I remember the thrill I had of finding Esmeralda Santiago’s debut book, When I Was Puerto Rican when it was published in 1994. It was eons ago, I was in High School and it was a time before the existence of Latina Magazine or J. Lo gracing the Most Beautiful People list. That was the first time I came across any literature by a Puerto Rican woman in the mainstream arena. It was reading this book that helped cement the idea to one day tell my own story. Needless to say, I have followed Esmerala’s work ever since. Cut to 17 years later and Esmeralda is still at it, this time releasing a Historical novel titled Conquistadora.
To help promote the book El Museo Del Barrio had an event where Mireya Navarro, New York Times journalist moderated a conversation with Esmeralda Santiago about her new work. Being a long time fan I jumped at the chance to see her speak again. Though I was skeptical about her writing anything other than memoir, I left there with a different perspective and newfound inspiration.
Besides dishing on the storyline of the book itself, the author went on to tell how the idea for this story came from wanting to tell the stories of her family ancestors but because she came from a poor family that didn’t read or write, there was no documentation. Conquistadora is her way of piecing together a history for her family that just doesn’t otherwise exist using historical research. I was so touched by that, and what Puerto Rican doesn’t have those same yearnings – to find out more about where they come from. In her research, Esmeralda found out lots of interesting facts about Colonial PR – in how race relations were. How people with dark skin were treated, but never spoken about. For example, there was a 6 month time period where “blacks” were not allowed to walk on the same side of the street as anyone else (just one example). So much taboo still exists on the island about the presence of Africans in our culture. I think we all stand to learn a lot about the humble beginnings of la Isla del Encanta by reading this.
What I also found fascinating about this book was the time it took to put together. Esmeralda admitted doing research for this from before Google exaisted. Say What? I didn’t know there was such a time. I can’t even remember it lol. But that means a long time. And on top of that, her resilence – she suffered a stroke in the middle of writing Conquistadora that left her unable to read or write. She had to relearn how to do both! Many feared this book would not be finished ever, but she worked through that and here it is. Sheesh, and I have a hard time sitting for an hour to write… now I have no excuse.
It was a wonderful, inspiring event especially to a writer like myself. Thanks to all that were involved in putting it together – for free at that. Conquistadora is on stands everywhere now. For more info on Esmeralda Santiago check out her official website.
Check out a video of Esmeralda Santiago on PBS below…