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Novel Revisits Puerto Rico's History

Esmeralda Santiago (<i>When I was Puerto Rican</i>) delivers an enthralling tale in <i>Conquistadora</i>

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.

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. >>

Her rich and elegantly told tale is packed with inspired characters — like Severo, the iron-fisted mayordomo, one step ahead of everyone else but smitten and conquered by Ana's mettle — and deftly-chosen details, like this description of Ana's first glimpse of Hacienda Los Gemelos:

"One minute they were in the forest and the next they emerged into an open valley in many shades of green, from pale, almost yellow to olive. Grayish lavender tassels rippled over some fields." "'That's the guajana,' Severo said, 'the cane flower that indicates when the stalks are ready for harvest.'

"In the far distance, soft-edged mountains stretched west to east. What land wasn't under cultivation was forested. Scattered over the valley, smokestacks pointed to the sky from the surrounding green."

Through the story of the flawed but heroic Ana, a character that the New York Daily News calls a Spanish Scarlett O'Hara, Santiago chronicles the history of Puerto Rico's conquest years when slave revolts, hurricanes and a cholera epidemic challenged all romantic illusions of turning a ramshackle farm into a wealthy sugarcane plantation. Santiago deals with issues of race, social status and sexuality without delivering easy judgments, and although the details of sugar production can be tedious, readers are rewarded with a greater understanding of the complexities of the times.

Ana perseveres through the tragedies, taking charge and negotiating even the custody of her only son to stay in the land she loves. She loses plenty, and she loves even more. At the end, only the land doesn't disappoint, and one can feel Esmeralda Santiago's own attachment to her native soil when she writes of Ana: "Long before she reached it, she knew she'd love this land, would love it as long as she lived."

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