Saturday, July 30, 2011

115: The Self-Empowered Woman: Esmeralda Santiago

Dear Followers,

If you haven't already heard about the book "Conquistadora," you soon will. Critics have hailed it as the Puerto Rican "Gone With the Wind." And while the novel is full of twists and turns, the author's life story is truly the stuff of which Self-Empowered Women are made.

Esmeralda Santiago was born the oldest of eleven children in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When she was born, her mother was only 16, her father was 28, and already had a child with another woman. When she was thirteen years old, she, her six siblings, and her mother moved to New York in part to find a better life, and in part because - in her words - "Papi had chosen to send us away rather than marry her" (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Her mother was ultimately married and divorced three times.

Santiago entered school unable to understand, speak or write English. But with the help of library alphabet books, her language skills - in one year - improved to the point where her reading was at tenth grade level by the time she enrolled in the ninth grade. The fact that pronunciation was so difficult for her is what led her to writing. When others would laugh at her inability to make the "th" sound or to use the correct vowel form, she "hunched over notebooks, writing out my frustration, shame and rage. I lived in those pages, in English and Spanish, where the written word said what I couldn't utter." What a vindication that she would go on to write award-winning novels, memoirs, anthologies and screen plays (8: Turning No Into Yes).

The move to the U.S. was difficult for the young teenager who struggled to find a balance between the two cultures. When, after seven years, she returned to Puerto Rico for a visit, she was told that she was "no longer Puerto Rican because my Spanish was rusty, my gaze too direct, my personality too assertive..." (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

Two years after arriving in New York, Santiago was accepted into the prestigious Performing Arts High School. After graduation she worked full time and spent eight years studying part time at community colleges until she was accepted as a transfer student - and given a full scholarship - at Harvard. She ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude. (10: The Critic Within). Then, she earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In addition to her literary output, Ms.Santiago is an active volunteer for the following causes, which for obvious personal reasons, are close to her heart: public libraries, community-based programs for adolescents, shelters for battered women and their children, arts programs for young people, and organizations that support literature and the arts (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Her 2004 memoir "The Turkish Lover" covers the years from 1969 (when she was 21) until 1976 (when she graduated from Harvard). Much of the book focuses on her relationship with Ulvi Dogan, a Turkish filmmaker (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Since that time, she has married Frank Cantor, and they have created Cantomedia, a media and film production company.

As if her life doesn't seem amazing enough, two weeks before she was due to take her manuscript of Conquistadora to her publisher, Santiago suffered a severe stroke. The result was that she had to spend 18 months relearning how to read and write English; it took even longer to regain Spanish, which had been her first language (12: Hard Times).

I was humbled and deeply impressed by what this remarkable woman has achieved, and I hope you feel the same way.

Looking forward to your comments...

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