, is someone that I consider one of our foremost chronicler of what it means to grow up one of the great crafters of coming of age narrative, and can really move you through the growing consciousness of a person, as their circumstances change. Sometimes surprising, sometimes terrifying ways.
David Remnick: Santiago's new book, Las Madres, is not a coming-of-age story. It's about people later in life looking back. Here's Esmerelda Santiago talking with Vinson Cunningham.
Esmeralda Santiago: Las Madres is about five women who have known each other all their lives and our friends, and also, some of them are related to one another. They decide to go to Puerto Rico for the birthday of the eldest of these women. While they're there, they are stranded by Hurricane Maria, and they have to deal with that situation. In the process, they learn a lot about themselves, about one another, and about one another's histories.
Vinson Cunningham: My origin story with your work is when I was in high school, I studied Spanish and I could speak-- I need to relearn Spanish. Back then, the first book that I ever tried to read totally in Spanish was [unintelligible 00:01:53].
Esmeralda Santiago: Oh, wow.
Vinson Cunningham: I read it first in Spanish. I still wonder how coming from a multilingual background, I love it when you talk about Spanglish, like people that can so fluidly move between languages even in the course of a sentence or a syntactical unit. How do you think about your work in translation, and is that especially an especially fraught practice for you, knowing that you want to reach these two peoples, these two language groups equally,
Esmeralda Santiago: I would love to be able to bridge that. My readers who enter into my books from Cuando Era Puertorriquena, and if they are Puerto Rican and speak Spanish, they tell me all the time that that book is much funnier in Spanish than it is in English because it is the vernacular of the people of the time. Also, it's very particular to that historical time when I was being raised there, I also deliberately put in these little coded messages for the Spanish speakers because I am writing in English.
I put these coded messages for the Spanish speakers that would get something that perhaps those who don't speak Spanish, that'll just slide by through them, and it doesn't make very much sense to them, or they don't care. People who understand it get it.
Vinson Cunningham: Is there one example of one of those you mentioned coded messages that you could think of just to satisfy my own curiosity?
Esmeralda Santiago: I think in the names particularly. Mar y sol, which means sea and sun, and Rios, which means rivers. Her name is Marisol Rios Fuentes, sea and sun, rivers, fountains. Those kinds of things I like--
Vinson Cunningham: Sounds like it comes from the sound of music or something, you're about to break out into song. At the beginning of your book, you do a list of the names, almost like it's more commonly happens at the beginning of a play. Like here are the persona that you're going to meet. There's a great quote that you have up there, as a note to the reader, you say, the conquest of our hemisphere meant the erasure of our clan and familial names. In this novel, I endeavor to name even minor characters to honor the historically nameless. I thought about that, it's like, I wonder what names have meant for you in your writing and in your life.
Esmeralda Santiago: Well I think, I'm born and raised as Esmeralda Santiago Santiago. I'm Santiago on both sides, it's something that I'm very aware of that at a certain point in my life, I don't know when it was, it might have been when I began to speak English and I felt comfortable in it, is that I began to pronounce my name Esmeralda as Esmeralda. I anglicized it to make it easier. Every once in a while, somebody will pronounce it in the Spanish, I'm like, "Oh, what?" I'm so used to the other sound because I live in the United States.
It is like, it's a different person. That sense that I'm coming from Puerto Rico just being on that plane, I became someone different and then the same thing happens to Luz with her name.
Vinson Cunningham: One of the-- I don't think I'm scrolling anything in the book to say that early on, Luz has a traumatic brain event that changes her relationship to language and memory. A kind of relearning has to occur for her. Something similar happened to you in your life. You had a stroke and you had to reteach yourself English, something that is one of the themes of your books already became a fate for you. Were you thinking about that when you created Luz? How have you thought about that?
Esmeralda Santiago: I think language has been a preoccupation for me because until I was 13, I did not speak English. Came to the United States, had to teach myself English. I did it by reading children's books and basically learning all the nouns, apple, banana, car, things like that. When I had a stroke many years later, and I realized I have lost the ability to understand the written word I could write, but I could not understand what I had just written. This happened to me twice the first time coming to the United States, knowing that I recognized the letters.
They had the same scripts as we have in Spanish, but I didn't understand it. It might have been any language really. When I had the stroke and I had the same situation because my brain had a problem, I'm like, "How ironic." Then having gone through it, I knew that I could recover. My doctors kept saying the brain is elastic, it learns, it finds path, et cetera, et cetera. I said, "Okay, well, I'm just going back to the library, to the children's book department and finding the alphabet books and all the nouns, and then keep moving like that."
Until 18 to 20 months later, then I knew, "Okay, it looks like I have managed to get over the hump." I remember that sense of knowing I know something, but I don't know it. That sense stayed with me long after I was over that situation, that feeling between needing something that I knew I already had, but I didn't have access to it. For me, Luz is almost representative of Puerto Rico itself. We have this very long history that we don't necessarily have access to, especially for Puerto Ricans who may not speak Spanish. Of course in Puerto Rico, people are taught this history and they know.
Those of us who live outside of the island, we live the history, but we don't really know it. We have a reason to call ourselves Puerto Ricans, whether our parents or because we were born there or our great-grandparents, for whatever reason we identify, but we may not all have all the history. That really gives us a sense of why it is that we call ourselves Puerto Rican and all those things that I grapple with in both my memoir and fiction, they pretty much are the same.
There's this sense of characters are moving between Puerto Rico and United States constantly trying to-- in Spanish, this word is liviar. It's like to handle both things. Even as I'm speaking to you, I'm balancing my hands higher and lower because--
Vinson Cunningham: You look like a statue of justice. You're doing the one hand.
Esmeralda Santiago: It's like, we do this constantly. For those of us who come from other cultures, and let's just not even say countries, because that was the next thing I was going to tell you is about Langston Hughes who came from the South and came to Harlem, I guess you know. Maybe he was in a different country. I think that's where it changed for me is he actually came to my high school when I think I must've been a junior, I think.
Vinson Cunningham: Wow.
Esmeralda Santiago: I had been in the United States for two and a half years, and my reading English was at a much higher level than my speaking English.
Vinson Cunningham: Sure.
Esmeralda Santiago: Because it was easier for me to read it than to pronounce it because people would laugh at me or make it uncomfortable for me. This man came to our high school and there was a full assembly, I remember. I just have never forgotten him. He was wearing an ivory-colored suit. It must been in the summer. He was very elegant, and gentle and kind. He was aware that he was with all these high school student, public school in New York City. He was aware where he was, and he was just so tender, great, and talked about his life and his work.
I had never heard of him until then, and I went straight to the library and I borrowed all his books. Reading his work made me feel for the first time in the time since I arrived in the United States, like I'm part of this culture and this society. I just happen to be invisible in it. I'm like, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Hughes."
Vinson Cunningham: This might be one of a deep ancestral key to why I love your work so much because Langston Hughes my first favorite poet, and I always loved the-
Esmeralda Santiago: Really?
Vinson Cunningham: -theme for English B where he talks about like, "America, I'm a part of you, just like, you're a part of me." We're going to have to find this thorny path toward coexistence in some way. It made me wonder what you would say about the various forms of patriotism, nationalism that are at work now in Puerto Rico. Some people are fighting for statehood within the United States. Some people still say independence. There's so many different ways that people express that pride, whether it's patriotic, nationalistic, whatever. I just wonder how you have engaged with that activism in Puerto Rico.
Esmeralda Santiago: Right. I tried to pay attention to all of it, but my paternal family were all nationalists. Oh, is it today? Oh my goodness. It's today is the anniversary of the United States' invasion of Puerto Rico through Guánica. Then my uncle from a very early age, he was really against the fact that the United States basically took us and then claimed us and said, "Okay, you are ours now, and you all have to speak English." We're like, "No." That was on my father's side, the struggle always was towards independence, nationalism, pride on the patria.
Then on the other side, my mother's the one who brought us to the United States, who just thought, "The most wonderful places to be in the United States." From both of them, I really get that sense of patriotism and sense of Puerto Rican-ness. Then from my mother, this understanding of we were peasant with no land basically. For my mother, this was a huge step up in spite of the kinds of places that we were living. I really understand both sides from that perspective, but the part of me is emotional, and emotional is a patriotism of the patria and nationhood that I'm not really sure that in Puerto Rico we have the leadership to pull off, frankly.
I wish that I could say, "Oh, such--" There's no Pedro Albizu Campos, he towers over our history, just like Martin Luther King Towers over culture here. I long for that. I'm not sure that that's available quite yet, or I have not come across that person or those persons just yet.
Vinson Cunningham: I wondered about this mixture of matriarchy, which is always very strong in your books. That there is a private world among women that keeps communities going. That propagates us into the future, but also it's a space for a-- Whenever I read your books, I can hear my mother and her friends talking, which is my introduction to language. I just wonder what that's been as a constant throughout your work and life?
Esmeralda Santiago: I'm the eldest of 11 children, of which were 6 sisters, and then when my mother brought us to the United States, she left my father. Then we lived with my mother and her mother, and surrounded by my grandmother's sisters and nieces. I come from this universe surrounded by very strong, opinionated articulate women who do not pull punches, as they say, as the expression goes. They will tell you what they feel right then and there. I like to play with that.
I like the fact that Graciela, for example, is very open and comfortable in her sexuality and her desires and her wanting something, and when she wants it, she gets it. There's no guilt around it. There's no excuses to be made about it. This is part of who I am. I know that I am a very different Puerto Rican when I'm in a room of US Americans who've never been to Puerto Rico, who doesn't know where it is. I'm a very different person than I am among people like me.
This is part of the game that we all have to play if we come from these other cultures, societies, and language groups, that we really do become a different person. My hands are moving again. This is the Puerto Rican in me.
Vinson Cunningham: I'm not Puerto Rican and I suffer from the same affliction. I'm picking up all of your secondary messages.
Esmeralda Santiago: I think there's a language in gesture that we have, and I think that women have particularly-- I wrote the screenplay for the film made of Almost a Woman for Masterpiece Theater, and I remember my son happened to be on the set with me that day. We were observing one of the scenes, and the woman who plays my mother, Wanda De Jesus is interacting with a young actress who plays me as a teenager. Wanda De Jesus looks at these young actors in such a way that my son just grabbed my hand, and he said, "Oh my God, that's you."
I grabbed him back. I said, "No, that's my mother." That is the look. That is the mommy look. I think there is that we recognize because we've been around it, about our mothers, our grandmothers, our tias, our aunties, our cousins, and to completely different language than what US Americans speak physically in their own communities and in their own lives and in their own histories.
Vinson Cunningham: That's wonderful. Thank you again so much. This has been such a lovely time.
Esmeralda Santiago: Thank you. [laughs] Thank you for the great questions for making me think. I learn a lot.
David Remnick: New Yorker's Vinson Cunningham, speaking with author Esmeralda Santiago.
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