When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

I’ve reached the point of the semester where I’m literally just exhausted by the workload and the worry on the workload. By Monday night, I have to write an essay on economics, and once I escape class on Monday I will begin worrying about reading two chapters in my psychology textbook for Thursday. This past Thursday, yesterday, I had my psychology midterm (not as scary as I expected it to be) which I had panicked about for days beforehand, and I also have to complete a painting (for which I am utterly uninspired) and a chapter of Latin work for high school.

All together, I’ve had very little reading time.

Now, this book fell into my hands during that week where books were practically throwing themselves at me. One day I was having a conversation with a teacher about the book I was currently reading, which was Shanghai Girls, and about how I was becoming very fond of books that settled strongly in cultures different than mine. She mentioned that she knew of a very good one and would let me borrow it if I wanted. I said sure, because who am I to refuse a credible recommendation (I love you, Val), and two days later she lent me the book. Which was actually kind of strange, because usually people recommend me a book and then forget about it until I ask them again. And then that cycle repeats and I have to pester them. And that all depends on how much I actually care about reading the book. So this was a pleasant surprise.

Alright… so basically, if I don’t like a book, I don’t usually finish it, so if I review a book I’ll almost always say I liked it. I’m like the scary critic from Ratatouille. “I don’t like food, I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” I love that movie…

But yes, I liked this book. ‘Tis the coming-of-age story of young Esmeralda from Puerto Rico, beginning when she is about four and concluding at the beginning of her tenth-grade year (about fifteen years old). This book is a memoir, and so is in first person (like everything I’ve read recently, holy crap), and I haven’t read many memoirs and usually don’t seek them out, but you know what, a story is a story, and a good story is a book. And novels in first person are practically the same things as memoirs, only they’re more… fictional. Yes.

So, this book wasn’t so much a novel about sequence, where it draws you through the timeline, one event to the next, and they’re all connected. It was more like a series of vignettes, displayed in chronological order, that, together, built a picture of what her life was like, and what it made her to be. None of it was purposeless, and they were all interesting, but they weren’t necessarily substantial. Oftentimes she would discuss events that would go unmentioned and were basically irrelevant to the rest of the book, but they’re part of her story. Like I said, they all pieced together into who she was.

I’m a little bit annoyed, because this book could have been a very quick read if I’d actually had the time to do so. As it is, I think it took me five days to read, if I started last Sunday and finished today… But the reading usually occurred in short bursts of time around studying, worrying about studying, and browsing tumblr. And once this review is complete, I will return to worrying about studying. But but.

So. I liked the book, I liked the vignette style, I liked Esmeralda (commonly known as Negi). Negi is the oldest of her siblings, the number of which grows constantly throughout the entire book, topping out at eleven by the time she finishes high school. As the oldest, she’s given a number of responsibilities at a fairly young age as things beyond her control or understanding happen around her, pushed and pulled by the hurricane force of her parents through different homes, schools, and relatives.

At the same time, she deals with living in Puerto Rico at a time when Americans were doing their best to Americanize their lands (I can’t remember the word for what Puerto Rico actually is to America), so she’s going to schools where they are making her speak English and eat American foods such as powdered milk and eggs. The homes she goes through are various manners of small and unpleasant in ways that most people I know wouldn’t actually put up with.

As she grows older, Negi matures from an uncontrollable tomboy into some semblance of a mature, responsible woman (though she’s only fourteen, so she’s obviously still getting there) who is on her way to something Big and Better. When she is thirteen, her mother moves them once again, only this time she takes them to New York, without their father (this isn’t a spoiler, you learn it in the prologue). In New York, she learns about racism and the harshness of the city, living in what is essentially a ghetto. Still, she’s intelligent and quick to learn, and she manages to give herself a chance at a worthwhile future.

The book starts out a bit slow- it reminds me of the novel Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock, though this one gets better around when Negi is nine or ten, and her awareness and understanding are heightened, whereas Me & Emma was a little on the boring side with an amazing ending. I liked this one better.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. This must be even more scattered than usual, I think. I’m excited because finally, after a month of waiting, the book that Val sent for me arrived in the mail, just today. I have to get through a library book (also Val-recommended) first, and then I shall certainly read that one. After that, I have a book my brother wants me to read, then one my dad lent me, then one he gifted to me. So many books, and so much work to fit around them. What’s more important, books or grades? From an honest, objective point of view, which is more important in the long run?

I think books…

Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 11:28 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That word is “territory” btw. And I believe books are more important. They can also teach you, just in a more entertaining way than common education.

  2. “Territory” or “colony” would work too, I think.

    I remember I went through a time of loving books like this… there was a series that I actually don’t know the name of, but it was like “diaries of famous women in history”. They were a kid’s series, so a lot of the scary stuff was dulled down, but still mentioned. So I read Anastasia’s diary, and Marie Antoinette’s diary and a few others, their names just escape me.

    I used to love them.

    I haven’t read first-person books in a long time. I read the Hunger Games last night (as you know) and it was SO WEIRD to me to read in first person… I hate writing in first person because it’s so damn hard to sustain (funny, that, considering my Five Bets verse) but when it’s done well it’s a nice style to gel with.

    • Those sound cool. I like the Anastasia story. It’s spooky. Though a diary wouldn’t actually go into that, seeing as… yeah…

      War for the Oaks is the first book I’ve read in a long time that’s in third person. But I’ve realized that I’m incredibly fond of first person.
      Still, as long as the story is worthwhile, I don’t think there’s a BAD way to tell it. 🙂

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