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Novel Revisits Puerto Rico's History

Esmeralda Santiago (When I was Puerto Rican) delivers an enthralling tale in Conquistadora

En español | Esmeralda Santiago — the New York-based author of one novel and three memoirs, including the best-selling When I Was Puerto Rican — returns to fiction with the impressive Conquistadora. This epic novel, set in the 19th century, chronicles the extraordinary adventure of a brave and willful young woman from Seville, Spain, who sheds her scripted aristocratic life to seek her fortune in the rugged and dangerous New World.

Esmeralda Santiago -

It took the 63-year-old author seven years to research and write the 415-page novel, which was 1,000 pages at first draft and is being simultaneously published in English by Knopf and in Spanish by the Spain-based Alfaguara.

See also: When Worlds Collide.

"The research alone was very challenging," says Santiago, who traveled to Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico to investigate the lifestyles of the aristocracy, the laborers and the enslaved in colonial times. "It took me years just to digest a lot of the information I was collecting.…It's really the most ambitious book I've written in every respect."

The protagonist, 18-year-old Ana Cubillas, is enchanted by the illustrated journals and letters of a relative who accompanied Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León on his first expedition to what would become Puerto Rico. Nursed by a gypsy and gifted with "an agile and creative mind," Ana negotiates an ingenious way of crossing the Atlantic. She marries Ramón Argoso, an identical twin so fond of his brother Inocente that they share everything, including their women, on the condition that all three of them sail to Puerto Rico and start their new life in Los Gemelos, the hacienda the twins have inherited from an uncle. The brothers are smitten by Ana's tales of her reading and her unwavering certainty that they can turn the farm into a profitable venture.

"To them, she represented their independence," the author writes. "To her, they were the agents of her freedom."

Santiago, who was born in San Juan and moved to the United States at age 13, says Ana is a product of her imagination, yet the author is certain that there were formidable dreamers and doers like her among the corseted and well-mannered Spanish señoritas of yesteryear.

"So much of what happened in the 19th century was written [in journals and diaries] by men, so women's lives are not so readily available," she said, in a recent interview. "I did not find a journal, nor a hidden trove of papers or anything like that, but my instincts told me that these women existed, that they were just the forgotten or were unusual and iconoclastic and rebellious, and they wouldn't have been written about. But they were doing what they needed to do and they didn't have the time to write the stories themselves."

Next: Santiago's inspired characters. >>

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