Esmeralda Santiago

When I Was Puerto Rican

  • 40-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 12 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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When I Was Puerto Rican Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 40-page guide for “When I was Puerto Rican” by Esmeralda Santiago includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 12 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Coming of Age and Labels and Stereotypes.

Plot Summary

When I Was Puerto Rican, an autobiography, tells the story of Esmeralda Santiago, a Puerto Rican girl from a large family who moves to New York City in the 1980s and, despite struggling to adjust to a new home and culture, ultimately flourishes. In the book’s first chapter, Esmeralda is four years old. She lives with her mother Ramona, father Pablo, and two younger sisters. The family lives in Macun, Puerto Rico in a house that is made of tin and crawling with termites. Ramona gives birth to a son—Hector—and Pablo is increasingly absent from the house. Ramona suspects her is having an affair and the two fight often. One day, Esmeralda returns home from school to find the house packed up and her father nowhere to be seen. Her mother announces they are moving to the city.

Now living in a suburb of San Juan, the capitol city, Esmeralda is teased at school for being a “jibara,” or country bumpkin. Ramona gives birth to another daughter, Alicia. After Alicia’s birth, Pablo visits the family more often, and eventually, the family returns to Macun together. After the funeral of a friend’s grandfather, Esmeralda and her family discuss death and the human soul. Representatives from the United States arrive in Macun to teach the townspeople about nutrition and hygiene, a program only the women attend. Esmeralda is excited to receive American food for breakfast at school, but a classmate warns her that this program only happens in election years, as candidates hope to secure votes from Puerto Ricans. The election ends and the American food disappears.

Esmeralda’s father takes to her to spend a week with her grandmother. Her grandmother and the local women discuss women who are “jamona” or old maids. Esmeralda’s father does not return to pick Esmeralda up. Thinking of her mother and of her own pain, Esmeralda decides that being jamona is better than being married to a man. Ramona gives birth to yet another child, Raymond. Without Pablo’s financial support, Ramona must go back to work and so leaves her children in the care of Gloria, a neighbor. With Gloria busy tending the babies, Esmeralda spends her days wandering the streets and engages in innocent sexual exploration with a local boy. Gloria explains to Esmeralda the basics of sex and of puberty, which Esmeralda is beginning to experience.

Meanwhile, the neighbors shun Ramona for being a working mother and leaving her children with a basic stranger. Ramona informs Esmeralda that she will now be her sibling’s caretaker after school, responsible for feeding and watching them. Her siblings largely ignore Esmeralda’s instructions and orders. One day, Esmeralda’s cousin Jenny gets a new bike and offers little Raymond a ride, which he accepts despite Esmeralda’s strenuous objections. While riding, Raymond’s foot is caught in the bike chain and is mangled. Esmeralda is wracked with guilt, but her mother blames Jenny, not her. The next day, Ramona announces that the family will move to the city, again.

The family moves in with a family friend, Dona Andrea, who watches them while Ramona looks for work. Dona Andrea’s home is on a pier, and the children are not allowed outside and must use a hole in the bathroom floor as a toilet. Esmeralda struggles at her new school and in her relationship with her father, who eventually moves back in with the family. Raymond’s injured foot becomes infected and the doctor recommends amputation, which Ramona refuses. Ramona decides to travel to New York with Raymond to seek a doctor who can heal the injured foot. Esmeralda is resentful at being left behind.

Ramona returns from New York with a stylish hairdo and newfound confidence. Ramona presses for Pablo to marry her, but he is reluctant. Meanwhile, Esmeralda is courted by a local boy, Johannes, but awkwardly rebuffs his attempts at flirting. Just before Esmeralda is about to turn thirteen, Pablo sits her down for a talk on the porch. He explains that she is about to be a teenager, a concept irrelevant in Puerto Rico but ubiquitous in America, where, Pablo says, Esmeralda will soon be living. Esmeralda is confused, then furious that her mother hid their plans to move to America. Esmeralda journeys to America with her mother, Raymond, and sister, Edna. Pablo and the remaining children stay in Puerto Rico.

Esmeralda takes her first plane ride ever, settling with her family in Brooklyn, New York. They move into an apartment and Ramona is registered for seventh grade, despite having completed that grade in Puerto Rico. She strikes a bargain with the school principal to enroll in eighth grade, promising to drop down without complaint if she can’t handle the work. Esmeralda notes the divide between two kinds of Puerto Ricans in New York: the recently immigrated and the American-born. Her remaining siblings arrive in New York, but Pablo is not with them. Esmeralda begins telling stories to her young siblings, having become a voracious reader of English books. Ramona begins dating a new man, Francisco, and becomes pregnant by him. Francisco is diagnosed with cancer and dies shortly after the birth of his son, Franky. Esmeralda dislikes life in New York—the crime, the grime, and the constant translating she must do for her mother, who cannot speak English. A school counselor asks Esmeralda about her future plans for college and a career. She mentions modelling and he suggests acting. He encourages her to apply to the prestigious Performing Arts High School. Though she stumbles through her audition monologue, Esmeralda is admitted and attends.

In an epilogue, Esmeralda reveals that she is the only one of her siblings to attend college. She is about to graduate from Harvard.

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