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The New York Times

Esmeralda Santiago: From Images To Words And Back


May 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The New York Times. All rights reserved. 

OVER the last decade, readers have come to admire Esmeralda Santiago for her vivid, poignant writing. Her two memoirs, ''When I Was Puerto Rican'' (1993) and ''Almost a Woman'' (1998), chronicle her childhood in Puerto Rico, and her adolescence as an immigrant in Brooklyn. Her novel, ''America's Dream'' (1996), tells the story of a young Puerto Rican woman, America Gonzalez, who leaves an abusive relationship and a job as a hotel maid to go to work as a housekeeper for a family in Westchester. Though Ms. Santiago does not explicitly write for young readers, her books are frequently used in schools in Puerto Rico and the United States.

Ms. Santiago's second memoir ''Almost a Woman,'' which was made into a film for ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theater and was shown on PBS in the fall, has been named a 2003 winner of a George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media. The awards ceremony, will be held tomorrow at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan and will be shown on A&E next Sunday at 4 p.m. (The film is available on video through WGBH, at

Ms. Santiago lives in Katonah with her husband, Frank Cantor, and their two college-age children. A warm, funny woman with silver hair, she is at work on the third volume of her memoirs. On a recent afternoon she settled into a booth at Jackson & Wheeler, a regular haunt in Pleasantville, to talk about her writing.

Q. So few people have the experience of seeing their lives made into a movie. It must be such an extraordinary process. What was that like for you?

A. The hard part of that process is that it's no longer your life. You become a protagonist in the creative artistry of over 100 people, all of whom have their own visions of what your life was like.

Q. Did you ever run onto the set and say, ''No, no, that's not what it was lly like!''?

A. They had me there so that I could give them some guidance if there were things that were off base. So I tried to do that, trying to be respectful, because I did understand that it is a collaboration of many people who have their own vision.

The film was filmed in Los Angeles, so they're used to Mexican-American culture, having a lot of saints and virgins all over the place, because it's predominantly Catholic. Now, that's a good assumption to make about Latin American culture, except my family is not religious! So there were all these religious props that I kind of had to say, well, they're lovely, but it's really too much. I had to talk them through it and let them know that, while it was appropriate to the culture, it was not appropriate to this family.

Q. Did you have the chance to develop a relationship with the actress, Ana Maria Lagasca, who plays you as a young girl in the film?

A. She was very committed to this role in a way that honored the real person, and she also knows that she stands for millions of young women like her. I had to allow the film to become a portrait of people who were like my family, a young woman who was like me. It's not a documentary.

Q. Some of the characters seemed to be conflations of two or three different characters from the book.

A. We had to do it. Writing my first draft of the script, it was really sad! Because I have my favorite aunts and uncles and cousins and scenes that I wanted in the film. And the producer, who worked closely with me in shaping the script, would say to me, ''Esmeralda, you have to pare it down to the important scenes.'' Well, it is all important!

Q. ''America's Dream'' seemed on one level to be about one woman's personal journey away from abuse, but on another you were speaking for a whole group of female maids and nannies and housekeepers who are mostly invisible.

A. I was aware of this group of people because I was so often mistaken for one. I'd be at a park with my kids and the nannies themselves would think that I was the nanny. They'd be surprised that I was the mother, because at the park it would be nothing but nannies from Honduras, from all these places in Central and South America. A lot of them were so grateful to have someone to speak Spanish with. No matter how empathetic an employer you are to your empleada, if you cannot speak one another's language, it is really, really hard to get to that place of intimacy where you feel connected to one another. And most of the employers don't want to. You know, it's: ''I really just want a nanny to take care of my kids. I don't want to know about their husband or the two kids they left back in El Salvador.''

I was very conscious of that, of these women not having a voice of their own. My mother was a maid and my grandmother was a maid. These women who have spent their lives being invisible to the people that they serve is very much a part of who I am.

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