Every immigrant comes to America with a purpose. Some come with the hope for a new life, better opportunities or the hope to fulfill the American Dream. Esmeralda Santiago, however, came to America with her family for a different reason. They initially sought out proper medical care for her brother, which he could not receive back home in Puerto Rico. However, the focus of her book, Almost a Woman shifts and changes to her experiences growing up as an immigrant in America.
Like many teenagers in America, Esmeralda struggled with her identity. On one hand, she felt the pressure to set a good example for her siblings hold her back from who she really wanted to be. On the other hand, she was caught between two cultures, the Puerto Rican heritage she identified with and the new American culture. She found herself struggling to fit in.
Growing up surrounded by prominent youth at her prestigious Performing Arts High School, Esmeralda felt compelled to blend into the uniform culture. However, her mother made sure her children never forgot their Puerto Rican roots. She flung assimilation on to them as a sin, something never to be committed. Their purpose was to come to America to build themselves a better life, not to forget their old one. This topic comes up in countless immigrant families, and it has come up in mine too. How do we strive to continue to remember our culture and heritage, all while building a new life and a new beginning? While every immigrant has a different answer to that question, it all leads back to one thing. Your culture is what shapes you, and helps build you into an American. It is an important part of you that is not to be forgotten.
One important thing Esmeralda says referring to her mother’s stance on assimilation is, “The way she pronounced the word Americanized, it sounded like a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs, another algo to be added to the list of ‘somethings’ outside our door.” (Santiago 12), which created a big conflict of interest. She no longer felt Puerto Rican, but how could she be who she really wanted to be, if that meant leaving a piece of her behind?
While Esmeralda struggles to find who she is within, along the way she learns some essential American values. With eleven kids to look after, money was often tight in the Santiago household. The family knew that coming to America they would not have nearly as much as they did back home in Puerto Rico. Esmeralda used her talents to work various jobs to help support the family. Connecting to this, immigrants are not always treated fairly, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wrote an article called “For the Child of Immigrants, the American Dream Can Be a Nightmare” in which she describes the harsh realities her father faced working as an immigrant. “He faced racist abuse, wage theft, devastating humiliation, xenophobia, grueling manual labor, poor pay.” (Villavicencio para. 5), she writes. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many across the US. However, knowing this, immigrants still come to America in search of the American Dream. They know the value of hard work and the value of perseverance. And while it differs from person to person, they all come here with a purpose. They all have a reason.
Looking back, one main takeaway is the idea of perseverance and hard work forming the foundation of the American Dream. Without a combination of the two, anyone, no matter where they are from, cannot achieve the best they can be as an American. While these are just two of the many important values, everyone has their own definition of what it means to be American. In the article “What does it Mean to be American”, one important quote made by Historian Gordon Wood is, “Precisely because we are not a people held together by blood, no one knows who an American is except by what they believe”(para. 9). Similarly, just like how Esmeralda’s view on this big question was not the same as many of her classmates, the opinions of two people can vastly differ. We all come from different backgrounds, different childhoods, cultures, and experiences. These are the things that shape who you are, and what you value as an American. No matter where you come from, no matter who you are, we all have a reason and responsibility being here in America. As soon as we truly learn to realize what that means, you can start to realize what the power of a dream can do, and all the wonderful things that come with it.
Santiago, Esmeralda. Almost a Woman. Vintage Books, 1999.
Villavicencio, Karla C. For the Child of Immigrants, the American Dream Can Be a Nightmare, Vogue, 17 Apr. 2018, www.vogue.com/article/child-of-immigrants-daca-personal-essay.
What Does it Mean to “Be American”, Facing History and Ourselves,