In her groundbreaking memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago wrote of her journey from the barrios of Puerto Rico to the halls of Harvard University. The book, published in 1994, opened up a dialogue on cultural identity, immigration and assimilation. Her recent novel, Conquistadora, continues the conversation, exploring class, survival and romance in untamed Puerto Rico.
Las Fabulosas: During your research for your novel, you read about the history of Puerto Rico in the face of so much adversity -- slave insurrections, a cholera epidemic and hurricanes. What was the universal response to each of these catastrophes, as a people?
Esmeralda Santiago: People picked themselves up and started over with an unbelievable optimism. As I read, I was thinking, “My God, I cannot imagine going through all these things and having the strength to go on.” But that is very much a part of our people. There’s an attitude of, “Well that happened, and I’m alive, and I’m just going to do what I have to do. Fix things and keep going.” And it’s not like they just fixed their own house. They helped one another. There was this willingness to give the next person the shirt off of your back, literally.
LF: What is the best advice you ever heard from your relatives about making do when money is tight?
E.S.: My mom raised 11 children as a single mother, and the thing she is very proud of is that we always ate well. And she did it by being creative. If there was no milk, she made almond milk. If there were no almonds, she made rice milk. If there was no rice, she made oat milk. I remember her saying, “So long as I’m upright, I will work to make sure that I will take care of my family.” When she wasn’t able to work as a seamstress, she worked as a maid or she made alterations at the laundry, or she cooked for men who didn’t have families. This attitude is ingrained in my family.
LF: What is the best advice your mother gave you about finding true love?
E.S.: My mother’s attitude about true love is, “It’s great to fall in love, but if he doesn’t treat you right, there are plenty of men.” She had five husbands, and at 81, she still tells this to her granddaughters and great-granddaughters.
LF: What has your family taught you about what makes life meaningful?
E.S.: I think for us, it is the sense of closeness and unity. We are not physically close, because we live scattered over the United States and Puerto Rico, but we are close in the sense that if any one member needs help, the whole family goes into action. The sense of unity is very, very important to us. I always know that if I need them, my sisters and brothers will be there. And that is an incredible comfort.