“When I was Puerto Rican” by Esmeralda Santiago is an autobiography that shows how Negi goes through many changes based on the challenges she endures by moving to new areas where society is different. Whether Negi was living in the Santurce, Macun, or Brooklyn, Santiago uses themes like identity, coming of age, and family throughout the memoir to show her development through her day-to-day problems.
Throughout the memoir, identity was something that Negi has always questioned. She often tried to figure out how or where she fits into her world, since her world is always changing, undefined, or uncertain. She struggles to find her identity when parts of herself don’t make sense. When Negi is young, she begins to question her father, Papi, about what a soul is, concluding that her soul is the part of her and that she even notices her soul walking beside her or watching her. During school experiences, Negi must constantly navigate a social order that she finds difficult to figure out then also struggles to fit into because it differs from the social structure that she’s used to. The necessity of code-switching becomes even more noticeable when Negi moves to Brooklyn and must work her way through the more tenser social fabric of a public school made up of distinct ethnic groups, where she struggles to make friends and find safety. In the epilogue, readers learn that Negi goes on to study at Harvard, while in the beginning, Negi mourns the loss of her Puerto Rican identity. This juxtaposition of a major success with a sense of cultural loss that shows even though Negi eventually experiences outward success, the challenge of creating her identity is something she will struggle with as she tries to restore her childhood desire to be a “jibara” with her American educational successes as an adult.
Another theme that was expressed throughout the book was coming of age. “When I Was Puerto Rican” follows Negi from age 4 to 14. During this time, Negi is required and expected by her mother to grow up and mature much faster than her younger siblings. Consequently, Negi becomes very aware of how she mentally and emotionally develops. Her family members seem to have little care for her emotional development and instead focus on Negi’s physical development from child to woman. Though Negi is interested in by her changing body, she sees Mami’s consistent refrains to sit with her legs closed as reductive and not useful considering the very intense emotional coming of age that Negi goes through. Her physical coming of age is more of a public process than her internal. Negi’s true coming of age happens in several events: first, when she realizes she’s strong enough to escape Mami’s physical abuse, and then when she gets accepted to the Performing Arts High School in Manhattan which accomplishes her goal of getting out of Brooklyn. These events are moments in Negi’s life when she gains freedom and independence for the first time in her life, and gets to decide the course of her future, set her own goals, and later on accomplish them.
Lastly, Esmeralda Santiago uses family as a theme to develop her story. Negi’s family, both nuclear and extended, is large, ever-changing, and at times fiercely loyal. However, a family is not always perfectly defined, particularly during times when Negi lives with various extended family members, she struggles to understand what it really means to be family and tries to define what family means. In this way, Negi questions who her family is, who is not, and who is technically family but does not act like a family member should. Throughout the memoir, Negi is offered conflicting narratives regarding what is expected from a man in family life. This fight defines Negi’s relationship with her family. She comes to see her mother as fully in the right, particularly when Papi shows so little remorse when he drives Mami, Negi, and her younger siblings to the airport. She feels even more betrayed when she finds out that Papi distributed Negi’s remaining siblings among family members and married another woman when Mami left. Negi sees her father’s unwillingness to keep their family together as the ultimate betrayal, the true meaning of family is tied closely to reliability and loyalty.
In conclusion, Esmeralda had to overcome many obstacles and fears to make her dreams a reality. She faced many struggles like finding her identity, coming of age and family but these same struggles helped her become the Harvard student she became years later.