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.
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.
Washington Heights librarian Vianela Rivas got into the “business” because of Belpré — she remembers reading about her back home in the Dominican Republic. “As I was reading about her, I thought to myself: Oh, I can do that. I can read books to children in Spanish. I can tell parents about the resources the library has for them.”
Those resources are thanks, in large part, to Belpré’s decades of service.
“Because of her we have a story time in Spanish,” Rivas says. “We have computer classes in Spanish. And I feel like as a Latina librarian we have a responsibility to continue doing the work that she started.”
Every year, the American Library Association gives out an award in Belpré’s name. It recognizes books for kids and young adults by Latino writers and illustrators. Rita Auerbach, who helped organize the award’s 20th anniversary this year, says the proportion of books for kids by Latino authors is so “shockingly low” that “it’s insane.”
Almost 25 percent of American public school students are Hispanic — but Auerbach cites a recent study which found that less than 3 percent of books published for kids in the U.S. are by Latino authors and illustrators.
It’s time for publishers to step up, Auerbach says: “We need to respect the cultural identity of the children of this country. They need to find themselves in the books that we give them and in the programs that libraries offer them.”
The books Belpré wrote for children are now out of print, but her legacy endures. Manuel Moran runs Teatro SEA, a Latino children’s theater in New York. When he first started doing puppet shows in schools people would say, “Oh you’re like the new Pura Belpré.” Now Moran’s company hires actresses to dress up like Belpré — 1960s suits and all — to tell bilingual stories to a new generation of children.
“We’re bringing Pura back to the libraries,” Moran says.
It could be argued though, that Pura Belpré never left.
This is the first installment of NPR’s Boundbreakers series, about individuals who have made a difference, well before the rest of the world recognized it.