What first strikes you about Esmeralda Santiago is her determination, a trait the Puerto Rican-born, US author admits is largely responsible for the extraordinary path her life has taken. In Jerusalem recently to present a lecture series to aspiring Palestinians artists as a guest of the American Consulate, Santiago took time out from a hectic lecture schedule to read excerpts from her memoirs at the Tmol Shilshom Caf . When I was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover are Santiago's memoirs recounting her experiences as a young immigrant to the US. At 13, Santiago's idyllic childhood in the tropical, Puerto Rican countryside came to an abrupt end when her mother moved the family to America. "My brother had an accident and my mother took him to New York to get treated," explains the author. "Her time there convinced her that the US offered the chance of a better life." Although Santiago's father refused to come, having by then fallen in love with another woman, her mother was resolute and the family went to live with relatives in a small, overcrowded Brooklyn apartment. As her mother struggled to make ends meet, the resourceful Santiago was tasked with teaching herself and her six younger siblings English, using books borrowed from the public library. Having mastered the language, the teenager's creative talents earned her a place at New York's Performing Art's High School. At 21 Santiago rebelled against her restrictive upbringing, running away with a Turkish man old enough to be her father. "My mother had been unlucky in love, so to protect her daughters from experiencing similar disappointments she refused to let us date," explains the writer. "This, combined with the fact that as the eldest of an ever increasing family [her mother had two other partners and there were eventually 11 children] I'd always had to be responsible, led me to rebel." She acknowledges that her relationship was unhealthy. "I was looking for a father figure," she admits, "and to him I was a little girl he could manipulate. He didn't like my name so he changed it to Chiquita, which means little girl in Spanish, and this characterized our relationship." It took four years and two failed attempts for Santiago to finally work up the courage to leave. "One day we got lost and ended up in the yard of Harvard," she reveals. "I'd been attending community college on and off for the [previous] few years and I decided I wanted to do college properly. I made up my mind that I would leave and apply to Harvard." Santiago received a full scholarship to Harvard, an achievement she considers to be a result of "sheer willpower." "When I put my mind to something I won't rest until I get it," she says. "I played on the fact that I was female as they'd only just started to accept women … Somehow I was able to convince the admissions board that I'd be a worthwhile investment." Now the author of a selection of screen plays and fictional novels as well as her three memoirs, and joint owner of a successful film and media production company with her husband Frank Cantor, her claims to the admission board proved well founded Of her relationship with her husband, whom she met soon after graduating Harvard with a degree in film studies, she says, "We figured out pretty quickly that we were soul mates, although Frank's a Jew from the east coast of the US so our backgrounds couldn't be more different." Despite her father-in-law's initial reservations that his future daughter in law was "a little dark," Santiago says that their families, who are both secular, have always been supportive of their relationship. "Although Frank and I do sometimes joke about the unlikeliness of a Jewish boy from suburban America and a Puerto Rican girl ending up together," she adds. Santiago's writing is charismatic and upbeat, her fighting spirit resonant throughout her tale. Her lack of self-pity is refreshing, engaging the audience in her fate from the start. "I don't feel like a victim," she stresses. "If anything, I feel lucky that my life has turned out to be more privileged than that of the majority of Puerto Rican Americans." The author, whose books are studied in many schools and colleges with a high percentage of Puerto Rican pupils, is considered a role model among her ethnic group, a minority that still fall at the lower end of America's social scale. Only three out of 10 Puerto Ricans in the US graduate high school, she tells the relatively privileged Israeli audience. For Santiago, her writing stems not from a desire to be a role model, a title she accepts begrudgingly out of recognition of the needs of young Puerto Ricans, but from a wish to pass on an understanding of her culture to her children. "After I got married my husband and I moved to a predominantly Christian town," she explains. "We were both conscious of the fact that our family would be very different from those of our neighbors. Increasingly, I felt a need to understand my own heritage in relation to who I'd become in order to pass this legacy on to my children, so I began writing essays about my childhood. Eventually my agent suggested I write a memoir and it went from there." Although it's her second language, Santiago says she feels comfortable writing in English and admits to finding translating her memoirs into Spanish more taxing. "I was convinced I wasn't doing my work and it became quite difficult psychologically," she says. Never having visited Israel before, she admits to being struck by the diversity of lifestyles in such a small country. "Just being in Jerusalem I've encountered ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Muslims and Christians," she says. While initially nervous about the response to her books in a country preoccupied with its own troubles, Santiago has been pleasantly surprised by the reception she has received from both Israelis and Palestinians. "Everyone's been really positive," she enthuses. "I think people can relate to the human element of my story regardless of their background and beliefs."

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