Ethnicity has a drastic impact on the way human beings relate to one another. One such case is seen in the book written by Santiago Esmeralda When I was Puerto Rican where she tells of the mistreatment she received in New York while she was growing up and her inner emotional turmoil she had to endure in the long search for her personal identity. The main character is Negi who shares in the same burdens the author experienced while growing up which was further worsened by the relationship strain between her parents. With different backgrounds and ethnical affiliations, comes the opportunity for the dominant race or group to mistreat and diminish the people belonging to the less dominant race or group.
The main character Negi has a hard time adjusting in schools, both in the United States and in Puerto Rico. At the beginning of the book, audiences learn of the social disparities surrounding the life of Negi. She is reportedly from the lowest social class in Puerto Rico known as the Jibaros. A teacher from a neighboring town treats Negi wrongfully because of her low status in society but this does not stop her patriotism for her class: Even when treated appallingly by a teacher in the nearby town Santurce, Negi proudly holds her ground, defending the integrity of the jibaros (Wesley, 1993) It is important to note that intolerance can also be shown by people of the same race to a lower social class; Negi shows great strength when she does not cave in at the mistreatment; strength which would help her overcome other challenges to come in life.
In the United States of America, Negi finds it impossible to fit in with the other American children in schools. She is constantly at the receiving end of taunts from the other children. She hates New York and constantly wishes she was back in Puerto Rico. This has a drastic effect on her personal development and her search for her identity. She hates it when the family has to move from the house they first lived and the new responsibilities of taking care of her siblings when her mother becomes pregnant again. She is more so disturbed and unhappy by her mother who does understands very little English and she is forced to be help her fill community self help forms. If it were not for the resilient and ambitious nature of Negi, she would not have managed to survive her teenage years. She struggled to understand English and later on enrolled at a performing arts school propelling her to Harvard University. Even though the domestic life of Negi was almost unbearable, it equipped her with the necessary resilience to achieve her dreams despite the odds being against her.
The conflict between the Puerto Ricans and the Americanos in both Puerto Rico and the United States has an overwhelming effect on the life of Negi and that of her family as well. There exists a lot of tension between the two ethnicities. In a conversation between Negi and her father, Negi asks her father the meaning of the word gringo in reference to the Americanos. Her father promptly reiterates by saying: We call them gringos they call us spiks. (Santiago, 2006) This shows the tension inherent in the interaction between the Americans and the Puerto Ricans. Negis father also narrates to her the injustice Puerto Ricans suffer at the hands of the Americans: Thats part of being an imperialist. They expect us to do things their way even in our own country. (Santiago, 2006)
The more adverse effects of this tension between the two ethnicities unravel themselves when Negi, her mother and some of her siblings move to the United States: Santiago embodies the struggle of many Puerto Ricans who migrated to the mainland United States in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s seeking better economic circumstances (LaGuardia College, 2003) At the start of her education in the United States, Negi is forced to defend herself when she is told by the school administration to return to the seventh grade because of her limited knowledge of the English language. It almost seems as if her fathers declaration of tyranny by the Americanos on Puerto Ricans is unraveling in her life. At a young age, Negi is forced to stand her ground against what she terms as unfair treatment. Her education may be derailed by the whims of a few people in the position of authority. She however, succeeds due to her strong and resilient character.
It is noteworthy to allude Negis turbulent growing ages to the domestic conflicts that ravaged her early life and not only to the prejudiced treatment she received because of her origins and race. Negis mother and father are reported to have had an undefined and unstable relationship. The effects on Negi are detrimental: She is emotionally torn between her parents: her mother is a decent, demanding, hard working woman whose command Negi eventually questions; her father is a restless laborer who writes poetry but is never able to be faithful to Negis mother. (Wesley, 1993) The effects that the authority figures in Negis life further her persecution which is already coupled with ethnicity.
Responsibility and maturity are characters which can be argued as to have come too early for Negi. At her home in Puerto Rico, she is reported to have been left in charge of her siblings of whom she had little control of. This resulted in an accident which seriously hurt one of her brothers. The implications of guilt ridden Negi are not apparent but one can deduce that such an occurrence in a young girls life will have detrimental effects, no matter how repressed they may be. Most notably, Negi must have felt guilt ridden as she was the one responsible for her siblings. Consequently, the accident ushered in a new tumultuous era in her life, starting with her removal from her home land.
Maturity came far too early for Negi. The early removal from her home, which she loved, was her first shove into maturity: she prefers this barrio and the freedom its countryside offers, when compared to the snobbishness she faces in Santurce and the dark, dangerous world she eventually goes to when her mother uproots the family and moves to Brooklyn (Wesley, 1993) It seems that Negi was always at odds with something in her life, be it the hostility received from society or the domestic instability she experienced at home. Brooklyn is also mentioned as to have been a very crime ridden place at the time Negis family moved in. Santiago writes that she moved more than twenty times in her first twenty one years of her life. (LaGuardia College, 2003) These specific problems troubled not only Negi, but a large community of immigrants into the United States.
The result of the domestic tension in Negis home created some hostility within her. She is reported to have been ashamed of her mothers inability to speak fluent English. Audiences could argue that this hostility towards the mother is a lashing out by Negi against her mother for her inability to maintain her family, most notably her husband. It could also be argued that Negi had finally seen the full picture of her childhood and how unfortunate it had been. Needless to say, she is justified in her reaction because her mother did a poor job in raising Negi.
The life of Negi, like those of other immigrants is riddled with countless problems ranging from hostility and racism to domestic instability and emotional abuse. Immigrants also face harsh economic times as they have to work extremely hard for their livelihoods. Ethnic tensions may also exist among people of the same race. The driving force behind Ethnic tension is the disparity in the social class of individuals. It is almost as if everyone is looking for an excuse to become superior over a given class of people. Negi is one of the very few immigrants and victims of racial discrimination to achieve her goals and dreams in life. It is important to foster peaceful coexistence among different ethnicities and races for the good of everyone.
LaGuardia Community College. (2003.) Common Reading: Esmeralda Santiago-When I was Puerto Rican. LaGuardia College.
Santiago, Esmeralda. (2006.) When I was Puerto Rican.
Wesley, Addison. (1993.) The Americanization of Esmeralda: When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. Print Place.
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