Esmeralda Santiago’s Writing Life

The first phrase I learned in English was “I’m sorry, so sorry,” the only words I could make out in a song then popular on the radio. The rest of the ballad was a garble in a female voice quavering with remorse. I was 13 and about to learn that love meant having to say you’re sorry over and over again.

That summer Mami decided to leave Puerto Rico for the United States. As Papi drove us to the airport, he sang along with Brenda Lee on the radio.

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“What does the song say?” I asked.

“Lo siento,” Papi said. “Lo siento tanto.”

Mami sat next to him, lips taut. She’d spent two weeks in New York before deciding to move there. Did she understand what Brenda Lee was helping my father say to her? Papi had chosen to send us away rather than marry her. After we waved goodbye that afternoon, neither Mami, nor I, nor my six sisters and brothers would see him again for eight years.

Brooklyn was a reader’s delight. The streets were labeled, the buildings numbered. Neon signs hissed and flashed over storefronts. Shadowed letters curved across plate glass windows: OPEN, CLOSED, CHECKS CASHED. Messages were scrawled over the mailboxes in the lobby of our apartment building: FOR RENT, FOR SALE, KEEP DOOR CLOSED. Posters stretched across the sides of buses, billboards loomed over roofs while smaller ones slid into channels over the seats of subway cars. COME TO MARLBORO COUNTRY, DO NOT LEAN ON THIS DOOR, NO ANIMALS ALLOWED.

But for the occasional SE HABLA ESPANOL, most of the signs were a jumble of advertising, warnings and, sometimes, necessary information. NO STANDING, NO LOITERING, NO ENTRY, PULL HERE FOR EMERGENCY BRAKE. More mysterious were the graffiti sprayed on walls, scratched through layers of paint on the steel beams holding up the tracks of the elevated train, or carved in deep furrows on wooden school desks. I eventually learned they were curses.

The brick building near our school was a public library. The librarian, a rosy-cheeked woman with a platinum beehive, took down the address from the electric and gas bills sent to Mami that proved we lived in the neighborhood.

“Your name?”

“Esmeralda Santiago.”

“I’m sorry?”

I spoke slowly, but she didn’t understand. She handed me a scrap of paper, and I wrote in the looped cursive taught in Puerto Rico’s public schools.

She printed my name on a card. The 17 letters marched across in increasingly smaller blocks until the final “o” was punctuation. Library cards, I thought, were designed for people with short, American names like Dick, Jane and Sally.

I ambled up and down the aisles, but none of the books was in Spanish. In the children’s reading room, a group had gathered at the feet of another librarian, who read and then turned the book so that the children could see the illustrations. I knelt at the back and listened to the story and saw that the drawings explained the text. This is how American children learn English, I thought, by looking at picture books.

After the reading, I borrowed as many alphabet books as I was allowed. At home, I studied the drawings and memorized the names of things. “A” was for Apple, “B” for Boy, “C” for Car, “D” for Dog, “E” for Elephant. In my favorite books, all the words were related to each other. Apple, Banana, Carrot were in the book about Fruits. Doctor, Entertainer, Fireman were in Jobs. “Z” was almost always Zebra, even in the book about fruits, although in the one about jobs it was for Zookeeper.

When humid August turned to cool September to brisk October, I memorized the words for boots, coat, mittens and snow. When cold November rains drenched my siblings and me on the way to or from school, I remembered sneeze, fever, ambulance, nurse, doctor and hospital.

I mentally labeled everything within sight until my head was full of nouns. Then I graduated from alphabet to chapter books with an English to English dictionary alongside, reasoning that every time I looked up a word in English I could learn a few more. By the time I started ninth grade a year after we arrived in Brooklyn, I was reading at a 10th grade level.

I could read, understand and spell the words but was afraid to speak them. In Spanish, every vowel and consonant has one specific sound; in English, the same vowel could have different sounds: the “a” in apple or apex, for example. The “i” in I or ennui. Consonants were sometimes silent, and sometimes not. I should never say keh-nee-feh for knife or pee-see-sholo-jeest for psychologist. During my first two years in New York, I was silent, although I had acquired an impressive vocabulary.

My tongue refused to form the “th” sound. I practiced tongue twisters to help develop the necessary muscles: I thought a thought, but the thought I thought wasn’t the thought I thought I thought.

My tortured diphthongs and confused vowels were a constant embarrassment, but a source of mirth to others. To avoid the laughter, I smiled as if I, too, thought it was funny. Later, I hunched over notebooks, writing out my frustration, shame and rage. I lived in those pages, in English and Spanish, where the written word said what I couldn’t utter.

Reading gave me language. Writing gave me a place to be myself. By the time I returned to Puerto Rico for a visit, I could read the most challenging literature in English and managed modern American slang with few stumbles. I had learned an entirely new Anglophone way of life even as my roots remained firmly planted in Spanish. “A” is for Apple, “M” is for Mango. I’m a hybrid, straddling two cultures, two languages, two lives, celebrating the growth that is inherent in all this, but aware, too, that there have been losses. “I’m sorry, so sorry.” That first phrase I learned, so full of regret, still lingers.

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