• Esmeralda Santiago
  • Knopf
  • 432 pp.

Breaking from 19th-century Spain, in a novel about one woman’s ruthless determination to succeed in the new world of Puerto Rico.

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

Initially I was delighted to learn that one of my ancestors was among the first to found a territory in the New World. Juan de Olague, of Basque extraction and a native of my home state of Zacatecas, Mexico, worked with Juan de Oñate’s 1598 expedition to settle New Mexico. I discovered Olague’s name in a biography of Oñate in the gift shop at El Morro National Monument, a sandstone cliff engraved with Native American petroglyphs and the names of Spanish explorers. My feeling of pride was quickly squashed when I read that, surviving a battle against the Acomas, Olague provided testimony that led to the murder, enslavement and mutilation of this tribe. Olague’s 16th-century actions cannot withstand the scrutiny of my 21st-century sensibilities.

Ana Cubillas, protagonist of Esmeralda Santiago’s Conquistadora, has no conflicts about the role of Spain and her ancestors in the colonization of the Americas—she embraces it fully and, reading the journals of one of her conquistador relatives, seeks to break away from her staid, socially ordained life in 19th-century Spain. “By the work of their hands, the might of their swords” becomes a mantra for Ana, even if Santiago uses the phrase but once: Ana is prepared to do anything and everything to successfully run Hacienda Los Gemelos, a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico that falls into her hands through her marriage to Ramón Argoso. Ana convinces Ramón and Inocente, Ramón’s twin, to journey with her across the ocean to cultivate the land that the twins inherited from their uncle.

Ostensibly, the novel is a window into Ana’s fierce personality, relentless determination and indomitable spirit; in actuality, Santiago’s rendition of Ana left me wondering why I should admire a woman so ruthless and unsympathetic. By telling rather than showing the character of her protagonist, Santiago weakens her conquistadora from a woman breaking social conventions to a caricature whose single-minded focus on Los Gemelos is devoid of humanity. Conflicts of conscience, though noted, are easily dismissed with a shake of her head. Santiago keeps Ana from deeper ruminations on the treatment of the plantation’s slaves, relationships with her family and events on the island, preventing character growth. Although Ana calls the slaves nuestra gente (our people), a phrase sometimes used in Spanish to describe family, her capitalistic nature trumps her emotions and personal attachments at every turn.

Santiago has more success telling the stories of the people surrounding Ana, whether family, employees or slaves. Although secondary characters like Ana’s mother-in-law, Leonor, are intended as domineering antagonists to Ana’s ambitions, their fleshed-out stories, written with more vigor than Ana’s, lead the reader to empathize with them rather Ana. The durable and often sweet love between Leonor and her husband, Eugenio, is far more effective and developed than the relationships between Ana and the twins, or between Ana and Severo, the plantation foreman who comes to play a larger role in her life. Ana fades away amongst these livelier characters. But they ultimately add little to the overall story.

Santiago’s research appears to be meticulous, at times to a fault; for example, early in the narrative, while detailing the laws governing slaves and owners, Santiago includes lengthy quotes from the historical document Reglamento de esclavos de 1842 (Regulation of Slaves of 1842), which are distracting in a work of fiction. It would have been better for Santiago to show how these and other laws affected the tense dynamic between Ana and the people who worked, per force, her land. Santiago more skillfully handles larger historical themes, such as the emergence of a nationalistic movement in Puerto Rico and the currents of abolitionism stemming in part from the events of the American Civil War.

Imposing 21st-century sensibilities on a 19th-century fictional character is a risky undertaking, and it is worthwhile to try to understand Ana within her cultural surroundings. However, Ana’s emergence as an individual despite her time, place and role is crucial to the novel’s success or failure.

Unfortunately, instead of seeing Puerto Rico through the eyes of a passionate, multifaceted adventuress who struggles with the island’s social complexity, Ana’s narrowly drawn character and conscious detachment from the realities of Los Gemelos’s and Puerto Rico’s ills limit the novel. Santiago presents Ana’s strength in harsh terms. What should have been a positive quality is ultimately a fatal flaw. Ana displays her resilience not with dignity, but with a remoteness that renders her irredeemable, and leaves the reader with an unsatisfactory perspective on the island’s dynamic and problematic history.

Susana Olague Trapani is an aspiring fiction writer. An avid reader, she studied medieval/Renaissance literature at the University of Michigan and University of Toronto. In her day job, she writes and edits for a federal contractor.

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