What better way to celebrate diversity than to pay tribute to Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian of the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 1921? The influence of her work went well beyond the walls of the 115th Street branch library in southwest Harlem. In addition to being an excellent librarian and storyteller, she published a number of picture books and folktale retellings, extending her reach across the country. When I was working in a library in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, her Perez and Martina was one of the only stories I had available to share with my Latino storytime kids. For the most part, these kids did not come from Puerto Rican backgrounds, but they loved hearing a story in their language. Pura Belpré made this possible.
Belpré also made classic titles such as The Story of Ferdinand, Danny and the Dinosaur, and Little Bear accessible to Spanish-speaking readers through her translations. Her indelible mark on the library world lives on in the annual ALSC/REFORMA-sponsored award that bears her name, established in 1996, which honors Latino(a) writers and artists who best portray the Latino experience in works for children.
Perhaps nowhere is her impact more lovingly portrayed than in Lucía González and Lulu Delacre’s The Storyteller’s Candle.
GONZÁLEZ, Lucía. The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos. illus. by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Pr. ISBN 978089239222-3. 2008. RTE $16.95.
Gr 1-4 –Hildamar and her cousin Santiago move with their family from Puerto Rico to New York City. Santiago’s mother, Titi María, walks the two children to school, and they pass the public library. The kids want to go inside, but are told that “…the people in there don’t speak Spanish.” Librarian Pura Belpré does a school visit to Hildamar and Santiago’s class and tells them that the public library is for everyone. The children rush home to tell Titi María that “they speak Spanish at the library!” The book features Belpré introducing the story Perez and Martina and lighting her traditional storyteller’s candle. She organizes a program for Three Kings’ Day, a Latino holiday celebrated on January 6. The fact that this book is illustrated by puertorriqueña Delacre makes it particularly special. This work showcases the role of librarians in outreach to underserved communities and reminds readers that the library is indeed for everyone.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Leonard Marcus’s stellar exhibit, “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” at NYPL. What I didn’t expect to see were Belpré’s original Perez and Martina puppets. During her career, Belpré adapted numerous Puerto Rican and other folktales so that they could be shared aloud, or performed as part of a puppet show in either Spanish or English.
BELPRÉ, Pura. Perez and Martina: A Puerto Rican Folktale. ISBN 9780670841660.
––––. Perez y Martina. ISBN 9780670841677.
ea vol: illus. by Carlos Sanchez. Viking. 1991.
Martina is a proud Spanish cockroach who has feelings for the small rat named Perez, whose manner causes people to think that he may have descended from royalty. Martina, who is quite pretty, entertains a number of suitors of other species who propose marriage. She asks each of them the same question: “Tell me how you would talk to me in the future?” Martina is not satisfied with any of their responses, which consist of the normal sounds that you would expect a rooster, duck, cricket, and frog to make. Finally Perez arrives, and Martina approves, saying that Perez’s words sound like music. The two marry, but the story ends tragically as Perez falls into a boiling kettle, full of a special Christmas dish that Martina is making for him, and is cooked to death. The story ends with Martina singing in mourning. A lovely aspect of the tale is its predictability, not to mention the musical and poetic quality of the text, which not only makes it easy for a storyteller to learn, but increases its appeal to young children.
This story is often retold with a different ending: Perez gets rescued from the pot and he and Martina live happily ever after. Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection by F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada (S. & S., 2006) has one of the best descriptions of the origins of this story and lists the alternate conclusions in various retellings. Carmen Agra Deedy published a Cuban version of the tale, Martina the Beautiful Cockroach (Peachtree, 2007), to much acclaim.
Sadly, many of Pura Belpré’s books are now out of print. They may still be on library shelves, or can be obtained through sources that sell out-of-print titles.
BELPRÉ, Pura. A Rainbow-Colored Horse. illus. by Antonio Martorell. Warne. 1978. ISBN 9780723261513.
This is a Puerto Rican variant on the trope of a father sending three sons out to accomplish the same task, with only the youngest succeeding, and incurring the jealousy of his brothers. In this case, the youngest son is Pío, who succeeds where his siblings could not in discovering what is trampling their father’s maize fields. Through his cleverness, he discovers that the culprit is a rainbow-colored horse. And, as often happens in fairy tales, the horse offers Pío three wishes if he will let him go. Pío, again exhibiting his cleverness, is able to use these wishes to help him win the hand of the beautiful daughter of a wealthy man.
BELPRÉ, Pura. Firefly Summer. Arte Público. 1996. ISBN 9781558851801.
Something that may come as a surprise to many is that Belpré was also a novelist. Part of the publisher’s “Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage” project, this book is set at the turn of the 20th century. The protagonist, a seventh-grader named Teresa, experiences extended family traditions, such as the celebration of the Feast of the Cross on her parents’ estate. She spends a summer with her friend Mercedes. They learn to make lace and find out the true background of a boy named Ramon, an orphan who has grown up on the estate. Belpré captures the feeling of what it is to be a child and the motions of everyday life, making mundane details come alive. The cultural celebrations are vividly described.
Earlier this year, Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (Abrams, 2013) received a Pura Belpré Honor recognition in the Author and Illustrator categories. His latest picture book speaks to the values of inclusion and respect for other cultures that were at the very core of Belpré’s work and philosophy.
TONATIUH , Duncan. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. Abrams. May 2014. RTE $18.95. ISBN 978141971054-4.
Based on the Mendez family’s true story, this nonfiction text centers on the lawsuit that they brought against the Westminster School District in California to integrate schools. Sylvia doesn’t understand why she and her brothers have to attend “the Mexican school.” She and her family begin a fight for inclusion, which they eventually win in court. It is fascinating to note that this court decision preceded the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas by several years. Tonatiuh brings attention to this bit of history and presents it in an accessible way.