How Pura Belpré, NYC's First Puerto Rican Librarian, Brought Spanish To The Shelves When Pura Belpré became a librarian in 1921, she couldn't find Spanish language books for kids — so she wrote them herself. Belpré would go on to become a champion of bilingual library programs.

How NYC's First Puerto Rican Librarian Brought Spanish To The Shelves

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We're going to introduce you next to a woman you could describe as a revolutionary children's librarian, the kind of person we're calling bound breakers - people who break through barriers to change the world around them, whether it's their neighborhood or an entire country.

To meet this bound-breaker, NPR's Neda Ulaby takes us to New York City.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: 11:00 a.m. means bilingual story time at the Aguilar Public Library.


ULABY: Dozens of little kids follow librarian Yesenia Zelaya, doing stretches and songs before the stories begin. They're mostly children of immigrants from China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic. They're hearing a story based on a Puerto Rican folktale.

YESENIA ZELAYA: So once upon a time, there was a beautiful cockroach by the name of Martina.

ULABY: This is not just any children's story. "Perez And Martina" was the first Spanish language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press. It came out in 1932. Its author was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City's public libraries.

When Pura Belpre could not find any books for kids in Spanish, she wrote them herself, like this one about the romance between a cockroach and a mouse.

ZELAYA: Cucaracha Martina, you look very beautiful today.

ULABY: Back in 1921, Belpre was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico. She planned to be a teacher. Scholar Lisa Sanchez said she came to New York to attend her sister's wedding.

LISA SANCHEZ: And decided not to go back.

ULABY: It was right here in Harlem that Pura Belpre was recruited as part of a public library effort to hire young women from ethnic enclaves, a springboard, says Sanchez, for Belpre's extraordinary career.

SANCHEZ: Her career as a storyteller, as an activist, as an advocate, as a librarian, as a folklorist...

ULABY: And as a puppeteer. Pura Belpre traveled all over the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side. She told stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Nobody did that back then. Now it's common.

ZELAYA: Everyone knew her by la cucaracha Martina.

ULABY: Back at the Aguilar Library, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent remembers how excited the neighborhood kids would get whenever they heard Belpre was coming.

BELEN GARCIA: Pura Belpre would be coming, and she would be telling a story in Spanish - in Spanish? Oh, my God, tell your girlfriends at school. There's going to be a Spanish lady telling a story.

ULABY: Belen Garcia fell in love with public libraries. She ended up working for The New York City Public Library for 45 years. She remembers how hard it was to reach many kids from Spanish-speaking homes.

GARCIA: Their parents didn't let them come to the library because they thought the library was only English.

ULABY: Today Garcia's daughter runs the same children's section where Belpre once worked. Belpre died in 1982. In a documentary about her, Pura Belpre spoke to the roots of folktales like "Perez And Martina" and how they help immigrant children feel at home.


PURA BELPRE: "Martina and Perez" form a cultural bridge from Spain through Latin America.

ULABY: All the way to the children's section of another public library up in Washington Heights. Five-year-old Amelia Almond is making a stick puppet inspired by Belpre's stories.

AMELIA ALMOND: Do you like my Martina?

ULABY: Meanwhile librarian Amy Chang tells the story using vintage puppets made long ago by Belpre's students.

AMY CHANG: This is a special puppet. This is Martina. She's a cockroach. She's the most beautiful cockroach in town.

ULABY: That doesn't entirely convince 10-year-old Charlotte Almond.

CHARLOTTE ALMOND: For cockroach's standards, I think, but maybe not for humans.

ULABY: The library manager here is another spiritual daughter of Pura Belpre. Vianela Rivas wrote about her back home in the Dominican Republic.

VIANELA RIVAS: As I was reading about her, I thought to myself, oh, I can do that. I can read books with children in Spanish. I can tell the parents about the resources that the library have for them.

ULABY: Resources that Pura Belpre helped make possible.

RIVAS: Because of her, we have a story time in Spanish. We have computer classes in Spanish. And I feel like as a Latino librarian, we have a responsibility to continue doing the work that she started.

ULABY: A group of Latina librarians established an award in Pura Belpre's name. It's given out annually by the American Library Association. The award honors books for young readers by Latino writers and illustrators. Rita Auerbach helped organize its 20th anniversary this year. But she says the prestige has done little to increase the number of kids books by Latino authors.

RITA AUERBACH: It's shockingly low.

ULABY: Almost 25 percent of American public school students are Hispanic. Just guess how many books for them are published each year by Latino authors.

AUERBACH: Something under 2 or 3 percent of the books published for children in the United States are by Latino authors and illustrators. It's insane.

ULABY: And it's time, says Auerbach, for publishers to step up.

AUERBACH: We need to respect the cultural identity of the children of this country. They need to find themselves in the books that we give them and in the programs that libraries offer them.

ULABY: All of the books Pura Belpre wrote for children are currently out of print. Still her legacy endures.

MANUEL MORAN: (Speaking Spanish) Cockroach. What you doing?

ULABY: Manuel Moran runs a Latino children's theater in New York. When he first started doing puppet shows in schools, people would say...

MORAN: Oh, you're like the new Pura Belpre.

ULABY: Now Moran's company, Teatro SEA, hires actresses to dress up like Pura Belpre in 1960 suits and tell bilingual stories.

MORAN: We're bringing Pura back to the libraries.

ULABY: It could be argued though that Pura Belpre never left. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, NPR's Nurith Aizenman introduces us to two bound breakers who formed an unlikely partnership to help child brides in India.

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