Esmeralda Santiago

Almost a Woman

  • This summary of Almost a Woman includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Almost a Woman Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago.

Almost a Woman is a memoir by author and documentary filmmaker Esmeralda Santiago about her life in high school growing up in the barrios of Brooklyn, New York. The memoir is a follow-up to Santiago’s earlier memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, about her childhood before arriving in New York City. Almost a Woman chronicles Santiago’s life living in tenement buildings with her siblings, mother, and grandmother, and her role as a translator for the family. It also discusses Santiago’s burgeoning acting career, interest in the arts, and her desire to both stay close to her Puerto Rican roots and become an independent, American woman.

The memoir begins when Santiago was thirteen. Esmeralda, lovingly called Negi by most members of her family, decided to leave her father behind in Puerto Rico to travel with her mother to America. It was the 1960s, a time of mass migration to the States, and Santiago was one of many young Puerto Rican girls living in the barrios of Brooklyn.

Santiago traveled with her mother, grandmother, and ten younger siblings to Brooklyn. The oldest daughter, it was Santiago’s responsibility to care for her siblings and to help her mother navigate the complicated American systems that would help the family get by. As immigrants and Spanish-speakers, Santiago’s family often struggled to get by, going through periods of extreme poverty. Santiago was aware of this lack more so than her other siblings, because it was her job to go with her mother to the welfare office and apply for benefits so they could keep their apartment and buy groceries to eat.

Through these periods of hardship, Santiago’s teenage years emerge as humorous and playful, despite the many challenges she faced. Santiago’s mother demanded that she not go on a single date until she was seventeen years old, but Santiago wasn’t particularly interested in following her mother’s rules. She went on a few wild and adventurous dates, sometimes with older boys, and writes about them in the memoir with excitement and wild abandon. One of these affairs was with a Turkish filmmaker; Santiago vividly details their romance.

As a teenager, Santiago was enrolled in the prestigious Performing Arts Public High School, where she received acting lessons and was cast as Cleopatra in the school’s play. Though Santiago looked different from nearly all of her predominantly white classmates, she proved herself a talented actor, even working for a period with a children’s theatre in New York. Her experience led to a small role in the film Up the Down Staircase, but Santiago found that she struggled to maintain her Puerto Rican heritage as an actor. She was encouraged to lose her accent and become more “American,” something that made her feel as if she were losing a part of herself.

The memoir is simultaneously about Santiago’s coming of age and a portrait of a hardworking Puerto Rican mother trying to care for her many children in a society that didn’t want to accept her as a person of worth or status. Though the memoir ends when Santiago decides to move to Florida with her new boyfriend, Santiago is certain that her bond with her Mami, her grandmother, and her siblings will last through time, distance, and much more.

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of many memoirs, novels, and a producer of award-winning documentary films. She was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, moving to America when she was thirteen. After a childhood acting career and graduating from Sarah Lawrence and Harvard, she met Fred Cantor, and the couple founded CANTOMEDIA. Santiago’s first book was her memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, which received numerous awards, as did its sequel Almost a Woman. She also wrote a memoir in 2004 about dating the Turkish filmmaker Ulvi Dogan. Santiago is the author of many novels in both English and her native Spanish, including her recently completed epic novel Conquistadora.