This month we will be taking in and discussing some of the literature of the island of Puerto Rico, whose beautiful prose is matched by the strength of its people’s character.
Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
This is the mantra I repeated on social media following Hurricane Maria, the lack of help from the American government, and the response to both from many Americans with whom I was connected online. Puerto Rico is a tiny island in the Caribbean that is an American territory but not a full state. It is an island full of music, art, history, and culture. Its descendants include a Supreme Court Justice and the creator of the Broadway musical with the most Tony nominations ever. In 2017, the island was pounded by not one but two hurricanes, Irma, and then with full force, Maria. A year later, some of the most rural parts of the island (the island has beaches, mountains, a rainforest, and deserts all packed into a space no more than 100 miles across—it’s a geographical wonder) are still without power. As a result of Maria’s destruction, approximately 3,000 Puerto Ricans, again, American citizens, have died. Last week, the president of the United States denied these numbers, claiming that the numbers were a political move by his opponents.
This island is where my mother grew up. And it has been forgotten.
Compared to Mexican or Mexican-American children’s literature, Puerto Rico is less represented thematically, although Puerto Ricans make up the second largest Latinx group in the U.S. behind Mexico. Many of the works I found available were retellings of folktales, whether of the indigenous Taino, Afro-Caribbean, Spaniards, or a combination of the peoples to become wholly “Puerto Rican”. In graduate school, I studied the Puerto Rican folk character “Juan Bobo”, a “noodle head” figure who always makes silly mistakes to the dismay of his mother. In the 1994 edition I cited in my thesis, the main text is in English with illustrated folk art, while Spanish translations are placed unassumingly in the back of the text, almost as an afterthought. The author’s and illustrator’s notes make claims that this retelling is “authentically Puerto Rican”, but that it is also “universal”. In this perspective, what does it mean to be “Puerto Rican”? Is speaking Spanish the key identifier of that claim?
As Puerto Rico is very much a part of the United States, both English and Spanish are spoken widely across the island. Today, more Puerto Ricans live in the U.S. than on the island, so it was only slightly surprising to find out that much of “Puerto Rican children’s literature” is solely published in English, as it is almost exclusively published stateside. Puerto Rican immigration tales may not get the limelight that other Hispanic immigration stories may get simply due to bureaucracy. A person born in Caguas can just as easily move to Chicago as someone born in Seattle, but just because they share a passport doesn’t mean the cultural assimilation will be the same. Lee and Low is a New York based children’s publisher that specializes in ethnic minority children’s books, but even with a quick search, “Puerto Rican” garners less than 20 results, and still less than half are published bilingually.
Curiously, one of the pillars of children’s literature and the first Latina librarian for the New York Public Library was Puerto Rican. “Puerto Ricans in the United States” has become almost synonymous with “New York City,” garnering the nickname “New Yoricans” thanks in part to the mass migration to the boroughs in the 20th century. Pura Belpré, a transplant to New York herself, found that the community of Spanish-speakers in northern Manhattan didn’t have access to books in their native language. She recognized that the library system seemed to be “English-only” to outsiders. She began bilingual story time, integrating and educating children of both English and non-English speaking backgrounds. The most prestigious award for Latinx children’s literature is named in her honor.
In the nearly one hundred years since Belpré began her mission of integrating the Puerto Rican community into the rest of New York, bilingualism is becoming much more common in children’s literature, even in books that are not explicitly about “Hispanic culture” (board books, etc.). While accessibility is hugely important, meaning, books that are accessible to Spanish-speakers, culturally relatable stories have not gone by the wayside, no matter the language in which they are published.
My hope is that this small island that has contributed so greatly to the American tradition of art and culture can be represented in the world of children’s literature in both English and Spanish. Below are a list of Pura Belpré Award winners and honor recipients about Puerto Rican culture:
The Golden Flower: A Taino Myth from Puerto Rico by Nina Jaffe
The Storyteller’s Candle/ La velita de los cuentos by Lucia M. Gonzalez
My Name Is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez / Me llamo Gabito: La vida de Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Monica Brown and Raúl Colón
Juan Bobo Goes to Work: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale by Marisa Montes and Joe Cepeda
Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velasquez
Mimi Rankin recently finished her Master’s degree in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading where she researched claims to cultural authenticity in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She now works in children’s publishing and lives in Nashville, TN.