Esmeralda Santiago captured readers’ hearts in 1994 with her memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, and was heralded for her proud account of her Nuyorican upbringing and her deep connection to the little Caribbean island. After a novel and two more memoirs, Santiago returns to Puerto Rico in Conquistadora, a historical novel that tells the story of the island itself.
Conquistadora begins at the very beginning—or at least the beginning for one woman—with Ana Larragoity Cubillas as a bright-eyed and curious child in search of adventure in 1800s Spain. Ana grows into a tough, stout woman, and after she falls in love with her best friend Elena, she arranges marriages for both of them to a set of twins. She coerces the husbands to plan their future in Puerto Rico and hopes they will claim their wealth on a sugar plantation, La Hacienda los Gemelos. However, Puerto Rico greets Ana and her new family with stifling heat, disease epidemics and desolation. Much like the Spanish dream of Puerto Rico as a colony, Ana’s own life loses its mystique as her success on La Hacienda becomes “erected on corpses.” Her devotion to sugar is far greater than her connection to her husband, to Elena or even to her own son. In time, it seems as though Ana’s plantation is cursed, though she cannot deny it is where she belongs.
The novel spans nearly her entire life, through child-rearing, ruined marriages and many deaths, leading to an open-ended conclusion, as though to suggest the story of Puerto Rico has just begun.
Styled much like a romance novel from the Civil War era (which in timing it parallels), but told with a stoniness that separates it from more romantic, sweeping novels, Conquistadora is simple in its purpose: to tell the story of those who lived and died in Puerto Rico. Readers may not sympathize with Ana, the book’s hardened hero, but her unflinching devotion to her dream of living with the valor and beauty of her conqueror ancestors is compelling.
Woven together with Ana’s tale are the lives of all those around her, and they are each given time for their own perspective—Elena, the twins, her second husband and business partner, her son, even the slaves, one at a time. The result is a broad and multidimensional account of the little island of Puerto Rico.