The Discovery of Female Adolescent Sexuality in the Cultural Context of Puerto Rico As Described in Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican
Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican was her first autobiographic novel and it was the precursor of two following memoirs: Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover. In When I Was Puerto Rican Santiago tells of her early childhood during the 1950s and ‘60s. The story told in the novel starts in Puerto Rico at Santiago’s age of four up to the age of thirteen when she immigrates with her mother and her then six siblings to the US to live in Brooklyn, New York. Her memoir does not only show the difficulty of switching between two different cultures and mentalities, American and Puerto Rican, but it also portrays the coming of age process of a girl who has to find a balance between her individual desires and expectations of her surrounding world. The novel reveals the Santiago family’s dealings with the pitfalls of poverty and their dreams of a better life. This family experiences life in all varieties: they are moving from the rural town of Macún to the urban area of Santurce, a district of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan. The family’s destiny as a whole unity is yet only a framing plot.
The novel illustrates the struggle of understanding the world from a child’s perspective. In the case of young Esmeralda it is especially hard to understand the dynamics of her unmarried parents’ relationship. For her it is a challenging rethinking process to learn how to tell from her parents’ behavior, who is right and who is wrong. She also longs for appreciation called forth by sibling rivalry and the maternal responsibility for her younger sisters and brothers make Esmeralda question woman- and manhood, which eventually leads her to an inner rebellion. In When I Was Puerto Rican Santiago shares the beginning of her search for the intricate question of her own sexuality. She unveils her solitary way to find femininity, how she had to find the answers to her questions all by herself, due to the omnipresent secretiveness about sexuality. Santiago explains how her younger self tried to unfold the mystery of her mother’s constant but unexplained warning of being casi señorita - almost a young lady. This memoir illustrates the transformation from an inexperienced girl to a teenager, who tries to define herself and figure out what she wants and expects from life.
The Puerto Rican sex-gender system has had clear structures ever since. This might have changed through Americanization and female emancipation over the last few decades, but when Esmeralda Santiago grew up in Puerto Rico male dominance and female subordination were clearly visible. Although Esmeralda’s mother Monín might have been outstandingly emancipated in comparison to other Puerto Rican women, there was a still present structure of marianismo and machismo visible in her relationship with Pablo, her children’s father. Marianismo expects women to be devoted mothers and wives who are virginal like Mary, asexual, submissive, tolerant and faithful, all at once; while machismo gives men the permission to do everything that is considered as masculine, such as gambling, fighting, bragging and drinking. A man has the obligation to care for his family, but he can refuse any housework or so-called feminine activities. Although he has veneration for his own mother, he does not need to show his wife any of the same respect (Asencio, “Puerto Ricans“ 761). Esmeralda’s father Pablo behaves exactly according to this stereotype. On the one hand he feels obliged to visit his mother regularly, but on the other hand he does not mind to leave his family out of the blue for days or even weeks to visit his lover. Pablo’s unfaithfulness and absence is a constant reason for fights with his wife. At first Esmeralda does not understand her mother’s outbursts, she even seems to be angry with her, while her father remains her paternal hero. But “the mask of the hero begins to peel off slowly as Negi [Esmeralda’s nickname] observes with bewilderment the world around her and overhears baffling conversations” (Rivera 8). Negi has to learn that men are sinvergüenzas (shameless persons) and that they are “always up to one pocavergüenza [shameless behaviors, acts] or another” (Santiago 92), which makes her even doubt her father’s love for the whole family, because his behavior causes so much pain and suffering.
She does not completely understand the discrepancies between female and male roles and the stereotypes connected to them. Were men just men, who sometimes became an easy prey to woman? Were there only two different kinds of woman, the cheap dressed putas (whores) and the hardworking wives, who were actually pandejas (fools)? In order to make sense of it, Esmeralda wants “to see a puta close up, to understand the power she held over men, to understand the sweet-smelling spell she wove around the husbands […] of the woman whose voices cracked with pain, defeat, and simmering anger” (Santiago 30). Like every other kid, Esmeralda has to experience her first notions of gender roles and relationship dynamics from her parents, which on the one hand makes it extraordinarily painful and confusing for her, but which on the other hand was very common scenario in the Puerto Rican society back then, and still is to some extent nowadays. Women in Puerto Rico are easily judged for their sexual behavior in a black and white thinking: “la mujer buena o de su casa” (a good women /of the home) deserves protection, in reverse “la mujer mala o de la calle” (a bad women /of the street) deserves disdain, although she can also be “seen as a source for sexual release for males” (Asencio, “Puerto Ricans” 766). In contrast, the saying of men who are of the streets (son de la calle) implies that men should keep company beyond family life, this also means that they can have extramarital affairs, which their wives have to tolerate. This antithetic special treatment, which men receive, is justified with an alleged moral high ground woman have over men, “which gives them capacity to endure all the suffering […] inflicted by men” (Asencio, “Puerto Ricans” 767). The consequence of this questionable mentality shows up clearly when Monín starts to work in a factory during the day and is, from that moment on, absent from home. Her social status quo changes abruptly, once woman of the home, she soon becomes a woman of the streets. A man would be seldom if ever treated like a castoff no matter what he does, whereas a woman has to be permanently aware of doing something wrong or something that belies the expectations of society. Esmeralda is baffled by the neighbors’ gossip, who insult her mother of ‘breaking a taboo’ by working in the factory, instead of being a good mother and diligent housewife (Rivera 9). Even her intimate partner Pablo, who obviously knows the score of his family’s economic and financial situation, criticizes Monín for her work. Although Negi seems to be downcast by her mother’s absence, she has a grudge against the American capitalist system which forces her mother to go to work, but also against the antiquated Puerto Rican society that condemns her mother for doing so. From now on Esmeralda has to cope with her knowledge of a Puerto Rican gender system that distributes women’s rights and gender role allocations unfairly.
Right from the cradle Esmeralda pursues certain ideals of freedom, she is thirsty for knowledge and fascinated by poetry. Whenever she embraces every possible opportunity to ask her father whatever crosses her mind; from political to philosophical questions, her curiosity is inexhaustible. It is her father who explains to her what a soul might be or what makes the America an imperialist country. Her thirst for knowledge and freedom make her wish to be a jíbara, a peasant, even though Monín tells Negi that she could never become one. What obviously fascinates Esmeralda about being a jíbara is that jíbaros are romanticized as free-minded, frank, independent, poetic and patriotic people who are in close touch with nature (Santiago 10f). Her desire for independence also finds expression in her ostensibly rebellious behavior towards teachers. An example for her ‘rebellion’ is that she is once sent home for answering back, after having thrown up hot milk with peanut butter at the school’s lunchroom (Santiago 82f). Despite events like this Negi never seems to behave really fractious, although she is not the calmest kind of girl, she is still obedient. Her own rebellion seems to remain a steady, unfulfilled pipe dream.