Exploring Themes in When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

Categories: Autobiography


In the realm of literature, the coming-of-age genre holds a special place as it captures the intricate journey of individuals navigating the tumultuous path from childhood to adulthood. Esmeralda Santiago's memoir, "When I Was Puerto Rican," presents a compelling narrative that delves into the themes of identity, coming of age, and family dynamics. Set against the backdrop of Santiago's upbringing in rural Puerto Rico, the memoir beautifully portrays her evolution as she grapples with her cultural identity, undergoes personal growth, and negotiates her relationships within her family.

Identity: A Cultural Tapestry

The theme of identity is intricately woven throughout "When I Was Puerto Rican." Santiago's memoir serves as a reflective account of her journey to reconcile her Puerto Rican heritage with her experiences as an immigrant in the United States. The complex tapestry of her identity is shaped by her bicultural existence, one that is colored by the hues of her homeland and her immigrant life in Brooklyn. The memoir underscores the challenges of assimilation and the quest for authenticity as Santiago navigates the intricate dance between two worlds.

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The layers of her identity are revealed as she grapples with her accent, appearance, and cultural norms, epitomizing the common struggle of immigrants seeking to maintain their roots while adapting to a new environment (Vijayasankar, 2019).

In addition, Santiago's exploration of gender roles within her Puerto Rican identity also stands out. As she matures, she becomes aware of the traditional expectations imposed on women within her culture. The memoir illustrates her defiance of these roles, emphasizing her determination to carve her own path and challenge societal norms.

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This portrayal resonates with contemporary discussions surrounding gender roles and empowerment, contributing to the memoir's relevance in broader discussions of identity (Flores-González, 2011).

Coming of Age: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Santiago's journey from childhood to adulthood unfolds against the backdrop of her family's shifting dynamics and economic struggles. The memoir captures her gradual realization that her perspective on life is expanding beyond the confines of her rural upbringing. Through her experiences, readers witness the universal themes of adolescence – the pursuit of independence, the discovery of one's passions, and the inevitable confrontation with the complexities of adulthood.

The author's immersion in American culture offers readers a glimpse into the coming-of-age experience of an immigrant. Her journey mirrors the aspirations of countless young individuals seeking to establish their identities while honoring their roots. Her pursuit of education, despite financial hardships, exemplifies the resilience that characterizes the immigrant experience and reflects the broader societal narrative of striving for upward mobility (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010).

Family Dynamics: A Source of Strength and Conflict

The family serves as both a source of strength and conflict in Santiago's memoir. The memoir reveals the intricate relationships among family members, characterized by love, sacrifice, and tension. Santiago's depiction of her interactions with her parents, siblings, and extended family members offers a window into the dynamics of a Puerto Rican family grappling with changing circumstances and values.

The memoir touches on the cultural generational divide, as Santiago's parents hold steadfast to traditional Puerto Rican ways, while she becomes influenced by American ideals. This generational tension mirrors the broader challenge faced by immigrant families, where parents cling to their heritage as their children embrace the culture of their new homeland (Valdez, 2016). Santiago's journey to reconcile her individual aspirations with familial expectations highlights the universal struggle to balance personal growth with the preservation of familial bonds.


Esmeralda Santiago's "When I Was Puerto Rican" is a poignant coming-of-age memoir that navigates the themes of identity, coming of age, and family dynamics with remarkable depth and authenticity. Through her narrative, readers gain insights into the complexities of cultural identity, the transformative journey from adolescence to adulthood, and the intricate interplay of familial relationships. Santiago's ability to intertwine personal experiences with broader sociocultural themes resonates with readers of diverse backgrounds, rendering the memoir a timeless exploration of the human experience.

By illuminating the challenges and triumphs of her journey, Santiago invites readers to reflect on their own paths of self-discovery, the intricate tapestry of their identities, and the significance of family bonds in shaping their lives. Through her authentic narrative and thoughtful exploration of themes, Santiago leaves an indelible mark on the literary landscape, offering a mirror through which readers can contemplate their own coming-of-age narratives.

Updated: Aug 16, 2023
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Exploring Themes in When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. (2023, Aug 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/exploring-themes-in-when-i-was-puerto-rican-by-esmeralda-santiago-essay

Exploring Themes in When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago essay
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