[The author's] story begins in rural Puerto Rico, where her warring parents and seven siblings led a life of uproar, but one full of love and tenderness as well. Growing up, Esmeralda learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of the tree frogs in the mango groves at night, the taste of the delectable sausage called morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby's soul to heaven. But just when Esmeralda seemed to have learned everything, she was taken to New York City, where the rules - and the language - were bewilderingly different. How Esmeralda overcame adversity, won acceptance to New York City's High School of Performing Arts, and then went on to Harvard, where she graduated with highest honors, is a record of a tremendous journey by a truly remarkable woman.-BooksInPrint.
In a lot of ways mind you Santiago and I are very different--you could say her experience is much closer to the experience of my mother than myself. It was my mother and her family that was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I'm a native New Yorker who has only spent a few brief vacations in Puerto Rico, the longest one entire summer when I was a child, even if it was an indelible experience. But when Santiago spoke of the morivivi plant and the coquis (tree frogs) and mango and coconut trees, it sure brought back memories of that magical summer. Nor did I grow up in Hispanic neighborhoods or close to our extended family--but in integrated neighborhoods and buildings. So there are times I think growing up I didn't have a full context for things that Santiago illuminated. For instance, I have called my aunt "Titi" for as long as I can remember. I thought it was my word for her. As it turns out it's what Santiago called her aunts as well. Mind you, I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed in that... And "jibaro"--it was funny how different our families saw the word. She translated it as "country person" and mostly took pride in it as an identity. In my family it was disparaging--the Puerto Rican equivalent of hillbilly or redneck and used as a comment on bad taste or a display of ignorance or "low class" behavior. And we never, ever used the word "gringo" in our household so when I first heard the word, I thought of it as something Mexicans said of Americans--not Puerto Ricans. I think that reflects another difference between us and our families. Santiago expressed at times an ambivalence, a resentment of how moving to the American mainland made her a "hybrid." My family never looked back. Not that they ever forgot where they came from or were ashamed of being Puerto Ricans--but above all we were proud of being Americans, and the opportunities that opened to us, and happy to adapt and assimilate. Well, mostly--goodness knows my aunt is not to be separated from her Puerto Rican foods or cooking. She wouldn't, like Santiago, express any ambivalence about grabbing a guava... (or avocado, mango, bacaloa, or ugh pig feet.)
I'd add that even if my reaction to this felt so personal, I couldn't help but note this was "objectively" a good read. Santiago's a good, good writer. This is a memoir that read like a novel--one of those works of "creative non-fiction" I feel somewhat ambivalent usually but was fine with here. I'd add that for all I compared this to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and is a coming of age story that follows Santiago from about ten to fourteen years old, I wouldn't call this a Young Adult work. It's frank in sexual content for one--not G-rated, I'd call this PG-13 at least--you'll even learn some Spanish curse words (if you didn't already know them)--so keep that in mind.