March 2, 1917- President Woodrow Wilson signs the Jones-Shahfroth Act granting U.S. citizenship to the residents of Puerto Rico. And while it prevents residents of Puerto Rico from voting in U.S. presidential elections, it opens the door for the migration of thousands of Puerto Ricans to states throughout the nation. New York City was and still is the number one destination for Puerto Rican immigrants. Many settled throughout the five boroughs with strongholds erected in small neighborhoods such as Spanish Harlem, parts of the Bronx, Bushwick, Williamsburg and East New York, Brooklyn. The relationship between the United States and its neighbor in the Caribbean is unique and conflicted. The island is officially designated a commonwealth that uses American currency and whose laws are sometimes subject to U.S. approval. Its designation as a commonwealth has placed in a precarious position; it is neither a state or a country on its own and its fate is inextricably tied to America. The iron of Puerto Rico is that its citizens have contributed to the well-being of the United States in ways which many are unaware of. During the Vietnam war, more than 48,000 Puerto Rican men served in the military. I personally know one of these men who proudly served this country in Southeast Asia. Today he is a grandfather living out his days comfortably at a retirement home as he deals with the rigors of aging. His story is one of millions that tell the story of the Puerto Rican experience in the land of the free and home of the brave. Among the many stories is this one by Esmeralda Santiago, who recalls her childhood and journey to New York as her mother searches for a better life for her growing family.
Born in the San Juan district of Santurce, her early life is typical of most families at a time when U.S. involvement in the island’s affairs caused both apprehension and resentment at the meddling of Uncle Sam in Puerto Rican culture. Today it may be hard to imagine, but less than one hundred years ago, the majority of governors of the island were American and helped corporations and the government rule the island with an iron grip. For several years, English was the mandatory language to be spoken in schools making Spanish unwelcome and the act of speaking it, an offense. During this climate of colonialism and culture suppression lived a young girl whose life was about to change in a most dramatic way.
Economic depravity, stressful relationships and social conditions force her mother to make the fateful decision to move the family to New York City, a place Santiago had never visited and only heard of. Her arrival in the city that never sleeps proves to be a rude awakening and culture shock in comparison to the home she was forced to leave. The dark and gritty side of city life becomes a reality and as she explains in the book, the people were unlike anything she could have prepared for. Class and racial discrimination combined with pedophiles,deviants and her lack of ability to speak English, transforms her world and forces her to mature ahead of schedule. The highlight of the book however lies in her discovery of her talent for the performing arts. Through determination and faith, she rises above her language restriction and excels in high school. And later in life, she earned degrees from both Sarah Lawrence College and Harvard University. Many years have passed since she was a young girl in a small section of Puerto Rico, but her words make us feel as if we went back in time following her every step of the way.