James and I finally finished reading When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. This memoir is about growing up in Puerto Rico, and about growing up. The story follows Santiago from what must be her earliest memories as a very young child in Macun, Puerto Rico through her audition and acceptance into the School of Performing Arts in New York many years later. Because of her parents tumultuous' relationship Santiago would be uprooted a number of times before her mother finally moved all the children to New York City, and away from their father, when Santiago was 13 years old. Readers get a taste of the Latin concept of Magic Realism through Esmeralda's experience closing the eyes of a dead baby so he can go to heaven. The ceremony and ritual surrounding this event are surreal. The chapter on "The American Invasion on Macun" in which she describes government officials during the Eisenhower administration coming to her town to explain the four food groups to the mothers, and the free breakfasts for children the government subsequently provides, gives true insight into why people need to be aware of cultural differences. It is both funny and sad that the government dismisses the food that was already being prepared and served, what we would now see as a local and organic diet, in favor of processed white bread, powdered eggs, and powdered milk which Santiago is ironically told was "made fresh this morning."
Santiago's audition at the School of Performing Arts must have been a real test of willpower for those saw it. Prepared for the auditon by a trio of well-meaning teachers at her Junior High school, one can only imagine how hard it must have been for them not to laugh at the "fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl jabbering out a monologue about a possessive mother-in-law at the turn of the century, the words incomprehensible..."
This is an appealing book with thoughtful insights into growing up, and descriptive passages that allow the reader a true glimpse into Santiago's world.
Other Puerto Rico posts:
Main Post March 2, 2010
Movie Post March 17