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.