Tag Archives: imperialism

Three Kings of Puerto Rican Children’s Literature

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.

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One of several books available at Libreria Laberinto for Three Kings Day; as you can tell from the glare on the photo, it was wrapped in plastic like many of the children’s books and therefore could not be browsed through in the store.

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.

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The folktale section was dominated by Juan Bobo tales. This is only a small part of the wall of books by and about Puerto Rico for children available at the bookstore.

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.

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European architectural styles and buildings dominate the counting book, Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers.

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).

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The Tainos are only represented in Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers by the number 100; the illustration shows an unreadable pile of rocks.

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.

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This board book highlights words specific to Puerto Rican culture–perhaps it should be labeled trilingual instead of bilingual.

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.

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The Thiago series focuses on issues and concepts important to Puerto Ricans–but because publishing on an island is expensive, even short books like this are costly.

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.

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.

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An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.

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There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.

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Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.

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Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.

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Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.

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Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).

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Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).

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This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.

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Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.