Lecture on first Puerto Rican librarian complements cultural exhibit @ Binghamtom U

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A report by Karen Benítez for the Pipe Dream.

When Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian, first arrived in Harlem in 1920, she couldn’t find any children’s books written in Spanish. So she wrote one.

On Monday, Oct. 23, Gladys Jiménez-Muñoz, Binghamton University associate professor of sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Area studies, presented on Belpré’s life in conjunction with “Reading Puerto Rico,” an exhibition currently on display in the lobby of Glenn G. Bartle Library. Approximately 25 students filled the Zurack Family High-Technology Collaboration Center to listen to Jiménez-Muñoz’s examination of Belpré’s accomplishments.

After moving to Harlem, Belpré was recruited by the New York Public Library, which was looking to hire more ethnically diverse young women to better serve the city’s growing immigrant population. After noting the library’s lack of Spanish-language literature, Belpré wrote “Perez y Martina,” a children’s story about a romance between a cockroach and a mouse, in 1932. It was the first Spanish-language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press. Belpré then traveled the city reading to children and became a well-known storyteller, activist, librarian and folklorist.

In 1996, the Association for Library Service to Children and the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking established an award in Belpré’s honor. Each year, the Pura Belpré Award is presented to one Latino writer and illustrator who best portrays and celebrates Latino cultural experiences in works of literature for youth. The award has been presented to many notable writers, such as Julia Alvarez, author of “In the Time of the Butterflies.”

Jiménez-Muñoz said she found Belpré’s story while working on a publication about womanhood and race in Puerto Rico.

“I think she’s a fascinating character,” Jiménez-Muñoz said. “She put these things together ― theory and practice ― in her life in how she educated, how she did activism, how she wrote.”

Rachel Turner, a member of the committee for library exhibits and the cataloging librarian at BU, said that the idea for “Reading Puerto Rico” started last year when the committee felt there was a sentiment of uncertainty in the Latino community on campus following the election.

Audience member Noemy Chicas, a sophomore majoring in integrative neuroscience, said she learned from Belpré’s story.

“Even small acts of passion can serve for generations to come either through passing down traditions, stories or using your artistic skills to preserve your culture,” Chicas said.

According to Sandra Casanova-Vizcaíno, assistant professor of romance languages and literature, the lecture on Belpré appropriately complemented the library’s exhibit, which includes materials on Puerto Rican socio-economics, art, literature, history, music, language and food.

“Pura Belpré was ideal, not just because Belpré was a librarian herself, but because Prof. Jiménez-Muñoz approached other topics related to the exhibit: mainly, the complex construction of identities in Puerto Rico and its diaspora, which include Afro-Puerto Rican subjects and women,” Casanova-Vizcaíno wrote in an email.

The “Reading Puerto Rico” exhibit will be on display in the lobby of Bartle Library for the rest of the semester.

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