At first it’s difficult to understand why Ana Larragoity Cubillas — the heroic protagonist in Esmeralda Santiago’s Conquistadora — is so “enthralled by the land, its mystery and romance,” as the author puts it in an early passage. She is a young woman born to high society in 19th-century Sevilla who figures out a way of escaping her rigid upbringing and fulfilling her destiny in the New World conquered by her ancestors.
The land is Puerto Rico, and most of the story takes place in and around a sugar plantation, but the sounds, sights, and smells of the cañaveral are only slightly alluded to.
Santiago presents a fictionalized — though not inaccurate — account of a defining period in Puerto Rico’s history: the last decades of Spanish rule and slavery. She is mostly accurate with the facts that parallel her story, but deviates when she retells Taíno mythology in a prologue.
But the novel is not about the land — it is about the character. As a teen, Ana charms twin brothers to move to Puerto Rico and take over a farm they’ve inherited. She marries the “older” of the twins, Ramón, and dutifully sleeps with him and his brother Inocente. During her first day on the island, Ana meets the only man she will ever love, though she doesn’t seem to have much need for emotions and is eventually disappointed by every man in her life.
Ana never leaves the Hacienda Los Gemelos, and her isolation is a great metaphor for Puerto Rican insularism.
Santiago surrounds her with an intricate cast of characters and uses names like Consuelo (consolation) for the town puta or Conciencia (conscience) for a hunchback girl with foretelling visions. The author is at her best telling these characters’ back stories, if only to compound the irony when they succumb to the hardships of her plot.
When Ana bears a child — not knowing if it’s Ramon’s or Inocente’s — one begins to suspect the heralding of a new national identity. It proves to not be that titular of an event, though the boy will leave an important legacy.
Ana battles with the moral burden of owning slaves to support her personal ambition, but as she settles in a new home called El Destino one never gets the idea that those issues are ever completely resolved. Through her flawed heroine, Santiago succeeds in telling the story of a nation incomplete.
By Esmeralda Santiago