Lisely Laboy is the project manager at Diverse BookFinder. Lisely holds a master's degree in Information and Library Sciences from Florida State University and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida in Sociology and Women’s Studies. She has 10 years of public library experience, including time as a programming librarian for children and teens.
** The blog below was written before the recent impacts to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Fiona. As power outages, rain, and flooding from the storm continues to impact the island, our hearts are with the people of Puerto Rico. We are hoping for a safe and quick recovery for all of those impacted. **
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! Every year from September 15th to October 15th, the United States recognizes the incredible contributions of Hispanic Americans throughout history and in the present. Hispanic Heritage Month honors the varied and diverse cultures of Spanish-speaking people with ancestral origins in more than 20 countries around the world. Today I’m sharing with you some of my favorite stories about the people of Puerto Rico.
While I was born on the mainland United States (in Kansas to be exact) both of my parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico. From the time I was born, my parents instilled in me a love and respect for the people of Puerto Rico, our rich culture, and our beautiful island country. Though we made frequent visits to the island during my youth and I have a lot of extended family that still lives there, I never lived there (my father was in the military).
My experience of my culture was most often as a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora (a population of people that is scattered across regions separate from their geographic place of origin) on the U.S. mainland. As it turns out, this experience of living in the Puerto Rican diaspora is not an uncommon one. For decades, people have been moving to the mainland from Puerto Rico for a variety of reasons. Job opportunities, economic difficulties, and environmental concerns have all had a part in driving movement away from Puerto Rico.
In fact, according to the US Census, the number of self-identified Puerto Ricans living in the mainland United States (about 5.8 million) far outweighs the number of Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico (about 3.3 million). The 2020 US Census also shows Hispanics represent 18.9% of the total US Population and that among Hispanics in the United States, Puerto Ricans (9.6%) are second in population only to Mexicans (61.6%).
What does this all mean at the Diverse BookFinder?
Well, as we know, children’s literature often fails to accurately represent the full range of diversity present in the U.S. population and this not only holds true for the Hispanic community at large but for Puerto Ricans specifically.
Of the 4,803 diverse picture books in the Diverse BookFinder, only 535 (11.1%) feature Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American characters and of those, only 35 (6.5%) offer representations of Puerto Ricans.
As we can see, both the picture book representations of Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American characters as a whole, and Puerto Ricans specifically are much lower than they should be if they were meant to match the real diversity of our American society.
This fact also rings very true to me based on my own life experiences. I’ve just had my 35th birthday, and though I always loved books as a child and was always in my school and public libraries, I don’t ever remember reading a book about a Puerto Rican character in general much less about a Puerto Rican living in the United States. I was well into adulthood before I ever experienced that kind of personal connection with a book character. Part of what I love about working with the Diverse BookFinder is trying to make sure that part of my experience doesn’t continue to be a common one.
Below, I’ve put together a selection of some of my favorite diverse picture books featuring Puerto Rican characters living in the diaspora. I only wish that I'd had access to these during my childhood.
Fresh From The Island
The first two books on my list highlight the experiences of moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland. Like many experiences of relocation, these moves can be fraught with homesickness and family separation.
For the people of Puerto Rico, these moves are often also defined by the strange reality of being both insiders and outsiders at the same time. Though Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, colonialist history lingers in the official categorization of Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory of the United States. This designation means that while all Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States and can move freely between the two countries, Puerto Ricans living on the island lack the governmental representation afforded to citizens on the mainland.
Currently, Puerto Ricans residents can elect their own local government (governor and senate) but cannot vote in federal presidential and vice-presidential elections and have one non-voting delegate in congress. This hybrid identity means that Puerto Ricans are often treated as second-class citizens and that's when their rightful citizenship is acknowledged at all. This reality only adds complexity to the varied feelings and apprehensions that may accompany Puerto Ricans moving from the island to the mainland.
In Coquí in the City, Nomar Perez illustrates the mixed emotions of little Miguel who has left the island and his beloved grandparents to move to New York City. I love how at first, Miguel is overwhelmed by the differences, but he soon realizes there’s much more in common between his two homes than he initially realized. Beautiful parallel illustrations serve to highlight the differences and similarities.
Zara Gonzalez Hoang’s A New Kind of Wild also does a beautiful job of highlighting a child’s homesickness as Ren moves away from his grandmother’s rainforest cottage in Puerto Rico to a new city. Ren mourns the loss of his wild and colorful home, but learns that there are many kinds of wild as his new friend Ava introduces him to the wonders of her city.
Discovering Our People
These last three books truly strike me as beautiful. Though they each do it in different ways, each story highlights the unique ways in which Puerto Ricans living in the diaspora strive and work to create and maintain the connections to their island and their people.
In Where Are You From? Jaime Kim’s gorgeous illustrations are the perfect match to Yamile Saied Méndez’s story of a little girl struggling to understand her own history. Though Méndez’s story highlights the multiracial and multicultural background of her protagonist, her descriptions of Puerto Rico and important recognition of history of colonization and slavery on the island make this book stand out in my mind.
Though it’s a little older than the rest of the titles on my list, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eric Velasquez’ s Grandma’s Records. This talented author/illustrator tells his own story of connecting to his Afro-Puerto Rican roots via his grandmother’s love of music and classic Spanish records. I connect to this story on a deeply personal level as my late father was a lover of music and old records too. I remember running around as a child singing songs in Spanish long before I ever understood the cultural importance of their words. These days, I can attest to the importance of the “special song” in Grandma’s Records. It’s called “En mi Viejo San Juan” and it’s been something of a national anthem for Puerto Ricans living in the diaspora since it was written in 1942.
Finally, I come to the most recent entry on my list: Beauty Woke, written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Paola Escobar. This story is full of Puerto Rican pride in all its ups and downs. Combining a classic fairy tale essence with the backdrop of ongoing struggles against stereotypes, prejudice, and injustice, Ramos tells the story of a young girl’s journey from birth through disillusionment to pride and activism. Mixing poetic text and bright, inspired illustrations Ramos and Escobar bring to life a story that highlights the importance and diversity of one’s connection to our extended Puerto Rican family.
Though the data clearly shows that there’s still a long way to go in the fight for equitable representations of Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American characters in children’s literature, these stories warm my heart and give me hope for the future. As more publishing houses spotlight Puerto Rican authors and their authentic stories, we move closer to the day when no one else will spend their entire childhood without seeing themselves represented on the pages of a picture book.
To learn more about the titles included in this blog, please check out the links below…
Diverse BookFinder Titles:
Coquí in the City
"A heartfelt picture book based on the author-illustrator’s own experiences, about a boy who moves to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico and realizes that New York City might have more in common with San Juan than he initially thought. Miguel’s pet frog, Coquí, is always with him: as he greets his neighbors in San Juan, buys quesitos from the panadería, and listens to his abuelo’s story about meeting baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Then Miguel learns that he and his parents are moving to the U.S. mainland, which means leaving his beloved grandparents, home in Puerto Rico, and even Coquí behind. Life in New York City is overwhelming, with unfamiliar buildings, foods, and people. But when he and Mamá go exploring, they find a few familiar sights that remind them of home, and Miguel realizes there might be a way to keep a little bit of Puerto Rico with him—including the love he has for Coquí—wherever he goes." -- publisher
A New Kind of Wild
"This sweet author-illustrator debut celebrates imagination, the magic of friendship, and all the different ways we make a new place feel like home. For Ren, home is his grandmother’s little house, and the lush forest that surrounds it. Home is a place of magic and wonder, filled with all the fantastical friends that Ren dreams up. Home is where his imagination can run wild. For Ava, home is a brick and cement city, where there’s always something to do or see or hear. Home is a place bursting with life, where people bustle in and out like a big parade. Home is where Ava is never lonely because there’s always someone to share in her adventures. When Ren moves to Ava’s city, he feels lost without his wild. How will he ever feel at home in a place with no green and no magic, where everything is exactly what it seems? Of course, not everything in the city is what meets the eye, and as Ren discovers, nothing makes you feel at home quite like a friend. Inspired by the stories her father told her about moving from Puerto Rico to New York as a child, Zara González Hoang’s author-illustrator debut is an imaginative exploration of the true meaning of “home.”" -- publisher
The author describes his boyhood summers spent at his grandmother's apartment in Spanish Harlem where she introduced him to the sounds and steps of the merengue and the conga and told him stories of Puerto Rico
Coming Soon to Diverse BookFinder:
Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez and Jaime Kim (2019)