Esmeralda Santiago: A Critical Voice In The Puerto Rican Diaspora

The celebrated author reflects on Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican politics and how she stays connected to her culture from hundreds of miles away.

After seeing the destruction that Hurricane Maria left behind in Puerto Rico, all that Esmeralda Santiago wanted to do was get the first flight out of New York to the island. The storm had left thousands without electricity, food and water. It was later determined to have been the cause of more than 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico. 

“We, the diaspora, wanted to get on a plane and start doing something. And then we realized that we are not enough,” she told HuffPost in an interview. “There’s this sadness that I constantly have, that I wish I could do more.”

Santiago is the author of “When I Was Puerto Rican” and “América’s Dream,” two seminal works in Puerto Rican literature published in the 1990s. She has a long list of awards and accolades that she’s quite modest about. Each of her books is a nod to her connection to the island — to its waters, mangoes, and “jibaros,” or countrymen.

The renowned writer is one of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island to look for a better life in the post-World War II era. As a teenager, she boarded a plane with her mother and eight siblings to head to Brooklyn, New York in the 1960s.

Despite her desire to help people back home, she knows there are things that Puerto Ricans in the U.S. just can’t understand about life on the island, which is currently facing political uprisings and environmental catastrophe. 

We love Puerto Rico, but we’re not there,” Santiago said. “We’re of it, but we’re not in it. And when we are in Puerto Rico, many of us are suspect to the ones who live there because we’re not there. We’re not suffering the way they’re suffering.”

In her memoirs, Santiago details life on the island as a child, as well as her family’s long heritage there. 

“My great grandparents were enslaved people in the sugar fields of Puerto Rico,” Santiago said. “That history is very much a part of my identity as a puertorriqueña. The fact that I was born there makes a very big statement to me about who I am. The fact that I speak the language, dance the salsa, eat the arroz con gandules. I am that place when I’m here. I’m Puerto Rico when I’m in my house, when I’m by myself. Wherever I am, I’m Puerto Rico.”

Like many boricuas living on the mainland, she knows they don’t have much power over what goes on in the island, “but that does not mean that you do not feel a sense of responsibility,” she argued. 

Santiago’s stories also describe her migration to the contiguous United States as a teen and her struggles with assimilation into Anglo-American culture. 

“It was uncomfortable to be in many places to be the only one like me,” Santiago said. “You try to adjust who you are and how you think and how you see the world from this new reality.”

She hates that word, “assimilation.” When she was young, she tried to adapt to her new home, but as she grew older, she got tired of trying to conform. She doesn’t feel accepted by this “Euro-centric society,” and in this current political climate in the U.S., she’s happy to not be a part of it.

Following Trump’s election, Santiago started walking around with her passport in case she’s stopped for the way she looks and the language she speaks. She reports having been asked for extra identification when voting in local elections. She’s acutely aware of her vulnerable position in this xenophobic moment when the president exudes racism on stage before hundreds of chanting fans and viral videos show people arguing over whether someone can speak Spanish in public.

“The rhetoric coming from the highest level is that I don’t belong here, that I am not welcome here,” Santiago said. But she refuses to let anyone define her ties to her culture, even other boricuas.

“When I went to Puerto Rico, the Puerto Ricans didn’t think I was Puerto Rican enough, because I had lived in the United States for so long, because I speak English, because ’Oh my God, she wrote a book and it’s in English, not in Spanish,” Santiago recalled.

This sense of cultural disconnect and longing has been explored by other Latinx writers and poets. Take Noel Quiñones’ viral poem, “8 Confessions of My Tongue” for example, in which, he speaks on his inability to connect to the culture because of the language barrier. Even Latinx stars, like Jennifer Lopez, Lauren Jauregui and Gina Rodriguez, have also been criticized for not looking or acting Latinx enough.

Santiago says no Latinx people, — or anyone, from any ethnicity — should feel like they don’t embody their culture “enough.” It doesn’t matter if you are Brown, Black or white; it doesn’t matter if you speak the language or if you’ve visited your home country; you are enough, she says. 

“At a certain point, I gave up on the idea that I’m not enough for other people,” said Santiago. “You are enough for you if you believe that you are enough for you. Whatever they say — you’re not Latina enough, or feminine enough or smart enough, you know ...  just say ‘fuck you.’ That’s their problem.”

Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.