Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago

“Santiago takes us through events of the past as if they were rooms.” —The New York Times Book Review

An epic novel of love, discovery, and adventure by the author of the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican.

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 León. And in handsome twin brothers Ramón and Inocente—both in love with Ana—she finds a way to get there. She marries Ramón, and in 1844, just eighteen, she travels across the ocean to a remote sugar plantation the brothers have inherited on the island.

Ana faces unrelenting heat, disease and isolation, and the dangers of the untamed countryside even as she relishes the challenge of running Hacienda los Gemelos. But 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 when 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.

This is a sensual, riveting tale, set in a place where human passions and cruelties collide: thrilling history that has never before been brought so vividly and unforgettably to life.

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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.

Meet Esmeralda Santiago on her book tour

From our Q&A with the author:

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 nineteenth 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.

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