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Esmeralda Santiago Discusses The Making Of Her Memoir "Almost A Woman" Into A Masterpiece Theatre Production

Interview: Esmeralda Santiago Discusses The Making Of Her Memoir "Almost A Woman" Into A Masterpiece Theatre Production

September 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved.

LIANE HANSEN, host: Tonight, as part of Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection series, a film adaptation of Esmeralda Santiago's 1999 memoir, "Almost a Woman," will be broadcast on PBS. Masterpiece Theatre is the longest-running prime-time dramatic series on television, and it's known for transforming English literary classics into memorable American television. Two years ago, it began to develop productions of the best in American literature, featuring the works of James Agee, Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty and Henry James. Tonight writer Esmeralda Santiago joins this collection.

"Almost a Woman" is primarily in Spanish with English subtitles. Santiago wrote the screenplay, which begins in 1961. She, her mother and two of her sick siblings left Puerto Rico for the United States, where better medical attention might save her brother's badly infected foot. Santiago says the foot was just an excuse for her mother to escape her failing marriage.

Ms. ESMERALDA SANTIAGO (Author, "Almost a Woman"): Her relationship with my father was really not going to get any better than it had been, and she had relatives in New York. Almost her entire family on her mother's side had already left, and so she had people to go to that would be supportive and help her and my brother's illness. And the problem that he had with his foot was really the impetus for that move.

(Soundbite of "Almost a Woman")

Unidentified Actor #1: This is a prescription for an orthopedic shoe. Shoe. Shoe?

Unidentified Actor #2: Shoe. Zapato.

Unidentified Actor #1: Zapato, yes. Zapato. Zapato, speciali. Special shoe.

Unidentified Actor #2: Zapato speciali(ph). Special shoe.

Unidentified Actor #1: Yes, good, good, good. And I want you to bring him back here in one, two, three, four, four...

Unidentified Actor #2: (Spanish spoken) One month.

Unidentified Actor #1: Good. Good. Smart Girl. All right, we'll see you then, OK?

Unidentified Actor #2: OK. OK.

HANSEN: What did you think America was going to be like?

Ms. SANTIAGO: I really did not know what it would be like. My information about the United States was so, so scanty. All I knew was that there was a president named Ike who played golf, and his wife's name was Mamie, and she had a funny hairdo. And that was pretty much all. You know, the Eisenhower administration was just ending as we were arriving, and so I was not at all--at all--prepared for what the United States would be like, what New York specifically would be like, what Brooklyn particularly would be like for someone like me.

HANSEN: You arrive and immediately begin to try and learn English through comic books.


HANSEN: How natural is that for a teen-ager, huh?

Ms. SANTIAGO: Well, it was so delightful to discover this forum. I had not been familiar with comic books, and I was just fascinated with Archie, because to me Archie and his friends represented American culture; the way they talked, the way they dressed, the malt shop, the convertibles. And so that was my image of what a United States teen-ager lived like if they didn't live where I lived.

HANSEN: An interesting mother-daughter story, and it's a very intense mother-daughter story.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yes. It's so very interesting to me. I came here in what I would say is the most vulnerable time in a young girl's life, and that is when really you're going from childhood through puberty, so your body's changing, your hormones are going crazy, you are trying to get a sense of who you are, where you belong within your peer group. And everything changed for me at that very, very fragile stage. My mother, at the time, was only 30 years old, she had me when she herself was a teen-ager, and so there was a lot of growing that she had to do, but she had to do it in the context of having to take care of seven children. Our relationship was very close, because she came to depend on me to translate for her, to, in many ways, guide her through North American culture. And at the same time, her requirement was that I should not change, that I should remain the girl that came from Puerto Rico. So there was a great deal of conflict between us, because I knew that was impossible, but she didn't.

(Soundbite of "Almost a Woman")

Unidentified Actor #3: You're Puerto Rican, right?

Unidentified Actor #4: Yes, (Spanish spoken).

Unidentified Actor #3: I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Unidentified Actor #4: You know, every time I do something unexpected and different, my mother says it's because I'm at the school (Spanish spoken).

Unidentified Actor #3: It doesn't matter if you're black or white. What counts is talent and hard work.

Unidentified actor #4: I know. I just hate it when she says I'm Americanized like it's a disease or something.

Unidentified Actor #3: My parents say the same thing.

Ms. SANTIAGO: And so I had to learn how to do both, be one person at home and be one person outside the home. And sometimes I would slip, and the person that I was outside would come inside, and the other way around. And learning how to manage those two worlds was very, very difficult and a real challenge at a time when I was very fragile.

HANSEN: There's a scene straight out of "My Fair Lady" in this where you've been excepted into the High School for the Performing Arts, but you're literally being taught how to speak received English, English without an accent, and it does feel like 'Enry 'Iggins, you know.

(Soundbite of "Almost a Woman")

Unidentified Actor #5: Creep.

Unidentified Actor #4: Creep.

Unidentified Actor #5: Don't roll the R, though. Creep.

Unidentified Actor #4: Creep.

Unidentified Actor #5: All right. Drive.

Unidentified Actor #4: Drive.

Unidentified Actor #5: You're still rolling the R. Drive.

Unidentified Actor #4: Drive.

Unidentified Actor #5: Better. Do you hear the difference? It's better.

Unidentified Actor #4: Drive. Drive.

Unidentified Actor #5: All right. Try this one.

HANSEN: Did you write the screenplay in Spanish?

Ms. SANTIAGO: I wrote the screenplay, yes, in the language that the particular character was speaking, and then for myself I did not write any subtitles until I was ready to share it with the producers, because I really wanted to feel the life in Spanish. That's how it was lived, it was in Spanish, and I wanted to make sure that that was communicated before I began doing the translation.

HANSEN: Was there any discussion, debate, over whether or not this was the way to go with this film?

Ms. SANTIAGO: Funny you should ask. One of the very first, I would call it--discussion is a good word--was over the issue of language. There was, at one time, a thought that the whole film should be entirely in English and that the actors should perform with an accent to indicate that they were speaking in Spanish. And I just could not, could not, could not do that. I said, `This is really about language acquisition, as much as it is about anything else, and it's very, very important for the audience to understand what a process it is, and if they have not been through the process, part of what will happen with this film is that the compassion that you must feel from someone going through this process, I think, is something that will hopefully extend to their thoughts of other people who come to this country from other places, other language groups.'

(Soundbite of "Almost a Woman")

Unidentified Actor #6: I'm sure you're aware that we require higher than average grades from our students, and looking at your academic classes, it seems you're struggling there, too.

Unidentified Actor #4: I'll work harder next year.

Unidentified Actor #6: I suggest you do that somewhere else. You might want to transfer to you local vocational school and learn a trade.

Unidentified Actor #4: But...

Unidentified Actor #6: You're not college material. I'm sorry.

HANSEN: There's no hint of revenge in this. There's no hint of, `it was hard for us.' You know, there's no complaining. And you even say it at the end of the movie, `There was hardship, but there was joy.' Given everything that you did have to go through, how did you manage to keep the joy?

Ms. SANTIAGO: I think part of it is cultural. Puerto Ricans are people who the joy of life is part of the reason we live. We really recognize it and celebrate it. I just don't see any point in complaining about something that happened 30 years ago. I've always been that way, and I know that that comes from my mother and my father and from my culture. We are a nation of active doers. We have very little tolerance for laziness or just letting things slide. And so I had, from a very, very early age, this sense that the bad things that I did, or that happened to me through my efforts, I would have to take responsibility for that. And the good things I would have to celebrate and take pride in.

HANSEN: Esmeralda Santiago's memoir, "Almost a Woman," is broadcast tonight on many PBS stations. Esmeralda joined us from the studios of WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. Thank you so much.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Thank you. It was really wonderful.

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

Author's Immigrant Childhood Evolves Into `Woman'

Marisa Guthrie

September 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Boston Herald. All rights reserved.

Author Esmeralda Santiago was born in Puerto Rico. But the story of her coming of age is quintessentially American.

Santiago's memoir, "Almost a Woman," examines the confusing and often painful experience of immigrants to this country. She has adapted her book, published in 1998, for PBS' "American Collection" series. The film - which stars Wanda De Jesus ("Blood Work"), revered Puerto Rican actress Miriam Colon ("All the Pretty Horses") and Ana Maria Lagasca as Esmeralda, nicknamed Negi - premieres tonight at 9 on WGBH-TV (Ch. 2), kicking off the station's Hispanic Heritage Month programming.

A successful writer and filmmaker, Santiago earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard and a master's from Sarah Lawrence College. Today, she runs a production company with her husband, Frank Cantor.

But her initiation as an American immigrant was not in the bucolic splendor of academia. Santiago emigrated from Puerto Rico to a Brooklyn tenement in 1961 with her mother and six siblings. The family came to America seeking treatment for Negi's baby brother, who had an infected foot. But Negi's mother also was leaving behind her philandering husband. Negi, 13, was the oldest and bore much of the responsibility of caring for her siblings, becoming a voice for her family. Although she spoke little English, Negi accompanied her mother and brother to the doctor's office, translating as best she could. And when her mother lost her job as a seamstress, Negi went to the welfare office with her to help plead her case.

"When you're 13, you really want to focus on you. You want to be narcissistic," said Santiago. "You want to focus on what's happening to you and what you're feeling and all the things that are going on in your body. And all of a sudden, you not only have to deal with that, but you're dealing with climate changes and environmental changes . . . just a whole set of external forces that are totally foreign to you."

The title of Santiago's memoir is a translation of casi una mujer, a Spanish phrase her mother used often to describe her daughter, caught in the psychological limbo between childhood innocence and adolescent curiosity. But Santiago was thrust into an adult role the moment she came to America.

"It was both a gift and a burden," said Santiago. "It was a gift because all of the sudden I was sort of in a partnership with (my mother). I was privy to things my brothers and sisters weren't. I had more access to her.

"On the other hand, you don't want to be 15 and learn that your parents can't take care of you. And the last thing you want is the responsibility of your parents' and your siblings' lives when you're not able to figure out what's going on in your own body."

For Santiago and her family, the large Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn offered some comfort.

"I have since met people who have grown up in Edina, Minn., or a tiny, little town in Indiana where they were the only Mexican- American or the only Nicaraguan, and that must be really difficult because you don't have your culture as support," Santiago said.

"Growing up on an island really has a profound effect on our psyche," she continued. "Because it's smaller, there really is the sense that everyone is related. We are very social people. If you're on an island where the weather is always nice you tend to spend a lot of time outdoors.

"For people who are much more used to the private, Anglo-Saxon, self-contained way of living, the communal is threatening. We have been made to feel that we are doing something wrong by hanging out in front of a house and playing dominoes or something. But being self-contained is counter to who we are."

America has shaped Santiago and certainly has had a profound influence on her art. But for Santiago, who lives in Westchester, N.Y., Puerto Rico will always be home.

"Something about the air is very familiar," said Santiago, who was in Puerto Rico last week for a special screening of "Almost a Woman."

"I get here and I immediately know I'm home."

Television Review On PBS: What It's Like to Be 'Almost a Woman'


September 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

A spirited young Puerto Rican girl moves to Brooklyn, where "Hispanic" as a one-size-fits-all label is just one more unexpected barrier to overcome in her determined struggle to find herself, in PBS' warm and unaffected adaptation of Esmeralda Santiago's coming-of-age memoir, "Almost a Woman."

This newest offering from "Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection" airs Sunday at 8 p.m., an hour earlier than usual, to be more accessible for family viewing.

Thirteen-year-old Esmeralda, nicknamed Negi (Ana Maria Lagasca), is the oldest of seven siblings who move to a cramped New York apartment in 1961, when vibrant, strict Mami (Wanda De Jesus) leaves her unfaithful husband in Puerto Rico to find medical care for her badly injured son.

Negi goes to school, learns English and copes with her mother's ups and downs, as well as her own adolescent anxieties, homesickness and the sadness of feeling that she doesn't belong in either her old world or her new one.

Then Negi is accepted into a prestigious performing arts high school, a challenge that eventually defines her goal for success.

Directed by Betty Kaplan and adapted by Santiago from her novel, the earnest film is structured as a series of interconnected snapshot memories.

As such, despite its vivid creation of time and place--and De Jesus' dominant strength and scene-stealing, astonishing sensual beauty--it's less resonant than likable, though anchored firmly by sweet-faced Legasca's heartfelt performance as a girl who is "casi una mujer"--almost a woman--and knows what she doesn't want: early marriage, babies and poverty.

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