Almost a Woman, Esmeralda Santiago's sequel to her moving and powerful memoir When I was Puerto Rican, brings to life her experiences as she grows up in Brooklyn. This coming-of-age memoir is about her transition from an adolescent Puerto Rican immigrant attending junior high school and Performing Arts High School to a young woman in her 20s.
At age thirteen, she came to America with her mother and siblings in 1961, "in search of medical care for my youngest brother, Raymond, whose toes were nearly severed by a bicycle chain when he was four" (page 3). The fact that they were constantly moving in and out of apartments/houses kept Esmeralda and her family from getting attached to possessions, or even to friends. Although Esmeralda learned not to put value to possessions, she puts value to the good things that come to her. "When it hurt, I cried silent tears. And when good things came my way, I accepted them gratefully but quietly, afraid that enjoying them too much would make them vanish like a drop of water into a desert" (page 89).
Esmeralda's mother, Mami, old-fashioned and lived by the Puerto Rican traditions, kept her 10 children on a short, strict leash. She always warned her kids that something bad could happen to them. She said her two nieces, Alma and Corazï¿½n, were Americanized. "The way she pronounced the word Americanized, it sounded like a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs, another algo to be added to the list of 'somethings' outside our door" (page 12). Her daughters were not allowed to wear makeup, wear clothes that weren't "decent", were not to move out of the family nest until they got married, "in a white gown and veil - with a walk down the aisle of a church, a priest, bridesmaids in colorful dresses, and groomsmen in tuxedos" (page 34), etc.
While at Junior High School 33, Esmeralda's guidance counselor, Mr. Barone, suggested her to apply to Performing Arts High School in Manhattan. The teachers fussed over her and helped her prepare for her audition. Some of the girls, Lulu, LuzMari and Denise, were so jealous of the attention Esmeralda was getting that they beat her up one day after school. After getting all the help Esmeralda could, she got accepted. At Performing Arts High School, Esmeralda was often cast at Cleopatra, a role she perfected. Esmeralda often doubted her skills, "convinced that my life didn't provide enough variety to make me a good actress. How could it, when every move I made was monitored Mami?" (page 106)
When she was in college, Esmeralda performed in a play on Broadway from the company Children's Theater International, where she felt lucky to be among such gifted, committed people. "It was wonderful to do something that not only made me feel good but made everybody else smile" (page 228). With college in the morning, her job at the Advertising Checking Bureau in the afternoons, and Children's Theater International evenings and weekends, she spent most of her time away from home. This caused her to feel "as if I were a visitor in my family" (page 217). Esmeralda met her best friend Shoshana in college, a Jewish girl whose mother is as strict as Esmeralda's. "She was a wonderful person, warm, funny, intelligent" (page 276).
While Esmeralda aspired to be an actress, she was always performing: "I wiped off of makeup, then stripped. Esmeralda Santiago remained in the folds of each garment I took off and put away. Naked, nameless, I lay on my bed and slept. Half an hour later, Negi emerged, dressed in comfortable clothes I wore at home. Another performance was about to begin, this one in Spanish" (page 169).
The last part of the memoir is about Ulvi Dogan, a film director she met on Fifth Avenue. "Over the seven months we'd known each other I'd relinquished my will to his. I'd stopped seeing my friends, stopped dancing, ran from work straight into his arms" (page 310). When he had to fly to Fort Lauderdale to have surgery, he asked her to leave with him and leave her mother. "I knew, just as Ulvi knew when he asked, that I'd already made my choice" (page 311)
The absence of her father during her formative years had a huge effect on Esmeralda. "In the five years I hadn't seen Papi, I'd grown at least five inches, had learned to use makeup, had acquired another language, had become independent enough to travel around Brooklyn and Manhattan on my own, had worked at two jobs, had become a dancer, had managed to avoid the algos that could happen to a girl in the city. And he hadn't been there" (page 145). Her father wasn't there when she needed him the most, especially because was "almost a woman, I missed my father more than ever. But I couldn't tell him, afraid that my need resembled a demand, or looked like a criticism of Mami's ability to take care of us" (page 146). She felt resentment towards him because he had married another woman her family had never "heard of and moved to a town none of us had ever visited" (page 30).
At one point in her life, when Esmeralda was in college, she was so happy about performing on Broadway. She wanted to share her happiness with someone without sounding full of herself or rude. So she wrote to her father in Puerto Rico. "Because he wasn't there to see it with his own eyes, Papi saw it through mine, and for the first time I was glad he didn't live with us, because now there was someone whose vision of my world depended on my version of it" (page 235-236).
Her father's absence also had an effect on Esmeralda's love life. She tends to fall in love quickly: "I thought it might be awkward to see Sidney the following week, but he was away for the first time in three days, and by the time he returned, I was in love with Otto" (page 178). She'd fallen in love with several men - Neftalï¿½, Otto, Mr. Grunwald, and Allen. She admits that the man she lost her virginity to, Ulvi Dogan, a controlling Turkish film director, was "the classic father substitute. But it didn't matter. He took care of me in a way no one else did. In his arms I felt safe and protected. Wrapped in his embrace, I had no responsibilities except to do as he said" (page 306). She had only known him for a couple of days before she gave herself to him. I took psychology class last year, and I learned that "loose girls" act they way they do because of their relationship with their fathers and I learned that people tend to be attracted to people who reminded them of their parent of the opposite sex.
Margie, Esmeralda's half-sister, and Provi, her father's previous "wife" came to visit Esmeralda's family one day. After they left, "something important had happened. I had stopped being a little girl because Mami wouldn't be outmothered by Provi" (page 79). The fact that Mami finally let Esmeralda experiment with eye makeup was a sign that she was letting her become a woman.
Esmeralda's experiences at the Performing Arts High School changed her ideas about hierarchy and group order. The hierarchies set up along racial lines that she'd come to accept in junior high school weren't as marked. When she was in junior high, the "elite" were the white people, but at Performing Arts, the "elite" were the students with talent. At Performing Arts, talent determined status. At Performing Arts, she saw firsthand what it meant to be "advantaged" and "disadvantaged." "The advantage was not talent, nor skin color, it was money, and those of us who were disadvantaged had little or none" (page 70).
I could relate to Esmeralda Santiago about having an old-fashioned mother who's strict. Like Esmeralda's mother and grandmother Tati, my parents also "spout rules they didn't live by and were prime examples of the aphorism, 'Do as I say and not as I do.' " (page 209). For example, my father doesn't want me to drink liquor meanwhile he drinks beer almost every night, just like Tati warned her grandchildren "not to smoke or drink as she sat at the kitchen table with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other" (page 209). Her family doesn't believe in the Pill but if Esmeralda's "mother, grandmother, and almost every other female relative of ours had sex without marriage. If I pointed that out to them, I was scolded for being disrespectful" (page 157).
I have so many questions to ask Esmeralda. I would ask her, even if she thinks that "if Ulvi left, there would be another man, but there would never, ever be another Mami" (page 310), if changed her mind and decided to go to Florida with him. I would ask her why she had sex with him so soon. I would ask her if she ever saw her father again.