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

11:00 a.m. is bilingual story hour at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library. Dozens of kids — mostly children of immigrants from China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — have settled down to hear Perez y Martina, a story based on a Puerto Rican folktale.

But Perez y Martina — which tells the tale of a romance between a cockroach and a mouse — isn’t just any children’s story. When it was published in 1932, it was the first Spanish language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press. And its author, Pura Belpré, was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York’s public library system at a time when the city’s Puerto Rican population was swelling. Belpré could not find any books for kids in Spanish — so she wrote them herself.

Back in 1921, Belpré was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico. She had plans to become a teacher, but she came to New York to attend her sister’s wedding and decided to stay. In Harlem, Belpré was recruited as part of a public library effort to hire young women from ethnic enclaves. This first job was a springboard, says scholar Lisa Sánchez, for Belpré’s extraordinary career — as a story teller, an activist, a librarian, a folklorist — and even as a puppeteer.

Belpré traveled all over the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Nobody was doing that back then.

Read more: NPR

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