Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this article on Pura Belpré to our attention. See original article and programming at “All Things Considered,” by Neda Ulaby (NPR, 8 September 2016).
11:00 a.m. is bilingual story hour at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library. Dozens of kids — mostly children of immigrants from China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — have settled down to hear Perez y Martina, a story based on a Puerto Rican folktale.
Belpré traveled all over New York, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. But Perez y Martina — which tells the tale of a romance between a cockroach and a mouse — isn’t just any children’s story. When it was published in 1932, it was the first Spanish language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press. And its author, Pura Belpré, was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York’s public library system at a time when the city’s Puerto Rican population was swelling. Belpré could not find any books for kids in Spanish — so she wrote them herself.
Back in 1921, Belpré was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico. She had plans to become a teacher, but she came to New York to attend her sister’s wedding and decided to stay. In Harlem, Belpré was recruited as part of a public library effort to hire young women from ethnic enclaves. This first job was a springboard, says scholar Lisa Sánchez, for Belpré’s extraordinary career — as a story teller, an activist, a librarian, a folklorist — and even as a puppeteer. Belpré traveled all over the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Nobody was doing that back then.
Belen Garcia, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, remembers how exciting it was when Belpré showed up at the local library — and how word would spread ahead of time: “Oh my gosh, tell your girlfriends at school — there’s going to be a Spanish lady telling a story,” she recalls. Garcia fell in love with libraries and ended up working for the New York City Public Library for 45 years — so she knows just how hard it was to reach kids from Spanish-speaking homes. “Their parents didn’t let them come to the library because they thought the library was only English,” she says.
Today, Garcia’s daughter runs the same children’s section where Belpré once worked in East Harlem. Belpré, who died in 1982, said folktales like Perez y Martina helped immigrant children feel at home. “Martina and Perez form a cultural bridge from Spain through Latin America,” Belpré explained in the documentary film, Pura Belpré: Storyteller.
That bridge extends all the way to the present day, where on a recent August afternoon, young readers at the Washington Heights branch of the NYPL were making stick puppets inspired by Belpré’s stories. Vintage puppets, made by librarians trained decades ago by Belpré, are still in use at the library. [. . .]
[Photo above: Belpré traveled all over New York, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Image courtesy of The Pura Belpré Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY.]
For full article and program at “All Things Considered,” see http://www.npr.org/2016/09/08/492957864/how-nycs-first-puerto-rican-librarian-brought-spanish-to-the-shelves
Also see previous posts https://repeatingislands.com/2015/06/14/5-puerto-rican-new-yorkers-you-need-to-know and https://repeatingislands.com/2016/02/12/margarita-engle-receives-the-2016-pura-belpre-author-award
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