Remembering Pura Belpré, New York’s First Latina Librarian, a Proud Puerto Rican, a Skilled Storyteller, and a Bilingual Advocate Who Reshaped the System to Serve Its Community

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Belpré traveled all over New York, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Image courtesy of The Pura Belpré Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY</e

A few weeks ago, the Association for Library Services to Children announced this year’s Pura Belpré Awards, naming Carlos Hernandez, the author of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, as the recipient of the 2020 Author Award. Illustrator Rafael Lopez received the 2020 Illustrator Award for his vibrant work on Margarita Engle’s book Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln. The Pura Belpré Award is given each year to Latinx creators who best evoke and honor Latinidad through their work as authors and illustrators of children’s books. 

Lopez is a third-time recipient of the Pura Belpré Award; his first, awarded to him in 2010 for his illustrations in Book Fiesta!, was what he described as a “defining moment” in his life. 

But even before the late Pura Belpré became the figurehead of this prestigious award, she had long been the spark that defined moments in the lives of countless children in New York City, particularly Latino children who, through her bilingual storytelling and activism, first discovered a haven in the New York Public Libraries. 

Belpré was born sometime around the turn of the 20th century (her actual birthdate is up for debate) in Cidra, Puerto Rico. There, she went through schooling, eventually studying to be a teacher at the University of Puerto Rico was founded in Río Piedras. Before she could finish her studies, though, happy circumstances brought her to New York City where she inevitably set root. One thing led to another, and she landed a job with the New York Public Library during their push to diversify their staff. This was, perhaps, a defining moment for her as she become the NYPL’s first Latina staff member — an Afro-Latina — and its first Puerto Rican hire, working as a Hispanic Assistant at the library on 135th Street in Harlem.

While her relocation to New York City diverted her from her plans to become a teacher, her newfound role at the NYPL inspired her to pursue an education in library sciences within the institution. Meanwhile, Belpré found herself drawn to working with children within the library and discovered that she was a charismatic storyteller, a trait that was encouraged by her studies; according to her biography, she took a course called “The Art of Storytelling,” which led her to write Pérez and Martina, a folk tale about a cockroach and mouse who fall in love, inspired by a story that she herself had heard as a child in Puerto Rico. Pérez and Martina: A Portorican Folk Tale was published as a bona fide book in 1932. 

Her own accomplishments as an author followed her throughout her life, especially as an storyteller who sought to preserve the folklore of her home island. Equally as notable is her work as an advocate for the Spanish-speaking community in New York City. As a librarian, she held bilingual storytelling hours for children across the city, stocked the shelves with books in both English and Spanish, and was active in her outreach efforts within the Latino community, all of which helped cultivate a public space that was for all New Yorkers, not just English speakers. She would continue her work, one way or another, throughout her long life. 

Belen Garcia recalled for NPR her memories as a child in New York City, thrilled by the prospect that her local library would be hosting a bilingual story hour. “Oh my gosh, tell your girlfriends at school — there’s going to be a Spanish lady telling a story,” said Garcia, who is Puerto Rican. This experience, taken on a journey through the storytelling of Belpré, was part of the reason Garcia herself worked for the NYPL for nearly five decades. Another librarian, Vianela Rivas, also shared with NPR that Belpré was the reason she entered the NYPL system as a librarian in Washington Heights. “As I was reading about her [from the Dominican Republic], 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.” These stories are truly a testament to the way that we need to see people who look like us, playing important roles within our communities, in order to believe — or simply know — that those opportunities exist for us too.

Belpré died on July 1, 1982, but her legacy has a been a defining one for individuals who were lucky enough to sit in her audience, for a Latino community that didn’t believe the library was for them, and for a new generation of storytellers who are now blessed with an award in her name.