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Q&A with Esmeralda Santiago - Las Madres

Las Madres

By Beth Moore

We are thrilled to welcome Esmeralda Santiago to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release Las Madres, released on the 8th of August 2023.

They refer to themselves as “las Madres,” a close-knit group of women who, with their daughters, have created a family based on friendship and blood ties.Their story begins in Puerto Rico in 1975 when fifteen-year-old Luz, the tallest girl in her dance academy and the only Black one in a sea of petite, light-skinned, delicate swans, is seriously injured in a car accident. Tragically, her brilliant, multilingual scientist parents are both killed in the crash. Now orphaned, Luz navigates the pressures of adolescence and copes with the aftershock of a brain injury, when two new friends enter her life, Ada and Shirley. Luz’s days are consumed with aches and pains, and her memory of the accident is wiped clean, but she suffers spells that send her mind to times and places she can’t share with others. In 2017, in the Bronx, Luz’s adult daughter, Marysol, wishes she better understood her. But how can she when her mother barely remembers her own life? To help, Ada and Shirley’s daughter, Graciela, suggests a vacation in Puerto Rico for the extended group, as an opportunity for Luz to unearth long-buried memories and for Marysol to learn more about her mother’s early life. But despite all their careful planning, two hurricanes, back-to-back, disrupt their homecoming, and a secret is revealed that blows their lives wide open. In a voice that sings with warmth, humor, friendship, and pride, celebrated author Esmeralda Santiago unspools a story of women’s sexuality, shame, disability, and love within a community rocked by disaster.

Las Madres

Please could you provide us with a little introduction about yourself and your work, and without giving anything away give us a brief introduction to Las Madres.   

I’m the author of three memoirs (When I was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, The Turkish Lover) and three novels (América's Dream, Conquistadora, Las Madres). In addition, I’ve been co-editor (with Joie Davidow) of two anthologies, the author of a children’s book and of numerous personal essays. My most recent novel, LAS MADRES, is about three women who, along with their daughters, travel to Puerto Rico for a birthday celebration. Soon after their arrival, they’re stranded by the devastation caused by hurricane Maria. During the storm’s fury and its aftermath, they must depend on one another and their neighbors. Their world upside down, they never imagined that long-buried secrets would be unearthed to forever change their relationship to one another.   

Firstly, I just want to say that I really enjoyed reading this book. I must admit I didn’t know much about Puerto Rico or its culture before this, and so I found this book to be a challenging, yet a really important and engaging read. This book is dedicated to the people of Puerto Rico, as a Puerto Rican woman, can you tell us more about why you wanted to write a book for your country and its people? 

In 2000, I interviewed my father about his childhood. The most moving stories he told me were about two powerful hurricanes he experienced as a child in rural Puerto Rico. He was in his eighties as I watched him relive the traumatic hours in a cave and how the devastation changed his and his family’s lives, who were uprooted from their homes and livelihoods. He died a couple of years before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017 and while I missed him terribly, I was glad he didn’t have to be traumatized again, to relive the terror still fresh in his mind, or to go through the horrors the storm unleashed on the residents. As I monitored the news reports, I understood hurricane María would be a historical marker for those who experienced it in Puerto Rico, or for those of us riveted to weather and news channels far from the storm’s devastation in the place we call home, even when many of us have never been there. They (and we) will never forget it, and I wanted people who might have only heard about it as a sound byte or social media post that these were real people in a real situation doing their best to survive under demanding circumstances. This event will mark them/us for the rest of their/our lives. I also wanted to bring attention to the Puerto Ricans living away from their homeland, how we long for and worry about it and its residents. We continue to be an important force in the recovery/rebuilding still taking place, six years after the storm.

Throughout your career you have written memoirs and autobiographical material, although a fictional piece how much of yourself or your experiences have influenced Las Madres?

All my writing is about Puerto Rico and about being a Puerto Rican woman on the island and away from it. My work, including LAS MADRES is influenced by the preoccupations, concerns, and struggles of women I know and meet. It was especially moving to talk to them after the hurricane. I’m a wife, a mother of a son, a grandmother of boys. I love and celebrate them but my focus remains on women’s lives.   Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, and amigas, went through extraordinary measures to survive a cataclysmic event and continue to struggle with its aftermath. The stories they share with me guide, inspire and motivate me to write about them, about us.

In the acknowledgments, you speak about your research process, could you go into a little more detail about the things you read and the people you spoke to?     

During and after the hurricane, I kept notes about what I learned from the news, social media, the people I met, and my impressions of what was happening on the island and in the US long after it was no longer at the forefront of news reports. Later, I sought testimonies from survivors and their families, spoke to my relatives and friends who’d lived through Maria either there or here. Soon, I found self-published books in English and in Spanish by people compelled to share the experience. Some were not Puerto Ricans, a few were tourists who were, like my characters, stranded during the storm. I read many books, essays and blogs written by Puerto Rican authors who, like me, knew this is part of our history and it should not be forgotten or set aside in light of subsequent events around the world. As a writer, I feel an obligation to give testimony of our times and take that obligation seriously. It means that researching my subjects and themes are a big part of my job, but I try to make history real for readers.

You deal with a lot of important and quite heavy topics throughout Las Madres and spoke about sentimentality in the acknowledgements, could you speak a little about what effect these things had on you and how you have taken care of yourself throughout the writing process?

Thank you for asking. Writing LAS MADRES was an emotional journey requiring frequent breaks to process what I was setting on the page. In the acknowledgements I write about sentimientos. This word means feelings, not sentimentality. It means the fulness in my chest, the tightened throat, the urge to cry. There were moments of rage too when I had to break from the page. I took walks, or decided for a coffee and scones at a nearby bakery, or I streamed comedians doing their best to make me laugh. Exercise also helps. I focus on how my body is responding to the scenes I've just written and remind myself to breathe

I really loved the choice of narrative style in this book, the jumping back and forth of the timeline, the dating and names of chapters and what this could metaphorically represent for the characters, and the reader, what was the process of choosing a narrative like this, was it immediately evident or something that came to you later?

During the drafting of LAS MADRES, the timeline kept switching from Part 1: 1975-1976 and Part 2: 2017 to alternating chapters of the same events and scenes. For a long time, I didn’t have the confidence to jump back and forth in time, even though I set out to write a book about memory—who holds on to it, who forgets it, who owns it. These are important themes in my work. Knowing and owning your history is a big one. If you don’t, how do you know who you are? I’m very fortunate that my incisive editor, Jenny Jackson, encouraged me to alternate the chapters. It was the right decision and I'm grateful she gave me the courage to commit.   

One thing that stuck out for me, and I’m sure for anyone who will read Las Madres, is the empowerment, striking bond, and love between the female characters in the novel. We are so often denied the power of female relationships in media, can you explore for us your decisions around this and why it might have been of importance to you?

I’m the eldest of eleven children, six of us women. In my generation of rural women, our lives were contained within the roles of mother’s helpers as girls in training to prepare for motherhood. I was an observant and skeptical child. The men functioned beyond the female sphere but expected to be treated and respected as if they were the masters of the household when, I noticed, they barely kept the ramshackle house upright. I knew they were working in sun-drenched fields, or traveling long distances for jobs, but they looked down on the female cycle of food, clothing, children, and maintaining a home (as it were) tidy. The women around me worked but displayed no sense of their importance and didn’t behave entitled. I admired them, but chafed at their acceptance of their role. I seethed with resentment. As an adolescent, I realized I wasn’t a “typical” girl bound by the cultural and societal expectations of my time and place. In the 60s, our generation aligned into factions, and I veered toward the women’s movement, aware I was a minority in more ways than one: the impoverished rare brown face amidst Caucasian, middle-class women who often questioned what I was doing among them. I often think the many humiliations in my life, painful as they were, strengthened and made me more stubborn about empowering myself and the women around me. My mother was a huge influence in my ambitious, prickly, personality. She expected me to be independent but also to be a “good Puerto Rican girl”. At an early age I recognized this was an oxymoron. “Good” equaled dependent on public opinions, especially those of men. I had no desire to live by the rules others set for me. I’ve always been surrounded by or sought strong women, value their friendship, listen to their advice, have fun with them. In a way, all my work is about female friendships and women’s empowerment, a way to redress centuries of his/tory to bring hers into focus, to celebrate women’s lives without sentimentality, oldfashioned expectations or romantic notions that limit women’s imaginations. The women in LAS MADRES are not based on anyone specific, but they’re like my mother, my sisters, my nieces, my friends. They feel real to me, and I feet for and with them.

If a reader enjoys Las Madres, what other books would you recommend that they could try next or perhaps there are some books that inspired Las Madres you recommend? 

I recommend the newly published DAUGHTERS OF LATIN AMERICA, an anthology edited by Sandra Guzmán in which over one hundred women from our hemisphere reveal their lives through poetry, prose, and oral history. 

In the acknowledgments you speak about the current political climate, its responses to the natural disasters Puerto Rico has faced and the ongoing effects of these disasters on the country, was this driving force for writing Las Madres and would you like to use this space to promote any reading or aid that readers can access to benefit the people of Puerto Rico at this time?

I follow the political situation in Puerto Rico but, as a non-resident, I’m unable to contribute to its civic life. The ongoing discussions and controversies over status affect me emotionally, but, again, I get no vote, so I express my opinions in my work. Many of my paternal relatives were pro-independence, while on my mother’s side, family members who had lived in the United States for decades supported statehood. I try to see all sides, to write about all aspects of the question without standing on a soapbox. Novels are supposed to be entertainment as well as education, no?

Finally, just for fun, if you could pick a song that represents Las Madres, what would it be?

En mi viejo San Juan, of course, the lament of the absent Puerto Rican.

Las Madres

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of three groundbreaking memoirs: When I was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman (which she adapted into a Peabody Award–winning movie for PBS Masterpiece), and The Turkish Lover. Her fiction includes the novels América's Dream (also made into a film) and Conquistadora, and a children's book, A Doll for Navidades. Esmeralda is passionate about the artistic development of young people and has traveled the world as a public speaker encouraging literacy, memoir writing, and storytelling. Her books have been translated into fifteen languages


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