Tag Archives: Puerto Rico

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

“Puerto Rico’s in America”: Children’s Lit and Citizenship of Puerto Ricans

In March, I was talking with a friend about musicals, and I said I liked West Side Story.  “Do you?” my friend asked, clearly surprised.  I do like the music, and the dancing, and I have particularly fond memories of the song “Rumble” which my daughter’s nursery school class used to put on when it was clean-up time, which I always thought was funny (was it some kind of social conditioning to associate in their small minds gang warfare with wanting to clean up the house?).  But I’m pretty sure my friend was thinking of the film, which has faced considerable criticism from its premiere in 1961.  “Well,” I said, “I like Rita Moreno.”


Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno in the 1961 film West Side Story, reminding viewers that “Puerto Rico’s in America.”

I thought of this last week when BBC Radio 4’s PM programme ran a piece on West Side Story, in which Carolyn Quinn commented that the film version was criticized for having “Americans” play Puerto Ricans (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09zt3k1 about 41 minutes in to the programme).  I immediately thought of the line from the song, “I Want to Live in America” in which the Puerto Rican girls point out, “Puerto Rico’s in America.”  Quinn’s definition of “American” points up the difficult relationship between the United States and its island territory, and also speaks to the definition of “American”; surely the word Quinn was looking for was “white”—she didn’t mean that Sidney Poitier was playing a Puerto Rican.  Americans are white; people of colour are African-American, Latina/o-American, Puerto Rican American.  And Puerto Ricans almost never count as Americans.  We saw this come into sharpest focus following Hurricane Maria, when the president complained about helping Puerto Ricans recover (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/10/03/trump-puerto-rico-survey-hurricane-maria-damage/726352001/) because it was costing too much.  A set of austerity measures has since been put in place by the federal government, which today, 1st May, Puerto Rican unions are protesting in a one-day strike (https://www.npr.org/2018/05/01/607303533/demonstrators-to-march-in-puerto-rico-to-protest-austerity-measures).


Books such as Ramy Allison White’s Sunny Boy on the Ocean depict happy blonde children frolicking in Puerto Rico while the “natives” seem happy to serve them.

But the fraught relationship between the mainland US and Puerto Rico does not just go back to the 1960s.  It goes back much further, and evidence for this can be found in children’s books.  Puerto (or Porto, as it was once, incorrectly, spelled in American children’s books) Rico began appearing as a setting for children’s books in the US in the very late 19th century because it was ceded by Spain to the United States following the Spanish-American War.  Children’s books have always been a way to encourage imperial exploration, and books such as Young Hunters In Porto Rico (1900) proclaimed the benefits of the island to mainland Americans: “This new island of ours is but little known to the majority of us, but when its picturesqueness, and its mild climate, become a matter of publicity, Porto Rico is bound to become the Mecca for thousands of American tourists in search of health and pleasure” (from the preface by “Captain Ralph Bonehill,” iv; Bonehill was a pseudonym for the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Edward Stratemeyer).  By the 1920s the predicted discovery had come to pass; Ramy Allison White’s Sunny Boy on the Ocean (1925) has its six-year-old protagonist touring around the island, learning facts such as “San Juan was the oldest possession of the United States” (169).  Puerto Rico is a “possession” that “Americans” can use to make money and enjoy the sunshine in temporary trips, according to children’s literature of the time.  Interaction with Puerto Ricans is kept to a minimum, especially since “natives” are generally depicted as lazy and unclean, if not dangerous.  (For more on early depictions, see my article, “The Stratemeyer Chums Have Fun in the Caribbean” in Internationalism in Children’s Series, Palgrave Macmillan 2014: 59-75).

Twins Rommie and Rovie, in Evelyn Canfield’s 1957 novel, see Puerto Rico, but always at an emotional distance from the land both “foreign” and “American”.

The confusion between Puerto Rico as a foreign land and as a part of America continued in children’s literature throughout the second half of the twentieth century.  Evelyn Canfield’s Rommie and Rovie in the West Indies (1957) discusses the mainland American protagonists’ excitement at “a vacation that was to bring so many foreign scenes, strange foods, and new friends” (14) but points out only a few pages later that “Puerto Rico . . . belonged to the United States, so the natives here are all American citizens” (23).  Most geography texts, such as Michael Burgan’s Puerto Rico (2003), emphasize Puerto Rico’s connection to America (Burgan’s book is in the “From Sea to Shining Sea” series from Children’s Press, which has one book for every part of the United States) but whereas Burgan’s book opens with this relationship, many others do not.  A True Book: Puerto Rico, by Elaine Landau and also from Children’s Press (1999) chooses to begin with asking readers to “Close your eyes and picture a beautiful island with sandy beaches and brightly colored flowers” (5) in a section called “Island of Enchantment”.  It only mentions the political situation some pages later, in the book’s shortest chapter.


Puerto Ricans writing about Puerto Ricans, such as Sonia Manzano, tell a very different story of connection between the island and the mainstream.

In the late 1990s, Puerto Rican-born New York City librarian Pura Belpré began writing about Puerto Rican experiences in colonial times and advocating for more literature about Puerto Rico to be produced.  The establishment in 1996 of the Pura Belpré award has done a lot to bring to light the complicated relationship between the island and the mainland.  The award, which is “presented to a 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” (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/belpremedal/belpreabout), has brought Latina/Latino children’s literature closer to the mainstream.  Authors like Sonia Manzano (who, like Rita Moreno, I knew from childhood through PBS children’s television—Sesame Street in Manzano’s case and Electric Company in Moreno’s) showcase Puerto Ricans living in both island and mainland.  Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano was a Belpré honor book in 2013.  In it, Evelyn examines her heritage—as American, Puerto Rican, and Nuyorican.  After discussing the various ethnic groups that make up Puerto Rico, Evelyn comments about her own life in New York City: “us kids wanted to call ourselves Nuyoricans so we wouldn’t have to go through the whole speech of, well I was born here but my parents are from Puerto Rico so I’m really Puerto Rican but born in New York, blah, blah, blah, blah, every time somebody asked us what we were” (188).  “Nuyorican” is one way to remind people that Puerto Rico’s in America—and it’s a message that more children need to hear.