Esmeralda Santiago's childhood in Puerto Rico exerts a profound influence on her writing. The eldest of eleven children, Santiago was born in Puerto Rico in 1948. At the age of thirteen Santiago, her mother, and her siblings moved to Brooklyn, leaving her father on the island. Soon, Santiago began to experience a lifelong conflict between her Puerto Rican background and her newer identity with mainstream American culture. This identity conflict forms the basis for a large portion of her work, much of which is autobiographical in nature.
Although she knew little English at the time of her relocation to Brooklyn, Santiago had mastered the language well enough to enter the highly selective High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan only two years after her arrival on the mainland. After attending community colleges sporadically over a period of eight years, she won a full scholarship to Harvard University at the age of twenty-six to study film production, graduating magna cum laude. Santiago later completed a master's degree in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She is now a journalist and writer.
In 1993, Santiago published the first volume of her memoirs in both English and Spanish versions. When I Was Puerto Rican and Cuando era puertorriquena detail her early years in Puerto Rico. The 1998 sequel Almost a Woman and its 1999 Spanish translation Casi una mujer begin with her arrival in Brooklyn and relate her adolescent experiences in New York. The author published her first novel, America's Dream, in 1997.
In addition to her literary pursuits, Santiago has also formed a documentary film production company with her husband and has helped to found a shelter for battered women. She and her husband live in Westchester County, New York, with their two children.