June 29, 2008

A review of When I Was a Puerto Rican/Cuando Era Puertorriqueña

As promised, here are my thoughts on When I Was a Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago...

Ms. Santiago opens up the book talking about the guayabas in a supermarket. She ties the unripe fruit to her childhood, recounting her departure from Puerto Rico (which involved a guayaba). The sensual description is the first sign that the book to follow is an exercise in exotification. After all, associated/confusing environment with its inhabitants is a common way to establish the exotic, particularly with tropicalization.

She portrays herself, her life, and all of Puerto Rico as both suffering and yet astoundingly exotic--certainly not how Puerto Ricans see themselves. Rather, she's marketing to a specific audience that is seeking out the exotic. Her fate, a combination of Harvard education and broadway shows, is exactly what the audience is looking forward to--it's the tipical "successful immigrant" story, the kind that doesn't point fingers but rather convinces people that if this one person could escape poverty, anyone could do it. Nevermind that the situations experienced by Santiago and others do have a cause and have solutions. But this is a feel-good story for all with an extra pat on the back for being interested in another culture... without having to, you know, change anything or do anything.

The book is a sell-out. Santiago creates an exotic image of Puerto Ricans and sells it to Americans for the cash. It's an old technique used by plenty. That's it, plain and simple.

On a less critical note, the writing is not terrible, and I suppose the book has exposed people a bit more to Puerto Rico. But really, this isn't a book about Puerto Rico. It's a book about what America wants to hear.


Renee said...

I am about 3/4 of the way through it, and I totally agree. I feel like she went through a memoir checklist, "okay, overcoming adversity? check. awkward sexuality and coming of age? check? cheesy metaphor for opener? check? throw in a few ethnic words and foods? check."

Another thing that is sort of creepy is how so far it has all been written from the point of view of a little girl, and in the same way that spending too much time with a young child gets annoying, reading a narrative of a young child wondering why mommy and daddy are fighting for 10 chapters sort of makes me want to fast forward.

Pretty disappointing, but I didn't pay for the book so I suppose I can't really complain. But from what I have seen so far (admittedly not much), I am pretty sure people shouldn't interpret this book as a typical representation of Puerto Rican life.

Top Casino Offers said...

Puerto Rico is a exotic place, with tropicalization.

Edmee Cappas-Velez said...

The books title tells you in advance that it’s about growing up – I read the book and enjoyed the tales she gave and related to quite a few of them – but this could be because I too was born in Puerto Rico and then my family moved to Chicago. The language she used added a great flavor to the journeys she experienced. I have recommended this book to many and still have my copy on the shelf as a collectible.

Irving said...