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When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

From a rippled zinc shack in rural Puerto Rico to "the better life" in a decaying Brooklyn tenement, Esmerelda Santiago's Puerto Rican childhood is one of sorcery, smoldering war between the sexes, and high comedy. Hers is a portrait of a harsh but enchanted world that can never be reclaimed.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Discuss the language issues in the memoir and how they were resolved.

  2. What contradictions in the Puerto Rican culture are symbolized by the juxtaposition of the Santurce of the Evangelical church with the botanica? Give examples of the “superstitions” that exist in the Puerto Rican culture and your culture.

  3. What were the gender issues for females in the Puerto Rican society? Are these issues for young American females?

  4. How would you define the word dignidad. Is it a code of manners or morals? Does contemporary American culture have an equivalent of dignidad?

  5. Mami spanks and hits her children regularly. Does this cause psychological damage to the children? Does her use of corporal punishment conflict with her role as caregiver or make her a less loving mother? Why/Why not?

  6. Why does Mami decide to get a job for the first time? Why does she dress so    differently in order to go to work? What kind of taboo is Mami breaking? Why do the neighbors react with such hostility? Why do the women, in particular, resent her?

  7. What do the Puerto Ricans watch on television? What does it mean for one culture to have so much of its popular entertainment imported from another culture? Does it strengthen or waken the native culture? Explain. What might educators do to diminish the overwhelming impact of a borrowed culture?

Community Questions are taken from a teacher's guide written by Dr. Brooke Allen and posted at Random House.

For further information about When I Was Puerto Rican:

Biography Resource Center

Random House

The Reading Group Guide

The Teacher's Guide

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