NEW YORK – Elba Cabrera still remembers when in the 1930s, when she was about 6 years old, He took out his first book at the Aguilar public library, located in El Barrio. It was about Martina, a Spanish cockroach, and the troubadour mouse Pérez, the only one of many suitors who managed to captivate the rebellious heart of the protagonist.
Through the reading of the children’s story, the girl who was born in Puerto Rico, but was brought to the Big Apple when she was just over a year old, moved to the natural settings, the aromas, the flavors, the songs, the games and the legends of the Caribbean Island in a journey of words and images that transcended not only geographical borders but also idiomatic ones.
The book, which Cabrera still treasures today at 87, was the first he read in Spanish in NYC under the guidance of his sister, the public librarian Lilian López, who also later became the first Puerto Rican administrator of said system.
The experience was not only a premiere for Cabrera in Puerto Rican folklore, but also for the industry of children’s books written in Spanish in the United States.
“The Ratoncito Pérez and the Cockroach Martina” is considered the first book in Spanish for children published in this country, specifically in 1932.
The author is Pura Belpré, a salinense who emigrated to New York in 1921.
Pura Belpré, a pioneer in many ways
Mentioning the name of this Puerto Rican is synonymous with beginnings, but also with transcendent changes.
Belpré was not only revolutionary for the authorship of that first book in Spanish in the United States, but also for becoming the first Latina and bilingual librarian in the city’s public library system (NYPL).
“For Pura, children and youth were very important … She always saw that youth would be our future,” said Cabrera in an interview with El Diario.
It was for this reason, that most of her life, Belpré insisted on moving the library to the communities and schools, often accompanied by the puppets that she herself created as handicrafts.
A histrionic storyteller
When Belpré spoke, the children fell silent to witness the transformation of a woman who not only read the stories, but interpreted them.
“When you saw her, she was like another person,” Cabrera described about the Belpré reading days ranging from lit candles to confession of wishes by children.
However, although the education of children was Belpré’s priority, Cabrera – named “Godmother of the Arts” for her activism in favor of Puerto Rican and Latino artists in general- She said that it was not until an adult that her bond with the narrator became closer.
Hours and hours of conversation with Belpré
“When I went to visit her, I had to set aside hours, because she liked to talk. But it was a good, very beautiful thing. He was talking about books, but also about what was happening in the world at the time, “he described his encounters with the librarian in the apartment he lived in on Edgecombe Avenue, in Manhattan.
Today and partly due to the influence of Belpré, Cabrera’s cultural career includes the leadership of the Association of Hispanic Arts (AHA), and his collaboration with other institutions such as the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, Center for the Media Arts, the Hostos Community College and the Hunter College Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
The complicity between Belpré, he said, and his sister Lilian was even greater since it started from shared interests as librarians.
“She and my sister Lilian were like a daughter with Pura. They went out and since they had the library in common, they were always together, ”said Cabrera, who also had another sister, Evelina López Antonetty, founder of United Bronx Parents Inc. and a well-known educational activist.
The importance of “South Bronx Project”
It was precisely with López that Belpré moved to the Bronx to guide the South Bronx Project in the 70s, an initiative to empower the communities of that county through reading workshops in English and Spanish.
“She retired and then my sister brought her to The Bronx, in the South Bronx Project, since my sister who was in charge of nine libraries in The Bronx. And between her and Pura they began to see books in Spanish for children and for adults, and I remember very well that the project was like 130-odd street, and then she went to different libraries. The Hunts Point Library was the first site where they brought the books in Spanish for the children“Narrated the interviewee.
Beyond being a librarian, literary activist in the communities
In Cabrera’s opinion, the initiative to bring libraries closer to schools through his literary activism and personal contact with children was Belpré’s most valuable legacy.
“She visited many schools in the Bronx and in Manhattan. She had that gift of talking to children. For me, she was one of the greats, one of the people who guided others in Puerto Rico, but they were able to be here in New York, and expand the two cultures, “said Cabrera, referring to the Puerto Rican and the American.
The 25 years of “Pura Belpré Award”
That legacy will be remembered and recognized once again this year with the celebration of 25 years of the award that bears his name (Pura Belpré Award).
The “Pura Belpré Award”, established in 1996, is sponsored by the Children’s Library Services Association (ALSC), the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA) , and REFORMA or the National Association to Promote Information Services and Libraries for Latinos and Hispano-speakers.
Promoting Spanish-speaking communities through reading
Its end is make visible the experiences and stories of Hispanics in the United States., just as Belpré did when writing and telling the stories that were missing and that represented a part of herself as a Puerto Rican from the diaspora.
“From Pura, her commitment to the community draws my attention, because she was not only a librarian, she was a writer, wrote children’s books, rescued the oral tradition of her land, of her island, she brought it here. He saw that there were families that were not represented. What Pura Belpré did already existed for English readers, for English-speaking populations, but not for Spanish-speaking communities. What she did was open a door, make us visible, and say, we matter too. Our language and our culture also matter and we are also from here, to give ourselves that belonging, that pride of belonging, “said Jenny Lizárraga, co-director of the organizing committee of the awards that will be held virtually this coming June 27.
The particularity of the award this year is that for the first time it will be decorated under a new category to a young adult author.
“Every year an author is awarded whose children’s book reflects the experiences of Hispanics in the United States, an illustrator is also awarded, and in the same way, that the book he has illustrated reflects the experiences of Latinos here in the United States. ., that reaffirms cultural values, that is supported by language; and a novel for young people is also being awarded, which is the narrative section ”, indicated Lizárraga.
More young people are writing
Regarding the new category, the Honduran explained that it comes to fill a creative niche for writers whose works are aimed at adolescents and young adults.
“As there has been a growth in authors who are writing poetry, short novels, which are aimed at adolescents and young adults, it was necessary to include that category, because if not, they would not qualify and were left out,” the bookseller also added. from Cinco Books publishing house.
Lizárraga revealed that, contrary to what some may imagine, the pandemic benefited the sale of printed children’s books online since parents invested in these materials during the confinement due to the lack of options to entertain their children.
Pura Belpré Award announces the authors
In this sense, he considered that the Pura Belpré award continues the process of encouraging the industry and its authors to the extent that it makes them known.
“For example, Yuyi Morales has won the Pura Belpré award several times, so the teachers when seeing a book by Yuyi Morales and that has been recognized, that has been awarded, let’s say it is like a guarantee seal, because there are already several people, various professionals who have reviewed this book, who have seen it, and who attest that it is a book that contributes something, be it cultural or that it has some contribution that they can apply in the classroom or in their family ”, exposed.
Efforts to make the awards more inclusive
However, the Hispanic recognized that there is still a long way to go to make the awards more inclusive, since the requirements to be able to participate, at the moment, exclude undocumented writers.
“That is something that I feel needs to be reconciled in the award guidelines. It is an issue that has to be resolved, that they have to do to open the spectrum a little more… because I think that at the time these standards, these requirements were created, there was another reality. It was trying to give a prominence to Hispanics who were here and make them see to other communities and remove the stigma that because we are Hispanics they assumed that everyone was undocumented … Today the reality is different, and I feel that what in that At the moment it was a strength, a guarantee, today it has become a weakness of the award ”, reflected Lizárraga while pointing out a request was made to the ALSC and ALA winners selection committee.
“We proposed it at the beginning of the management of the 25 years of the Pura Belpré award, which is a change that has to take place, that time is not asking for it, the community is asking us for it,” said the REFORMA volunteer.
An opportunity to encourage the work of public libraries
Despite the above, Lizárraga considered that the award is also a bridge to continue Belpré’s legacy by expanding opportunities for the community to become familiar with the services offered by public bookstores for both children and adults.
“I think it is important that we as Hispanics – to give ourselves visibility, to feel part and to represent ourselves and the community in general, are willing to tell our story, to tell our story at some point and in some way. This is an invitation for authors to publish their books… On the other hand, that the community supports libraries by using the free services that are available to the entire community. The public library is an open place, it is a welcoming place for people and there are many resources that we can use, not only books and films… ”, the bookstore stated.
This year’s awards ceremony will include a preview of the documentary “On the trail of Pura Belpré”, material that focuses on the life of the librarian in New York as well as the 25 years of the award.
The audiovisual representation will be officially released on November 4 during the REFORMA virtual conference.
For more information on the legacy of Belpré, Cabrera, and their two sisters, you can visit the online archive at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
For details of the Pura Belpré Award ceremony, you can visit the REFORMA website or reforma.org