Born in Puerto Rico in 1948, Esmeralda Santiago grew up as the eldest of 11 children who were raised by a single mother. Some of her early years were spent living in a small village with other country folks, while some years were spent in the suburbs of the city of San Juan, as the family moved frequently, due to their poverty. As Santiago writes, "In the twenty-one years I lived with my mother, we moved at least twenty times." When Santiago was a young teenager, she and her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, and she had to go through a difficult adjustment to a new language and a new country. She learned at New York City's Performing Arts High School, majoring in drama and dance, and had a bit part in the 1967 movie Up the Down Staircase.
Accepted to Harvard University on a scholarship, Santiago graduated magna cum laude in 1976 and received a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. The different settings of her youth provided her with material for her memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, which was published in 1993 in English, and which tells what it is like to live with dual identities and dual allegiances. Santiago later translated the book into Spanish.
Santiago's second memoir, Almost a Woman, is the sequel to her earlier memoir, and details her teenage years, family relationships and first dating experiences. She tries to balance her previous family-oriented life with attempting to assimilate into American culture, and works on losing her Puerto Rican accent in order to obtain acting jobs. The third memoir, A Turkish Lover, takes up the story of her life when she meets a Turkish film-maker and enters into a relationship with him, which includes helping him with his research for two master's degrees and a Ph.D. When Santiago turns 25, she decides that she belongs at Harvard University, and finds the courage to separate from a man who "had no idea, no clue whatsoever, of what was important to me."
Santiago's first novel, America's Dream, is a story of a woman named America Gonzales, who works as a housekeeper in a hotel on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. In order to escape an abusive lover, she takes a job as a housekeeper to a wealthy family in Westchester, New York, and gradually learns more about herself. This book was translated into six languages. Together with Joie Davidow, Santiago coedited two anthologies, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories (1998), which has 25 Latino writers sharing their holiday experiences, and Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers (2000), a collection of Latino writers' memories of their mothers.
In her first picture book, A Doll for Navidades, Santiago remembers how she (at the age of seven) and her siblings celebrated the holiday in their poverty-stricken Puerto Rican home. According to Santiago, "Our home was a giant version of the lard cans used to haul water home from the public fountain. Its windows and doors were also metal, and as I stepped in I touched the wall and burned my fingers."
Other than her themes of feminism, growing up as an immigrant and being part of two cultures, Santiago writes about shame and pride, colonization and relationships with food. On the one hand, the traditional Puerto Rican foods can engender pride in those who eat them but, on the other hand, their poverty means that every part of the animal is eaten so it will not be wasted, and some of their food practices are unclean and unhealthy. When the family moves to America and lives on welfare, they eat beans, bread, milk and rice due to their low cost, but also because they are staples of the Puerto Rican diet. While feeling pride that they are not going hungry, they also associate these staple foods with the shame of poverty and subsisting on welfare.
In addition to being an economic issue, food is also a gender issue in Santiago's writings, as a proper Puerto Rican woman is one who spends much time preparing hot meals for her husband and family. In America, however, convenience foods are more accepted, and excessive food preparation is viewed as subjugation.
Esmeralda Santiago married Frank Cantor, and together they founded CANTOMEDIA, a film company that has produced award-winning documentaries. They have two grown children.