Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

Esmeralda is unquestionably the protagonist of the book, as Santiago places her in the center of every scene. Thus, the reader experiences Esmeralda's life from her point of view. Young Esmeralda faces two major conflicts, which form the basis for many of her actions and decisions. First is the cultural conflict of her Puerto Rican cultural heritage and her adopted American culture. Second is the conflict of living in between childhood and adulthood, of craving the protection and safety of youth, while desiring the freedom and independence of maturity.

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Above all, Esmeralda is in between—in between cultures, in between childhood and adulthood, in between languages, in between races. She wants to become Americanized, while still dreaming of returning to the Island. She feels she can only be herself in the comfort of her childhood home and within Mami's protective shelter, while yearning for the freedom and privilege of adulthood. Esmeralda learns English quickly, but she remains in an in-between lingual state, thinking in Spanish and translating her thoughts into English. She feels she is neither white nor black, selecting "other" in response to the race questions on the many government forms she completes. She is "simply too dark to be white, too white to be black." Even at the close of the book, Esmeralda still finds herself forced to choose between her mother and her lover, forever in a state of in between.

Mami is the second major figure of the book. She embodies hard work and determination, as well as dedication to family. Her lack of English is a clear disadvantage to her in supporting her family, yet she always manages to provide sufficient food and shelter for her many children, often also supporting her mother, her uncle, and various other family members who take temporary shelter in her home. When she is periodically laid off from her factory jobs, Mami swallows her pride and petitions the welfare office for emergency support, placing her family's needs above her own pride.

Mami fears constantly for her children. She is afraid of the unfamiliar culture of her transplanted home, perpetually afraid that algo (something) will happen to her children. That something might be crime, drugs, injury, illness, or moral downfall.

Mami also aims to protect her daughters from men, who, she believes, only want women "for one thing," making them another algo. Paradoxically, Mami considers men the only means for her daughters to leave her, saying, '"The only way you're leaving my house... is as a married woman.'" She also sees her male family members as protection against dangerous, unknown men. When Otto picks Esmeralda up for their date, Mami heads a send-off party composed of herself and the four oldest men in the family to appraise the unknown male and to serve as a warning that they intend to protect Esmeralda's virtue. Indeed, Mami and Don Carlos fulfill this intention by driving the long distance to Otto's sister's house after Esmeralda forgets to call them.

Together, both Mami and Tata represent maternal heritage. Esmeralda yearns to break free of their mold, to become an independent American woman, yet she sees herself reflected in them. When she makes her face up as an old woman in theatrical make-up class in school, she stares at the mirror in shock, seeing her maternal and paternal grandmothers gazing back at her from the mirror. Esmeralda also sees her own mother acting like a young girl as she begs Tata for permission to attend a dance or to go on a date, mirroring Esmeralda's similar frequent begging. No matter how hard she tries to break away, Esmeralda learns, she will never completely break free from her maternal heritage.

Language and words are other central themes in the book, foreshadowing Esmeralda's future as a journalist and writer. Esmeralda uses...

(The entire section contains 1123 words.)

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