When I Was Puerto Rican

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Esmeralda Santiago — author, actress and a transplanted Puerto Rican. Although she moved to America in the early ’60s, her Puerto Rican roots define the person she’s become today. This fact comes across so powerfully in her memoir of her early life that it’s hard to doubt that we can ever leave our origins behind, no matter where in the world we end up “growing up”.

We were in Puerto Rico on a 4-day vacation this last Christmas, so having seen the terrain first hand made this book click for me right away. We often notice on our trips to South-central America (Costa Rica, Mexico, Puerto Rico) how many impoverished countries look exactly the same irrespective of geographic location. From a North American perspective the people, the architecture, the general bustle of life in a dusty, tropical country might feel exotic, but to me it just harkens back to “home”. India. When you get off the plane, you’re greeted by the same scent of the earth (because dust is everywhere), the same color of sky (fuzzy blue, tinged with orange), the same foliage (trees with broad leaves, bougainvillea), and people whose main occupation is not to bark important matters into their high-end mobile phones but to keep their families fed. Living in America it’s so easy to believe in the “me and mine first” concept of family that one tends to forget that most of the world doesn’t live that way. In Puerto Rico, as in India, friends will drop by to chat without calling first and no one thinks it rude, groups of women stand around trading gossip while buying fruit from a roadside stand, old men sit around tables sipping tea and smoking pipes, watching the world that hasn’t excluded them from its ranks go by.

When I was Puerto Rican is written in so fluid a language that I was immersed in not only the story of the author and her family, but also in the setting of a place that is poor but vibrant, stark in its contrasts between the lush and the dilapidated. It’s a memoir I thoroughly enjoyed reading, so much so that I have her other books on hold at the libe already. Bravo, senora Santiago!

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