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Esmeralda Santiago's 'One Book'… A Bicultural Life On Paper And In Film… 'I Am My Own Home'

Esmeralda Santiago's 'One Book'

`When I Was Puerto Rican' Is 2004 Pick

By CAROLE GOLDBERG, Courant Books Editor

June 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004
THE HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

In 1961, at age 13, Esmeralda Santiago was brought by her mother from rural Puerto Rico to a new life in New York City. The oldest of 11 siblings, Santiago was a bright student who at first spoke little English, yet she went on to attend the prestigious Performing Arts High School and eventually earned degrees from Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College.

With her husband, Frank Cantor, she founded a film and media production company and has written two memoirs and a novel.

While she made the transition successfully to a different culture and new expectations on the mainland, she was surprised, upon returning to the island after 12 years, that her very "Puerto-Rican-ness" was questioned because she had been away so long. She realized, "My life is lived in English, but my internal life is in Spanish."

Santiago told the story of her early years in a much-praised memoir, "When I Was Puerto Rican," published by Perseus in 1993. That book has been chosen as the One Book for Greater Hartford selection for 2004.

The community reading program, now in its third year, brings people together through discussions, lectures and other events. Such programs have become a nationwide phenomenon, and an appearance by James McBride, author of Hartford's 2003 selection, "The Color of Water," drew more than 700 people.

Santiago "is a very important American writer and an author with wide recognition in the Puerto Rican community, which makes it so important to have her here," says Louise Blalock, chief librarian of the Hartford Public Library, a major sponsor of the program. Her book, "perfect in many ways, with appeal for young adult readers and parents," Blalock says, is one that "everyone can relate to. It opens up what that experience was like."

The book also augments the library's exploration of Puerto Rican literature and culture this year through the statewide World of Words program sponsored by the Connecticut Center for the Book, which is based at the library.

The 2004 One Book program, whose honorary chairman is Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, will kick off on Sept. 9 at the library with a free bilingual workshop from 9:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. that will train participants to lead book discussions and present activities for community groups.

A resource guide and book discussion schedule will be distributed. The library and its branches will hold discussions in English and Spanish during September and October, and libraries in other towns also will hold programs.

The program will culminate Oct. 16, when Santiago speaks at the library from 7 to 8 p.m. and signs books from 8 to 9 p.m.

Registration is required for the workshop and author visit and can be made by calling 860-695-6342.

A Bicultural Life On Paper And In Film


August 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004
The New York Times. All rights reserved.

KATONAH -- EARLIER this summer in the spacious kitchen here of the author Esmeralda Santiago, a dish redolent of her past -- rice and beans, Puerto Rican style -- simmered on the stove. Considering that her mother, the plucky heroine of two of Ms. Santiago's memoirs, was in town and had been rummaging through the cupboard, the choice for the evening meal was hardly surprising.

In her two earlier memoirs, ''When I Was a Puerto Rican'' and ''Almost a Woman,'' (Perseus Publishing for both) Ms. Santiago recalls how her mother, Ramona Santiago, now 74, whom she calls Mami, came to New York 43 years ago from Puerto Rico to find medical care for one of her children. (In all, she raised 11 children over the next several decades in crowded New York City apartments.)

Esmeralda Santiago, the oldest child and often the family's interpreter during those years, began writing when she became a mother for the first time 24 years ago.

''My work came out of the need to document my early years for my children and others who did not know me before,'' she said. ''I was trying to anticipate what they might need to know about the challenges I faced, and what I didn't want to be forgotten.''

Ms. Santiago, who moved to New York with her mother and siblings in 1961, has written extensively about her bicultural heritage. Her newest memoir, ''The Turkish Lover'' is scheduled to be published early this fall by Da Capo Press. Also coming in the fall is the release of a movie about Ms. Santiago by her husband, the documentary filmmaker Frank Cantor. Titled ''Writing a Life,'' the movie will have its premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville.

In ''The Turkish Lover,'' Ms. Santiago shifts her focus from her childhood to young adulthood, a troubled love affair and her years at Harvard. Ms. Santiago, who attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, and graduated Sarah Lawrence College and Harvard, sees herself a role model for young Hispanics and other members of minority groups. Besides writing, she lectures about race, culture and identity in schools, universities, family shelters, libraries and prisons.

Mr. Cantor's film is the fourth profile in a series produced by Cantomedia, a company the couple has run for almost three decades. Born and raised in Hartford, he has directed theatrical shorts and television series that have been broadcast on network, PBS and cable stations. He says his newest film, which will be shown on PBS-TV in the United States and on TU-TV in Puerto Rico, shows how his wife ''uses her celebrity to raise consciousness and give voice to an emerging population.''

On the day the rice and beans simmered on the kitchen stove, the discussion around the dining room table turned to a topic that has continued to fascinate Ms. Santiago and Mr. Cantor over the years.

That subject was their marriage, and the question was this: How can two temperamental and nonconventional artists fall in love, work together in the same business for almost three decades, successfully raise two children and find happiness in suburbia?

The answer, the couple agree, is that it takes hard work and along the way, a few spats. ''Like any marriage, ours has not been without its bumps,'' Ms. Santiago said. ''But the secret of success is that those bumps don't throw you off the cart.''

Mr. Canto amended, ''You mean off the road.''

No, she said, ''I like 'off the cart' better.'''

For an artistic couple, living in northern Westchester has been a boon, they say. ''Westchester is a lot more varied than most people realize,'' Mr. Cantor said. ''As artists, we've fit right in.'' It is not ''just a place of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant privilege,'' as Ms. Santiago described it.

Ms. Santiago and Mr. Cantor met in Boston in the late 1970's, when Ms. Santiago applied for a job as a consultant for a film that Mr. Cantor was making about children in different cultures. About to leave for a six-month filmmaking stint in Lincoln, Neb., he also decided to hire the exotic looking young Hispanic woman as a location scout for his next project. They married two years later and have two children, Lucas, 24, and Ila, 19.

Over the years, Ms. Santiago and Mr. Cantor have spent large chunks of time apart from each other. Mr. Cantor has traveled extensively for his film work. And Ms. Santiago sometimes seeks the seclusion of a hideaway in Maine to pursue her writing; last summer she spent five months in a house in a fishing village there.

But even when they are at home together in Katonah, forging a continuing relationship still means sometimes leaving each other alone, they say. He has his study, with a tatami in one corner where he meditates, and three computer monitors in another corner, where he edits films. She has her sanctuary where she writes, with a ''do not disturb'' sign that her daughter once made for her hanging on the door. Although no one but close family members are allowed in her office, she says it contains at least 1,000 books, an extensive collection of fountain pens -- she still writes at times by hand -- and desks and bookshelves built by Mr. Cantor.

When they are not busy working, Mr. Cantor is a member of the education committee of the Burns Film Center, where Ms. Santiago is a board member. Their closest friends share similar interests in the arts. Ms. Santiago meets once a week for lunch with three fellow authors who are also Westchester residents: the writers Ben Cheever and Terry Bazes, who live in Pleasantville, and the poet and journalist Marilyn Johnson, who lives in Sleepy Hollow. ''We read to each other from whatever we're working on,'' Ms. Santiago said.

This summer in the respite before her latest book and his newest film are released, the couple may find time to catch up with each other. But then again, maybe not, because when Ms. Santiago is at home, nothing is ever static, Mr. Cantor says.

''When Esmeralda is in town, it's like a hurricane,'' he said, ''and she's always at the center of the storm.''

Photo: Framed by sculptures in their backyard, Esmeralda Santiago and her husband, Frank Cantor can look forward to fall: a premiere of his new film and her latest memoir. (Photo by Claire Yaffa for The New York Times)

`I Am My Own Home'

HowLong-Searching Esmeralda Santiago Discovered Herself

By CAROLE GOLDBERG, Courant Books Editor

September 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004
THE HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

Esmeralda Santiago has made many difficult journeys.

She moved back and forth from rural to city barrios in Puerto Rico and from the island to New York. From a childhood in poverty to degrees from Harvard and Sarah Lawrence universities, and from being a young woman in thrall to a controlling lover to an acclaimed author, Santiago's travels always have been about searching for her true identity, her true home.

When her single mother uprooted the 13-year-old and some of her many siblings - eventually there were 11 - from the island in 1961 for a new life in New York City, Santiago longed to understand where she truly belonged.

"What was home? Where was it? I needed to know," she said in a phone interview from Katonah, N.Y., where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Frank Cantor.

"I needed to come to a point where I could define what home is ... and I finally realized, it's where I am. That was very liberating. It sounds obvious, but it's not until you feel it that it makes emotional sense."

Santiago will visit Hartford in October as part of the annual One Book for Greater Hartford community reading project. The first of her three memoirs,

"When I Was Puerto Rican," was selected as the 2004 book for the program, which is now in its third year of bringing people from the area together through reading and discussing the same book.

The project will kick off Thursday, with workshops at the Hartford Public Library.

There are several related events culminating Oct. 16, when Santiago will appear for a talk and book signing at the library. The previous evening, a new documentary about her, "Writing a Life," co-produced by Santiago and Cantor's film company, CANTOMEDIA , and the PBS affiliate in San Juan, will be shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum. (See accompanying story for details.)

Santiago attended community colleges part-time for eight years before winning a full scholarship to Harvard, where she studied film production and graduated magna cum laude in 1976. She and Cantor founded CANTOMEDIA, for which she was a producer and writer of educational and documentary films. This led to essays for newspapers and magazines.

Santiago's second memoir, "Almost a Woman," became one of PBS Masterpiece Theatre's "American Collection," which included films about James Agee, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty and Henry James.

Santiago has written a novel and three memoirs and is planning a historical novel and a fourth memoir. An avid baseball fan, she recently wrote about Anaheim Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero for Sports Illustrated.

"When I Was Puerto Rican," published in 1993 by Perseus, covers Santiago's childhood in Puerto Rico in a family where she had to help raise a growing brood of sisters and brothers. Her parents, who never married, had a volatile relationship, and the family moved frequently.

The book's vivid descriptions, humor and honesty bring to life a place where creature comforts were lacking - the arrival of electricity and paved roads were major milestones - but where family ties were strong. Hers is a story rich in specifics about life in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, but also a universal coming-of-age tale about a young woman struggling to help her family assimilate and to find herself.

"I am my parents' child," she says. "They gave me the greatest gifts that I have as an adult: love and respect for the arts and determination."

The book depicts her father as a poet at heart, a man who she says still delights in writing impassioned letters to the editor. Her mother "had a lot more ambition. She had big aspirations and had to take care of her mother, who was an alcoholic." The more she thinks about her mother's life, Santiago says, "the more amazing it is."

Her father, she says, "was always tilting at windmills and her mother was fighting giants."

"When I Was Puerto Rican" takes Santiago from childhood to her acceptance into the prestigious High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan, where she developed a love of theater and dance. "Almost a Woman" chronicles her high-school experience and shortly beyond, as she strives to balance her family's strictness with the lure of the wider world.

The newly published "The Turkish Lover" (Da Capo Press, $25) picks up her story at age 21, when Santiago escapes her family by running off to Florida with an older man, a Turkish filmmaker - or so he says - who has mysterious connections.

Ulvi Dogan came to dominate her life for seven years, both supporting and exploiting her, controlling her tightly and sheltering her from the confusing post-'60s world. Yet he ultimately - and reluctantly - helped make it possible for her to enroll at Harvard, where she blossomed and grew confident enough to leave him.

Their relationship was fraught with tension and passion, and although the book makes it clear she knew it was stifling, it also shows her need to feel prized and protected, at any cost.

"I had been my mother's helper, the oldest of 11," she says now, explaining his hold on her. "There was not enough attention to go around. I was not cosseted.

"I was still a kid. I wanted to be taken care of. There was always a very big hole that I was constantly looking to fill." That was his opening, she recalls. "He saw that I needed security.

"He was a product of his culture, his generation, his needs and ambitions. But he did protect me from a cruel world I was not able to live in."

She adds, "I finally realized the kind of taking care I needed was not what he was providing. I had to care for and respect myself."

Writing memoirs is challenging, Santiago says. "When I'm writing, I want to tell a story. I don't think about my readers - I am my own first reader."

She sets out expecting the book will cover "everything up till yesterday, but then you reach a point where you say, no, it has to end here. While writing, I find that themes emerge, and so the end reveals itself.

"You don't know where memory will take you," she says. "Important things may turn out to be minor, and small things may be major" when you look back.

"A lot of my writing is making difficult choices, leaving out what is not necessary. My job is to tell you what's important in the context of this particular book."

In "When I Was Puerto Rican," Santiago hopes young people "will find a way to see themselves in someone they know nothing about. My success is measured by whether a reader can identify with what I present. If they can see some of their life through identifying with my emotions, I will die happy.

"I'm comfortable with what I have made of my life," Santiago says. "I am my own home, my own island."

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