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Esmeralda Santiago      

Award-Winning Author & Documentary Filmmaker

Esmeralda Santiago grew up in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico in a one room shack with a dirt floor and tin roof. Her family moved to New York when she was thirteen years old. The eldest of eleven, Esmeralda learned English from children’s books in a Brooklyn library. A teacher encouraged her to audition for Performing Arts High School, where she majored in drama and dance. After eight years of part time study at community colleges, Esmeralda transferred to Harvard University with a full scholarship and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1976. Shortly after graduation, she and her husband Frank Cantor founded CANTOMEDIA, a film and media production company that has won numerous awards for excellence in educational and documentary filmmaking.

With the publication of her first memoir When I was Puerto Rican, the Washington Post hailed Esmeralda as “a welcome new voice, full of passion and authority.” Her first novel, America's Dream, has been published in six languages and made into a movie by executive producer Edward James Olmos.

Her second memoir, Almost a Woman, received an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and was made into a Peabody-award winning movie for PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s “American Collection.” Esmeralda Santiago is the only living author in this prestigious collection, which also dramatized works by James Agee, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty and Henry James.

Esmeralda earned a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and Honorary Doctorates from Trinity College, Pace University, Metropolitan College in NYC and University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.

She is a spokesperson on behalf of public libraries; has designed and developed community programs for adolescents at risk; and was a founder of DOVE, a regional shelter for battered women and their children. Esmeralda has served on the boards of many arts organizations including the Jacob Burns Film Center, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and PEN American Center. She is passionate about the need to encourage and support the artistic development of young people with storytelling and media literacy.

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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