Setting

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

Esmeralda's life drew its inspiration from three separate physical arenas: Puerto Rican Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, and the white world of Manhattan: "That world in Brooklyn from which I derived both comfort and anxiety was home, as was the other world, across the ocean, where my father still wrote poems. As was the other world, the one across the river, where I intended to make my life." The action centers mainly in Brooklyn for the first part of the book and moves to Manhattan for the second part.

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of Santiago's portrayal of Puerto Rican Brooklyn is the ever-present food. Through the author's frequent and vivid food descriptions, the importance of food in Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican-American culture becomes apparent, as does the major role that food plays in Puerto Rican family life. Every time a relative comes to visit, Mami and her mother Tata immediately begin to cook. Together, family members prepare and consume cafe con leche, roasted achiote, names, yautias, arroz con polio, sofrito, coquito with fresh coconut milk and Puerto Rican rum, rice and beans, asopaos, chicken fricassee, alcapurrias, and pastelillos.

Santiago's descriptions of Manhattan are equally vivid. Her characterization of the life at the High School for the Performing Arts, where Esmeralda first comes into close contact with Caucasian Americans, is especially well crafted. Unlike the mainstream world of Manhattan outside the high school walls, status at the High School for the Performing Arts is determined by talent, although wealth also divides the students. Most importantly, everyone at the school holds a dream, the dream of entering the world of bright lights, wealth, and fame. Esmeralda shares this dream, and her previous longing to return to her Island homeland dims as she becomes more and more ingrained in her Manhattan life.

Unlike her vivid descriptions of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the author never describes the Island directly. Instead, she presents it exclusively through Esmeralda's memories of and longing for her homeland. Seen through Esmeralda's eyes at the age of thirteen, the Island is sunshine and "sensual curves," whereas Brooklyn is dark and dirty.

As she becomes increasingly Americanized, Esmeralda's views of her three worlds change. Puerto Rico recedes into her memory—a nostalgic, ideal place of color and freedom. Brooklyn grows to represent the ethnic U.S., a place where she is comfortable, but not a place where she wishes to reside as an adult. Esmeralda grows to desire a life of wealth and class in Manhattan, which she now imagines to be the environment of successful mainstream Americans.

Esmeralda begins to lose her Puerto Rican identity and to acquire mainstream American qualities with amazing rapidity. After only two days in Brooklyn, she can already feel the respect and humility she has been taught to hold for her mother slipping away to be replaced with more typically American independence and resolve. Young Esmeralda wants, above all, to conform to her image of typical American girls, wearing makeup, sipping sodas in malt shops, and going on dates.

Mami fights Esmeralda's Americanization as much as possible, saying that Esmeralda is Puerto Rican and too young to act the way American girls act. Esmeralda resorts to Americanizing herself at school by hitching up her skirts, applying makeup, and restyling her hair. She removes all traces of this transformation each afternoon as she leaves the school grounds. When Mami learns of Esmeralda's daily transformations, she begins to understand how thoroughly she has lost her eldest daughter to American culture. Still, she does not abandon her fight against cultural imperialism, forcing Esmeralda to wash her face, re-comb her hair, and let down her skirt.

Members of the culture she wants so badly to join nourish...

(The entire section contains 2732 words.)

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