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Memoir Analyzes Bad Relationship


9 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

In memoir after memoir, writer Esmeralda Santiago has chronicled her journey from sheltered jíbara in the countryside of Macún, Puerto Rico, to free-spirited urban Latina artist in New York and Boston. Along the way, she has crushed cultural taboos, reflected the angst of Latinas coming of age in two cultures and inspired readers around the country.

In her latest work, The Turkish Lover (Da Capo Press, $25), from which she reads Saturday at the Miami Book Fair International, Santiago tackles a most personal subject -- her unhealthy relationship with a Turkish filmmaker. It's a story she hopes will inspire women stuck in dead-end affairs to move on to more fulfilling lives.

''I never doubted that I would write about my life, and one reason that I am fairly mentally healthy is that I have always trusted my family's support in whatever I chose to do,'' Santiago says in an interview from her home in Westchester County, N.Y. ``Within the structure of my nuclear family of mami and my 10 sisters and brothers, I have always been the eccentric, even in a family of eccentrics.''

Her family's move from rural Puerto Rico to a seedy Brooklyn tenement -- and Santiago's struggles to fit in -- are at the heart of her earlier books, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, acclaimed memoirs that put her in the limelight alongside prominent Latina voices like Dominican-American novelist Julia Alvarez and Mexican-Americans Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo and Denise Chávez.

''Perhaps Santiago's main contribution to U.S. literature is placing a subject not even considered American nor socially meaningful -- Puerto Rican women -- at the center of the American story,'' says Frances Negrón-Muntaner, an award-winning filmmaker, scholar and author of Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture. ``Much of her literature is precisely an attempt to reclaim dignity as a Puerto Rican woman. In fact, one of the most powerful themes in Santiago's early work is how to protect the inside, which is represented as the Puerto Rican soul, from the outside, the forces of assimilation. At the end, the compromise is very precarious. Inevitably, some of the inside oozes out, like her island identity, and some of the outside oozes in, like adopting English as a literary tongue.''

At 56, Santiago's life is filled with artistic endeavors. She films documentaries with her director-husband, speaks around the country to university students about career and culture. Her son and daughter, in their 20s, are jazz musicians starting their own creative and sentimental lives.


But she wasn't always the confident partner she is today, Santiago says.

At 20, Santiago wrote a letter to her mother telling her she was leaving with ''el hombre que yo amo'' and moving from New York to Florida.

The man she loved, or thought she loved, was Ulvi Dogan, a Turkish filmmaker 17 years older than Santiago, then a dance and dramatic arts student in New York. Santiago didn't know much about her lover's business or family ties, but she thought him urbane and sophisticated.

''I thought that because he was a foreigner -- like I felt -- we understood one another,'' she says.

It was the 1970s, and Santiago felt pulled between her family's expectations that she behave as a ''nena puertorriqueña decente (a decent Puerto Rican girl)'' and the U.S. women's movement that encouraged liberation. By leaving home, Santiago thought she was breaking free of cultural restraints and escaping the cramped apartment. ''I needed silence to hear my own thoughts,'' she says.


Her seven-year relationship with Dogan, however, was anything but liberating.

He nicknamed her ''Chiquita,'' little girl, but refused to let her give him an endearing pet name. He assigned her cooking duties and picked the clothes she wore. He was secretive about his relationships and business dealings, talking on the phone behind closed doors and going on mysterious trips abroad. Whenever Santiago attempted to inquire about it, Dogan responded tersely: ``Don't mind yourself with that, Chiquita.''

They lived together, on and off, for four years, and most of the time, Santiago accepted his long silences, his unilateral decisions about their lives, even his philandering, as the couple shuttled between jobs, college campuses and apartments.

''I was young, insecure, and I wanted him to love me,'' Santiago says. 'He frequently told me, `I will take care of you,' and I needed that. I was willing to give up a lot of other things to have that sense of safety.''

Santiago tried to leave Dogan three times but failed, her emotional dependency on him too strong a bond. She stuck with the relationship, Santiago says, in part because she didn't want to return to her mother's house defeated.

''I knew I had made the wrong choice, but it was one of those things that it's my story, and I'll stick to it,'' she says. ``You know it intellectually, but emotionally you are not willing to let go of the freedom of having made that choice, and that is where you get really messed up and can get stuck.

''He was the first guy I really dated, and I did not want to hurt this man,'' Santiago says. ``It would have been easy intellectually, but emotionally, we don't want to inflict pain, even though we are feeling pain ourselves. I felt bad for him because things for him just didn't work out [professionally and financially]. I had attachments and feeling as a human being.''


Still, Santiago says she doesn't have regrets because it was an experience that yielded life-long lessons.

''The biggest lesson I got out of it was to trust my instincts,'' she says. ``I knew very early in the relationship that it was not right. I knew there was something in his way of being that was not going to sit very right with me, the daughter of Ramona Santiago. Like Denise Chávez calls us, we are machas.''

She went on to Harvard University, and later turned her experiences into essays that brought her national attention and book contracts. Shortly after graduation from Harvard, she met filmmaker Frank Cantor, and they fell in love. Before making a commitment to the relationship, however, the couple engaged in long conversations about expectations.

''I told him I needed to have the freedom to make my own mistakes, to create my own life,'' Santiago says. ``I am a Taurus, and you have to give me a very wide pasture, and I will always come back to the barn. If the pasture is very small, and the barn is locked so I can't get out, it's going to drive me nuts, and I'm gonna get out.''

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