"Almost a Woman,"by Esmeralda Santiago.Perseus. 311 pages...

BRIEF

September 27, 1998|By Barbara Gutierrez | Barbara Gutierrez,Knight Ridder/Tribune

"Almost a Woman,"

by Esmeralda Santiago.

Perseus. 311 pages. $24.

I still remember the initial shock of sitting in my fifth-grade class in New York City and realizing that I could not understand a word the teacher was saying.

I was a newly arrived Cuban refugee and learning English became a monumental and painful task. Esmeralda Santiago brings back those initial moments of life in the United States in her new memoir, "Almost a Woman."

A sequel to Santiago's well-received "When I Was Puerto Rican," the book details the story of a teen-ager's arrival in Brooklyn from her hometown of Macun and her slow and often painful assimilation into U.S. society. This is a universal tale familiar to thousands of immigrants to this country but is made special by Santiago's simplicity and honesty in the telling.

"Negi," as her family affectionately calls the young Santiago, is the oldest of eight children who arrive with their mother to seek medical care for one of the youngest. Negi leaves behind a father whom she loves but who is separated from her mother and has become emotionally distant from his daughter as well.

For Negi, 13 at the time, life in this borrowed homeland is full of incongruities and challenges.

Two days after her arrival, a young neighbor asks her if she is Hispanic.

"No, I am Puerto Rican," Negi retorts.

"Same thing. Puerto Rican. Hispanic. That's what we are here."

"Two days in New York, and I'd already become someone else. It wasn't hard to imagine that greater dangers lay ahead," Santiago writes.

When her mother loses her factory job, and the only financial sustenance for the family, Negi accompanies her to the local welfare office to act as a translator. The scene is heart-wrenching as the daughter musters the little English she knows to help her family get assistance while retaining integrity and self-respect.

This encounter is a self-defining moment for Negi, who vows to learn enough English to never get "caught between languages."

Santiago writes in a straightforward, honest tone without much flourish. Yet her language conveys intimate details of her emotional maturing that allows us to feel privy to a private journal.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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