As part of my research in preparation for serving as guest editor of the GLLI blog for #WorldKidLit Month, I made it a point to look online for books published on the island of Puerto Rico proper. I knew there were books out there that I didn’t have immediate knowledge of, as I am located in the continental United States. Luckily I came across Libros 787.
An online bookstore dedicated to making books by Puerto Rican writers more widely available to both Boricuas on the island and in the diaspora, Libros 787 (so named for the island’s telephone area code) ships worldwide-including Nashville, Tennessee. One of the books I ordered is Ellas: Historias de mujeres puerrtoriqueñas (Histories of Puerto Rican Women). If you are interested particularly in nonfiction books about Puerto Ricans, this one should definitely be in your library.
Published by Editorial Destellos, an independent publisher based in Puerto Rico dedicated to children’s and young adult literature, Ellas is a bilingual anthology of short biographies of over 60 notable Puerto Rican women: writers, artists, athletes, scientists, educators, activists, public officials, revolutionaries, and more. The women featured in this book are from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and of different religious and political affiliations. Women of African descent are well represented, and members of the LGBTQ community are given their due. Some of the women are very well-known; others, as the contributors to the book write, “had been relegated to distant pasts, to oral histories in danger being lost.”
Included in the anthology are women that are rather widely known, such as EGOT winning actor Rita Moreno and United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Also included are perhaps lesser known but nevertheless renowned figures such as Pura Belpré (whom we’ve talked about before!) and poet Julia de Burgos.
But Ellas also includes little known (that is, outside of perhaps more specialized academic or activist circles) figures like feminist labor union leader Luisa Capetillo (from my hometown of Arecibo) and Sylvia Rivera, one of the leaders of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. There are women whose names and contributions were recovered from oral histories, like Herminia Tormes García, the daughter of a formerly enslaved woman who rose to become both the first female lawyer and judge in Puerto Rico. Finally, there are women who are currently active in their fields, such as writer Mayra Santos-Febres and HIV/AIDS researcher Dr. Carmen Zorilla.
Each biography in Ellas is no more than a half a page long; the top half in Spanish, and the bottom part in English. While each biography is short, their language level is more appropriate for middle schoolers in later grades or high schoolers. In fact, this is an excellent text for young adults. It can be used in the classroom as a model for students to write their own brief biographies of notable persons, learning to distill their research into concise accounts. A dual language classroom can truly take up Ellas as a model and prepare biographies in two languages.
Each page of biographical information is paired with an illustration of the woman it represents. The illustrations by Mya Pagán (whose work we’ve encountered earlier this #WorldKidLit Month) put each woman front and center, so that the reader may learn to recognize who they are. One of my favorite details of the illustrations is the frame that surrounds each woman; the unfussy lines encircling each woman come to form an outline of the island of Puerto Rico at the top. The book’s end papers include raised fists of all skin tones, illustrating that the women in this volume broke barriers, norms, and traditions to start something new. The glossy pages and thick cover make this a high quality and sturdy volume ideal for busy libraries.
This is a wonderfully informative, inspiring, and necessary book. I am therefore loath to say that I encountered some errors in the English portions of the book. There seem to be some misprints (such as, for example, duplicated or misplaced sentences); others seem to be issues borne of different translation choices.
Bear in mind, however, that I am not a translator by profession or education. Just because I would have made a different decision does not mean it would be the correct or more proper translation choice. I translate often at my day job, and I find it exceedingly challenging every single time. Nevertheless, there are instances in which the English in Ellas does not read as smoothly as the Spanish. Monolingual English readers (or multilingual folks who feel more at ease reading in English) may miss some of nuances in the biographies.
It is possible that I could have received a misprinted copy (which happens). The book was just published this year, so hopefully the inconsistencies in the text will be addressed in future printings. Ellas is nevertheless an important example of Puerto Rican literature that deserves to be widely read and learned from.
Edited by Enery López Navarette, Mariola Rosario Padró, and Laura Rexach Olivencia; Illustrated by Mya Pagán
2020, Editorial Destellos
Page Count: 141
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.