La Respuesta had the immense pleasure and honor to speak with legendary writer, Esmeralda Santiago, as we gear-up for Festival de La Palabra in New York, starting this Thursday, October 23. She is an inspirational figure for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, whose work transcends many genres, including authoring acclaimed memoirs When I was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, and The Turkish Lover. Her novel América’s Dream was made into a motion picture and her historical novel, Conquistadora, was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into ten languages. If you’d like to see her in action, attend the talk tomorrow at El Museo del Barrio: “Life, Legacy and Centenary of Julia de Burgos”. In the meantime, read our conversation about her work, the literary festival, women’s health, and the legacy of Julia de Burgos.
DO: How do you feel about the upcoming Festival de la Palabra? How important are literary events that unify the Puerto Rican Diaspora with Puerto Rico and Latin America?
ES: I think it’s a fantastic idea. The Festival de la Palabra started in Puerto Rico and it was pretty much limited to the metropolitan area the first year. I was very fortunate to be part of that first Festival. It just has grown exponentially and then they came to New York and they have various places in various venues in New York, which is really wonderful…. I think for the writers, it’s an honor to be a part of a festival like this that celebrates Latino literature and literature in Spanish. I understand they’re also going to do some events in French and I believe there might be something in Portuguese. The idea that this is a literary festival of people in this hemisphere and for us that are writing about our experiences here, is just really wonderful and very necessary. I think our writers have an opportunity, not only to meet each other, but the audiences to meet them or see them. It’s just really exciting.
DO: The festival is honoring the legacy of Puerto Rican poet, Julia de Burgos. Can you share what impact she had on you and your career?
ES: My relationship with Julia de Burgos is really interesting. I didn’t really know about her ‘til I came to the United States. Maybe I was too young to have known about her because I came when I was 13-years-old. Even then she was famous. I went to high school in Manhattan so my Puerto Rican friends – many of whom lived in El Barrio – knew who she was. Even though she had passed away many years before… there was already this great knowledge and respect for who she was and great honor for her work. Also that [her life came to] a very tragic end. I learned about it at a time when I was becoming a young woman. This kind of literature is so powerful; literature that arrives just when you need it is life changing. Her poetry being so feminist and there was so much integrity in her work… and dedication to a cause and her dedication to herself as an artist. All those kind of things I could understand and appreciate and wished that I could have in my own life. I would say that she really helped me create the person that I am through her work. Every once in a while I’ll have to leaf through the books, just randomly to hear her voice because there are times when I need that and hear it. The only way I can do that is go back to her. She’s like a tía.
DO: What does her legacy mean to you and to Puerto Ricans of the Diaspora of today’s generation?
ES: I think for us in the Diaspora, for writers in particular, its the integrity of her work and the integrity of her never giving up. She struggled – not just struggled in the way that everybody else struggles. She took on the struggle of other people and because she did that I think she’s a real example. She really could’ve been somebody who could of sat on her own and wrote poems and be famous. She didn’t do that. She went out there and she had a point of view and believed in it. She believed in her work and believed in the people she worked with and she believed in Puerto Rico, not just in a political sense but in a very personal and emotional way. I think thats something to be admired and I think its something for us to think about because sometimes we forget.
DO: It’s been highly publicized that you had a stroke a few years ago and was in the process of rehabilitation. I hope you have been recuperating well! What impact would you like to make on women’s health, specifically Latina health issues?
ES: It was 5-years-ago and I’m doing really well. Well, you know, when I was approached by a magazine to do this story, I was really glad. [At first[ when it happened I didn’t want to talk about it. My close friends and family knew but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it only because I was getting better. When they got in touch with me, I thought I have an opportunity to reach out to people who probably need to think about their health. I think we women tend to take care of everybody else first and then we’re the last ones, especially in Latino communities. We have big issues with high blood pressure, heart conditions, and diabetes. Those three particular ones are rife in my family. My stroke came from atrial fibrillation, which is the kind of thing that millions of people have in the US but more women die as a result of than men. I really wanted to get the information out there so that people could pay attention and so they know if something like this happens to you it’s possible to recover. If you have not taken care of yourself and you’ve had a ‘cerebral accident’, as they call it, you could still recover… I think we need to take charge of our health and you can be sure that was a real wake up call for me.
DO: What advice can you give to Puerto Ricans coming to live in the Diaspora today?
ES: The Puerto Ricans who are coming are very different than the Puerto Ricans that came in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. I know that I’m a very different Puerto Rican than my nieces and nephews who live on the island because our experiences are entirely different.
In Chicago’s Puerto Rican community there is a school named after me. I felt so honored… because education is so important and is something that is ingrained in me… You might not know who Esmeralda Santiago is but its a Spanish name. That alone gives you a sense of belonging – that you belong to it and it belongs to you… The idea that you come from Puerto Rico and you see a name that’s recognizable is another way of feeling like ‘I can make it here, that person whoever they was, has a name I can recognize’. I think that it helps. I remember how alone I felt in the United States because I didn’t see anyone like me, except in our neighborhoods. So the fact that you can go and see us in all aspects of life – actors, singers, athletes, painters, sculptors, and writers – it helps you to aspire in a different way and hopefully inspire as well.
DO: Can you talk about the current and future projects that you are working on?
ES: Right now I’m working on a novel… to deliver before the first of the year. Hopefully, if my health continues to be good and my life allows me to have as much time as I need I will do that.
DO: Do you see yourself working on any more future film projects?
ES: I’m not really a filmmaker anymore. I think there has been some interest in my books made into films. A film was made from America’s Dream and I think its going to be shown at Sundance at some point soon. There was one made from Almost a Women and there was some curiosity from Hollywood types to make Conquistadora but that didn’t mean that anything happened with it. But I’m a writer not a filmmaker and I really want to get as much writing done as I can, while I can.
DO: Awesome. I’m so glad to hear. I am so happy I got to speak with you. Thank you for your time and patience in meeting with me.
ES: Is there going to be a Festival de la Palabra in Chicago?
DO: I don’t know, but I would love to see that happen.
ES: It would be wonderful to see it happen in various cities because there are enough of wonderful Latino and Puerto Rican writers in Chicago and to have a place to be celebrated would be fantastic.