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  • Written by Esmeralda Santiago
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Conquistadora

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On Sale: July 12, 2011
Pages: 432 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59677-2
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

As a young girl growing up in Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas is powerfully drawn to Puerto Rico by the diaries of an ancestor who traveled there with Ponce de Leon. And in handsome twin brothers Ramon and Inocente—both in love with Ana—she finds a way to get there. Marrying Ramon at the age of eighteen, she travels across the ocean to Hacienda los Gemelos, a remote sugar plantation the brothers have inherited. But soon the Civil War erupts in the United States, and Ana finds her livelihood, and perhaps even her life, threatened by the very people on whose backs her wealth has been built: the hacienda’s slaves, whose richly drawn stories unfold alongside her own in this epic novel of love, discovery and adventure.  

Excerpt

“Her Small Person”
 
The horizon was smudged, like a bruise, but as the Antares approached land, a veiled green pyramid emerged from the haze. Ana grabbed Ramón’s arm and bounced on her toes, unable to contain her excitement.
 
“Is that it?”
 
Ramón wove her left hand through his elbow, and brought her gloved fingers to his lips. “We’ll soon be inside the harbor.”
 
“You can make out San Felipe del Morro.” Inocente pointed to a mustard-colored headland over the frothing surf.
 
“It’s huge!”
 
“Impregnable,” Inocente added. “Spanish military engineering at its best.”
 
Other passengers pushed closer to the rail, craned their necks, adjusted their hats and bonnets to shade their eyes from the blinding sun. Crewmen hopped around the deck in a dance of sail lowering, rope loosening, latch securing, and the tying down of canvas-wrapped bundles. As the vessel glided through the protected passage into the broad harbor, Ana’s breath quickened. This is it, she thought, Puerto Rico. A sense of déjà vu made her dizzy.
 
“Now I know what my ancestors must have felt,” she said, “seeing land after weeks at sea. . . .”
 
“Let’s hope we have the luck of those who became rich and not the luck of those eaten by the Caribs,” muttered Inocente.
 
Ramón and Ana laughed. Some passengers standing nearby glanced at them nervously and gave them a bit more room. The brothers exchanged an amused look over Ana’s head. She put her other arm through Inocente’s so that they were linked to each other through her. She sighed happily as the walled city came into view.
 
“At last,” she said softly. “We’re here at last.”
 
She closed her eyes and mentally etched the date into memory: Wednesday, October 16, 1844.
 
It was early morning, and the harbor was thick with two- and three-masted schooners, barges, sloops, and fishing boats vying for lanes, most of them flying the red-and-gold Spanish flag. San Juan rose from the waterfront behind the thick walls that protected it from invasions and enemy attacks from the Atlantic Ocean. Wide swatches of green peppered the hill, gardens, or pastures—Ana couldn’t tell—but closely packed buildings intersected by roads and alleys defined most of the land. Several towers topped by crucifixes were scattered across the citadel, their bells echoing over the water. To Ana, San Juan looked like Cádiz, the city they’d left three thousand miles behind in Spain.
 
She freed her arms from Ramón and Inocente and turned to where verdant hills stretched east to west, the vegetation nearly unbroken by man-made structures. Low white clouds formed over the green, blackening the land below. She turned again to the light and sunny city. As the schooner approached the dock, passengers oohed and aahed at the painted houses, the balconies adorned with flowers and foliage on the upper stories. On the fl at roofs, women’s skirts and fringed shawls fl uttered in the breeze in a panoply of color and movement. Some of them waved, and passengers returned their greetings. Other women dressed in black stood as immobile as the sentry boxes over the rock walls of the fort. They were too far from shore for Ana to distinguish features, but so many women in mourning over the gay city palled her humor. She threaded her arms again through Ramón’s, then Inocente’s, arm and pulled them closer, focusing their attention on the movement on the wharf, away from the widows.
 
“There he is!” Ramón pointed at don Eugenio standing by an open carriage near the dock, amid the bustle and hubbub around the waterfront. Next to him stood a younger man, somewhat taller, powerfully built, his face shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat. Eugenio waved when he spotted them, nodded at the younger man, and walked toward the wharf.
 
The dock was narrower than Ana expected, the boards slippery, set wide apart, and she worried her foot might get caught between them. Crowds made her nervous because she was so short that she couldn’t see over people’s heads or around the wide feminine silhouette that was the fashion of the day. Ramón and Inocente formed a barrier between her and the multitude. They steered her to avoid women’s skirts, a man carrying a heavy valise, an old man being led by a much younger woman. Five impeccably dressed children walked slowly hand in hand, taking up the width of the dock, while behind them, a toddler screeched at the top of his lungs in spite of his nurse’s efforts to comfort him. After the fresh ocean breeze on the open seas, the waterfront smelled of dead fish and pine tar, of sweat, urine, rotting wood. Ana was faint.
 
“Almost there,” Ramón said as he led her forward. She finally stepped on solid ground.
 
Bienvenidos, welcome!” don Eugenio said, kissing Ana on both cheeks. His whiskers were damp. “What a joy to have you near again!”
 
While he hugged and kissed his sons, she discreetly wiped the moisture from her cheeks with the back of her glove. From the corner of her eye she caught the bemused smile of the man don Eugenio had been talking to. She turned her back on him.
 
“This way. Your trunks will be delivered to the house.”
 
Don Eugenio helped her into the open carriage, and Ramón climbed in beside her. Inocente and don Eugenio took the facing seats. The driver, a round-faced man with the blackest skin Ana had ever seen, sat on one of the two horses, clucked his tongue, tugged and loosened the reins as he skillfully guided them through the crowd. As Ana opened her parasol, she noticed that the man who smiled at her was still standing in the same spot. He lifted his hand in a wave, and she wondered that he’d be so brazen, but then realized he was waving at don Eugenio, who acknowledged him with a nod.
 
“Who is that?” asked Inocente.
 
“His name is Severo Fuentes. He worked for Rodrigo and has been recommended as manager for the plantation. You’ll meet him later.”
 
Ana wanted to get a better look, but when she turned around, he’d vanished.
 
The street was so congested that they made little progress and beggars took advantage.
 
“Por favor, señora, una limosna,” implored a boy whose left arm ended in a stump just above the wrist.
 
“Por amor a Dios,” begged another, his narrow face peeling in strips as thin and transparent as discarded snakeskin.
 
On the other side of the carriage a woman pressed along, silently, hands cupped, huge eyes imploring.
 
Don Eugenio scattered them with his walking stick, but they followed, clamoring, while Ramón, Inocente, and Ana tried to ignore them. It was impossible, however. There were so many, and so persistent.
 
Ana reached into her reticule, and thinking she was about to hand out alms, the beggars changed their outcries. “Que Dios la bendiga, señora,” they blessed her. “Que la Santísima Virgen se lo pague, señora.” Their grateful voices brought more pleas and outstretched hands, bringing the carriage to a stop.
 
“If you give to one, they won’t leave us alone,” Inocente warned.
 
“I know that,” she said irritably. She was born in a city where dodging beggars was a skill learned from childhood. She pulled a handkerchief from the reticule and blotted her cheeks and forehead. The beggars’ cries of disappointment were followed by curses.
 
“Go away. There’s nothing for you here.” Inocente’s walking stick struck a boy on the chest, another on the shoulders. A small boy tried to climb onto the carriage.
 
Don Eugenio pushed him off. “Where are you going?”
 
A mounted soldier pressed his horse through the crowd and, in between curses and threats, moved the beggars along. They didn’t go far, though, just to the carriage behind, already mobbed.
 
“Everything all right, Colonel?” the soldier asked, saluting don Eugenio.
 
“Thank you. We’re fine now.” Don Eugenio saluted back. “Just trying to get home.”
 
The soldier cleared the road in front of them, and soon they entered the gate and were heading uphill. Don Eugenio brushed the sleeves and lapels of his white suit, even though none of the beggars had touched him. “Disgraceful! Something must be done about these people.”
 
“Every city has beggars, Papá,” said Ramón, “and orphans and lunatics. San Juan wouldn’t be a proper city without them.”
 
“You might think it’s funny, but your mother and cousin can’t leave the house without being harassed. It’s outrageous.”
 
“Why are there so many children?” asked Ana.
 
“No orphanage,” answered don Eugenio, “and for that matter, no lunatic asylum. There’s no place to put them. And the city has grown rapidly. The authorities can’t keep up.”
 
Don Eugenio continued his harangue, but Ana couldn’t concentrate. She couldn’t bear the hot, humid air. Her clothes were heavy; the seven ruffled petticoats under her fine cambric skirt weighed against her thighs. Her scalp was on fire even under her parasol and bonnet. Droplets of sweat slid down her neck and back, dampening her chemise, soaking into her corset, the stays digging into her ribs.
 
“Are you all right, querida?” asked Ramón. “You look flushed.”
 
“It’s the heat. It will take getting used to.”
 
“We’ll be home soon,” don Eugenio promised.
 
She’d never seen such bright sun, nor shadows with such finely defined edges. The contrast between light and dark was so great that her eyes watered and strained, trying to make out the shapes inside buildings and beyond alleys.
 
Even away from the harbor, pedestrians vied for space with carts, carriages, and soldiers on horseback and on foot, with servants carrying baskets full of produce or stacks of kindling on their heads. Barefoot stevedores in tattered pants and shirts moved sacks and bundles from the wharves into the wooden buildings lining the waterfront and the streets leading to it. In Sevilla there were people from all over the world, but Ana had never seen so many black men, women, and children. And even along the busy waterfronts in Sevilla and Cádiz, human beings didn’t carry such huge loads.
 
Ana had expected San Juan to be pretty. It was the capital of the island, after all, settled three hundred years earlier. It surprised her that it was so unfinished. The road they were traveling on was deeply rutted. Trenches along one side or the other ran with streams of foul-smelling black water. Ana had read that the government decreed that all houses in San Juan should be masonry, but along the city walls, an amalgam of shacks and ranchos leaned against one another, most of them built from scraps and roofed with straw or layers of palm fronds. Dogs, pigs, and goats wandered unattended, eating whatever they could scavenge from the mounds of garbage. Hens squawked, flailing their wings into short, ungainly flight to avoid the wheels of slow-moving carriages or the hooves of horses and beasts of burden. The people in the shacks were dressed in tatters, the children naked, the women in thin cotton skirts and blouses cut low on the shoulder, their unkempt hair tied up loosely or wrapped in turbans.
 
“This section of the city,” don Eugenio said, “is less well maintained, as you can see. Most of the people here are libertos. They were slaves who fought on the royalist side in the wars for independence in Spanish America, so the government allowed them to find asylum, and liberty, in Puerto Rico.”
 
“But there are whites here, too,” Ana said. “So they can’t all be libertos.
 
“Doubtless you’ve read that this island was a penal colony for centuries. Some of the men here are desterrados, exiles who chose not to or couldn’t return to Spain after serving their sentences. Others came here as soldiers and established families. Some,” don Eugenio sighed, “came to make their fortune but were seduced by the bottle, by cards, by fighting cocks.”
 
As the carriage wheeled west, the dwellings were more what Ana expected: closely set masonry houses two or three stories high with overhanging balconies and terra-cotta roof tiles. Most had businesses on the ground floor with residences upstairs, evidenced by lace curtains waving in the breeze. The only women on the streets were servants and hawkers, most of them dark complexioned.
 
The higher they climbed, the newer the houses, and the fewer the businesses on the ground floors. Just as they turned the corner from a small plaza, they stopped in front of a solid, new two-story house with carved doors. A painted tile was embedded in the masonry: Calle Paloma 9.
 
“Here we are.” Don Eugenio helped Ana from the carriage. “Take care, my dear, the stones are slippery.” This street was narrower, paved with cobblestones and raised flagstone sidewalks on either side.
 
As they entered the foyer, Ana’s eyes adjusted to the dim, cool interior. The hall led to an open courtyard shaded by blooming plants and bushes. A gurgling fountain in the center masked the street sounds. Doña Leonor was waiting at the bottom of a wide set of stairs to the left, and behind her, Elena. When their eyes met, Ana read in them Elena’s happiness and her longing.
 
A flurry of hugs, kisses, and blessings. A young, barefoot maid appeared to take their hats, gloves, Ana’s parasol, and the men’s walking sticks. Ana noticed Elena’s envious accounting of her fashionable pale green dress and lace pelerine.
 
“Take this, too,” she said to the maid, slipping the pelerine from her shoulders. She was immediately cooler. “My goodness, is it always this hot here?”
 
“The end of October marks the beginning of the dry season,” don Eugenio explained. “San Juan is known for its healthful breezes, and it’s unusual for the air to be so still this time of year.”
 
“It’s a disaster in the countryside,” doña Leonor said, snapping her fan open and leading them upstairs. “We’ve had no rain in weeks. The crops are suffering, and the cattle . . .”
 
“Come, my dear, no bad news. They’ve just arrived,” don Eugenio chided his wife.
 
“You’ve grown taller, I’m certain of it,” doña Leonor addressed her two sons as one. “And you, Ana, have filled out a bit. Your face is rounder. It’s most becoming.”
 
She led them into a parlor with tall louvered doors facing a balcony choked with potted geraniums and gardenias. The louvers were half open to cut down the sun, but fragrance weighted the air, and Ana again was assaulted by too much light, color, perfume, heat. Ramón led her to a chair away from the balcony in the cooler part of the room. She found comfort in the furnishings she recognized from the Argoso home in Cádiz by their heavy, carved wooden backs and armrests, their solid Spanishness.
 
“Your harp!” Ana exclaimed when she saw it in a corner.
 
“Yes, isn’t it lovely!” Doña Leonor looked fondly toward the instrument. “It arrived without a scratch, in spite of my fears. You can imagine how much I missed it.”
 
“She fussed and worried about it more than she worried about me!” Don Eugenio smiled.
 
Ana noticed that Elena seemed confused about where to place herself, as if the arrival of so many people had thrown off the natural balance. She settled in the chair don Eugenio held for her, next to his own. Elena kept glancing from Ramón to Inocente, bypassing Ana’s gaze between them. Finally, she looked at Ana, blushed, lowered her lids, and pressed her lips together.
 
“Will you play for us later, Mamá?” Ramón asked.
 
“Of course, hijo. I’m so happy that we’re together again.” Doña Leonor wiped her eyes. “It’s been a most difficult adjustment—”
 
“Let’s have some coffee,” don Eugenio interrupted, and Elena jumped to ring for the maid.
 
“We missed you, too, Mamá.” Ramón held his mother’s hand. “We came as soon as we could.”
 
“But you’ll be leaving again.” She looked accusingly at Ana.
 
She avoided her mother-in law’s eyes and sought those of Elena, whose expression was noncommittal. How infuriating she is, Ana thought suddenly, so humble and unassuming. She longed to upset her composure, to reveal the true, passionate Elena.
 
“We must go to the hacienda, of course,” Inocente said. “But we’ll spend a couple of months with you in San Juan. You must show us the city. I’m sure you’ve already met everyone worth knowing.”
 
“She’s unstoppable, son,” don Eugenio said. “Your mother and Elena have made many friends. They’re always visiting someone or other.”
 
“We mostly see to the sick and housebound, don’t we, Elena?”
 
“There is much charity work.”
 
“Surely you saw the beggars on your way here.”
 
The maid entered with an ornate silver tray that Ana remembered from Cádiz. She served with the alert submissiveness of a woman who’d been a servant all her life.
 
“Would you prefer something cool?” Elena asked softly when Ana hesitated before the offered coffee. Her beautiful blue eyes wouldn’t meet Ana’s.
 
“Yes,” Ana said. “Yes, I would. Water for me, please.” She knows, Ana thought, about me and Ramón and Inocente. She knows.


From the Hardcover edition.
Esmeralda Santiago|Author Q&A

About Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago - Conquistadora

Photo © Frank Cantor

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of the memoirs When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, which she adapted into a Peabody Award–winning film for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, and The Turkish Lover; the novel América’s Dream; and a children’s book, A Doll for Navidades. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and House & Garden, among other publications, and on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she lives in New York.

Esmeralda Santiago is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Esmeralda Santiago nació en Puerto Rico y es autora de la memoria When I Was Puerto Rican (Cuando era puertorriqueña) y de la novela America’s Dream (El sueño de América). Almost a Woman, la secuela de When I Was Puerto Rican, fue publicada en 1998 y traducida al español en 1999, bajo el titulo de Casi una mujer. Esmeralda Santiago reside en Westchester County, Nueva York.

Author Q&A

Q: Conquistadora is a sweeping story, an epic of Puerto Rico set across three decades. How did this book fifirst start for you? What was the kernel that eventually led to Conquistadora?

A: Soon after my first memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, was published in 1993, I was helping a friend pack her things in preparation for her move from a house to an apartment. Inside a closet I found a heavy, ornate sterling candelabrum with six arms. It was unlike anything else in her home, which was as sleek and modern as she was. She said it was brought to the United States from England by her six-times-great-grandmother and had been passed down to the eldest daughter ever since.

My own grandmother had died recently, and my connection to previous generations on her side had vanished with her. Over the next few days I pondered the lack of information about my family. Asking my mother didn’t yield much beyond what she remembered about her close relatives. She is fair skinned, my father much darker, and I knew that, at least on his side, there must have been black great-grandparents, possibly slaves. I tried to imagine who they might have been, what life in Puerto Rico could have been like before Mami and Papi were born.

I began to read about the early twentieth century, and each new fact sent me to previous years until I was immersed in the Puerto Rican nineteenth century. I was particularly interested in what work people might have performed, what their lives might have been like. With no information about my real ancestors, I started to invent a family history based on my research. From the first, I sensed my imaginary ancestors jostling for my attention. I had to listen. The quieter I was, the louder and more loquacious they
became.

While researching and listening to my imaginary ancestors, I wrote three memoirs, translated two books, coedited two anthologies, adapted one of my memoirs into a film for Masterpiece Theatre, cowrote and performed a radio play, and had essays appear in various publications and as NPR commentary. But regardless of what I was working on, mi gente— my people—filled the silences between other work, other worlds, other words.

My friend’s candelabrum inspired the one that Ana places on the dining table in El Destino the night she decides to become the woman Severo has dreamed about.

Q: You were born in Puerto Rico and you’ve written about Puerto Rico before—perhaps most notably in your memoir When I Was Puerto Rican (hailed as “a welcome new voice, full of passion and authority,” by the Washington Post). What research did you do in the course of writing this novel?

A: I researched Conquistadora backward. That is, I didn’t start with a year and read forward. I read about my parents’ generations, then about my grandparents,’ then kept going back until one day I envisioned Ana Larragoity Cubillas reading her conquistador
ancestor’s journals, dreaming about Puerto Rico. Imagining what she might have read led me to earlier documents about the conquista, and the differences between how the Spanish conquered Puerto Rico as opposed to, say, Peru. But the more I read about the three hundred years before she was born, the more curious I became about Ana’s particular time in history.

The mid-nineteenth century was a period of technological advances, political turmoil around the world, and, as another character in Conquistadora notices, the beginnings of a distinct Puerto Rican identity different from a colono, the word the españoles used to describe the native-born. The midcentury was also the apogee of King Sugar in Puerto Rico. I read books and academic papers by Professors Sidney Mintz, Francisco Scarano, Luis A. Figueroa, and others, to get a sense of how the industry developed in Puerto Rico, as well as other places like Cuba, Jamaica, and Louisiana.

I’ve read countless histories, letters, journals, financial records, and all manner of curious little-known facts, and learned as much as I could about cholera and other common diseases of the time and about the remedies and attempts to relieve the symptoms. I loved Salvador Brau’s history of Puerto Rico, published in 1892, and learned from him about the secret abolitionist societies. Along the way, I rekindled my admiration for the work of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, the ophthalmologist, poet, writer—and political activist—who so inspires Ana’s son, Miguel Argoso Larragoity.

I traveled to Puerto Rico frequently, to walk through miles upon miles of sugarcane in various stages of cultivation. I stepped upon the cobblestones of Trinidad, Cuba, a ninteenth century town built from sugar production, its center so well preserved that it has been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. I’ve spent hours along the narrow streets of Old San Juan to feel what Miguel’s world could have been like, and made as many forays into el campo, the Puerto Rican countryside that so inspired Ana.

I thought I knew the island where I was born, but placing myself in a different time with my invented ancestors gave me a fuller understanding of my own history.

Q: What new stories about the island did you discover?

A: I was surprised by how much we don’t know here and on the island about Puerto Rico preinvasion by the United States in 1898. I was surprised by how many estadounidenses like Mr. Worthy lived there in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Reading Alejandro O’Reilly, George Flinter, Bartolomé de las Casas, and others gave me a sense of how Europeans viewed Puerto Ricans and how the island and its people ignited many imaginations. I learned that the cholera epidemic between 1854 and 1857 was part of a
worldwide pandemic. While they are not included in Conquistadora, the mutinies by Spanish soldiers because their salaries and stipends were chronically late or not delivered at all, fascinated me. In one of these mutinies, in 1855, the soldiers turned the cannons designed to repel invasions in the direction of the city. Sanjuaneros panicked, and people died fleeing the soldiers who were supposed to protect them. I was surprised to learn that Samuel Morse spent time on the island, where his daughter lived, and that he installed the first telegraph in Puerto Rico between his daughter’s home and her husband’s office in the hacienda they owned.

Q: Does the Spanish settling of the country still echo in Puerto Rico today? And what were the diffificulties—and what was liberating—about setting the story 150 years in the past?

A: The Spanish influence in Puerto Rico echoes throughout the culture to this day. We, of course, consider Spanish our mother tongue, even as we still bear scars, five hundred years later, of the genocide of the taínos. The United States invaded the island in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted limited American citizenship. Today we live in a peculiar ambivalence as our culture is becoming less Spanish-centric and more estadounidense. Do we identify more with the conquerors and colonizers of four hundred years of our history, or with the more recent invaders/colonizers of 1898?

The biggest difficulties in setting Conquistadora in the nineteenth century was collecting enough information about the island for me to feel as if I’d lived there then. I needed to know everything about how my imaginary ancestors lived. What did they look like? What did they wear? What did they eat? How did they move from one place to another? What did they hear, see, smell, touch? Most of the original sources have disappeared, and it was hard to find the details I sought. I often appealed to the characters to help me. For example, Nena la Lavandera—the laundress in the novel—told me that the patrones used perfumed linens to wipe their bottoms. I was not sure whether this made-up detail would end up in the final version of the novel. Months after writing that passage, I read that, in fact, some wealthy people took care of this necessary function the way I’d described it. After that, I trusted my characters’ voices even more.

I was also inspired by the research itself, by the process of learning about the past and this particular time in the history of Puerto Rico and the Spanish settling of the island. When I read about the Bando Negro—a law designed to control the movements
and behavior of nonwhite residents, free or enslaved—I was outraged and knew that I had to show how people were affected by those shameful laws. When I read that two-thirds of the deaths during the cholera epidemic came from the gente de color and slaves, it became clear that it had to be a crucial event in the novel. I wanted to find out how the abolition of slaves in the United States, the subsequent Civil War, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln could have direct consequences on the people of Puerto Rico. My goal was to personalize historical events, to show that we don’t live in a vacuum, that while it seems so long ago, history was somebody’s present.

Q: At the heart of Conquistadora is Ana – a young girl living a privileged life in nineteenthth century Spain, who becomes enchanted by the journals of an ancestor who traveled to Puerto Rico with Ponce de León. Ana is the driving force of the story and literally the force that brings her family to Puerto Rico. Tell us a bit about how Ana came to be. And why or how is she a “conquistadora”?

A: I imagined Ana bent over don Hernán’s journals and drawings. There she was, a petite, smart, feisty, courageous, ambitious girl seeking a better fate than the one before her. Her intense focus on the yellowing pages, the way she fingered the splotchy ink on
the parchments, the way she studied every line of don Hernán’s sketches told me that here was a woman I could identify with. We both knew that the right words on a page can change a life.

The more I thought about Ana, the more I admired her for refusing to be whom others expected her to be, and this resonated with my own story and with my own life. I loved that she saw her options clearly: If she didn’t take her life into her own hands, she
might end up, as she and her father worried, dependent on her relatives. I remember myself at the same age, poor, with a load of expectations and burdens I didn’t want to carry but equally weighted by ambition. While Ana had more resources than I had, we
both had to create our own freedom. The irony, of course, is that freedom for one person always comes at the expense of someone else’s.

Christopher Columbus and subsequent conquistadores were not seeking a new world. They were merchants looking for a product that would enrich them and keep them independent. A great many of the conquistadores were the illegitimate sons of great, or at least, wealthy men whose riches would be inherited by legitimate heirs. In that sense, Ana was like them. As a woman, she could not inherit the riches her ancestors had amassed. Like the conquistadores, Ana does whatever she has to do to achieve her goals, even if it means that others suffer. She manipulates the Argosos, uses her son as leverage, marries Severo because if she refused, him he’d leave, and she needed him as the mayordomo. One of the reasons the conquistadores were able to subdue entire populations was their force of character, their insistence that their way was the only way to do things, even if it meant erasing populations and centuries of tradition and custom. Like the conquistadores, Ana used the men and women who made her rich in the service of her own goals, needs, and ideals.

Q: Ana is an incredibly strong and willful woman, and she’s not conventionally pretty. What do you think attracts the men in the novel—Ana’s husband, Ramón; and his twin brother, Inocente; as well as Severo Fuentes, whom they hire to manage their plantation—to Ana? Were there any women like Ana living and working in Puerto Rico in the 1800s—women who, liberated from the constrictions of European society, became the masters of their own destinies?

A: At first, Ramón, Inocente, and Severo were dazzled by Ana’s position as the only daughter of a socially prominent family. Later, Ramón and Inocente were seduced by her adventurous nature and by her ability to convince them that they, like her, were destined
for greater things. A woman does not need to be conventionally beautiful to be alluring. When we fall in love, we fall in love with the image we have created of ourselves in the others’ eyes. Ana knew how to play to Ramón’s and Inocente’s fantasies of themselves until they fell in love with the image she created. Severo fell in love with her because he knew that, in a vertical society like Spain’s, the best way to advance was to marry into it.

I didn’t look for, or find, a character like Ana in Puerto Rican history of the nineteenth century, or anywhere else. She came to me. At first, I worried that I was creating a character who would have been impossible in that time and that place. But the more I read and thought about it, the more I realized that women like Ana have existed throughout time. We just don’t necessarily hear about them. History has ignored and condemned unconventional women, but they have lived and worked and built dynasties. We simply could not have reached this stage of human development without women like Ana.

Q: One aspect of the reality of life in Puerto Rico that comes as a shock to Ana—and may surprise many readers as well—is that the country’s economy in the mid-1800s relied almost entirely on slave labor. Conquistadora tells the stories of the slaves who work on the plantation Ana and her husband own: indigenous people from the island as well as African men and women kidnapped by the Spanish. What were the challenges of depicting slavery, the daily lives and the struggles? How did you approach this obviously weighty subject?

A: Long after I’d delivered the final manuscript of Conquistadora, one of my readers researched my genealogy. The earliest link she found was to a Juan Santiago, dated 1848, the same year as the Bando Negro. I asked my father whether he remembered this ancestor, and he recalled that his paternal grandmother talked about her grandfather Juan, who was “un indio salvaje.” He was black and spoke another language. I think that Juan Santiago was not a savage Indian like my great-grandmother said, but rather an African slave.

It was a poignant moment for me to imagine Juan Santiago, my great-great-greatgrandfather, probably working in the fields of some hacienda in a foreign land perhaps like the enslaved Flora, Siña Damita and Jacobo, holding on to the memory of their other
lives.

It was challenging to find information about the slaves in Puerto Rico because they left no written record. What we know about them is figures on ledgers, sometimes their names and their ages and whether they were born in Puerto Rico or elsewhere. To try to get closer to them, I read slave narratives from other islands and from the United States, and imagined how things might have been different in the Puerto Rican archipelago. Puerto Rican scholars and historians have written about the practices and regulations on the island compared with other places. Details about what the slaves ate, how they were dressed, and how their work was structured came from diverse sources, each providing pieces of information that I then compiled and combined to create human beings who might have lived, loved, worked, died in Hacienda los Gemelos.

While writing Conquistadora, I knew that the novel was not only about Ana and Severo, Ramón and Inocente. I wanted to create an entire world, not just an aspect of it. Because it was so hard to find information about Puerto Rican slaves, I felt a special obligation to bring the slaves to life. I didn’t want to deify or mythologize them. My goal was for them to be as human and flawed as the blancos.

Q: You’ve created a rich, fully realized cast of characters—some chapters are almost like minibiographies, the stories of why and how particular people came to Puerto Rico. Do you have a favorite among your characters? Anyone you can no longer abide?

A: It’s painful to have to choose one character over another because they’re all mi familia, and I love them passionately. Even don Luis, whom everyone in the novel dislikes, had positive qualities — his hospitality, for example, toward the elder Argosos. I did enjoy writing certain sections more than others, though. It was painful to write Nena’s story, but it flowed as if she were whispering it into my ear. Ramón’s walk around the hacienda the night his parents arrive came in the middle of one of my own sleepless nights.
Severo’s chapter when he rides to see Consuelo the first time we meet her came when I was cocooned at home during a blizzard in Upstate New York. José’s monument to suffering was written in a hotel in Miami while I sobbed over my laptop. I cried a lot
when I was writing Conquistadora.

My readers often talk about the humor in my books, and though there isn’t that much humor in this story, I must admit that I enjoyed writing Mr. Worthy, and did laugh out loud when I reread what I’d written.

Q: The country of Puerto Rico itself—which you describe in all its beauty and cruelty—must be recognized as one of the main characters in the book. It’s a land that deeply affects many of the characters, including Ana and Severo, who has also emigrated from Spain, and who has clawed his way out of the lower classes to become a landowner and perhaps even a gentleman. What is it that draws these two characters of very different backgrounds to Puerto Rico? What grabs them so thoroughly as to pit them against family and, sometimes it seems, against reason?

A: Many years ago I read William Carlos Williams’s poem “Adam,” about his English father who moved to Barbados as a child. One of the verses — quoted at the beginning of Conquistadora—struck me particularly, and kept me thinking: the “darker whispering
that death invents especially for northern men whom the tropics have come to hold.” The conquistadores were changed by those darker whisperings of the tropics, by the brown and black skins of the natives and the Africans, by the deep shadows caused by the
blazing sun, by the darker thoughts and actions allowed when you hold power over others. Ana and Severo wanted to control their own destinies, but that requires a particular kind of confidence and ruthlessness, and the ability to go to those dark places in your mind and in your heart. To live in the tropics, the first thing that Ana and Severo had to do was to banish guilt — if they ever had it. Once you banish guilt, you can be like the gods.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the refrain that runs throughout the book: “We’re all a bit of a poet, a bit a musician, a bit mad.”

A: This is one of my favorite Spanish sayings. I heard it for the first time from my father, who was all three things. It is a refrain in my life, the sense that madness and art are intertwined. You need to be a little bit crazy to give yourself entirely to create anything
new, let alone art. Severo, who can easily kill a man, can also design a beautiful hilltop mansion and handle silk as he imagines it melting under his work-worn fingers. Ana is mad to believe that she can not only duplicate her ancestor’s exploits, but triumph where he failed. There is poetry in her actions and in her belief that life and history are a continuum, and that to build a future, it’s first necessary to connect to the past.

During the writing of Conquistadora, I was painfully aware that only the blancos wrote, corresponded, entered into contracts, left records. My paternal grandparents, like 80 percent of Puerto Ricans at the turn of the twentieth century, were illiterate. So were three of my aunts, although my father and his brothers could read and write and sign their names. I’m a writer who, like the bards of old, seeks poetry and music in humanity, but I seek the unheroic, unheralded lives. Maybe I’m mad.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: Ana, Severo, and the residents of Hacienda los Gemelos and El Destino continue to whisper and call to me. I’m listening.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Santiago’s storytelling is thrilling. . . . Conquistadora is a triumph.” —The Washington Post 
  
“An author in full command. . . . In Santiago’s hands, Ana is a woman to remember and Puerto Rico a country to cherish.” —The Miami Herald
  
“A splendid expedition into colonial history complete with enrapturing suspense to the very end.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Ana [is] an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross. . . . A guided tour of the history of sugar and empire.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“An enthralling family saga. . . . Four stars.” —People

“If, as the proverb goes, history is written by the hunters, then Esmeralda Santiago has imagined history as written from the point of view of the lions. A remarkable story for its detail, imagination, meticulous research, and wisdom, this is history written by a lion at the height of her powers.” —Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
  
Conquistadora is an expertly researched novel that fuses Antillean/Puerto Rican history and a spellbinding and action-packed storyline that will surprise and dazzle its readers. . . . A crown jewel of Puerto Rican literature.” —Being Latino
 
“Lusty, ambitious women are staples of epic fiction, and in these pages Santiago has created a ferociously seductive character. . . . Read this absorbing, impeccably researched novel for its lush history and for the way Santiago’s narrative constantly surprises—just as its protagonist does, confronting the gender limitations of her day.” —More
 
Conquistadora is a wonderful and richly drawn novel. . . . A grand achievement from one of our finest writers.” —Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and Beautiful Maria of My Soul
 
“Part romance, part portrait of a woman struggling against the constraints of her time and class. Santiago’s writing often surprises with its sly humor.” —The Dallas Morning News
 
“Extraordinary. . . . . An outstanding story, full of pathos, tropical sensuality, and violence—but it also poses uncomfortable moral questions readers are forced to consider . . . Storytelling genius . . . Conquistadora is a book-group must.” —Booklist (starred review)
 
“Ana will inevitably bring to mind thoughts of that other imperious plantation dweller, Scarlett O’Hara. . . . Conquistadora can be enjoyed as a grand romantic adventure tale, complete with plenty of sex and violence. But author Esmerelda Santiago . . . doesn’t ignore the political and economic realities of Ana’s life.” —The Columbus Dispatch
 
“Readers may not sympathize with Ana . . . but her unflinching devotion to her dream of living with the valor and beauty of her conqueror ancestors is compelling.” —BookPage
 
“An epic beach read.” —Marie Claire
 
“Santiago brings passion, color, and historical detail to this Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind, featuring a hard-as-nails heroine more devoted to her plantation than to any of the men in her life. . . . The richness of [Santiago’s] imagination and the lushness of her language will serve saga enthusiasts well.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“An enthralling epic that not only illuminates the life of one extraordinary woman, but of the great sweep of Puerto Rican history. . . . Conquistadora will seduce readers heart and soul.” —Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban
 
“The multitalented author of When I Was Puerto Rican offers a big, bold novel about life on a Caribbean sugar plantation in the mid-19th century. . . . With drama, adventure, and even a bit of magical realism, Conquistadora may remind readers of Isabel Allende’s novels of Latin America.” —Library Journal
 
“Impressive . . . . Conquistadora is a story of epic dimensions, one which demands to be taken seriously—and at the same time is just a tremendous amount of fun. Hats off to Esmeralda Santiago, for a delicious novel that instructs as easily as it pleases.” —Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls’ Rising
  
“A powerful new novel that is colorful, sexy, and shimmering with magical writing as lush as the tropical island on which it takes place. Alive with all their passions and flaws, here are characters so boldly imagined they feel real, and in a story so transporting you can almost smell the sugar cane.” —Terry McMillan, author of Getting to Happy and Waiting to Exhale
 
“I loved this novel from the first sentence, and wept with emotion by the end. . . . Esmeralda Santiago has given voice to a history that has eluded me. Here is a haunting, visceral epic that satisfies on every level and yet leaves you hungry for more. Bravo, Conquistadora!” —Daisy Martinez, host of Viva Daisy! and author of Daisy’s Holiday Cooking
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Conquistadora, Esmeralda Santiago’s brilliantly realized epic of love, discovery, and adventure in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico—dubbed by Booklist “a book-group must.”

About the Guide

“Santiago brings passion, color, and historical detail to this Puerto Rican Gone With the Wind, featuring a hard-as-nails heroine more devoted to her plantation than to any of the men in her life . . . Santiago makes Caribbean history come alive through characters as human as they are iconic. The richness of her imagination and the lushness of her language will serve saga enthusiasts well, and she provides readers a massive panorama of plantation life—plus all you could ever want to know and more about growing sugar cane.” —Publishers Weekly
 
A stunning, gorgeously told novel by the best-selling author of When I Was Puerto Rican.
 
Even as a young girl in nineteenth-century Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas is drawn to the exotic island of Puerto Rico by the diaries of an ancestor who traveled there with the conquistador Ponce de León. And in twin brothers Ramón and Inocente—both in love with Ana—she finds a way to get there: she marries Ramón and convinces the brothers that their destiny is in the remote sugar plantation they’ve inherited on the island.
 
But Ana’s fantasies haven’t prepared her for the unrelenting heat, the dangers of the untamed countryside, and the slave labor on which life at Hacienda los Gemelos depends. And when the Civil War breaks out in the United States, Ana finds her livelihood, and perhaps even her life, threatened by the very people on whose backs her wealth has been built: the hacienda’s slaves, whose richly drawn stories unfold alongside her own. And though at last Ana falls for a man who may be her destiny—a once-forbidden love—she will sacrifice nearly everything to keep hold of the land that has become her true home.
 
A sensual, riveting tale—thrilling history told through the story of an indomitable, unforgettable woman.

About the Author

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of the memoirs When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, which she adapted into a film for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, and The Turkish Lover; the novel América’s Dream; and a children’s book, A Doll for Navidades.  Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and House & Garden, among other publications, and on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she currently lives in New York.

Discussion Guides

1. Santiago’s epigraph is an excerpt from “Adam” by William Carlos Williams: “Underneath the whisperings/of tropic nights/there is a darker whispering/that death invents especially/for northern men/whom the tropics/ have come to hold.” Why do you think she chose this passage?

2. How familiar were you with the history Santiago provides in the opening section of the novel—El Encuentro/The Encounter: November 19, 1493?

3. Santiago’s first book was the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, which told an entirely different sort of history: that of her own journey from Puerto Rico to the United States. Yet Conquistadora also makes the personal historical. How do fact and fiction play off each other in this story? How is reading historical fiction different from reading a nonfiction historical account of a time period?

4. As the book begins, how do you feel about Ana? Is she a likable character? What one word would you use to describe her?

5. What draws Ana to Puerto Rico? What opportunities exist for her there—as a woman of a certain class, a señorita de buena familia—that weren’t available in Spain? What about Severo? What brings him to Puerto Rico, and what is he able to accomplish there that might have been impossible in Spain?

6. How does Ana’s attitude toward slavery, and her own slaves, change over the course of the novel? How does she change in general and why?

7. Discuss Ana’s relationship with Elena. What draws these women together—and what drives them apart? How do their motivations for getting married differ?

8. Why do you think Ana agrees to sleep with both Ramón and Inocente? Does she have a choice in the matter?

9. On page 73, Ana considers a phrase: “We are all a bit of a poet, a bit of a musician, a bit mad, she agreed. But she thought that Severo Fuentes, who could quote Cervantes with uncanny precision, was perhaps the maddest of them all.” Do you agree with Ana about Severo? Why or why not? How are “madness” and a sense of mission linked for Severo, and for Ana?

10. Why does Los Gemelos become so important to Ana? Why won’t she leave—and why would she be willing to go so far as to trade her son for the plantation? Did you understand her motivation for this? Why or why not?

11. Why does Ana refer to her slaves as “nuestra gente” (“our people”)?

12. Discuss the characters of Conciencia and Meri and their relationships with Ana. How does Conciencia function as a conscience for Ana? Why does Ana feel that she must save Meri from her burns? And why do you think Ana is able to act maternally toward her slaves in some ways, but is unable to be a mother to her own son?

13. Why does Severo want Ana as his wife, although it is Consuelo who makes him happy? Do you think he can love these two women at once?

14. What is the significance of the house Severo builds for Ana? Why does he name it El Destino?

15. On page 319, Santiago tells us that, three generations later, Miguel’s paintings would wind up stored in a warehouse and forgotten. How do you think this connects to the larger story of Puerto Rican history, and Ana’s endeavors at Hacienda los Gemelos?

16. Discuss Miguel’s fate. What do you think he would have said to Ana, had he had the chance?

17. As the novel ends, the American Civil War has already begun to change life in Puerto Rico—perhaps especially for the hacienda’s slaves, who are inspired by “el libertador Abrámlincon.” How is the history of slavery in Puerto Rico similar to, or different from, the history of slavery in America? What surprised you most about Santiago’s depiction of the slaves’ daily lives? 

18. How does Conquistadora compare to other postcolonial literature you’ve read—stories that take place in Africa, Asia, and the Americas?

19. Does Ana earn the designation conquistadora? If she were alive today, what do you think she would do for a living?

20. What do you think lies ahead for Ana and Severo? What about Segundo, who will inherit their land and the hacienda? And the slaves at the hacienda?

Suggested Readings

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros; The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos; Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese; Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell; The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

  • Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago
  • July 10, 2012
  • Fiction; Fiction - Historical
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780307388599

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