KGOU

Author Esmeralda Santiago Finds Identity Through Art

Sep 11, 2014

When Esmeralda Santiago arrived in New York City in the early 1960s, she was completely terrified.

“I always think of the trip from Puerto Rico to the United States as probably the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me,” Santiago says. “I was a rural girl. We lived out in the country. I had never seen television. We had no electricity or running water.”

The alienation Santiago felt informed her writing. That turmoil, and her love for the history of Puerto Rico and the voices of characters she heard in her dreams, became Santiago’s novel Conquistadora.

“My experience was a Puerto Rican who left Puerto Rico, came here and tried to understand this culture,” Santiago says. “The character of Ana Larragoity Cubillas is somebody who came from Spain to become Puerto Rican.”

Esmeralda Santiago at the 2012 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States.
Credit Larry D. Moore / Wikimedia Commons

Although the big city often felt like a “labyrinth” to Santiago, she benefited from the culture she was exposed to there.

“Art is all around us. Having grown up in New York I saw it-- Kids singing on the corner a cappella, painting, yes it was vandalism but graffiti is kind of interesting and its an expression of the human spirit and that's what artists do,” Santiago says. “I was changed by going to the museums in New York City and I was changed by the sculptures in the public spaces of the cities that I've traveled to.”

Santiago is a proponent of art’s ability to share insights and cause people to see new perspectives. She believes having an artistic outlet is indispensable for young creative people.

“I think also a young person particularly who is artistically inclined and doesn't get the opportunity to express themselves is going to be a frustrated angry person,” Santiago says. “This is one of the reasons I encourage arts education for young people, because otherwise we are going to lose a lot of people that are going to be lost to their frustrations and anger and we can't afford that.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On the culture shock she faced in her early years:

I always think of the trip from Puerto Rico to the United States as probably the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me. I was a rural girl. We lived out in the country. I had never seen television. We had no electricity or running water. We get on a plane and several hours later we're in New York City, which was the exact opposite of the place that I'd grown up in. I had to learn language, I had to get accustomed to climate, but for me the hardest thing was the country to city challenge. I just couldn't get used to the hard edges of a city. I felt like I lived in a labyrinth. I felt like I was constantly lost even though one thinks it's easier to move around in a city. I began to understand what is culture, what is society, what is the difference between them, what is the difference between me and what is known as "American Society" as opposed to "Puerto Rican society'. And so the experiences that I had to go through in order to live here were, I didn't know then, were becoming the fodder that would then go into the stories that I would write many years later.

On her role as an activist:

I think it's because I came of age in the sixties and that never went away. I think I have maintained my activism throughout my life in many different ways. Of course libraries have always been a passion because libraries saved me in a very real sense. And social justice because I am the eldest of eleven children and I have seen every conceivable situation that one can see just even in my nuclear family and the injustices that we have had to endure and observe. So, being the eldest, you tend to think you have a great responsibility not only for yourself but for your siblings. I think it started from that, from being the eldest and having to be an example. The older I get, the more I realize that I am a public figure now. I'm a writer and my books are in schools and universities. I travel around the world speaking about literature. In fact, the literature of the United States but with particular emphasis on the Latino experience. And you have to speak about justice when you speak about culture and I try to pay attention to that. If I have a voice then I will speak for people who don't have that voice or are afraid to speak it or don't get the microphone like I do.

On the importance of art immersion:

The ones that get the possibility, the opportunity to present their art, whichever form it happens to be, I think they do change us. I do believe it doesn't has to be the grand masters, that you can be changed by da Vinci but you can also be changed by Beyoncé and I think that sometimes we put art on this pedestal thinking that art is just the grand art that is in the museums. Art is all around us. Having grown up in New York I saw it-- Kids singing on the corner a cappella, painting, yes it was vandalism but graffiti is kind of interesting and its an expression of the human spirit and that's what artists do. They express our innermost feelings, our concerns our visions through their abilities and skill and they change us. I was changed by reading. I was changed by going to the museums in New York City. I was changed by the sculptures in the public spaces of the cities that I've travelled to and so I think that we can't forget that and we need to value it and respect it.

On art education:

I think also a young person particularly who is artistically inclined and doesn't get the opportunity to express themselves is going to be a frustrated angry person and this is one of the reasons I spend a lot of my energy and my resources to try and encourage the arts education for young people because otherwise we are going to lose a lot. We're going to lose a lot of wonderful art but we are also going to lose a lot of people that are going to be lost to their frustrations and anger and we can't afford that.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Esmeralda Santiago, welcome to World Views.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Thank you very much for inviting me.

GRILLOT: I'd like to begin really at the beginning. You're from Puerto Rico and you came to the United States at the age of thirteen a very, some might say, delicate age. An age of transformation in one's life. Tell us a little bit about that. What it was like to grow up in Puerto Rico and then move at that age to the United States and how that had an impact on your literary life, on eventually becoming this wonderful author that you are.

SANTIAGO: I always think of the trip from Puerto Rico to the United States as probably the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me. I was a rural girl. We lived out in the country. I had never seen television. We had no electricity or running water. We get on a plane and several hours later we're in New York City, which was the exact opposite of the place that I'd grown up in. In addition to the challenges that you alluded to, when you're an adolescent, there is enough going on. I had to learn language, I had to get accustomed to climate, but for me the hardest thing was the country to city challenge. I just couldn't get used to the hard edges of a city. I felt like I lived in a labyrinth I felt like I was constantly lost even though one thinks it's easier to move around in a city. So those kinds of things stayed with me for many years and even to this day I actually live in the country because I feel most comfortable. But I think having had that experience; it forced me to think about a lot of things that became part of my literary work. I began to understand what is culture, what is society, what is the difference between them, what is the difference between me and what is known as "American Society" as opposed to "Puerto Rican society'. And so the experiences that I had to go through in order to live here were, I didn't know then, were becoming the fodder that would then go into the stories that I would write many years later.

GRILLOT: I think this is in some ways a very universal thing, don't you think? That migration from countryside to city for many as the world has become more urban and so you are capturing something that many people are struggling with.

SANTIAGO: I think so. I think even when you move from a small village to a big city or to one of the big developments or something there really is a big culture shift that you must go through and sometimes we don't know that that's what we're going through and probably circle around it until we figure it out and that can make for many unhappy hours. In my case I knew that I was going through a major experience and I had to pay attention.

GRILLOT: Speaking of culture, in the United States one of our favorite cultural treasures is the book and film "Gone with the Wind", your book Conquistadora is said to be the Puerto Rican equivalent of "Gone with the Wind". Is that the case?

SANTIAGO: Well somebody said that and it stuck. That wasn't my intention when I began to write that novel I really wanted to explore the history of Puerto Rico before the things that I knew. Before my parents and my grandparents whom I had the fortune to have known. And the more I studied the history of the island, the more that these characters began to emerge as actual real people that were literally waking me up at night with questions. I wanted to present the Puerto Rico that even on the island is really not taught in the schools. The people who came from other places to Puerto Rico to make a life. My experience was a Puerto Rican who left Puerto Rico, came here and tried to understand this culture. The character of Ana Larragoity Cubillas is somebody who came from Spain to become Puerto Rican. It was a curious experience for me to learn that that was what she was doing.

GRILLOT: What is it about Puerto Rican history that you want to convey in this book? As you said you wanted to explore the history and present a different view of  Puerto Rico. What do you think is the typical view of Puerto Rico and what were you trying to distinguish it from?

SANTIAGO: Well I think, surprisingly and sometimes enraging for me, is that people think Puerto Rican history begins in 1898 when the United States navy invades Puerto Rico, but there was a history before that and so people know that the Spaniards were there and then the Americans but that's not really true. I learned that Puerto Rico was a destination for people from all over the world. There were Europeans from all the European countries and from Asia and of course the slaves that were brought against their will. And the reason that I wanted to know about this is because I didn't know it. I left Puerto Rico when I was thirteen, probably at the beginning of the education of the history of our island. So I didn't have the opportunity while I was there when I came to the United States of course we learned American history. So I began to look into it for my own curiosity, but again, I think probably in the back of my mind there was this idea that there was a book about what happened to Puerto Rico before 1898.

GRILLOT: Do you have much of a chance to get back to Puerto Rico now? How different is it now than when you were that thirteen year old who left the countryside?

SANTIAGO: Well I go frequently. I go at least twice a year. It's completely unrecognizable if I go back to the place where I grew up. It's not even there. The town is there, the little barrio is there, but the places that we lived in are no longer in the same place and the island has changed a lot. I think the childhood that I had in Puerto Rico with no electricity, no running water, no experience with television or anything like that, you cannot have that kind of childhood there anymore because the island is quite developed. In many instances it is overdeveloped. So it's very poignant for me to go back. And of course I'm of a certain age where, now I'm an elder and I never thought of that, but that's true. It's kind of strange to think that I lived a 19th century life until I came to New York and it's something that I learned when I started writing Conquistadora.

GRILLOT: Well I have to make a little shift here to talk about other things that you do. In addition to your literary work, you have engaged in all kinds of activist causes: support for public libraries, support for the arts, particularly for young people but you've also been speaking out on various kinds of social justice issues. How is it that your life and your experience has led you down this path to be more of an activist in recent years? 

SANTIAGO: I think it's because I came of age in the sixties and that never went away. I think I have maintained my activism throughout my life in many different ways. Of course libraries have always been a passion because libraries saved me in a very real sense. And social justice because I am the eldest of eleven children and I have seen every conceivable situation that one can see just even in my nuclear family and the injustices that we have had to endure and observe. So, being the eldest, you tend to think you have a great responsibility not only for yourself, but for your siblings. I think it started from that, from being the eldest and having to be an example. The older I get, the more I realize that I am a public figure now. I'm a writer and my books are in schools and universities. I travel around the world speaking about literature. In fact, the literature of the United States but with particular emphasis on the Latino experience. And you have to speak about justice when you speak about culture and I try to pay attention to that. If I have a voice then I will speak for people who don't have that voice or are afraid to speak it or don't get the microphone like I do.

GRILLOT: The thought of being the eldest of eleven children is really just amazing. What an excellent point that puts you in a position of being very conscious of being a leader and someone who speaks out on behalf of others, as you were the voice of many of your siblings.

SANTIAGO: I was my mother's translator when we first came to the United States. She assumed that because I was younger I could speak English faster than she did and I kept saying "no" but I did actually. So I think from a very early age I was placed in that position to explain and translate. I still kind of feel that that's what I do is I'm translating things that perhaps people don't understand in my culture that I can then explain it.

GRILLOT: Well I think its so fascinating that you've said that you have to speak about justice if you're going to speak about culture. These two things are connected. I want to get to this notion of art as a transformative thing that you can actually engage in and promote social justice and various causes through your art form. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, about the transformative power that art has?

SANTIAGO: Society and culture is what artists do. We bring our stories, we paint, we write music, we create dances, but it's all based within the context of the culture that we live in and the culture that we have experienced in our travels. I think that we can't separate culture from art and you can't separate art from the fact that they do change culture because an artist has a vision of the world that perhaps a person who doesn't see quite in the same way, they can point it out, our little blind spots. The ones that get the possibility, the opportunity to present their art, whichever form it happens to be, I think they do change us. I do believe it doesn't has to be the grand masters, that you can be changed by da Vinci but you can also be changed by Beyoncé and I think that sometimes we put art on this pedestal thinking that art is just the grand art that is in the museums. Art is all around us. Having grown up in New York I saw it-- Kids singing on the corner a cappella, painting, yes it was vandalism but graffiti is kind of interesting and its an expression of the human spirit and that's what artists do. They express our innermost feelings, our concerns our visions through their abilities and skill and they change us. I was changed by reading. I was changed by going to the museums in New York City. I was changed by the sculptures in the public spaces of the cities that I've travelled to and so I think that we can't forget that and we need to value it and respect it.

GRILLOT: I don't think I've ever heard a better endorsement for arts education and the way in which these types of things have an impact on our lives. The fact that the library saved you, that books saved you, that looking at art saved you in terms of how you developed as a young person into an adult is really incredible.

SANTIAGO: Well I think also a young person particularly who is artistically inclined and doesn't get the opportunity to express themselves is going to be a frustrated angry person and this is one of the reasons I spend a lot of my energy and my resources to try and encourage the arts education for young people because otherwise we are going to lose a lot. We're going to lose a lot of wonderful art but we are also going to lose a lot of people that are going to be lost to their frustrations and anger and we can't afford that.

GRILLOT: Well Esmeralda, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your fascinating experiences and insight, thank you.

SANTIAGO: Thank you for inviting me.

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