ROCHESTER — Author Esmeralda Santiago’s greatest accomplishment? Graduating from high school.
"Why? Because one out of 10 Puerto Ricans graduate (in the 1960)," said the Harvard University aluma who went on to write a memoir, When I was Puerto Rican, and several other novels.
"I didn’t want to be one of the nines," she told a group of more than 300 girls at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School on March 28. "I wanted to be of the ones."
She encouraged the girls, who included students from East and James Monroe high schools, to also be one of those graduates. Because if she was able to overcome all her struggles — moving from Puerto Rico to New York City at age 13, learning English and going on to become a writer — they also can realize their dreams, Santiago said.
She told the girls gathered at the charter school that she knows the challenges they face may seem tough to overcome. Santiago said that she has been in the shoes of some of the girls when they have to serve as their parents’ translators or miss school because they need to baby-sit their siblings. There also were days that she felt so overwhelmed by school that she had to talk herself into going, she said.
But luckily, she had adults in her life, such as several teachers, who were looking out for her, Santiago explained. And she paid attention to their advice, she said.
And Santiago said she also didn’t let herself get in her own way.
"(Being successful) is a choice," she said. "What you do with your life is not what other people do to you. It’s what you do with your life."
Addressing girls from four Rochester high schools, author Esmeralda Santiago speaks at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School March 28. Santiago spoke about her life growing up in Brooklyn after emigrating from Puerto Rico with her family at the age of 13.
Santiago’s speech was like a sign, said Cristal García, a 17-year-old Monroe senior who moved to Rochester from the Dominican Republic four years ago. Combined with a visit to the state capital the week before, Cristal said that she now is sure that she will master English and go on to become a pediatrician.
"She motivates me more to realize my goal," she said of Santiago.
For Guelmary Rodriguez, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the charter school, Santiago’s words of not letting other people’s negativity bring you down also resonated with her.
She has felt such negativity as bad looks from other students when she and her friends speak Spanish, Guelmary said. The native of Manatí, Puerto Rico, moved to Rochester two years ago.
"Your life is in your hands," is what she said that she always will remember from Santiago’s talk at her school.
Esmeralda Santiago autographs a copy of her memoir, "When I Was Puerto Rican," after the Reconcimento Awards ceremony March 28 at the Riverside Convention Center in Rochester. Santiago was the keynote speaker at the ceremony hosted by Latinas Unidas.
Also on March 28 Santiago gave the keynote address during the 20th-anniversary celebration of Latinas Unidas’ Reconocimiento Awards. The gala’s theme was "All things are possible."
Santiago said that she hopes an organization like Latinas Unidas, which she admires for its unique objective to help other Latinas, will help girls like Guelmary.
"In the United States, there should be no prejudice. There should be no bigotry," she told the audience of nearly 300 people at the gala. "I am happy to be able to be with a group that believes that change is possible through grassroots efforts … and women power. This experience is going to leave me so empowered."
Also during the gala, three women and a high-school student were recognized for their contributions to the community:
* Mercedes Vázquez Simmons, owner and president of Pretty Girl Productions-Boxing, for career achievement
* Gloria Sabastro, president of Rochester City School District’s Bilingual Council, for volunteer service
* Annette Ramos, education services manager for Young Audiences of Rochester, for leadership achievement
* Natalie Hoppe, a Penfield High School senior, as young Latina leader
Sabastro said that she was surprised and honored by the award but does everything to make a better life for the city’s Latino students in the name of God.
"I cannot think about the parents. I think only of the children who should have the same rights as others," she said.