The ironic title begs the question: How could it be that someone was Puerto Rican, if it’s an ethnic identity? Ah, but to live there can be a temporary thing, despite that it might live inside you. And moving is after all a motif of Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir.
The amount of times Santiago moves is disorienting. Back and forth from the rural Macun to the city and back again to the humble country life, which contains a purity that she cannot recapture elsewhere. It is Mami who insists on the city, though it is dirty, dangerous and intimidating; nevertheless, it offers more opportunity for their family.
Most of the memoir is set in Puerto Rico, a world quite apart from the continental United States, or ju-nited states, as Santiago writes out phonetically, playfully mocking a Puerto Rican accent. Santiago is an incisive writer who evokes the reader’s sympathy for her plight in this humid part of the world, where the rooms are just as often separated by curtains as actual walls.
When the Americanos come to instruct the Puerto Ricans on nutrition and hygiene, it is portrayed as an act of American imperialism. At the least, it is a funny culture clash. Negi (so nicknamed by her parents for her dark skin tone) hears her friend use the pejorative term “imperialist” and later repeats it herself. Her father reprimands her, finding this word to be disrespectful and perhaps rebellious of a status quo, one which he does not find fault with.
The takeaway is that the Americans’ presence in Puerto Rico is misguided, their food is bad, and they shouldn’t interfere with Puerto Rico, which they have no right to do anyway. But then when Negi gets tapeworm, described in graphic detail, it seems to contradict the notion that the Americans were out of line. After all, this is just the type of health issue they were warning against and prevent.
When Esmeralda moves from her corrugated metal shack far from town to a more proper house on a finca at the end of a cul-de-sac, she feels like a fish out of water:
“I missed Delsa’s warmth, the secure feeling of sleeping in a room full of people. I tossed until dawn, unused to so much room on the bed, while on the other side of the wall, my sisters and brothers slept, their bodies gently rising and falling in rhythm with one another’s breathing” (192).
In the Puerto Rican city Santruce, it is more alienation, as Esmeralda is made to feel inferior to her peers at school. A woman scowls at her as she walks home from school as though she “had no right to walk on her neat street” (140).
The memoir takes a turn from tropical to gritty when Esmeralda’s family (sans her father) lands in the projects of Brooklyn. The ‘60s neighborhood school is an interesting mix of different ethnic cliques:
“Those bold girls with hair and makeup and short skirts, I soon found out, were Italian. The Italians all sat together on one side of the cafeteria, the blacks on another. The two groups hated each other more than they hated Puerto Ricans. At least once a week there was a fight between an Italian and a moreno, either in the bathroom, the schoolyard, or in an abandoned lot near the school…” (229)
In Brooklyn Esmeralda would hardly dare walk down the street, where the women are raped by gangs, the men beaten and robbed. She couldn’t so much as sit on the front stoop or cross the street to go the bodega after the sun went down. Unlike Puerto Rico, she can now see the sense of her mother’s caution when such violence happens on her very block, not some theoretical other place: “I couldn’t imagine why my neighbors would harm me or my sisters and brothers” (254).
Latrines and outhouses are a motif of When I was Puerto Rican; an Americano can only wonder at such living conditions. In Macun, they are surrounded with nature, fruits, and animals, and have an outhouse at some reasonable distance from their modest shack. In the city Santurce, they live in a house which floats on a lagoon by a pier, the water black from sewage, which creates a stench that cannot be evaded no matter how much oregano Esmeralda’s mother uses to cook. Here the facilities are a hole in the floor of a room in the floating house:
"It’s just like a latrine,” Mama said. “You squat and do your business. But be careful to keep your legs far apart so you don’t fall in. Would you like me to go first and show you how it’s done?” (133)
As a coming of age story, Emeralda’s emerging sexuality is another theme in When I was Puerto Rican. Mami initiates her into the mysterious ways of womanhood: “Mas disimulada,” she advises; don’t be so obvious when returning a man’s glance.
At points there is too much description of fruits and food and plants. The first chapter, though it is only two pages to be fair, is devoted to the exotic fruit, guava, which certainly tested this reader’s patience; though the rewards are plentiful to the reader who plows ahead.
There is an ineffable sadness in the narrative; whether it is Esmeralda being left out from her peer group, or from her mother’s affection, or her father, who left for sometimes days, sometimes months at a time; and finally shirks his responsibility as a father altogether. She is alternately abandoned, scorned, and mocked. Esmeralda realizes that she is different, that her soul walks beside her. She reflects on the nature of the soul as she considers how her father’s infidelities hurt her. Mami is the most stable, if imperfect, force in Negi’s life.
At school her loneliness follows her:
“I tried to disappear within the hallways of Ramon Emeterio Betances School, where children from happy homes crowded in cheery groups. I sat for hours reading fairy tales, diving into them as into a warm pool that washed away the fear, the sadness, the horror of living in a home where there was no love” (204).
More than anything, this memoir is a record of the soul of an artist– a writer– and how that latent ability transcends all the pain she so touchingly describes in When I was Puerto Rican.