The Turkish Lover

A Memoir


By Esmeralda Santiago

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Enthralled admirers of Esmeralda Santiago’s memoirs of her childhood have yearned to read more. Now, in The Turkish Lover, Esmeralda finally breaks out of the monumental struggle with her powerful mother, only to elope into the spell of an exotic love affair. At the heart of the story is Esmeralda’s relationship with “the Turk,” a passion that gradually becomes a prison out of which she must emerge to become herself. The expansive humanity, earthy humor, and psychological courage that made Esmeralda’s first two books so successful are on full display again in The Turkish Lover.


Praise for The Turkish Lover

“There is considerable suspense in watching and waiting for her eventual escape. [Santiago] has forged a remarkable life and career that readers cannot help but follow.”

Washington Post Book World

“Esmeralda Santiago, one of the premiere female writers, has written a muchanticipated third memoir, The Turkish Lover, charting the stormy journey of her twenties.”

New York Post

“Santiago writes in an honest voice whose clarity lends itself to the emotional telling of this act of rebellion that catapults her along a path where she loses herself before emerging independent, strong and free.”

Milwaukee Sentinel

“Tells the tale of passionate love and self-liberation, while brilliantly recounting the life of an emerging writer on the brink of adulthood.”


“Santiago’s style is pragmatic, emotional, funny, upsetting, sympathetic and thoroughly entertaining. . . . The book is a fine chronicle of that time in your life when growing up means having some growing pains, and independence comes at a price that’s high, but worth paying.”

Detroit Free Press

“Just a few chapters inside of Esmeralda Santiago’s latest memoir, The Turkish Lover, readers will feel like grabbing the author by the lapels and giving her a good stern talking-to. The talented writer, who mined the rich cultural terrain of her immigrant childhood in When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, has returned to lay bare her torturous affair ‘with a man I barely knew, whose name reshaped my face every time I spoke it.’”

Minneapolis Star Tribune


Also by Esmeralda Santiago

  • When I Was Puerto Rican

  • América’s Dream

  • Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors
    Share Their Holiday Memories (coeditor)

  • Almost a Woman

  • Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors
    Remember Their Mothers (coeditor)



For Frank


El hombre que yo amo/ The man I love

The night before I left my mother, I wrote a letter. “Querida Mami,” it began. Querida, beloved, Mami, I wrote, on the same page as el hombre que yo amo, the man I love. I struggled with those words, because I wasn’t certain they were true. Mami understood love, so I used the word and hoped I meant it. El hombre que yo amo. Amo, which in Spanish also means master. I didn’t notice the irony.

I sealed the envelope, addressed it formally to Señora Ramona Santiago and, on my way out early the next morning, dropped it in the incoming delivery box by the front door. It was a Tuesday, Mami would check for mail in the early afternoon and by then, I’d be in Florida with my lover, el hombre que yo . . . amo.

I carried little. A battered leather bag once used for dance costumes now held a couple of changes of clothes, a bikini, a toothbrush, comb and hairpins, a pair of shoes and sandals, underwear. I left my tights and leotards, makeup, the showy jewelry that added spice and color to the characters I created on stage.

When I stepped onto the sidewalk, I resisted the urge to look back, to run back into the rooms where my mother, my grandmother, my ten sisters and brothers, my aunt and cousins slept. The stairs to the train station, a long block from our front door, were under my feet sooner than I would have wanted. Once I took the first step into the subway out of Brooklyn, my life changed irrevocably. Had I turned around and run back into my mother’s house, into the safe, still-warm space next to my sister Delsa, it would have been too late. When I wrote the words, el hombre que yo amo, it was already too late. I had made a choice—a man over my family. Even if I didn’t follow him to Florida, I’d taken the first step, a week after my twenty-first birthday, into the rest of my life.

“That is not good, Chiquita.”

I knew little about him. He was Turkish, lived alone in a luxury apartment building a block from Bloomingdale’s, wore expensive suits in muted colors with finely detailed pleats and seams. He’d traveled extensively and boasted friends all over the world. In addition to his first language, he spoke fluent German and French, but his English was heavily accented and hesitant. He had won the Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival for Susuz Yaz, a black-and-white film made in Turkey, which he was desperate to distribute in the United States.

His name, Ulvi Dogan, sounded so foreign from my tongue, that it was sometimes difficult to pronounce it. That initial vowel made it awkward—not the rounded Puerto Rican “u” nor the puckered, sharp English “u,” but a sound halfway in between, a strangled diphthong.

“Hi,” I’d say when I called him on the phone, “it’s me.” I never said my name, because he’d christened me Chiquita, little girl. I’d grown up with a familial nickname, Negi, and was an official Esmeralda everywhere else, so his pet name felt as foreign as his name on my lips. When I tried to give him a nickname, he refused. “Ulvi,” he said. “Just Ulvi.” He would not let me call him darling, either, or dear, or honey, or sweetheart. Not even any of the lovely Spanish words that express affection—querido, mi amor, mi cielo—would convince him. Just Ulvi, he insisted. Ulvi.

With this man I barely knew, whose name reshaped my face every time I spoke it, I left my mother. On the airplane taking us to Florida, I sat next to Ulvi, my forehead pressed to the window. I swore I could see Mami’s house, way down there in Brooklyn. There was the tiny square of cement that was our backyard, the larger playground directly across the street, which we were forbidden to play in because there was always the danger that a fight would break out over the outcome of a basketball game. In the distance, Manhattan’s spires pierced the sky, while Brooklyn’s rectangular roofs seemed to push against it, defying the clouds.

Eight years earlier, on a morning as bright as this one, I had lain on a grassy hummock behind our house in Puerto Rico seeking against the turquoise sky shapes and forms that might foretell what the United States would be like. It was the middle of hurricane season, and gloomy clouds scudded across the blue, in a hurry, like Mami, to be somewhere else. Later that afternoon aboard the propeller-driven Pan American flight to New York, I stared from above at the languid, cottony puffs that reminded me of the stuffing inside a mattress. A child could jump on them, and bounce high into an azure heaven.

I crossed the Atlantic that day in a confused haze intensified by the wonder of what was happening, but nothing could prepare me for the United States, not even the stories about the colorful estadounidenses profiled in the Selecciones del Reader’s Digest that my father gave me to take on the plane.

Mami, my sister Edna, my brother Raymond and I had left San Juan in the middle of a sunny afternoon, but when we landed, it was a rain-slicked night in Brooklyn. As we drove from the airport to our new home in Williamsburg, headlights from the opposing traffic illuminated the drops that slid down the taxi’s windows, making them blink and shimmer. Mami’s mother, Tata, and Tata’s boyfriend, Don Julio, joked about my amazed eyes as I tried to see just how high were the buildings lining the broad avenues. Even dazed and sleepy, I felt the dimensional shift from Puerto Rico’s undulating horizons to the solid, vertical angles of New York City.

“We came here,” Mami said some days later, “so that you can get an education and find good jobs when you grow up.”

We had come, I thought, because Raymond needed medical attention for an injury to his foot that resisted the best efforts of Puerto Rican doctors. I was certain that, as soon as Raymond’s foot healed, Papi would appear at the door of our apartment in Brooklyn to lure Mami back home, just as he had done countless times in Puerto Rico. That was the pattern; bitter arguments followed by separations during which Papi wooed Mami back, and a few months later, a new baby would be born so that by the time I was eight I had four sisters and two brothers. I had no reason to imagine that things would be different just because we flew across the ocean instead of taking a público across the island. But Papi never came. Mami sent for the rest of my sisters and brothers still in Puerto Rico to join us in New York. By the time Raymond could walk without a limp and his doctor said he didn’t need to wear a special shoe anymore, Papi had married a widow none of us had ever heard of and the vision of him appearing at our door to return us to Puerto Rico vanished.

I now turned to Ulvi, who leaned over me to look at the city we had left behind. “This is only the second time I’m ever on an airplane,” I said.

“Really?” He fiddled with the controls on the armrest, pushed his seat back and closed his eyes. The air around me grew cold. I rubbed the goose bumps from my arms, turned again to the tiny rectangular window as the plane droned through cotton candy.

Days earlier, when I’d told him Mami would never give me permission to go with him to Florida, Ulvi had said: “You must take the bull by the horns.” I’d never heard that phrase, had no idea what it meant. He spoke less English than I did. Where did he learn it? He didn’t want me to run away with him. “Talk to her woman to woman,” he said, “explain the situation.”

I thought of it, but couldn’t look Mami in the eyes and admit that in spite of my other successes—the high school diploma, the proficient English, the clerical jobs, the college courses—I had failed as a nena puertorriqueña decente, a decent Puerto Rican girl. I had lost myself to Ulvi without benefit of velo y cola, the trailing veil Mami imagined for each one of her daughters before a Catholic altar.

“When was the first time?” Ulvi’s voice was so soft, I thought at first that it came from inside my head. I turned to him. Still leaning back, his heavy-lidded eyes looked at me as if he had just met me, a stranger on the seat beside him on a plane to an exotic destination.

“Eight years ago, when we first came from Puerto Rico.”

“Hmm,” he closed his eyes again, turned his face toward the aisle. His black hair had picked up static from the seat, and fine strands fluttered up languidly, like soft antennae. I pressed my spine against the seat cushion and tried not to think, not to imagine Mami’s reaction, the disappointment at my first rebellious act.

“What did your mother say when you told her?” Ulvi asked, and heat rose to my cheeks.

“I didn’t.” I closed my eyes, afraid to see the anger in his. He thought it was wrong that I hadn’t told her about us, but he also refused to meet her. She will understand, he had assured me. But he didn’t know Mami.

“That is not good, Chiquita. It is not good.”

I would not open my eyes, did not answer. I heard him turn away from me again, and imagined the tiny hairs drifting toward the plane’s low ceiling. Below us New York was becoming a memory, but the words I’d struggled with, Querida Mami and el hombre que yo amo, floated around my head, every dot over the i’s, every downstroke, every loop, fine threads that twisted in and out between who I was and who I had become.

A nena puertorriqueña decente

Once Mami settled in Brooklyn, she refused to go back to Puerto Rico until every one of her children spoke English and had graduated from high school. She was thirty, I was thirteen, Delsa was eleven, Norma was ten, Héctor was nine, Alicia was seven, Edna was six, and Raymond, the youngest, was five. I was about to start eighth grade. For me, a high school diploma was at least five years away, for Raymond, who was starting kindergarten, twelve long years stretched ahead before Mami would consider returning to the island.

“What if,” I asked, “when we graduate, you send us to Puerto Rico as a reward?”

“You’re not going anywhere alone,” she snapped.

Mami expected me, as the eldest, to set an example for my sisters and brothers. My task, as I understood it, was to get good grades in a new school in a foreign city, in a foreign culture, in a foreign climate, in a foreign language.

“And don’t think that because we’re in the United States you have permission to behave like those americanas,” Mami warned.

“Those americanas” were any females my age who were not nenas puertorriqueñas decentes. Decent Puerto Rican girls did not wear short skirts, did not wear pants unless they were riding a horse, did not wear makeup, did not tease their hair, did not talk to boys not their brothers, did not go anywhere unchaperoned, did not argue with their mothers, did not challenge adults even when they were wrong, did not look adults in the eyes, especially if they were men, did not disrespect their alcoholic relatives.

A nena decente listened to her mother, learned to cook and keep a neat house, left the room when a man visiting her grandmother looked too much in her direction, sat with her legs together even when she was alone minding her own business and reading a book. The person a nena decente had to avoid the most was el hombre que le hizo el daño—the man who took the virginity of a friend, neighbor, or relative without first marrying her. El daño—the damage—spoiled it for the rightful “owner” of her virginity, a legitimate husband in a monogamous relationship.

A nena puertorriqueña decente did not give the neighbors cause to gossip. This meant she was conscious at all times of lo que dirá la gente, what people would say, and take that into account when weighing her actions, otherwise ¿qué dirán?

A nena puertorriqueña decente was a virgin until she married in a church with her sisters as bridesmaids and her brothers as grooms. Then she became a mujer puertorriqueña decente. A decent Puerto Rican woman could wear makeup and dress in a way that pleased her husband but not so sexy as to provoke other men’s lust. She could go out accompanied by her husband, children, or female relative porque si no ¿qué dirán? She honored her mother and motherin-law, managed her home efficiently but deferred major decisions to her husband, who was to wear the pants, literally and figuratively, porque si no ¿qué dirán? He was served hot, home-cooked Puerto Rican food at every meal. His clothes would be clean and pressed, his shoes shined. He was not to be challenged, corrected, or laughed at, especially in public, for any reason whatsoever, even if he were misinformed, wrong, or a buffoon, porque si no ¿qué dirán?

Americanas had too much freedom to do as they pleased, which they abused by being sexually available to any pendejo who looked their way. Americanas were also disrespectful of their elders, contemptuous of family, lazy housekeepers dependent on prepared foods, and, in spite of their sexual freedom, did not know how to please a man. They also seemed not to care what anyone thought about their behavior, as if el que dirán did not exist in English.

I noticed some contradictions.

Mami, a mujer decente, had never married Papi and I had never seen her in church. ¿Qué dirán? Mami dressed to accentuate an hourglass figure crowned by luxurious black hair that, in New York, she cut and learned to dye in shades of brown, blonde, and even red. ¿Qué dirán? She curled, teased, and sprayed her hair if she had to leave our apartment. She girdled her abdomen to look as if she had not birthed seven children. When she walked down the street in her high heels, her hips swung voluptuously, ¿qué dirán?, which elicited whistles, stares, and promises from men who seemed to stand on corners just to watch women pass by.

Six months after we came to New York, Mami fell in love with Francisco, and by our first summer in Brooklyn, he was living with us in defiance of Tata, who did not think it was appropriate for Mami to “bring a strange man into a house with teenage girls.” ¿Qué dirán? Don Julio, Tata’s boyfriend, was exempt from this rule.

Mami did not invent el que dirán or the differences between a nena decente and an americana. Her friends and relatives spouted the same rules to their daughters and we were supposed to listen humbly and without arguments. When our mothers were elsewhere, however, we tried to make sense of what they said as opposed to what they did.

“Maybe,” guessed Cousin Alma, “when they say that stuff they’re talking about an ideal, not a practical reality.”

Alma was a year older than me, which she insisted meant she was more mature. She was born in Puerto Rico, but Titi Ana had brought her and her sister, Corazón, to the United States when they were babies. The sisters spoke English to one another, and, when Titi Ana spoke Spanish to them, they answered her in English. When they spoke Spanish, they had accents and stumbled over words.

Alma and her sister were nenas puertorriqueñas decentes, but they were also Americanized, which was almost as bad as being an americana. This meant that their references were not to Puerto Rican culture, but to that of the United States. They liked pizza, hamburgers, and French fries more than arroz con gandules, piononos, and bacalaítos fritos. They listened to rock and roll, not the Spanish radio stations. They read Archie comic books, novels by Harold Robbins, and Seventeen Magazine, not Corín Tellado romances and Vanidades.

Because they were family, Mami let me walk the half block to their building by myself. Both sisters were smart, especially Corazón, who read thick science books because she wanted to be a biologist when she grew up. I liked her dark sense of humor but she was younger, so we didn’t spend as much time together as I did with Alma.

Titi Ana was stricter than Mami. The girls could not leave their apartment except to go to and from school, not even to visit us. They spent their afternoons doing homework and reading until Titi Ana returned from the factory. While she made dinner, Alma and Corazón watched game shows. When I went to see them, I felt like an emissary from the outside world, even though I was only slightly more independent than they were. I had sisters and brothers to talk to, play and fight with, where Alma and Corazón only had each other. They eagerly listened to the dramas unfolding in my crazy household of seven children, a pregnant Mami, Francisco, Tata and Don Julio. I tried to make the stories entertaining while sidestepping the bleaker realities.

Mami was counting on her needle skills to get her steady work in New York’s garment center. Tata’s two sisters and nieces toiled in factories and assured Mami that there were more of them scattered throughout the city. By the time we arrived in Brooklyn, however, the garment industry was moving to other parts of the country or overseas, and every year there were fewer jobs.

It was harder than she expected, but Mami worked her way up from thread cutter at bra factories to sewing machine operator. When she was laid off or the factories closed, Mami collected unemployment, and when that wasn’t enough, we applied for welfare. She hated being dependent on public assistance, and each time we returned from interviews at the welfare office, or after a surprise home visit by a social worker, Mami gave us a lecture.

“This is why you have to learn English, graduate from high school, and find work in offices, not factories,” she said in a voice unsteady with controlled anger. “So many humiliations, all because I didn’t get an education.”

Tata lived with us, cooked our meals, and watched us when Mami worked. She could not sew anymore because the cold had entered her bones and caused painful arthritis. To dull the pain, Tata drank. Every evening after work, Don Julio brought six-packs of Rheingold or a jug of red Gallo wine, which they drank together sitting at the kitchen table as they smoked one cigarette after another. They could be violent if provoked, so we stayed out of their way once we had supper. Mami closed the curtain that divided our end of the apartment from theirs and we kept to our side watching Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, or the Million Dollar Movie. Sometimes Tata’s brother, Tío Chico, joined them, and the three talked, drank, and argued behind the flowered curtain late into the night.

Franky was born the spring I was accepted into Performing Arts High School. A couple of months later his father died.


On Sale
Mar 17, 2009
Page Count
368 pages
Da Capo Press

Da Capo_Esmeralda Santiago_Author Photo

Esmeralda Santiago

About the Author

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of two other highly acclaimed memoirs, The Turkish Lover and Almost a Woman, which was made into a film for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. She has also written a novel, America’s Dream, and has co-edited two anthologies of Latino literature. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

Learn more about this author