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Esmeralda Santiago      

Author & Documentary Filmmaker

Esmeralda Santiago was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She came to the United States at 13, the eldest in a family that would eventually include 11 children. Ms. Santiago attended New York City’s Performing Arts High School, where she majored in drama and dance. After eight years of part-time study at community colleges, she transferred to Harvard University with a full scholarship. She graduated magna cum laude in 1976. In 1977, she and her husband, Frank Cantor, founded Cantomedia, a film and media production company, which has won numerous awards for excellence in documentary filmmaking.

Her writing career evolved from her work as a producer/writer of documentary and educational films. Her essays and opinion pieces have run in newspapers like the New York Times and the Boston Globe, in magazines like House & Garden, Metropolitan Home and Sports Illustrated, and as guest commentary on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

Upon publication of her first book, the memoir, "When I was Puerto Rican," Ms. Santiago was hailed as “…a welcome new voice, full of passion and authority,” by the Washington Post Book World. Her first novel, "América’s Dream," was published in six languages, and was an Alternate Selection of the Literary Guild. Her second memoir, "Almost a Woman," received numerous “Best of Year” mentions, in addition to an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her adaptation of the memoir into a film for PBS Masterpiece Theatre, was greeted with critical and audience acclaim and was awarded a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.

Her third memoir, "The Turkish Lover," has received enthusiastic reviews as “an earthy, heartfelt tale of liberation, desperation, and the crippling grip of love.” It was selected a BookSense recommendation for September 2004 and appeared on several “Best of 2004” lists.

With Joie Davidow, Ms. Santiago is co-editor of the anthologies, "Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories" and "Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember their Mothers" both published by Knopf. She is also the author of the illustrated children’s book, "A Doll for Navidades."

In addition to her literary endeavors, Ms. Santiago is an active volunteer. She is a spokesperson on behalf of public libraries. She has designed and developed community-based programs for adolescents, and was one of the founders of a shelter for battered women and their children. She serves on the boards of organizations devoted to the arts and to literature, and speaks vehemently about the need to encourage and support the artistic development of young people. Her community activism was cited when she received a Girl Scouts of America National Woman of Distinction Award in March 2002 along with Alma Powell and Elizabeth Dole.

Ms. Santiago has earned a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and Honorary Doctor of Letters from Trinity University, from Pace University, from Metropolitan College and from Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Mayagüez. The mother of two adult children, she lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband, filmmaker Frank Cantor. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Speech Topics


Creating a Life

Approachable and sympathetic, Santiago engages audiences as she weaves stories from her eclectic life: how she learned English, her years of part-time study in community colleges, transfer to and graduation from Harvard University, years as a small business owner, and rise as an author of powerful, life affirming memoirs and novels. Santiago's Q&A sessions often bring testimony from listeners. Laughter and tears commingle in her inspirational presentations.

Stroke by Stroke

Santiago was in the middle of writing her latest, and most challenging work, Conquistadora, when she had a stroke that left her unable to comprehend what she read or wrote. In this moving presentation, Santiago describes how, on her own, she re-learned to read and write in English and in Spanish so that she could finish her book.

Writing a Life

When I Was Puerto Rican

Bi-lingual Dreamer

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