Spotlight on “Las Madres” by Esmeralda Santiago

by LitStack Editor

The lives and loves of five women and the secret that binds them together.

Las Madres by Esmeralda Santiago

The Lives and Loves of Las Madres Between Puerto Rico and The Bronx

From the award-winning, best-selling author of When I Was Puerto Rican, a powerful novel of family, race, faith, sex, and disaster that moves between Puerto Rico and the Bronx, revealing the lives and loves of five women and the secret that binds them together

About Las Madres

They refer to themselves as “las Madres,” a close-knit group of women who, with their daughters, have created a family based on friendship and blood ties.Their story begins in Puerto Rico in 1975 when fifteen-year-old Luz, the tallest girl in her dance academy and the only Black one in a sea of petite, light-skinned, delicate swans, is seriously injured in a car accident. Tragically, her brilliant, multilingual scientist parents are both killed in the crash. 

Now orphaned, Luz navigates the pressures of adolescence and copes with the aftershock of a brain injury, when two new friends enter her life, Ada and Shirley. Luz’s days are consumed with aches and pains, and her memory of the accident is wiped clean, but she suffers spells that send her mind to times and places she can’t share with others.

In 2017, in the Bronx, Luz’s adult daughter, Marysol, wishes she better understood her. But how can she when her mother barely remembers her own life? To help, Ada and Shirley’s daughter, Graciela, suggests a vacation in Puerto Rico for the extended group, as an opportunity for Luz to unearth long-buried memories and for Marysol to learn more about her mother’s early life. 

But despite all their careful planning, two hurricanes, back-to-back, disrupt their homecoming, and a secret is revealed that blows their lives wide open. In a voice that sings with warmth, humor, friendship, and pride, celebrated author Esmeralda Santiago unspools a story of women’s sexuality, shame, disability, and love within a community rocked by disaster.

Praise for Las Madres

Santiago (Conquistadora) delivers an immersive intergenerational saga set in New York City, Maine, and Puerto Rico. Lesbian couple Ada and Shirley and their friend Luz are the “las madres” of the title; Luz’s daughter Marysol, whose apartment is across the hall from her mom’s in the Bronx, and Ada and Shirley’s daughter Graciela, who lives near her mothers in coastal Maine, are “las nenas.” 

Marysol and Graciela were born in the U.S. but feel a visceral attachment to Puerto Rico, their mothers’ “homeland.” As the group prepares for a trip to the island to celebrate Shirley’s 70th birthday in 2017, Graciela, who has been told by Ada and Shirley that she was conceived by Ada in a long-forgotten one-night stand, “wonders whether DNA testing might shed some light on her parentage.” 

Meanwhile, flashbacks to mid-1970s Puerto Rico recount an accident that left an adolescent Luz with a traumatic brain injury, and when an unexpected turn of events brings the group to familiar Puerto Rican neighborhoods, long-held family secrets threaten to surface. Santiago wrings palpable emotion from her characters, and hauntingly portrays Hurricane María’s devastating effect on the island. 

There are false notes, including Graciela’s characterization-via-hashtag (“she considers herself #spiritual”), but also a profound sincerity. This tenderhearted story of trauma and recovery has undeniable appeal.—Publishers Weekly

Las Madres is “A sweeping and supple story centering three Puerto Rican women and their daughters living in the Bronx. As one of their daughters becomes curious about her background, her mother’s childhood car accident—which took the lives of both of her mother’s parents—comes sharply into view. Yet her mother can’t remember the tragic event. To uncover the mystery, the women plan a vacation to Puerto Rico, a place wracked by hurricanes and secrets long buried.”—Ms. Magazine

In Las Madres, “Santiago offers a vibrant portrayal of women supporting one another through disability and hardship.”—Becky Meloan, The Washington Post

“Esmeralda Santiago’s Las Madres is an inspiring story of women and their friendships that reminds us of our own.”—Sandra Cisneros, author of Woman Without Shame

“Esmeralda Santiago is already a legend. With Las Madres, a rich and deeply felt novel about friendship, family secrets, belonging, and the boundless love that survives devastation, she confirms her status as an absolute icon.”—Cristina Henriquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans

“I savored this tender novel that celebrates the power of resilience—of Luz, of las madras, las nenas and the people of Puerto Rico. Santiago’s Las Madres is full of secrets and sacrifice and moments of tension and laughter that can only come in the company of women with long histories together.  With many rich layers, this full hearted novel beautifully explores the power of human compassion and what it means to truly care for another.”—Xochitl Gonzalez, author of Olga Dies Dreaming

“An emotionally vast and resonant new novel by the brilliant Esmeralda Santiago. Oscillating between two pivotal years decades apart, Las Madres is a deep-dive into the history of modern Puerto Rico and a number of its extraordinary women—their secrets, their tragedies, and the reclamations they share. A magnificent read.”—Cristina García, author of Vanishing Maps

Las Madres is “An immersive intergenerational saga… Santiago wrings palpable emotion from her characters, and hauntingly portrays Hurricane María’s devastating effect on the island… This tenderhearted story of trauma and recovery has undeniable appeal.”—Publishers Weekly

In Las Madres, “In 2017, Luz returns home to Puerto Rico with family and friends—the “madres” of the title—hoping to recover memories lost in a 1975 accident that took the lives of her accomplished scientist parents. The first novel in a decade from an author whose memoir When I Was Puerto Rican was a major best-seller.”—Library Journal

An unusual take on the power of memory.Kirkus Reviews

From the Publisher

A Puerto Rican woman displaced from her home and her own past builds a surprising life.

Teenage Luz Peña Fuentes is happy growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1975. Her doting parents, Salvadora and Federico, are multilingual research scientists who provide their only child with a warm home and complete support for the lessons she hopes will lead to a career as a ballerina. Their love helps counter the bullying she sometimes suffers as “the tallest girl and the only Black one” in the ballet school. 

But a car crash destroys Luz’s world, killing her parents and leaving her with serious physical and mental disabilities. She has no memory of her earlier life—a small mercy in that she can’t remember the accident and, for a short time, she forgets what racism is. For the rest of her life, the few memories she can hang onto will be secondhand—the memories others tell her about, not her own. The novel alternates between Luz’s girlhood and her life four decades later in the Bronx in 2017, where her grandfather took her to live after the accident. 

He’s gone now, but Luz has a family circle to support her. Two of them are women who have cared for her since the accident: a lesbian couple named Shirley and Ada. Luz, Shirley, and Ada call themselves las madres. The rest of the circle is las nenas: Luz’s daughter, Marysol, and Ada and Shirley’s daughter, Graciela. Luz functions well in some ways—she married and had Marysol, then lost her young husband in another tragic event. She makes a living as an artist but still has almost no memory and is dependent on the other four women in daily life. 

To help answer Marysol’s longing to understand more about her mother’s past and her native Puerto Rico, the five women plan a vacation there—in hurricane season—that will be full of unexpected challenges and shocking revelations. As can happen in novels with narratives split between different time periods, in this one the chapters set in the 1970s are more vivid and engaging than many of those set in the present, which can bog down in extended passages of exposition. Luz’s shattered memory serves to a degree as a metaphor for the Puerto Rican diaspora and the lasting effects of colonialism, but the book’s core is its strong female friendships.

About Esmeralda Santiago, Author Las Madres

Las Madres author Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of the novel Conquistadora and the memoirs When I was Puerto Rican and Almost A Woman, which was adapted into a Peabody Award–winning movie for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she lives with her husband, documentary filmmaker Frank Cantor, in New York, and Port Clyde, Maine.

You can find and follow Esmeralda Santiago on her webiste, and on Facebook.

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