#WorldKitLit Month September 2020: Spotlight Puerto Rico

If you will indulge me, let me begin this first blog post of Puerto Rican Kid Lit Month with an anecdote about Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez.

Apparently, the Nobel Prize winner and master expositor of magical realism—where the fantastical meets the everyday—was once asked why he had never written about Puerto Rico. “If I told the truth about Puerto Rico,” he said, “everyone would say I was making it up.”

As García Márquez pithily captured, to be Puerto Rican, to be from that small island (100 miles long and 35 miles wide) in the Caribbean, is a surreal, paradoxical experience.

A few examples:

We are U.S. citizens (as have been all persons born on the island since 1917), yet too many Americans are not aware of that fact. The island is a territory, a colony of the United States, yet it is referred to as a commonwealth, or a “free associated state.” Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote for the U.S. President, yet fellow Boricuas living in the United States are freely able to do so. We also serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, but those living on the island have no representation in Congress, save for a “Resident Commissioner” who speaks but cannot vote, even in matters pertaining directly to their lives.

The contradictions are dizzying, yet we live and even thrive within those contradictions. We are more than the natural disasters that befall us, more than our erasure from the larger story of the United States, and from the stories of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the global world. We are here—even if you don’t know it.

*****

It is this Puerto Rican experience-in all its joy, contradictions, resilience, and multiplicity- that we will explore throughout this World Kid Lit Month. What can we learn from picture books about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans? How do middle grades and Young Adult novels interpret what it is to grow up Puerto Rican? And how can librarians and teachers better serve their patrons and students using Puerto Rican Kid Lit in the stacks and in the classroom?

In my role at Nashville Public Library, I strive to introduce parents, teachers, and patrons to all sorts of diverse children’s books. As a doting Tití, I make it a point to give my nieces and nephews books that reflect their Puerto Rican background. You’ll learn about some of those books this month, and about others you can share with the young readers in your life. We’ll also be learning together, as we’ll delve into books I’ve only come across during the course of this project. It is my hope that by the end of the month, we’ll all be much more well-versed in Puerto Rican Kid Lit, from both the island and the diaspora.

But as we begin this Puerto Rican Kid Lit Month, what should you know about Puerto Rico if you find your knowledge lacking? What do I, as the Guest Editor of the Global Literatures in Libraries Initiative blog and a Puerto Rican, want you to know?

First of all, I would argue that no analysis or commentary on or about Puerto Rico is complete without a discussion of colonialism. I allude to this above, but it bears repeating. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since its annexation following the Spanish American War of 1898, and before then (except for a brief but enduring moment), it formed part of the greater Spanish empire, even as many of its former colonies gained their independence. Puerto Rico remains “the world’s oldest colony,” belying the U.S.’s own self-positioning as a global beacon of freedom and liberty. While the global decolonization movements of the 20th century granted independence to many a former colonial territory, Puerto Rico only became more inexorably tied to the U.S. American metropole.

As a colony, Puerto Rico has been particularly vulnerable to the machinations of global finance and neoliberal austerity measures. These conditions form the crux of whatever ills, real or alleged, that befall the island. To borrow a phrase, it’s the colonialism, stupid.

I would also put forth that when we talk about Puerto Rico, we are talking about the island proper, but when we talk about the Puerto Rican people-Boricuas-we are also talking about a Diaspora, a transnational nation of people both on the island and outside of it, moving back and forth, (sometimes even multiple times during the course of a lifetime) yet always connected to that small island we call home in some form or fashion.

This is why we will be discussing books written by Puerto Rican authors from the United States, as well as Puerto Ricans who have published their works on the island. Puerto Ricans born and living within the continental United States are precisely that, Puerto Rican. We come again and again to the question of what it means to be Boricua, and the Kid Lit about which we’ll be learning this month is no exception.

Let’s go. En la vida todo es ir.

Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.

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