Writing a Life
When I Was Puerto Rican
Esmeralda Santiago was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She came to the United States at 13 years-old, the eldest in a family that would eventually include 11 children. Santiago attended New York City’s Performing Arts High School, where she majored in drama and dance. After eight years of part-time study at community colleges, she transferred to Harvard University with a full scholarship. She graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1976. In 1977, she and her husband, Frank Cantor, founded CANTOMEDIA, a film and media production company that has won numerous awards for excellence in documentary filmmaking.
Her writing career evolved from her work as a producer/writer of documentary and educational films. Her essays and opinion pieces have run in newspapers like the New York Times and The Boston Globe, in magazines like House & Garden, Metropolitan Home, and Sports Illustrated, and as guest commentary on NPR’s "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."
Upon the publication of her first book, the memoir When I was Puerto Rican, Santiago was hailed as “…a welcome new voice, full of passion and authority,” by the Washington Post Book World. Her first novel, América's Dream, was published in six languages and was an Alternate Selection of the Literary Guild. Her second memoir, Almost a Woman, received numerous “Best of Year” mentions, in addition to an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her adaptation of the memoir into a film for ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre was greeted with critical and audience acclaim and was awarded a George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.
Her third memoir, The Turkish Lover, has received enthusiastic reviews and was selected as a BookSense recommendation for September 2004 and appeared on several “Best of 2004” lists. With Joie Davidow, Santiago is co-editor of the anthologies, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories and Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember their Mothers. Taking a brief foray into illustrated book, she wrote A Doll for Navidades, a children’s book that was published in 2005. In 2011, Santiago published Conquistadora, a novel chronicling a young Spanish woman’s coming to Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century.
Currently, Santiago is working on an illustrated children’s book, A Doll for Navidades to be published this winter. The recently completed documentary film about Santiago, Writing a Life, produced in association with Puerto Rico’s PBS affiliate, is a personal and intimate look at her creative process, and the joys and sorrows of the writing life.
In addition to her literary and cinematic endeavors, Santiago is an active volunteer. She is a spokesperson on behalf of public libraries. She has designed and developed community-based programs for adolescents, and was one of the founders of a shelter for battered women and their children. She serves on the Boards of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers and of the Jacob Burns Film Center, organizations devoted to excellence in the arts and literature, and speaks vehemently about the need to encourage and support the artistic development of young people. Santiago’s community activism was cited when she received a Girl Scouts of America National Woman of Distinction Award in March 2002 along with Alma Powell and Elizabeth Dole.
Santiago is also a cultural ambassador who has been sponsored by the State Department to represent American and Latino life and literature in countries as diverse as Venezuela, The Republic of Udmurtia in the Russian Federation, the Dominican Republic and Kazakhstan.
Writing a Life, a documentary film about Santiago produced in association with Puerto Rico’s PBS affiliate, is a personal and intimate look at her creative process, and the joys and sorrows of her life as a writer.
Writing a Life
When I Was Puerto Rican
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