“Hace muchos años, en una casita de balcón, una vez vivía una cucaracha española llamada Martina.”
It was the first line of the folktale that introduced bilingual storytime to the New York Public Library.
The tale? “Perez and Martina.” The love story of a cockroach and a mouse. Told exactly the same way the storyteller first heard it from her abuela in Puerto Rico: Many years ago, in a small house with a balcony, lived a Spanish cockroach named Martina.
The narrator? Pura Belpré, an Afro-Puerto Rican from the island and the first Latina to become a librarian at the New York Public Library.
In his honor, the American Library Association has been awarding the Pura Belpré Prize for 25 years to children’s and young people’s literature which “allows Latinx children to see themselves represented, and all children to see Latinx protagonists in their books.” But the story of how she ended up at the 115th Street branch and her contributions to the city’s public library system aren’t always taught to younger generations.
Belpré was born and raised in Puerto Rico. In 1920, she came to New York for her sister’s wedding and never returned. In 1921, Belpré was hired by the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library as a “Hispanic Assistant”, a position created to serve Harlem’s growing Spanish-speaking population. In 1929, she was assigned as a librarian at the 115th Street branch.
“Pérez y Martina” is one of many Puerto Rican folk tales passed down from generation to generation, or as Belpré would say, corre from boca to boca. Belpré transported puppets and other props all over New York City not only to tell the story of “Pérez y Martina”, but to perform the story.
But it was at the 203 W. 115th St. branch that Belpré introduced bilingual storytelling, puppet shows, and El Día de Reyes (Feast of the Three Kings) celebrations. She was successful in attracting the Puerto Rican community to the library, especially children. And on the second floor of the library, in the children’s room, “Pérez y Martina” has fallen in love several times a year.
Today, the 115th Street branch, also known as the Harry Belafonte branch, still hosts story time. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, storytime has been happening more often on Zoom than in person. And since many Spanish speakers have moved to East Harlem, Washington Heights, or the Bronx, story time is now held in English only.
A black-and-white photograph of his narration is displayed on the second floor alongside other photographs from the library in its early days. A picture book about his life is displayed in the children’s autobiography section. Written by Paola Escobar and illustrated by Anika Aldamuy Denise, the book is titled Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. It tells the story of Belpré’s life from her birth as Pura Teresa Belpré y Nogueras in 1903 in Cidra, Puerto Rico, until her death in 1982 in Washington Heights.
When asked what Belpré thinks of children, in a 2021 short documentary about her work, her best friend Elba Cabrera replied: “El futuro”. The future. “I think, for her, writing children’s books was the best thing in the world.”
“Pérez y Martina” was the first Latin American folk tale to be published by the American mainstream press. It was also the first published in Spanish. This was in 1932, when many marginalized communities did not see themselves represented in the library.
Today, at first glance, most New York Public Library branches appear as diverse as New York City. However, in a more segregated New York of the early 1900s, librarians of color were sent to Harlem because Harlem had “colored” branches.
Such was the case with one of Belpré’s colleagues at the 115th Street branch, Regina Anderson Andrews. A 22-year-old Chicago native, Andrews applied for a position as a librarian at the 42nd Street branch and was told she was not American. “We’ll have to send you to Harlem,” his caller told him.
Little did they know Harlem would do Andrews well. She became the first black person to serve as the branch’s supervising librarian. Throughout her time, she invited prominent personalities and writers to speak at the library, including Franz Boas, Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes. But it was not an easy trip.
WEB Du Bois, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, defended Andrews when the New York Public Library refused to give him a deserved promotion. In solidarity, the community protested and boycotted the library.
In 1938, Andrews was promoted to supervising branch librarian at the Andrew Carnegie branch on 115th Street. In her articles at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, Harlem, an unidentified newspaper clipping reads: “To Mrs. Regina Andrews of New York goes the distinction of being the first Negro to be fully in charge of a public library branch in new York City.
Today, when the librarians at the 115th Street branch are asked about Belpré, they all know who she is. It’s not the same for Andrews.
The two women’s time at the 115th Street branch only overlapped for a year. Andrews arrived in 1938 and Belpré moved to the 110th Street Aguilar branch in 1939. Their story is the story of the Harlem branches. From Harlem. Changing movements of people of color in New York. Of struggle and solidarity between Black Americans and Puerto Ricans.
After a decade of bringing Spanish-speaking activities and literature to the library, Belpré was moved to East Harlem, following the movement of Spanish-speaking communities east and north.
In 1982, the year of his death, Belpré received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Public Library. And every year since 1996, the American Librarian Association has awarded the Pura Belpré Prize to outstanding literary works by Latino authors.
In 2021, the Pura Belpré Prize celebrated its 25th anniversary. In a short documentary made for the occasion, New York Public Library senior librarian Valerie Garcia said, “His presence is there when people come in, when kids get together after school, when parents organize meetings at the library. I believe it is the spirit of Pura that makes the library a community place where people feel comfortable and safe and want to come back.
Marcele Rodrigues-Sherley was a reporting intern for Chalkbeat New York. She is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.