Esmeralda Santiago: Latina Literary Inspiration

esmeralda santiago

The writer and the author: Lisa and Esmeralda Santiago, at a Conquistadora reading

Lisa Quinones-FontanezBy Lisa Quinones-Fontanez 

I will never forget the day I came across the book that would change my literary life. I was in my college bookstore, buying textbooks when the title caught me by surprise: When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago.

It was the age before Google, I was 20-years-old and I had never seen a book about, or written by, a Puerto Rican. The young girl on the cover stared back at me, with those dark eyes that looked like mine. I picked it up immediately, knowing it would be the first book I opened on the train ride home.

I read it within two days.

I grew up reading. I was that nerd girl whose nose was always in a book. My mother would have to tell me to stop reading. But never had I read about a girl like me; with black hair and brown skin and brown eyes with a name too difficult to pronounce. For me, the name Esmeralda Santiago rolled off my tongue easily. And even though I didn’t speak Spanish, I understood every word that was sprinkled throughout. It was the first time a book had spoken to me, the first time I could truly identify with a narrator and I could so effortlessly hear the sound of her voice.

It was both strange and completely familiar. Up until this point, I didn’t know a book like this existed. It was an empowering. And it was then that I knew I needed to keep reading, to seek out other Latina authors. And I also knew that it was time to start writing.

It’s 15 years later and I’m standing in line at Barnes and Nobles waiting to hear Esmeralda Santiago read from her latest novel, Conquistadora. I arrived early to the 7:30 p.m. reading but at 6 p.m., there’s already a line of women forming. We all have the heavy 400-page text in our hands, all shifting from foot to foot with eager anticipation.

While standing in line with my friend, we made friends with two other women. And in between our conversations, I heard similar murmurs about how we all came to be fans of Esmeralda Santiago. For many of the women standing in line, Esmeralda Santiago was one of the first Latina authors they discovered. The ages and nationalities of the women waiting varied, but the personal connection we shared for the writing and the writer was obvious: Esmeralda Santiago was a part of all of us.

And when Esmeralda Santiago walked into the room, there was applause and cheers. But as soon as she began to read, the audience was still, mesmerized by the sound of her voice.

I looked around the room, the way the women (and the handful of men) watched and listened. How they all raised their hands to ask questions. How they all laughed at Esmeralda’s jokes and nodded in agreement when she lapsed into Spanish, how comfortable we all felt to be in her presence.
I had always considered her to be my Latina Literary Idol, but I realized Esmeralda Santiago wasn’t mine alone.

For so many of us in the room, she was someone we were proud to claim as our own, the kind of woman we’d want to become. The kind of women we’d want our daughters to become.

The kind of woman who taught many of us our stories mattered.

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez is a secretary by day, MFA Creative Writing CCNY student/blogger by night and Mommy round the clock. Lisa also is the author of AutismWonderland. Her writing has been featured in Pot Luck Magazine, Being Latino and BronxMama.

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By Contributor on July 25, 2011 · Posted in headline, the habla habla

22 Comments | Post Comment

Monica says:

Esmeralda Santiago is amazing! How exciting that you got to meet her in person. I bet she is just lovely. Thanks for sharing!

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez says:

She is absolutely loveful – very genuine and funny. It was a moment I’ll always remember!

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Uchi says:

I loved to read your post about who inspires you !

Thanks for sharing..

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Julie Diaz Asper says:

Lovely story. I need to read. Something that is not about google+ or facebook. Read something just for pleasure. I will get the Conquistadora before I forget to read altogether! Because reading mashable doesn’t really count. gracias.

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Margie Velez says:

Wow! You caught the real essence of that beautiful evening! It was a pleasure to meet you and the other lovely ladies, thank you for sharing!!

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Marilynn Luyando says:

This is exactly how I felt when I first discovered Esmeralda’s work! I feel like she just took the words out of my mouth! lol.
I had the honor and privilege of meeting Esmeralda at one of her book signings for “Conquistadora” and she is sooo very lovely and as darling as I always imagined her to be.

Posted on July 25th, 2011

bonnie from Sweet Life says:

How exciting!! I am so glad you had the chance to meet Esmeralda! Your admiration for her is felt throughout your words. Thank you for sharing!

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Unknown Mami says:

It’s a beautiful thing to recognize some of your world and experience in the words of someone else. I’m glad you got to meet her and share that experience with others that felt the same way.

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Marcela says:

Oh! Congratulations!

There is nothing like that book, that changes you!
What a special treat for you!

… and us, left me with a feeling of “I need to dive into a book!”.

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Gigi Vasquez Hall says:

When I was Puerto Rican is one of the books I absolutely refuse to get rid of – and it’s been YEEEEARS since I’ve read it. Such relatable stories & emotions in that book. The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros) was another one that I just devoured in a matter of days. I credit Julia Alvarez and her book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent with introducing me to Latina authors. And I’m so proud of mi gente!

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Bren says:

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of her works, but I’m a fan and supporter of Latina women in literature. I know quite a bit of authors but not her. Thanks for introducing her name to me. Will check her out!

Posted on July 25th, 2011

rachel says:

Bren, same here.

Researching her work now. Thank you Carrie!

I have been looking for an awesome read.

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Li says:

So beautiful! She’s an amazing author. I really loved When I Was Puerto Rican.

And you know something, you and I have this crazy thing in common: my nose was always in a book, and my mother would literally have to tell me to stop reading. I’ve never met anyone who shared a similar story!

Excellent post! Very inspiring.

Best,
Li
@LaLicenciada
@HerDeepThoughts

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Aurelia @ PowerfulLatinas says:

I’m so excited to read Conquistadora, and so excited it’s gotten good reviews in the ‘mainstream’ press. I’m delighted you were able to attend this event, and sincerely hoping Ms. Santiago will come to a bookstore near me! I was also the little ‘nerd’ girl with her nose always in a book, and once I found Latina authors I devoured books by them — and still do! I could name a few of my favorites, but the list would be as long as your post… :) (In college I was introduced to Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, and Sandra Cisneros, among others. Later I read Julia Alvarez, Helena Maria Viramontes and Isabel Allende. More recently, a few of my favorites are Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Sofia Quintero, Elisha Miranda, Mary Castillo, and Caridad Pineiro, among many others. Ok, better stop now, but there are so many awesome Latina authors!)

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Presley's Pantry says:

I don’t know her books. I will have to look into this.

Posted on July 25th, 2011

Maura says:

Lisa, I can totally identify with meeting one of your favorite Latina authors and how you realize it’s not just you she’s moved, but a whole room of people. Last year I attended a signing with Sandra Cisneros and she was so kind and gracious and talked for a few minutes to each person who waited in line to have her sign their book. Of course, I brought ALL of my Sandra Cisneros books so she talked to me a bit longer. ;) It was really a special experience. So cool that you got to meet Esmeralda Santiago.

Posted on July 26th, 2011

The Wise Latina Club says:

I want to address your excellent point in another forum about the importance of supporting our community with our purchasing power, a thought that was echoed by Galina Espinoza, the Editor in Chief of Latina magazine at the NCLR annual conference. That you and dozens, hopefully hundreds, and thousands of women, particularly Latinas stood in line to buy a hardback copy of Conquistadora and hear Esmeralda speak is critical. I’ve had publishers explain that part of the reason few Latino/as are published is because there’s not an audience. If Latino/as don’t read, they won’t buy the books, and it’s a bad investment.

We all know Hispanics read, more so now that the newest demographic data proves U.S. births are leading the population’s growth. But it’s just as important that these extraordinary numbers that have marketers going ga ga be turned into real political, social, and economic clout. In the case of books, if you can and I know times are tough, but go buy the hard cover, instead of waiting for the paperback (it may never come if sales are anemic) or to check it out at the public library. Everyday, we can vote with our ballots and checkbooks!

Posted on July 26th, 2011

Ana L. Flores says:

Que belleza! I can totally identify with this moment of joy of meeting someone that has marked your life. It´s hard to explain, but you did it beautifully

Posted on July 26th, 2011

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez says:

Exactly! As a grad school MFA student, I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that I have my work cut out for me because I’m Puerto Rican. I’m a risk. And it’s a shame, because we aren’t. We are a investment. We want to see our lives documented in print. And why shouldn’t we? Our stories are just as valid as anyone else’s.

I live in the Bronx and there is only 1 bookstore in the entire borough. A Barnes & Noble in Co-Op City. Why? “Blacks and Latinos don’t read.” Which doesn’t make sense, because I see people reading on the train all the time.

We need to support our Latino authors. The more we buy their books, the more access we’ll have to reading other authors.

Posted on July 27th, 2011

Denene@MyBrownBaby says:

This post really touched me—not just because I learned about a great author, but because this writer’s story mirrors mine. I was introduced to African American female writers in college, by an African American professor who knew the beauty and importance of writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, and made ALL of us—white students included—read their works alongside the “classics” by the dead white guys. It was such an eye-opening experience for me as a young black woman who, so inspired by the books, went on to become a writer and author in my own right. I can’t wait to discover Ms. Santiago for myself. Thank you for the introduction, the testimony and the reminder that people of color need to be vigilant in supporting and embracing and enjoying the works of those who speak to our experiences.

Posted on July 28th, 2011

Elisa says:

I teared up reading your post, Lisa. I felt the same way when I first read “When I was Puerto Rican.” I was around 19 or 20, too!

I am reading “Conquistadora” right now. Thanks for the story on the book and the author herself!

Posted on August 1st, 2011

Aixa says:

Esmeralda Santiago is an amazing writer. I listened her read her books, Cuando Era Puertorriqueña and Casi Una Mujer.What power of description!

She was inNew ayork this summer, of course during my vacation when I was out of town! And this Wednesday she’ll be at El Museo, and I have to work!

One day…

Posted on September 25th, 2011