Harlem’s Pura Belpré, The First Puerto Rican Librarian in NYC

March 21, 2015

PuraBelprePura Belpré (1899–1982) was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. She was also a writer, collector of folktales, and puppeteer.

Belpré was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico. There is some dispute as to the date of her birth which has been given as February 2, 1899, December 2, 1901 and February 2, 1903. She graduated from Central High School in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1919 and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. Soon thereafter, in 1920, she interrupted her studies in order to attend her sister Elisa’s wedding in New York City, where, except for brief interludes, she remained for the rest of her life.

Belpré’s career in the New York Public Library commenced in 1921, and she pioneered the library’s outreach within the Puerto Rican community. However, like many of the Puerto Rican women who migrated to New York in the twentieth century, Belpré’s first job was in the garment industry. Her Spanish language, community and literary skills soon earned her a position as Hispanic Assistant in a branch of the public library at 135th Street in Harlem, having been recruited and mentored by Ernestine Rose, head of the Harlem library. Belpré became the first Puerto Rican to be hired by the New York Public Library (NYPL).

In 1925 she began her formal studies in the Library School of the New York Public Library. In 1929, due to the increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans settling in southwest Harlem, Belpré was transferred to a branch of the NYPL at 115th Street. She quickly became an active advocate for the Spanish-speaking community by instituting bilingual story hours, buying Spanish language books, and implementing programs based on traditional holidays like the celebration of Three Kings Day. In her outreach efforts, she attended meetings of civic organizations such as the Puerto Rican Brotherhood of America and La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana. Through Belpré’s work, the 115th Street branch became an important cultural center for the Latino residents of New York, even hosting important Latin American figures such as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Belpré continued these efforts at the 110th street (or Aguilar) branch.

Belpré’s library career is intimately tied to her literary career. The first story she wrote and published was Pérez and Martina, a love story between a cockroach and a mouse. Belpré also collected many other folktales from Puerto Rico, translated them into English and had them published as children’s literature.

In 1940, Belpré met her future husband, the African-American composer and violinist, Clarence Cameron White. They were married on December 26, 1943 and Belpré resigned her position to go on tour with her husband and to devote herself fully to writing. When her husband died in 1960, Belpré returned to part-time work in the library as the Spanish Children’s Specialist, which sent her all over the city wherever there were large numbers of Latino children. In 1968, she retired from this position, but was persuaded to work with the newly established South Bronx Library Project, a community outreach program to promote library use and to provide needed services to Latino neighborhoods throughout the Bronx.

Belpré wrote the first major Juan Bobo story published in the United States, Juan Bobo and the Queen’s Necklace: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale. It was published in 1962.

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Belpré died in July 1, 1982, having received the New York Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture that same year. Her archives are held and maintained by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

The Pura Belpré Award is a children’s book award presented every year, to the Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

The Pura Belpré Award is co-sponsored by REFORMA: the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

The Northeast Chapter of REFORMA named its children’s book achievement award in her honor in the 1980s.

In the Bronx, New York Public School 64 on Walton Avenue near 170th Street has been named after her.

A documentary film about the life and work of Pura Belpré was produced in 2011, and is available for viewing at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College.

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