Happy Three Kings Day! While most Americans celebrate Christmas as their major winter holiday, in Puerto Rico, where I was last week, Christmas extends from (as one person there told me) Thanksgiving night when they put up the tree to the San Sebastían Festival in Old San Juan during the third week in January. One highlight is today, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos. Everywhere we went in Puerto Rico there were signs and statues and light displays marking today’s festival, which was at one time the traditional gift-giving day of the holiday season.
Now, as always, influence from the mainland and larger powers have had an effect on how Puerto Ricans celebrate, and Christmas has gained prominence accordingly. Outside influence is, of course, historically the norm for Caribbean islands. And like the three kings who came from other lands to bring their gifts, exploring imperial powers have changed—and continue to change—all aspects of Puerto Rican life. This includes children’s books. While I was pleased, especially after my forays to bookstores in former British colonial islands, to see a wide variety of specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature available, they were dominated by three elements: the history of the island, language issues, and the value (in all sorts of ways) placed on reading.
As with many attempts at creating a national children’s literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the history (both factual and folkloric) of the island in its children’s literature. At Librería Laberinto, a well-stocked bookstore at the heart of Old San Juan, they had a whole wall of children’s books from and about Puerto Rico. Many of these are folktales. Prominent among the stories were Juan Bobo tales; Juan Bobo is an apparently foolish character in Puerto Rican folklore who yet often succeeds against ridiculous odds. Like Brer Rabbit, Juan Bobo has been discussed as a trickster character who wins out over the greater power—in Brer Rabbit’s case, the tales are often seen as an allegory of slavery, and in Juan Bobo’s, an allegory of colonialism with the Puerto Rican succeeding over the Spanish colonizer. Sharing the shelves with the Juan Bobo tales were Taíno folktales, stories from the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the island. The Taíno were almost entirely wiped out in Puerto Rico by Columbus and the Spanish, but today they have gained a revered status. As Ivonne Figueroa has pointed out, “Much has been said of the Taínos lately, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the study of the Taínos took off” (http://www.elboricua.com/history.html). This time period accords with both movements for Puerto Rican independence (from both the Spanish and the Americans) and with the international rise in the study of anthropology and folklore, which often manifested as a search for the noble primitive, an antidote to an increasingly industrialized world. Renewed interest in folklore emphasizes this rejection of the globalized world of technology.
But the power of colonialism is also present in Puerto Rican children’s books. One of the books I brought back, Yvonne Sanavitis and Karen Dietrich’s Los Números en Ponce in Numbers (Plaza Mayor 2009) is a counting book that tells the history of the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico. Most of the sights associated with the different numbers are connected to la Plaza de las Delicias, the main town square built by the early Spanish settlers in the 1670s, including the Fuente del Léon (Lion Fountain), City Hall, the fire station, and the Armstrong-Poventud house. These buildings and monuments are all displayed in their European-style decoration, and a brief description of the Spanish colonizers who created them and held sway over them is given. The Taínos, on the other hand, are not mentioned until the last number of the book. The page describing 100 shows an isolated path of stones outside the center of the city. The text reads, “Floods caused by a hurricane washed away layers of earth in the Tibes neighborhood of Ponce and revealed an indigenous Taíno ceremonial site. Tibes excavations have provided important information about ceremonies, eating habits, ceramics and construction of homes of the indigenous population of Puerto Rico” (51). It is difficult to see, looking at the illustration, how any of this information could have come from the pile of rocks; additionally, the book says nothing of the people living in the neighborhood at the time of the floods or what happened to them. The focus is on the people with the power to shape history; the book opens with a quotation from educator Rafael Pont Flores stating, “Ponce no longer repeats its history, it makes it better” (5).
Los Números en Ponce in Numbers also highlights another trend I found in the children’s books in Librería Laberinto, a focus on language. Many of the books available came in dual editions or dual languages, showing the tension between English and Spanish on the island. Spanish is, of course, the native language of most Puerto Ricans, but—especially in tourist areas like San Juan and Ponce—English is increasingly necessary at all levels of the economy. In 2012, the island instituted a pilot program to shift instruction in Puerto Rico’s schools from Spanish to English (https://www.caliricans.com/2012/08/english-to-replace-spanish-in-puerto-rico-schools/). But it is a fraught issue that mirrors the tensions between the island and the mainland United States.
Perhaps the concerns about language come to a head in Palabras Boricuas/Puerto Rican Words (2016), a bilingual—or perhaps trilingual—board book by Hector E. Baez. Right on the front cover, along with the title and the Puerto Rican flag, is the sentence, “No decimos Banana . . . decimos Guineo.” Translated into English, this says, “We don’t say banana . . . we say banana.” This epitomizes for me the struggles over language found in books specifically for Puerto Rican children.
But how many children have access to these books is something I would be interested to know. As I said, Librería Laberinto had an excellent selection of books, showing how much specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature is valued. But these books were also incredibly expensive compared to their translated counterparts. Most were produced by the educational arm of the University of Puerto Rico or the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña. Again, this shows that children’s literature is of cultural value, but the cost of publishing books on a small island means that most picture books are hard cover only (many of them in the bookstore were sealed in plastic, and therefore unbrowsable). The books designed for beginning chapter book readers, such as the Thiago series by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and published by EDP University of Puerto Rico, can cost ten dollars for a twenty-six page paperback book. These prices mean that many children will only encounter books in libraries or schools, rather than being able to have shelves of books in their homes. This is true in other places as well, of course. But Puerto Rico’s past and present shape the audience for their specifically Puerto Rican children’s books—leaving the treasures of reading out of reach for many.