Esmeralda Santiago, also known as Negi, describes her childhood growing up in Puerto Rico and her eventual move to New York with her mother and siblings.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In Julia Alvarez’s short story “Names/Nombres,” the author explores the various names she has received over the years.
Have students read this memoir about Julia Alvarez's experiences immigrating to New York before they start When I Was Puerto Rican, to generate a discussion about immigration and identity. Ask students to discuss Julia’s experiences when she comes to New York. What aspects of her identity do students think are impacted by her move to New York? How is this reflected in the various names that she’s given over the years? Do students think Julia’s experiences as an immigrant are likely experienced by other immigrants? Why or why not?
In Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s short story “The Medicine Bag,” Martin’s grandpa visits him and passes down a medicine bag to him, an important object in their family.
Introduce this short story after page 104, when Negi stays with her grandparents. Ask students to discuss how Negi’s relationship with her grandparents compares to Martin’s relationship with his grandfather in “The Medicine Bag.” What teachings do the grandparents impart on the grandchildren in the two texts? Have students to discuss the distance that exists between Martin and his grandfather at the beginning of the short story. They should also discuss whether or not they believe a similar distance exists between Negi and her grandparents.
In Nikki Grimes’s poem “David’s Old Soul,” a speaker describes himself growing up as he takes on more responsibility.
Introduce this poem after page 130, when Negi is put in charge of her younger siblings. Ask students to discuss why Negi and the speaker in the poem are considered old souls. Do Negi and the speaker choose to be old souls? What additional responsibilities do they have as the older siblings? How does the speaker in the poem respond to having to grow up quickly? How does Negi respond to the responsibility of having to watch her younger siblings?
In Gwendolyn Brooks’ short story “Home,” a family may be forced to leave their home.
Introduce this novel excerpt after page 209, when Negi is leaving for New York. Use this passage to generate a discussion about what makes a home. How do the characters in Brooks’ novel excerpt describe what makes a home? What has it been like for Negi to have so many homes in such a short period of time? How do students think Negi would describe what makes a home?
In Pedro Pietri’s epic poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Pietri describes the experiences of five Puerto Ricans in America.
Have students read this poem about the harsh realities of the American Dream after page 266, when Negi and her family have moved to New York in pursuit of a better life. Ask students to discuss how the poem depicts the experiences of Puerto Ricans in New York. How does this compare to Negi and her family’s experiences in New York? Ask students to discuss how hard Negi’s mother works for her children, and what she wants for them in New York. Do students think that the American Dream is as accessible to Negi and her family as it is for other people in America? How do students see what they’ve learned about Puerto Rican culture and beliefs from the book reflected in the poem?
In June 2014, NPR published this story about Rashema Melson. At the time, Melson was a homeless high school senior at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. She is now a student at Georgetown University.
Introduce this informational text, about a homeless high school senior, after students have finished the book. Students would’ve discovered that Negi is attending Harvard University. Use the NPR article to generate a discussion on how hard Rashema Melson and Negi had to work to succeed in school. What obstacles did Melson and Negi face? How did they both struggle with unstable homes at some point in their lives? Despite the obstacles they have faced, how have both girls succeeded?
In Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Mothers,” the speaker describes the different ways she has seen her mother throughout her life.
After students finish the book, consider using this poem, about the relationship between a daughter and mother, to help generate a post-reading analysis of the relationship between characters. Ask students to reflect on Negi’s relationship with her mother. How does their relationship change throughout Negi’s childhood and into her adolescence? Throughout Negi’s childhood, how is her relationship with her mother impacted by the addition of younger siblings? Do students think that Negi and her mother grew closer after they moved to New York? Have students explain their reasoning.