In mid-January of 1920, Pura Belpré was living in Puerto Rico, where she was born. She was nineteen years old and studying at the University of Puerto Rico, preparing to be a teacher. She and her sisters, Elisa and Maria, lived with the family of their older sister Rogelia in the San Francisco Barrio in the capital city of San Juan. She once said that she came from a family where people loved to tell stories that "had been handed down by word of mouth for generations." She later made a career out of this family passion.
On July 20, 1920, Pura Belpré boarded the steamship "Philadelphia," and arrived six days later in New York City to attend her sister Elisa's wedding. She thought it would be a short stay, but she remained and lived in New York for the rest of her life. She moved in with her sister Louisa, who lived at 130 W. 139th Street, and worked briefly in the garment industry. But she soon took a position as Hispanic Assistant at the New York Public Library branch at 135th Street in Harlem. She was the first Puerto Rican to be hired by the library, and she had found her calling. In the next years she would oversee the library's expanding services for Spanish-speaking residents of the city,, and she would become a major figure in Puerto Rican folklore.
But first, she went to Library School, enrolling when she was twenty-six. One of her courses focused on storytelling, which had been so important in her family when she was growing up. For an assignment, she wrote a folk tale based on a story she had heard her grandmother tell, about a love story between a cockroach named Martina and a mouse named Perez. She told it to children at a story hour, and quietly made history: it was the first Puerto Rican story children heard in the city's public library. In 1932 she published Perez and Martina: A Portorican Folk Tale in both English and Spanish versions, the first of many titles she either wrote or translated.
During the 1920s and 1930s, several library branches served the city's growing Puerto Rican population, and Belpré found herself working and volunteering not only in Harlem, where she lived all her life, but elsewhere in Manhattan. Wherever she went, she emphasized Puerto Rican stories, games, and traditions. She made colorful puppet versions of Perez and Martina, and used them when she retold her grandmother's tale. She offered her story hours in both English and Spanish, made sure that Spanish-language books were ordered for the branches, and built celebrations around Spanish holidays. Belpré transformed the libraries into Puerto Rican cultural centers for adults and children. And she became known in New York and throughout the country as a folklorist and a believer in the cultural importance of traditional stories. Many of the children she was reading to had been born in the United States, and she was determined that they would grow up knowing and loving their Puerto Rican culture. Today, folklore is widely seen as a way to maintain traditions and pride in immigrant communities, but Belpré was a pioneer.
In 1944, Belpré resigned from the New York Public Library so she could devote more time to her writing, and also travel with her husband, musician Clarence Cameron White. She published a collection of Puerto Rican short stories called The Tiger and the Rabbit and Other Tales, and translated Spanish-language editions of some of the great classics of children's literature, including Syd Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur and The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. After her husband died in 1960, Belpré returned to the New York Public Library to work part-time as Spanish Children's Specialist. [She also helped develop children's programming at El Museo del Barrio - Elvis Fuentes is looking for more info about this, TK.]
Pura Belpré's books are mostly out of print today, though they are available used and - she would surely appreciate this - in libraries. The year 1996 marked a revived interest in her work. In that year, her novel for middle-school grades, Firefly Summer, written in the 1940s, was finally published through the efforts of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College of the City University of New York. And the biennial Pura Belpré Award was initiated by the Association for Library Service to Children to honor outstanding children's books by Latina and Latino authors and illustrators. The prize, now awarded every year, celebrates not only the winners, but Belpré herself, a fierce advocate of high quality children's literature and illustration. Just how fierce can be seen in a 1961 letter she wrote to Margaret Bevans, the Random House editor who oversaw the publication of Belpré's version of stories about Juan Bobo, a well-known figure in Puerto Rican tales.
"Dear Mrs. Bevans:
>> Get more information on the "Nueva York" exhibit.
...I am just recuperating from the shock of the illustrations for my "Juan Bobo." A little research into the character and background of our peasants would have enabled the artist-illustrator to have made a true picture of this folk character, so loved in Puerto Rico&.You can well imagine my shock when I saw Juan Bobo and the Judge portrayed as stereotyped Negroes&.I feel like apologizing to every Puerto Rican who might chance upon this book. In a way I am pleased that the Library did not purchase it for circulation. Their shelves contain the original books, thank God for that.
Pura Belpré White