anna brones

writer + artist + producer

Pura Belpré

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“Don’t forget the magnificent sweep of the imagination and dreams of youth…”

– Pura Belpré (1899 – 1992)

 

Pura Belpré was the first Latina librarian in the New York Public Library system, devoting her life to the writing, telling and translation of stories, sharing her culture and Puerto Rican folklore, and becoming an advocate for bilingual children.

Born in Puerto Rico, Belpré came to New York in 1920, and while she never intended to stay, just a year later she started working at a branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. On the shelves, she found fairytales and stories from around the world, but didn’t find her own culture represented. So she took it upon herself to share it. She would travel across the city performing puppet shows for children in English and Spanish, bringing stories to life, and reminding her audiences that they had a place. As the New York Public Library noted, Belpré “served as a kind of library ambassador to New York’s newcomers, making sure that Spanish-speakers knew the library was meant for them, as well. ”

While at the time New York’s Puerto Rican population was growing, when Belpré first became a librarian, she couldn’t find any books for children written in Spanish. She penned her own, Perez Y Martina, a Puerto Rican folktale passed on to her by her grandmother, and it became the first Spanish book for children in mainstream U.S. publishing. Today, there’s even a book award named after her.

Stories hold power, as does language, which is why Belpré’s work is so essential. She opened up a bilingual world for Spanish-speaking children, not only ensuring that they had access to books and stories in their own language, but that they learned about their culture and gave them a sense of belonging. She once wrote, “I wished to plant my story seeds across the land.”

Lisa Sánchez González, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut, wrote a comprehensive study of Belpré’s work, The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author and NY Public Librarian, and was kind enough to share a copy with me so that I could learn more about Belpré’s story, and her importance as a cultural figure.

Sánchez González summarizes why Belpré’s work was so essential:

“…as a nation colonized for over half a millennium, we might well argue that our only sovereign territory is our cultural production, and this may be why our music, our poetry, our film, our plastic arts, and our orature are so richly textured and perpetually reworked. Generation after generation, we Boricuas work out the complications of our own cultural identity in our own uniquely inclusive and exclusive ways. Those performances, like our existence, also covertly and quite carefully confuse, straddle, and trespass generic and essentialist boundaries at will, by whatever means necessary,” writes Sánchez González. “Our clandestine presence—the deliberate occupation of sovereign and creatively politicized spaces otherwise denied to us—is the way we make sense of ourselves, for ourselves, often secretly, beyond the eyes of outsiders who have the power to disturb our aesthetic process by projecting the colonists’ fears and neuroses onto us.”

The quote I used for Belpré’s portrait is part of a longer one that I find so beautiful, and speaks to the importance of writing for children.

“Don’t forget the magnificent sweep of the imagination and dreams of youth; when a boy comes only to a man’s shoulders, his dreams are tall,” wrote Belpré. “Through all the hardships and heartbreaks, these dreams often become realities.”

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

February 7, 2020 at 10:28

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