This is not the story of a radical heroine. It is not the story of a politician. It is the story of a woman who made a difference for children who had come to the mainland from Puerto Rico to settle in Harlem, and for their friends and neighbors from the African-American community. Her name was Pura Belpré.
As we segue from Black History Month into Women’s History Month, I decided to examine the intersections between the two while continuing to cover Puerto Rican history and culture. Far too often the stories of Afro-Latinas and Afro-Boricuas get left out during both months.
As we see more Puerto Ricans heading to mainland communities and settling their children into schools, let’s hope those school districts are prepared to be culturally sensitive to their needs, as they should be for all children from diverse backgrounds. They can learn from the example set by Pura Belpré, and ensure that school and local libraries have her books and those that have been recipients of the Pura Belpré Award, named in her honor.
Pura Belpré was born around the turn of the century in Cidra, Puerto Rico. There are several birth years suggested for her: on the U.S. Census in 1910 she is listed listed as 12, but in 1920 she is listed as 20 years old. In the race category, she and her family are either “mulatto” or “black” across decades. Her father and mother both are listed as able to read and write, and researchers have indicated that the family was middle class. A trip to the U.S. mainland to attend her sister’s wedding changed her life, and she never returned to live on the island. Harlem became home, but the stories and folktales she heard in Puerto Rico as a child are her gift to young people of all backgrounds.
Belpré was an educator, storyteller, puppeteer, librarian, and part of the world of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1943 she married African-American composer and concert violinist Clarence Cameron White.
From the biographical notes on the documentary film about her life and work:
She graduated from Central High School in Santurce in 1919 and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. Soon thereafter, in 1920 she interrupted her studies in order to attend her sister Elisa's wedding in New York. As it turned out, except for brief interludes, Belpré was to remain in New York for the rest of her life. Like many of the Puerto Rican women who came to New York at that time, Belprés’ first job was in the garment industry. Her Spanish language skills soon earned her a position as Hispanic Assistant in a branch of the public library at 135th Street in Harlem. Belpré became the first Puerto Rican to be hired by the New York Public Library (NYPL).
It was while working in the children's division that Belpré discovered her passion for storytelling, her love for children's literature, and her interest in librarianship. In 1926 she began her formal studies in the Library School of the New York Public Library. One of the courses that most inspired her was storyteller Mary Gould Davis' "The Art of Storytelling." As a course requirement Belpré wrote her first folk tale using a story she had heard as a child from her grandmother in Puerto Rico. This story, Pérez and Martina, a love story between a cockroach and a mouse, became the first Puerto Rican tale to be shared with children at a story hour in the public library.
Pura Belpré was New York City's first Puerto Rican/Latina librarian. She was an ambassador in the New York Public Library's work with the Latino community. She was an innovative storyteller, using puppetry, arts and crafts as tools to teach kids to read, write and express themselves, and transformed a community.
El Centro has a teaching guide that accompanies the documentary, which includes more background on her history:
In 1929, due to the increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans settling in southwest Harlem, Belpré was transferred to a branch of the NYPL at W. 115th Street. She quickly became an active advocate for the Spanish-speaking community by instituting bilingual story hours, buying Spanish-language books, and implementing programs based on traditional Latino holidays such as the celebration of Three Kings’ Day. In her efforts to reach children and adults, she attended meetings of civic organizations such as the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America and La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana. Through Belpré's efforts, the 115th Street branch became an important cultural center for the Latino residents of New York City. The library next transferred Belpré to East Harlem, where the largest Puerto Rican community in New York was growing.
In 1940, Belpré met her future husband, the African-American composer and violinist, Clarence Cameron White. They were married on December 26, 1943 and Belpré resigned her position to go on tour with her husband and to devote herself to writing. Belprés’ first book, Perez and Martina, A Puerto Rican Folktale, was published by Frederick Warne in 1932. It is notable as one of the first books published in English by aPuerto Rican living stateside. The story became Belpré’s touchstone story; it went through a number of editions, she adapted it to a puppet play and recorded it on a record. It may seem odd that a story about an elegant cockroach would be popular, but in the early twentieth century cockroaches were characters in a number of celebrated stories, including Archy and Mehitabel, a popular cartoon published in a U.S. newspaper.
Belpré went on to write and publish many Puerto Rican folktales as well as her own original fiction.
For more on Belpre and a collection of her stories read:
The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children's Author, and New York Public Librarian by Lisa Sánchez González
The Stories I Read to the Children documents, for the very first time, Pura Belpré’s contributions to North American, Caribbean, and Latin American literary and library history. Thoroughly researched but clearly written, this study is scholarship that is also accessible to general readers, students, and teachers.
Pura Belpré (1899-1982) is one of the most important public intellectuals in the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora. A children’s librarian, author, folklorist, translator, storyteller, and puppeteer who began her career during the Harlem Renaissance and the formative decades of The New York Public Library, Belpré is also the earliest known Afro-Caribeña contributor to American literature.
In The Stories I Read to the Children, Lisa Sánchez González has collected, edited, and annotated over 40 of Belpré’s stories and essays, most of which have never been published. Her introduction to the volume is the most extensive study to date of Belpré’s life and writing.
A review of the book examines some of the parallels between Belpre and Arturo Schomburg:
As an Arturo Alfonso Schomburg scholar, I find Sánchez González's vision very accurate in terms of the link and parallelism between Pura Belpré and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.
Both were bibliophiles, both were successful professionals, both were brilliant and quite public cultural intellectuals, both were writers, both hid details about their lives in Puerto Rico before moving to the states. And those secrets, and their reasons for keeping those secrets may never be known for certain. We must recall that the period of their migration and settlement in New York was a very tumultuous political period for Puerto Ricans, not only on the mainland U.S. and on the island, but also in Cuba, Florida, New York, New Orleans, Venezuela, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Paris, Madrid, and other, often literally clandestine, Boricua spaces.
We are looking at a very meticulous and serious work, which not only contributes to the promotion and recognition of Pura Belpré's legacy, but also includes a valuable section of essays that reflect the character, tenacity, courage, analytic capability and social responsibility of this jibarita from Cidra. Sánchez González also gifts us with a timeline of Belpré's monographic work.
Throughout the body of work, we can appreciate the relevance of children's literature and storytelling as tools for migrant children to integrate to their new lives in the United States, while still valuing and appreciating the culture of the country they left behind. This goes hand in hand with the commendable mission of the public library as an institution of social justice and cultural administration. Undoubtedly, Lisa Sánchez González offers an ineluctable and extraordinary contribution to library science, diasporic literature, storytelling and the legacy of this indisputable pioneer.
Arturo Schomburg was, like Belpré, a black Puerto Rican, who I featured to open this Black History Month series.
Another important read is “Remembering Pura Belpré's Early Career at the 135th Street New York Public Library: Interracial. Cooperation and Puerto Rican Settlement During the Harlem Renaissance” (full text here) by Victoria Nunez, which explores the changing face of Harlem and interactions between African-American residents and newly arrived Puerto Ricans, many of whom were black.
NPR has also covered Belpré as part of Hispanic History Month. It’s interesting that there is zero mention of her being black, the Harlem racial context, or that her husband was African-American. This ‘oversight’ happens too often, and does nothing to advance the building of coalitions between and among African Americans and Spanish-speaking Caribbean populations from places like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
When I hear the discussion of community outreach by libraries I remember being a small child walking with my mom to the main Brooklyn Public Library in New York City each week, a long walk on Eastern Parkway, and how excited I was to get new books for her to read to me and when I was able to read them myself. I remember the librarian scowling at me when my mom asked for a library card for me. The tall white lady seemed to doubt that this little black girl could read. She handed me a book and snippily said, “Read me the first page.” I had been reading on my own for more than a year, so I read it. She snatched it back and handed me another book. This one was for older kids. I read that out loud to her too. Her lips got very thin and she frowned at me and my mom, and then grudgingly gave me a card after a lecture about taking care of the books I borrowed and not to scrawl on them with crayons. Oh how I wish we had lived in Harlem, where Pura was. Instead of censure, I would have found warmth and acceptance.
For those of you who no longer read children’s books or who have no children or young relatives, you can check to see if your local library has any of Pura Belpre’s many books, or books that are recipients of the Belpré Award in their collection. (If they don’t, encourage them to acquire some.)
The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. It is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking ( REFORMA), an ALA affiliate.
Coming up next year, there will be a new picture book about Belpré.
An early crusader for diversity in children’s literature will come alive in a picture book biography, Pura Belpré, Planting Stories, which HarperCollins recently acquired after a six-house auction, and plans to publish in March 2019. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Belpré was the first Puerto Rican librarian to be hired by the New York City public library system. A celebrated storyteller and puppeteer, she is perhaps best known as the namesake of the Pura Belpré Award, a children’s book prize presented annually to a Latino or Latina writer and illustrator whose work best reflects the Latino cultural experience.
For Rhode Island–based Anika Denise, author of Monster Trucks (2016) and Starring Carmen, due out in September, the idea of telling Belpré’s story had long been in the back of her mind. “I knew the basics [of her story],” said Denise, who was born and raised in Queens. “My father’s side of the family is Puerto Rican, and for my great-aunt, my Titi, Pura was her favorite author.”
I checked online and found that my local library system has quite a few award winners. What’s the story in your area?
Don’t forget: Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans still need our help.
Pa’lante, Puerto Rico!