Esmeralda Santiago MFA '92
Writer Esmeralda Santiago was astonished to learn that when Girl Scouts of the USA was to hold a gala celebrating 90 years, she was to be one of 12 women honorees to receive the organization's first National Women of Distinction awards, in such company as Elizabeth Dole and Vera Wang Becker '71. Although she had been the keynote speaker at the Girl Scouts 2001 National Meeting of Presidents and Executive Directors, Santiago, the eldest of eleven children, grew up in rural Puerto Rico and knew nothing about the Scouts. Nor was their presence felt in the tough Brooklyn neighborhood where she spent her adolescence.
"My message at the meeting was this: There's a whole population of girls who could use the leadership training, the camaraderie, the actual learning of necessary skills that Girl Scouts provide," Santiago recalls, "and you need to be much more proactive in finding those girls and bringing them into the organization." She laughs now, but didn't then. "I really didn't think they'd ever want to talk to me again! I wouldn't say that I was harsh, but I wanted to give them a sense of how they could improve their organization. So I told the truth as I saw it."
The truth as Santiago sees it is at the heart of her work. She is the author of two powerful memoirs, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman; the latter is being made into a film for Masterpiece Theater, and will be shown on PBS in September. She has also published a novel, America's Dream, and two anthologies.
Sitting recently in her simply furnished dining room over a cup of coffee, the window overlooking her backyard in Katonah, NY, Santiago is happy to discuss her award. "The Girl Scouts generally give awards on a local basis to women who have a made a difference in the lives of girls in their community. This year they decided to do it on a national level." When the Girl Scouts contacted her about the award, she remembers thinking, "Really? You want me?"
The gala, for 1200 guests, was held in March in Washington, DC. "The other women were in the public eye in a way I couldn't even imagine. It was an incredible honor.
"If you live in Scarsdale, it's not hard to imagine being a Girl Scout leader. If you're in a poor immigrant community, and you've never had an experience like the Girl Scouts, it's tough to imagine volunteering that kind of time for other women. Their motto is 'every girl, everywhere.' I said to them that you have to go to those communities where you have no presence at all. They are sincere in their desire to reach girls who have not been reached before. It's beyond the cookies."
Santiago did not start out to be a writer, but at 40 she took a writing course and sold every essay she wrote. "It was a perfect career for a mom," she says. "I wasn't ambitious." An editor at Addison Wesley saw one of her essays and offered Santiago a book contract for a memoir; When I Was Puerto Rican, published to enormous critical acclaim in 1994, is now taught in colleges and universities, cherished by book groups, and has, according to The New York Times, positioned Santiago "as an influential Puerto Rican literary voice."
And now Santiago's children, college student Lucas and eleventh-grader Ila, want to be jazz guitarists. Her advice is born of experience: "They're very realistic. They see that it's hard, that you don't go into the arts to get rich. You go into the arts to be fulfilled."