Santiago chronicles her early life living in rural Puerto Rico, eventually moving to a suburb just outside of San Juan and eventually ending up in Brooklyn. She is the oldest of many siblings (12 by the time she's in high school), loves her Mami despite the strictness and occasional beatings, and loves her Papi despite his repeated disappearing on the family. Santiago's real talent lies in her descriptions of her surroundings: the oregano bushes that grew near the latrine, the smell of the garlic her mother cooked with, the crocheted bedspread her grandmother made. She is able to paint such a vivid picture you can almost feel yourself squinting into the strong Puerto Rican sunlight.
Perhaps because the culture is different from my own, I liked it when she described her home, her barrio, and her experiences growing up in Macun. In the early portion of the book she talked about jibaros which she defines in the glossary as Rural Puerto Rican with distinctive dialect and customs (location 4351). She talks about at first wanting to be one and then later when she moves closer to San Juan being taunted by the other kids and teachers with "What a jibara"
Poems and stories about the hardships and joys of the Puerto Rican jibaro were required reading at every grade level in school. My own grandparents, whom I was to respect as well as love, were said to be jibaros. But I couldn't be one, nor was I to call anyone a jibaro, lest they be offended. Even at the tender age when I didn't yet know my real name, I was puzzled by the hypocrisy of celebrating a people everyone looked down on. (location 170)Her settings almost make up for the lack of description around the characters of her memoir. You hear very little about her brothers and sisters and they really just form one lump of siblings for Esmeralda, or Negi as her family calls her, to fight with. Her Mami and Papi get the most description, but even they are very one-dimensional. There's very little dialogue, so there's never a chance to get to know these other characters.
Overall the story itself doesn't really go anywhere. There is no story arc to follow, just a series of events as her family moves around and around. The story has wonderful moments but it never adds up to a whole.
Title quote from location 506
Santiago, Esmeralda. When I Was Puerto Rican. De Capo Press, 1993. eBook