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Pura Belpre: Celebrating a Hispanic birthday

Happy Birthday Pura Belpré! or ¡Feliz Cumpleaños Pura Belpré! But I wish I could say that I knew exactly her date of birth. Literary experts are still in disagreement whether her birthday is February 2, 1899 or December 2, 1901 or February 2, 1903.

Either case, it is worth the mention to celebrate one of the greatest figures in Hispanic literature and children advocate for literacy. Pura Belpré was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico and immigrated to the United States in 1920. She had enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in 1919. But by 1920, she moved to New York to help with her sister’s wedding and realized her life belonged in New York. Although she started in the garment industry, her knowledge in Spanish moved her to become the Hispanic Assistant at the New York Public Library (NYPL). She began her work at a library branch at the 135th Street in Harlem.

Here, while working in the children’s section, she found her motivation to write children books. Hence, in 1926, she began her literary career at the Library School of the NYPL. Within that time, she published her first book: “Pérez and Martina”, a delightful story about a mouse and a cockroach.

Courtesy of Reforma

By 1929, the Puerto Rican population had increased in the southwest Harlem community. So, Pura Belpré was transferred from the 135th Street branch to the 115th Street library branch. Her most active literary work took place at this location. Here, she started to implement bilingual story time, purchasing Spanish books for children, promoting Hispanic holidays, and became a strong advocate for bilingual programs in the community for the Puerto Rican population in the area.

By 1943, she married African-American Clarence Cameron White, a composer and violinist. And soon she left her library position to pursue her writing career along side her husband. By then, she published numerous books and became a well-known Hispanic contributor to children literacy. She knew the significance of maintaining the Hispanic heritage in the community.

And insisted on programs like Archivo de Documentación Puertorriqueña and children programs at the Museo del Barrio. Pura Belpré passed away on July 1, 1982. Her works and advocacy are not forgotten. Many of her early books have recently resurfaced for new generations to learn about Hispanic culture. Her impression in the Latino literary community is so important.

In 1996, the Pura Belpré award was established to honor Hispanic authors and illustrators that contributed to the Hispanic literary community. Many of these authors focus on children literacy and promote Latino culture and heritage. This award recognizes many Hispanic contributors to the Spanish language just like Pura Belpré – a strong advocate for bilingualism and children literacy.

Do you think local libraries and communities should implement more bilingual programs?

Barbara Mascareno

Barbara is an educational writer, teacher, and instructional designer. She loves to write K-12 education content, teaching strategies, bilingual education approaches, and foreign language.

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