Author Esmeralda Santiago has defined the literature of the Puerto Rican diaspora. After she published her book, When I Was Puerto Rican, in 1993, the island-born Puerto Rican opened old wounds as she reflected on her time as an early transplant in New York City. But even as she has cemented her place as one of the seminal authors of the diaspora, Santiago doesn’t view herself through that lens.
“I didn’t leave Puerto Rico. A mí me sacaron,” she tells me, referring to her exodus from Puerto Rico as a girl from San Juan. “I think nobody would prefer to leave that way.”
This is why Santiago feels so connected to the current Puerto Rican diaspora – those who have had to leave the island because of the decade-long economic crisis and the aftermath of Hurricane María. Although an official figure for how many boricuas moved to the mainland isn’t readily available, more 135,000 Puerto Ricans traveled to the United States in the months following the storm. “I do not, in any way, judge or blame the ones who left,” she adds. “They didn’t do it because they wanted to. They had to.”
But Santiago also wants Puerto Ricans – particularly writers and artists – to get involved with Puerto Rico, regardless of whether they live on the island or not. This year, Festival de la Palabra, founded by author Mayra Santos Febres, will honor Santiago. The event’s theme “Es tiempo de regresar” invites authors – like Santiago – who have worked outside of Puerto Rico to return to the island. But it’s also about a metaphorical return – one visible through their writing and work. Santiago will headline a conversation with Puerto Rican author Edmaris Carazo, who the author says is one of her favorite talents from Puerto Rico at the moment.
For Santiago, the impetus to develop a new tradition of Puerto Rican authors comes from her beginnings in literature, back in her childhood when she spent time in the backyard of a family member’s house in el campo. There, she listened to relatives tell trovas – oral tradition in rhyme. She also credits her dad’s love for poetry and Puerto Rican authors Julia de Burgos, Manuel Alonso, and Luis Palés Matos with sparking her interest.
Born in San Juan, Esmeralda moved to New York City in 1961 when her parents decided to leave the island to pursue different opportunities in the US. Santiago became a self-taught English-speaker after she defied a teacher who put her one grade below because she didn’t speak English well, which she retells in her autobiographical book When I Was Puerto Rican. She later attended Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College.
As an author, Santiago has written six books, centering around the Puerto Rican experience – both her own and her ancestors’. Through her work, she has shown a remarkable commitment to maintaining the stories of Puerto Rico in boricua hands. “If we preserve our stories, then they belong to us,” she says.
Her homecoming to the island has proven to Santiago that her heart has always lain with Puerto Rico, even as she’s never been able to move full-time to her home. “I just can’t separate who I am and the place,” she says. “Even though, there is a word to describe those of us who are not there, I still don’t identify with the leaving. I identify with the having been there.”
Festival de la Palabra takes place from October 9 to October 14. Learn more here.