Esmeralda Santiago's "Las Madres" Is a Story of Memory, Love, and Puerto Rico

Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

A thick air of melancholy drifts through the start of Esmeralda Santiago's new novel, "Las Madres." The narrator notes that after protagonist Luz Peña Fuentes left her native Puerto Rico as a teenager, the accent mark over the ñ in Peña was left out in English. Without the tilde, her last name took on a different definition: Pena Fuentes can mean "Sorrow Fountains," or "Penalty Fountains" — even "Pity Fountains" or "Shame Fountains."

"Crossing an ocean made me sadder," Luz recalls to her daughter, Marysol Ríos Peña, decades later.

Marysol reminds her 57-year-old mother that Luz is who she believes she is, no matter what. "Your name and identity are different things," she adds.

Luz accepts this as truth and types her daughter's words into the Notes app on her phone. She wants to keep a record of their dialogue. Some memories can be fleeting, yes. But in Luz's case, most memories from her previous life were wiped clean after a car accident left her with a brain injury. She was 15 at the time of the crash. The most searing pain of all: her multilingual scientist parents, who doted on her and encouraged her ballet dreams, were both killed.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the new orphan found herself navigating a new chapter with the support of her grandparents and two new friends named Ada and Shirley.

From the acclaimed author of the 1993 memoir "When I Was Puerto Rican" comes this richly told and indelible story about friendship, trauma, recovery, and strength in many forms. Santiago has once again placed her deep love for Puerto Rico and its people on the page with a story that is as much about the island as it is about her tenderly built protagonists.

"Las Madres," which was released on Aug. 1 by Knopf, follows five women: There's "las madres" — Luz and her longtime best friends, gay couple Ada and Shirley. And there's "las nenas" — Luz's daughter, Marysol, and Ada and Shirley's daughter, Graciela. It's the year 2017, and the women decide to embark on an epic trip to Puerto Rico. Perhaps being back on the island where Luz grew up will unearth some long-buried memories. But while there, the women find themselves in the eye of Hurricane Maria — the deadly Category 5 hurricane that would forever change Puerto Rico. It is also during this trip that a family secret that has bonded the women together is revealed.

For this novel, Santiago places themes of trauma, recovery, resilience, and memory at the forefront. Chapters alternate between Luz's earlier life as a teen coping with the loss of her parents and the aftershock of a brain injury, and the year 2017, where we get to know "las nenas" and their relationships with their own mothers. The Puerto Rican author's gorgeous prose is the backbone of "Las Madres" — it's as expansive as it is concerned for the smallest details, an exercise in Santiago's masterful storytelling.

On memory: in order to make sense of ourselves and our world, we rely on it. What happens when someone doesn't have that, like Luz? Her hunger to document her own life extends to bookshelves in her Bronx home, which are filled with journals. In them, Luz jots down what she did when, with whom, and where. The artist will return to them later and declare to herself that this is her life. And at the same time, she'll also ask: Is this my life?

Santiago does a beautiful job at painting the commitment that occurs when women are bonded together through love (and, in this case, a big secret). "Graciela, Ada, Shirley, and Marysol have talked about, argued over, studied, and discussed what's going on in Luz's mind, coming up with guesses and theories but few conclusions," the author narrates in an early chapter. "She's sequestered within, unable to profit from or share her intelligence with others but, thankfully, able to express herself (through art)."

With great skill, Santiago guides readers through Luz's trauma and recovery from the accident. But we see that she is not ever fully recovered. She often suffers from spells — "achaques" — where her mind is sent to times and places in her past.

It makes sense that Santiago dedicated her novel, "For the Puerto Rican people." The island is itself a larger-than-life character in "Las Madres." Puerto Rico is not only the foundation of the chapters centered on Luz's adolescence, but it is also threaded into the chapters from 2017 in the months leading up to Hurricane Maria. And, of course, it's where the women find themselves bracing for the deadly storm.

Since the devastation caused by both Hurricane Irma and Maria, stories have been brought forth by Puerto Rican writers in picture books, and novels. "Las Madres" is Santiago's rich contribution to these stories.

The chapters set during Hurricane Maria are particularly harrowing and heartening. With an eye that is both unflinching and loving, Santiago tells a story of survival, and of a people who continue to move forward because they have no choice but to. But it's also about more than just the devastating hurricane; it's about figuring out oneself. As a Puerto Rican, Santiago is hyperaware of what it means to navigate identity. In one chapter titled "Flags," Santiago writes that Marysol is a Puerto Rican in the Bronx who's never been to Puerto Rico but yearns for a place she's never seen. She sees Puerto Rican flags everywhere in the Bronx during the summer of 2017.

As the author writes: "All these Puerto Rican flags are guiding her toward something she's been missing . . . "

In her novel's coda and acknowledgments, Santiago writes that she aches for the place where she was born and "its people, here and there."

"To be a Puerto Rican wherever we are is to fret over the uncertainty of often violent weather, natural forces, and repressive political directives that have shaped us for more than five hundred years of colonization by Spain and the United States," she says. But one thing is true about Puerto Ricans, the author adds. "We do not give up," she writes. "Nosotros no nos rendimos."

In the end, Puerto Ricans form the nucleus of "Las Madres." The island of Puerto Rico is the connective tissue between "las madres" and their daughters. It looms large over the novel's discussions of identity and where Puerto Ricans in the diaspora fit on the archipelago. And, just as in real life, it is the center of death and destruction by Hurricane Maria.

Through her deeply felt characters and vivid scenes of Puerto Ricans living (and fending for) their lives, Santiago makes one thing clear: Puerto Ricans — whether on the island or in the diaspora — deserve to be seen, heard, and listened to. "Las Madres" is a deep dive into one of her great preoccupations: that her people be made visible.

Though it's been nearly six years since Hurricane Maria struck the island, the aftermath lingers on. And from the countless ripples that followed, "Las Madres" has cemented its place as a timeless story that will leave readers with a greater understanding and appreciation of what it means to navigate life as a Puerto Rican.