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Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf: An Exhibit on a Puerto Rican Icon’s Writing, Librarianship, & Activism

Photograph of Katiana Bagué

Katiana Bagué (she/her/ella) is the Exhibits Associate for the University of Florida (UF) George A. Smathers Libraries. She has worked at the UF Libraries since 2016. She started as a student assistant at the Latin American and Caribbean Collection and has held other titles within the libraries, such as Bilingual Outreach Assistant for The U.S. Caribbean & Ethnic Florida Digital Newspaper Project and User Engagement and Communications Specialist for UF’s Library West. Katiana, the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants, received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Florida in 2018 and an M.A. in Latin American Studies in 2022. Katiana was also part of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino’s Latino Museum Studies Program 2021 cohort.

Positionality Statement: I wrote this blog post about Pura Belpré in my position as a Puerto Rican woman who has lived most of her life in Florida. While I identify with Belpré as a Puerto Rican woman who has worked in libraries for over six years, I recognize my racial privilege. As a non-Black Puerto Rican, I will never experience the anti-Blackness that Belpré faced and that many Black Puerto Ricans continue to endure. The struggles I have faced as a Puerto Rican woman allow me to empathize with many Black Puerto Ricans in my family and community, but it will never allow me to experience life through their eyes. It is, therefore, imperative for me and other non-Black Puerto Ricans to take the time to learn, read, and listen to Afro-Boricua voices.

A section of the Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf exhibit showing the exhibit title on glass vinyl and an exhibit case
Katiana Bagué (photographer), Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf Exhibit, 2023

Finding Pura Belpré

I remember first seeing Pura Belpré's name while scrolling through social media. At the time, I was working towards my master's in Latin American studies and working full-time at the University of Florida's Library West. The post featured the iconic image of Belpré holding her Pérez and Martina puppets, wearing a bright red dress and scarf. I gasped when I learned she had been the first Black Puerto Rican librarian for the New York Public Libraries (NYPL). She not only served Puerto Rican and BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) communities in New York but also wrote Puerto Rican folktales for young audiences. Having worked in libraries since my undergraduate career, my immediate questions were: How have I not heard about this remarkable woman? Did she really dedicate her life to serving Puerto Ricans in the U.S. like me? This led to an amazing journey of learning about Belpré's activism, curating an exhibit on her legacy, and healing my inner child.

Pura Belpré holding a Pérez the mouse puppet and a Martina the cockroach puppet
Pura Belpré with Martina and Pérez puppets from Lisa Sànchez González’s The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author, and New York Public Librarian, 2013. Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College

Healing a Puerto Rican Woman's Inner Child

I use the expression ‘healing my inner child’ because there is something to be said about not having books from a young age that reflect your identity, family, and community. Living in Florida as a bilingual second-generation Puerto Rican, I craved stories that allowed me to explore and learn more about my identity. I was, therefore, grateful to my family for sharing their stories and experiences living in Puerto Rico and later migrating to the United States. Their stories were my treasures. I had a hard time, however, locating stories that paralleled their realities in the pages of books that I read for school or encountered at the library. 

As an adult, locating and reading Belpré's books centered on Puerto Rican identity provided a strong sense of joy and empowerment. I was fortunate to have access to her books through the University of Florida (UF) Libraries, specifically through the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature and the Education Library. I remember sitting in the University of Florida Libraries Special Collections and flipping through the pages of Pérez and Martina, the first Puerto Rican folktale that Belpré wrote for publication.

Book cover of Pura Belpré's Pérez and Martina showing an illustration of a cockroach wearing a red dress and black shawl, and a mouse in formal attire, both standing among vibrant plants and flowers.
Pura Belpré, author (Puerto Rican, 1899-1982), Carlos Sánchez, illustrator Pérez and Martina, 1932. F. Warne. 23h23553. Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries

She wrote it during a course she took at NYPL's Library School, and it was inspired by a story her grandmother told her as a young child in Puerto Rico. I felt emotional reading through the book, seeing text in both English and Spanish, references to Puerto Rican culture, and a page in which Belpré explains that the story "runs from mouth to mouth" and had never been published. This added value to the stories my family told me as a young girl.

A page from Pura Belpré's Pérez and Martina that states that Belpré first heard the story of Pérez and Martina from her grandmother. The top left corner has an illustration of Martina the cockroach and the bottom right corner has an illustration of Pérez the mouse
Pura Belpré, author (Puerto Rican, 1899-1982), Carlos Sánchez, illustrator Pérez and Martina, 1932. F.Warne. 23h23553. Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries

The folktale itself is a love story between a cockroach and a mouse. However, it has tragic elements and is an allegory about the colonization of Puerto Rico. Pérez, a Spanish mouse, meets his death when he reaches for some arroz con dulce prepared by Martina, a Puerto Rican cockroach, while it is cooking on a hot stove. Pérez's action symbolizes the colonizer's greediness and lack of understanding of Puerto Rican traditions and customs.

A page from Pura Belpré's Pérez and Martina depicting Pérez the mouse falling into a pot cooking on the stove
Pura Belpré, author (Puerto Rican, 1899-1982), Carlos Sánchez, illustrator Pérez and Martina, 1932. F.Warne. 23h23553. Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries

While many of Pura Belpré's published works showcase Puerto Rican folktales, she also explored other forms of storytelling. This is seen through her picture book Santiago. It centers on a young boy and his experiences adjusting to life in the U.S., having migrated from Puerto Rico. I checked out a copy of Santiago from the Education Library, and again, I felt a wave of emotions reading it. Santiago's experiences were relatable to me and so many people I knew from my community who struggled to adjust to life in the United States and wanted to preserve their heritage and culture. From reading her stories, I could see how Belpré wanted to instill a strong cultural appreciation and pride among young Puerto Rican minds. The more research I did on her, the more I admired her dedication and 40+ years of activism as a writer, scholar, and librarian.

Book cover of Pura Belpré's Santiago displaying an illustration by Symeon Shimin of two young children looking at a stereoscope
Pura Belpré, author (Puerto Rican, 1899-1982), Symeon Shimin, illustrator (Russian-American, 1902-1984), Santiago, 1969. F. Warne. PZ7.B416 San 1969. Education Library, George A. Smathers Libraries

Honoring Pura Belpré through an Exhibit

When I started my position as Exhibits Associate for the UF Libraries back in January 2022, I wanted to highlight Belpré's legacy in some way after having spent years exploring her work. With encouragement and support from the UF Libraries Exhibits Director, Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler, and the Curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature, Dr. Ramona Caponegro, I decided to curate an exhibit for the Smathers Library Gallery that would honor Pura Belpré and her impact. 

The exhibit titled Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf, is currently on display at UF’s Smathers Library Gallery until May 2023. It showcases many of her published works, such as the folktales Pérez and Martina, Once in Puerto Rico, The Rainbow Colored Horse, and The Tiger and the Rabbit, and Other Tales that include bilingual text, African Diaspora orature traditions, and Indigenous Taíno imagery. Additionally, the exhibit highlights her picture book Santiago and her young adult novel Firefly Summer.

An exhibit case displaying books by Pura Belpré and reproductions of a portrait of Belpré and the book cover of Juan Bobo and the Queen’s Necklace
Katiana Bagué (photographer), Exhibit Case from Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf, 2023

It is important to note that many of these works have been out of print for several decades and that many of her stories remain unpublished. These unpublished stories are currently housed among her archival papers at the Center For Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. In 2013, her biographer Lisa Sánchez González included these unpublished stories in her book The Stories I Read to the Children. She notes that several of Belpré's unpublished stories center on young Puerto Rican female characters and relate to themes of female empowerment, autonomy, and kinships.

Beyond her written works, the exhibit also discusses the ways her librarianship provided the tools needed to resist assimilation, prejudice, and myths of cultural inferiority. Belpré's impact paved the way for other Puerto Rican creators to make their mark in U.S. society. The exhibit includes Pedro Pietri's iconic poetry book Puerto Rican Obituary, Nicholasa Mohr's young adult novel Nilda, and Piri Thomas's semi-autobiographical novel, Down These Mean Streets. Belpré positively impacted Thomas during his lifetime as he recalled how he would visit the library and check out more books than was allowed. Belpré never reprimanded his sneaking of books. Instead, she encouraged and nourished his love of literature.

An exhibit case displaying books by Puerto Rican authors such as Nilda by Nicholasa Mohr and Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
Katiana Bagué (photographer), Exhibit Case from Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf, 2023

It is crucial to note that Belpré was not alone in enriching the lives of marginalized communities through writing and librarianship. She worked closely with other Black intellectuals from the Harlem Renaissance. While working at NYPL, she met Augusta Baker and Arturo Schomburg. The exhibit includes items that represent both Baker and Schomburg and the cultural hub they created along with Belpré to improve representation and the preservation of Black culture.

An exhibit case displaying books and reproductions related to Black intellectuals from the Harlem Renaissance that worked with Pura Belpré
Katiana Bagué (photographer), Exhibit Case from Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf, 2023

The Pura Belpré Award

Pura Belpré's career and activism are admirable and are still relevant to the present day. Belpré's legacy is alive and well, especially through The Pura Belpré Award, which celebrates children's and young adult books that best exemplify and represent the Latinx experience in the U.S. The Pura Belpré Award was established in 1996 by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, an affiliate of ALA. Beginning with the 2021 award cycle, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of ALA, joined the partnership.

The exhibit thus includes many of the works that have been honored through the award, such as Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, an LGBTQ young adult novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The First Rule of Punk by librarian and University of Florida alum Celia C. Pérez,  Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez and the science-fiction dystopian middle-grade novel The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera. However, the exhibit also challenges what types of Latinx representation are celebrated and which are underrepresented. During the more than 25 years of the award's existence, only a handful of Afro-Latinx authors and illustrators have been recognized. These include Eric Velasquez for his children's book Grandma's Gift and Elizabeth Acevedo for her young adult novel The Poet X, both on display in the exhibit. Latinidad is not a monolith, and to fully honor Pura Belpré's legacy, one must acknowledge the diverse experiences and identities that exist within the Latinx community.

An exhibit case displaying books honored through the Pura Belpré Award, including the Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velasquez
Katiana Bagué (photographer), Exhibit Case from Pura Belpré, Bringing Boricua Stories to the Bookshelf, 2023


Many individuals can learn so much from Belpré and her legacy. The hope is that this exhibit can, in some way, honor her and give a glimpse of the amazing work she did for Puerto Rican and BIPOC children. Belpré, believing in the universality of childhood, empowered her community and ignited self-love for one's identity and culture. I see this through the curation of this exhibit and the healing from reading and enjoying many of her works.

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