Synopses & Reviews
An epic novel of love, discovery, and adventure by the author of the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican.
As a young girl growing up in Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas is powerfully drawn to Puerto Rico by the diaries of an ancestor who traveled there with Ponce de León. And in handsome twin brothers Ramón and Inocente — both in love with Ana — she finds a way to get there. She marries Ramón, and in 1844, just eighteen, she travels across the ocean to a remote sugar plantation the brothers have inherited on the island.
Ana faces unrelenting heat, disease and isolation, and the dangers of the untamed countryside even as she relishes the challenge of running Hacienda los Gemelos. But when the Civil War breaks out in the United States, Ana finds her livelihood, and perhaps even her life, threatened by the very people on whose backs her wealth has been built: the haciendas slaves, whose richly drawn stories unfold alongside her own. And when at last Ana falls for a man who may be her destiny — a once-forbidden love — she will sacrifice nearly everything to keep hold of the land that has become her true home.
This is a sensual, riveting tale, set in a place where human passions and cruelties collide: thrilling history that has never before been brought so vividly and unforgettably to life.
"Santiago (When I Was Puerto Rican) brings passion, color, and historical detail to this Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind, featuring a hard-as-nails heroine more devoted to her plantation than to any of the men in her life. Gloriosa Ana Maria de los Angeles Larragoity Cubillas Nieves de Donostia (or, more simply, Ana) grows up in southwest Spain, the willful daughter of aristocratic parents during the waning years of Spain's colonial era. Ana, a not-so-innocent convent girl, marries her best friend's fiancé's twin brother, then heads to Puerto Rico without her friend but with both twins in tow. The young men intend to make their fortunes managing a sugar plantation, but it is Ana who has the business-savvy and determination to persevere through hurricanes, slave revolts, cholera, and any other challenge the island has to offer, relying on an assortment of slaves, servants, and employees, among them mayordomo Severo Fuentes, who dares to want Ana for his wife. Santiago makes Caribbean history come alive through characters as human as they are iconic. The richness of her imagination and the lushness of her language will serve saga enthusiasts well, and she provides readers a massive panorama of plantation life, plus all you could ever want to know and more about growing sugar cane. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Santiago's storytelling is thrilling....Conquistadora is a triumph." The Washington Post
"An author in full command....In Santiago's hands, Ana is a woman to remember and Puerto Rico a country to cherish." The Miami Herald
"A splendid expedition into colonial history complete with enrapturing suspense to the very end." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Ana [is] an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross....A guided tour of the history of sugar and empire." The New York Times Book Review
"An enthralling family saga....Four stars." People
"If, as the proverb goes, history is written by the hunters, then Esmeralda Santiago has imagined history as written from the point of view of the lions. A remarkable story for its detail, imagination, meticulous research, and wisdom, this is history written by a lion at the height of her powers." Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
"Conquistadora is an expertly researched novel that fuses Antillean/Puerto Rican history and a spellbinding and action-packed storyline that will surprise and dazzle its readers....A crown jewel of Puerto Rican literature." Being Latino
"Lusty, ambitious women are staples of epic fiction, and in these pages Santiago has created a ferociously seductive character....Read this absorbing, impeccably researched novel for its lush history and for the way Santiago's narrative constantly surprises — just as its protagonist does, confronting the gender limitations of her day." More
"Conquistadora is a wonderful and richly drawn novel....A grand achievement from one of our finest writers." Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and Beautiful Maria of My Soul
"Part romance, part portrait of a woman struggling against the constraints of her time and class. Santiago's writing often surprises with its sly humor." The Dallas Morning News
"Extraordinary....An outstanding story, full of pathos, tropical sensuality, and violence — but it also poses uncomfortable moral questions readers are forced to consider....Storytelling genius...Conquistadora is a book-group must." Booklist (starred review)
"Readers may not sympathize with Ana...but her unflinching devotion to her dream of living with the valor and beauty of her conqueror ancestors is compelling." BookPage
"The multitalented author of When I Was Puerto Rican offers a big, bold novel about life on a Caribbean sugar plantation in the mid-19th century....With drama, adventure, and even a bit of magical realism, Conquistadora may remind readers of Isabel Allende's novels of Latin America." Library Journal
A gorgeous epic of love, discovery, and adventure by the beloved author of When I Was Puerto Rican.
Even as a young girl in nineteenth-century Spain, Ana Cubillas is drawn to the exotic island of Puerto Rico by the diaries of an ancestor who traveled there with Ponce de León. And in twin brothers Ramón and Inocente — both in love with Ana — she finds a way to get there: she marries Ramón and convinces the brothers that their destiny is in the remote sugar plantation they’ve inherited on the island.
But Ana’s fantasies haven’t prepared her for the unrelenting heat, the dangers of the untamed countryside, and the slave labor on which life at Hacienda Los Gemelos depends. Despite tragedy and hardship, she remains enthralled by the island’s romance, and will sacrifice nearly everything to keep hold of the land that has become her true home.
A sensual, riveting tale — thrilling history told through the story of an indomitable, unforgettable woman.
About the Author
“An enthralling epic that not only illuminates the life of one extraordinary woman, but of the great sweep of Puerto Rican history. Rich with period details, unforgettable drama, and a riveting cast of characters, Conquistadora
will seduce readers heart and soul.”
—Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban
“Conquistadora is a wonderful and richly drawn novel, with an unforgettable story that will not only enlighten readers about the fascinating history of Puerto Rico in the 19th century, but delight them with a narrative that is always deeply felt and entertaining. A grand achievement from one of our finest writers.”
—Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and Beautiful Maria of My Soul
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Conquistadora, Esmeralda Santiago’s brilliantly realized epic of love, discovery, and adventure in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico—dubbed by Booklist “a book-group must.”
1. Santiago’s epigraph is an excerpt from “Adam” by William Carlos Williams: “Underneath the whisperings/of tropic nights/there is a darker whispering/that death invents especially/for northern men/whom the tropics/ have come to hold.” Why do you think she chose this passage?
2. How familiar were you with the history Santiago provides in the opening section of the novel—El Encuentro/The Encounter: November 19, 1493?
3. Santiago’s first book was the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, which told an entirely different sort of history: that of her own journey from Puerto Rico to the United States. Yet Conquistadora also makes the personal historical. How do fact and fiction play off each other in this story? How is reading historical fiction different from reading a nonfiction historical account of a time period?
4. As the book begins, how do you feel about Ana? Is she a likable character? What one word would you use to describe her?
5. What draws Ana to Puerto Rico? What opportunities exist for her there—as a woman of a certain class, a señorita de buena familia—that weren’t available in Spain? What about Severo? What brings him to Puerto Rico, and what is he able to accomplish there that might have been impossible in Spain?
6. How does Ana’s attitude toward slavery, and her own slaves, change over the course of the novel? How does she change in general and why?
7. Discuss Ana’s relationship with Elena. What draws these women together—and what drives them apart? How do their motivations for getting married differ?
8. Why do you think Ana agrees to sleep with both Ramón and Inocente? Does she have a choice in the matter?
9. On page 73, Ana considers a phrase: “We are all a bit of a poet, a bit of a musician, a bit mad, she agreed. But she thought that Severo Fuentes, who could quote Cervantes with uncanny precision, was perhaps the maddest of them all.” Do you agree with Ana about Severo? Why or why not? How are “madness” and a sense of mission linked for Severo, and for Ana?
10. Why does Los Gemelos become so important to Ana? Why won’t she leave—and why would she be willing to go so far as to trade her son for the plantation? Did you understand her motivation for this? Why or why not?
11. Why does Ana refer to her slaves as “nuestra gente” (“our people”)?
12. Discuss the characters of Conciencia and Meri and their relationships with Ana. How does Conciencia function as a conscience for Ana? Why does Ana feel that she must save Meri from her burns? And why do you think Ana is able to act maternally toward her slaves in some ways, but is unable to be a mother to her own son?
13. Why does Severo want Ana as his wife, although it is Consuelo who makes him happy? Do you think he can love these two women at once?
14. What is the significance of the house Severo builds for Ana? Why does he name it El Destino?
15. On page 319, Santiago tells us that, three generations later, Miguel’s paintings would wind up stored in a warehouse and forgotten. How do you think this connects to the larger story of Puerto Rican history, and Ana’s endeavors at Hacienda los Gemelos?
16. Discuss Miguel’s fate. What do you think he would have said to Ana, had he had the chance?
17. As the novel ends, the American Civil War has already begun to change life in Puerto Rico—perhaps especially for the hacienda’s slaves, who are inspired by “el libertador Abrámlincon.” How is the history of slavery in Puerto Rico similar to, or different from, the history of slavery in America? What surprised you most about Santiago’s depiction of the slaves’ daily lives?
18. How does Conquistadora compare to other postcolonial literature you’ve read—stories that take place in Africa, Asia, and the Americas?
19. Does Ana earn the designation conquistadora? If she were alive today, what do you think she would do for a living?
20. What do you think lies ahead for Ana and Severo? What about Segundo, who will inherit their land and the hacienda? And the slaves at the hacienda?