55 pages 1 hour read

Esmeralda Santiago

Almost a Woman

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1998

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Esmeralda’s family relocates from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn in 1961, when Esmeralda is 13 years old. On the cusp of womanhood, Esmeralda receives warnings from her family members, and especially her mother, Mami, to watch out for the many algos or dangers lurking in the city. Struggling to adjust to city life in Brooklyn, Esmeralda misses Puerto Rico, and she dreams of the day when she will return. Initially put into remedial classes because she only speaks Spanish, Esmeralda uses children’s books from the library and television shows to teach herself and her siblings English.

Throughout the memoir, Esmeralda details her family life, including many siblings crammed together in small apartments, along with Tata, Esmeralda’s grandmother, and other relatives who stay for short visits. Esmeralda loves her family but feels overwhelmed by the constant noise and chaos. Esmeralda is particularly close to Mami, who sometimes treats Esmeralda as an adult (such as when she takes her to dances in the city on weekend nights) and sometimes treats her like a child (such as when she refuses to let Esmeralda explore the city on her own). Mami dreams that Esmeralda will have a better life than her, with a husband, an education, and a job outside of a factory. As the years continue, Mami’s and Esmeralda’s relationship shifts, as sometimes they depend on each other, sometimes they challenge each other, but their deep love remains the central relationship of Esmeralda’s life.

In school, Esmeralda’s teachers notice her intelligence and encourage her to apply for Performing Arts High School in Manhattan. After being accepted, Esmeralda falls in love with acting and dancing, but she soon discovers that, as one of the few Puerto Ricans in the school, she is often typecast into “exotic” roles. Esmeralda discovers a love of Indian traditional dancing, and she uses this talent to get parts in plays. After graduation, Esmeralda also makes an appearance in the film Up the Down Staircase. However, Esmeralda realizes that pursuing acting is not a possibility for someone like her with a poor background who needs to support her family. Esmeralda consoles herself that a Puerto Rican actress would never get famous anyway.

Esmeralda takes on a series of jobs in the city, as well as attending community college classes. During this time, she befriends a Jewish girl named Shoshana, and the two bond over coming from strict families with strong ties to their home countries. Shoshana encourages Esmeralda to date and experience the world, and Esmeralda falls in love with a few men over the course of her life: Otto, a coworker who saves her from getting hit by a truck; Avery Lee, a Texan with political ambitions who wants Esmeralda to be his mistress because he can’t marry a Latina; and Jurgen, a man who becomes enamored with Esmeralda on the street and proposes three hours later, only to reveal he’s an international plane and car thief.

The man who most captures Esmeralda’s heart, however, is a Turkish filmmaker named Ulvi. After meeting on the streets of Manhattan, Ulvi initially tells Esmeralda he wants to put her in a movie, but eventually reveals that this was a ploy to get her back to his apartment. Esmeralda becomes enamored with Ulvi and loses herself in her relationship with him, despite Mami’s warnings about giving men too much and letting them take whatever they want. Esmeralda and Ulvi sneak around until Ulvi needs to move to Florida and invites Esmeralda to come with him. Esmeralda knows that Mami will never let her leave to move across the country with a man who isn’t her husband, so Ulvi tells Esmeralda she must choose between them. A young woman now, Esmeralda has long felt restless crammed into her small apartment with her family, but she worries about leaving Mami behind—the one person who will always love her no matter what. At home, hiding in her room to escape the chaos, Esmeralda goes with Ulvi, knowing that no one will ever replace Mami in her heart.

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