Esmeralda Santiago spoke at the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in New York City on Saturday, March 17, 2000. She told teachers that she truly honors all who work with children. The cheers and standing ovations that thundered through the audience made it clear how honored is Esmeralda Santiago. She reminisced about Mrs. Pauline Brown, her teacher at Jr. High PS39 in Brooklyn, who truly listened. “She never made her students feel bad,” Santiago told the audience. Esmeralda Santiago’s memoirs When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman revisit these and other years, communicating to other immigrant children Santiago’s important message: “There is nothing TO DO to become acceptable. This usually depends only on others. As immigrant children and young people in America today, lets teach them to think more about ‘how do I become me?’” With this quote in mind, Santiago presents her work as an exploration of her search for identity and as a model for young people in their own search.
Because students are naturally inclined to read and write about topics that concern themselves and their experiences in the world, autobiography is an appealing genre to students. In reading autobiographical novels and essays, students can find realistic role models. In writing autobiographical essays, students can find a rhetorical method for self-reflection. In this sense, a unit on autobiography can prove to be a valuable teaching tool for students of all ages and ability levels. Esmeralda Santiago’s novel When I Was Puerto Rican is an autobiography that traces Santiago’s memoirs through her childhood in Puerto Rico and her transition from Puerto Rico to New York City. Her second memoir, Almost a Woman continues the spirited documentation of her adjustments and experiences as she grows up in New York City and attends the High School for Performing Arts.
This curriculum unit is designed for an Advanced Placement (AP) English course for high school juniors, however it is easily adaptable to other secondary levels. The AP course is structured as an analysis of writing and rhetoric with an intense focus on preparation for the national Advanced Placement exam in language and composition. Another element of the AP English class is to provide students with some exposure to literary criticism and guide students to analyze works with philosophical insight. Since New Haven is also a diverse community, and its student population is primarily that of minorities, African American and Latino writers hold a strong and solid position within the district curriculum. Esmeralda Santiago’s works appeal to students’ interests and backgrounds while also addressing the AP curriculum requirements for analysis, writing and rhetorical study.
The main objectives of the unit are as follows. (1.) Students will be able to identify and analyze the author’s use of literary devices. (2.) Students will be able to respond to the novel in terms of narrative style and technique as well as in relation to the novel’s plot and themes. (3) Students will be able to analyze a work of literature in terms a variety of elements and from a variety of theoretical perspectives.
When I Was Puerto Rican is compelling, entertaining and an exercise in effective storytelling. With this idea in mind, the first instructional issue raised for consideration is: Does Santiago’s “storytelling” constitute a work of autobiography? This becomes a central theme in the unit for teaching students rhetorical, theoretical and personal approaches to reading and writing autobiography. The unit is divided into lesson plans and background instructional information for teachers according to the topics outlined below:
I. Defining Rhetoric and Autobiography
A. Rhetoric and Authority
1. The Truth in Autobiography
2. Santiago’s Style and Eloquence
II. Autobiography Provides a Voice
A. Bringing Social Issues to Light
B. Santiago’s Voice as a Child, Adult and Latino