HARTFORD – Beloved Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago spoke about her career and read from her new book, “Las Madres,” at an event held at the Mark Twain House and Museum on Wednesday evening. A little over a hundred attendees listened to Santiago speak with poet and translator Ricardo Alberto Maldonado and tell stories that alternated between heartbreaking and hilarious.
Santiago is best known for her 1993 memoir “When I Was Puerto Rican.” As the first of a three-part series, the memoir has become required reading for many high school English classes and brought a newfound sense of belonging to many Puerto Ricans who had not felt represented in literature.
“What I try to do in my writing is to bring who we [Puerto Ricans] are in that very mysterious, curious way. That we recognize one another without even having to work at it,” Santiago said.
Event organizer Omar Acevedo is the Literary Program Coordinator at the Mark Twain House and Museum. As a Puerto Rican himself, he remembers reading “When I was Puerto Rican” and being inspired by Santiago’s work. He said he wanted to bring Esmeralda Santiago back to chat about her new book, especially because of the large number of Puerto Ricans in Hartford.
“In the Mark Twain house, we have different kinds of programs for different identities. But for me, I just felt like we needed to have Esmeralda here,” he explained. “She's like an elder. She’s this person that has inspired so many of us, Puerto Ricans and Latinos who have been coming up writing in the last 20, 30 years.”
Santiago said she had never considered herself a writer. “When I was Puerto Rican” was published when Santiago was 42. She explained she had not set out to write a memoir, but a series of letters to connect her daughter with her Puerto Rican roots. After the book’s success, Santiago has gone on to write several award-winning books despite many setbacks.
While finishing her second novel, “Conquistadora,” Santiago said she suffered a stroke that made her forget how to read or write in either English or Spanish. However, she remembered that she had already taught herself English when she left her native Puerto Rico at age 13, so she taught herself to read and write all over again.
“I would go to the children's library, get a children's book, get all the alphabet books, learn all the nouns. And then I would practice writing and so on and so forth. And that's how I was able to do it. And two years later, I was able to finish Conquistadora,” she said.
Santiago’s work often deals with the intersection of women in Puerto Rican history and “Las Madres” is no exception. Santiago explained the first thing she wrote for the book was a scene about three women who are sitting on the roof of a building in the Bronx. Even though she was not on the island at the time of hurricane María, she found that the hurricane was a formative part of the experience of many Puerto Ricans and it found its way into the center of the novel.
She added that hurricanes are central to the experience of Puerto Ricans. Santiago remembers that her father was deeply affected by the San Felipe Segundo hurricane of 1928 and wanted to honor that experience in her fiction.
“The hardest thing I've ever written in my entire life is that chapter of Hurricane Maria going through from one end of the island to the other. It was absolutely painful. Terrifying. Horrifying. It just was devastating to me to write it. But I knew that it had to be done,” she said. “This should not be forgotten. And I wanted it to be horrible for the reader.”
Despite the heavy topics in Santiago’s work, Lyman Hall Spanish Teacher Paula Erardi found the evening “surprisingly lighthearted.” Erardi’s mom was Puerto Rican and Erardi remembers reading “When I Was Puerto Rican” when she was in High School.
Erardi added that her late mom was on the island during hurricane Maria, giving Erardi an additional incentive to drive to Hartford. She found the event on Facebook and bought the ticket back in August. She made a point of taking pictures and video back to her Culture and Conversations class to celebrate the upcoming Hispanic Heritage month.
“I really enjoyed it. It's kind of cool seeing the authors in person, especially somebody like Esmeralda,” she said.
Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.