Tag Archives: Radio 4

“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.

We Didn’t Ask for Tolerance: Acceptance versus Tolerance in Children’s Literature


In Keeping’s book, neither of the children are “tolerated”.

This week, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission released their report, Healing a Divided Britain: The need for a comprehensive race equality strategy. The report begins with pointing out that “inequalities of significant concern . . . mean that individuals are facing barriers in accessing jobs and services that impact on their ability to fulfil their potential, [and] they also indicate that some parts of our community are falling behind and can expect poorer life chances than their neighbours” (7). The report went on to say that “Britain is a very different place today compared to the 1960s, when casual racism and ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were commonplace. Race equality legislation and changes in social attitudes have had an enormous impact. This is a cause for celebration. However, the evidence shows that, 50 years after the Race Relations Act 1965, stark inequalities remain” (7). Mishal Husain, introducing the report on the Today Show on Radio 4, commented that, “We may like to believe that we are a nation of tolerance and equality of opportunity, whatever our background, but are we instead a nation where racial inequality is entrenched and far-reaching?” (Today on Radio 4 18 August 2016). There is a lot that can be said about the report (and the reporting on the report), but I want to focus on Husain’s opening statement about tolerance. Upon hearing it, Dr. Nicola Rollock, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education, tweeted, “Always baffled by statement that UK tolerant re race relations. Do we want ‘tolerance’ or understanding, acceptance & equity? #r4today” (@NicolaRollock 18 August 2016).


But Keeping’s palette makes subtle comments about equity and gentrification in Britain.

It is interesting to look at the report and Rollock’s response (which was echoed by several who retweeted her) in the context of children’s literature from both the “dark ages” of the 1960s and 1970s and the present time. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black British youth demanded fair treatment from the police and Black parents demanded equitable treatment for their children in Britain’s schools. From the Black Parents Movement in the late 1960s to the Black People’s Day of Action that was a response to the New Cross Massacre of 1981, Black people in Britain were not requesting tolerance from their white counterparts. They were demanding to be heard, and claiming their rights as British citizens. Children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s did not ask for tolerance either, because tolerance suggests a hierarchical relationship (as does asking for society to listen and respond). In fact, children’s books such as the Kate Greenaway award-winning book Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967) by the fabulous Charles Keeping subtly suggests society’s inequities while at the same time promoting a cross-racial friendship that is not questioned or highlighted as something unusual or different. Charley and Charlotte live in the ironically named “Paradise Street, somewhere in the big city of London” (n.p.); all the text says about their relationship is that “They were great friends, and every day they played together” (n.p.). What tears them apart is gentrification; Charley, the Black child, remains in Paradise Street as the houses are slowly torn down, while Charlotte, the white child, goes to “live in a flat at the very top of a brand-new building” (n.p.). The contrast in Keeping’s colour palette between the somber depiction of the slums of Paradise Street and the golden new tower block makes an unspoken commentary on race and housing in 1960s London. Charley does not see gentrification as a barrier however; he doggedly goes in search of his lost friend until he finds her.


The children in Breinburg and Lloyd’s Sean Goes to School do not simply “tolerate” Sean, but actively seek him out as a friend.

Petronella Breinburg’s 1973’s Sean Goes to School, with illustrations from Errol Lloyd, is one of the earliest picture books from a mainstream publisher (the Bodley Head) to feature a Black child on the cover. Given the publication date which came not too long after Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971), this could have been a demand from two Black British authors for “tolerance” in the education system. But in fact, it is simply the story of a child’s first day of school. Sean is frightened, and cries, but he is not labeled by the teacher as bad (or educationally sub-normal). He is not depicted as a suspicious character by the white children in the room. In fact he is welcomed like all the other children in the class, and treated with kindness without patronization. And because he is understood and accepted, he joins in the classroom activities and enjoys himself. Children’s literature in this period does not demand tolerance, but acceptance.


When Azzi in Garland’s Azzi in Between realizes that she has not only been accepted but understood . . .


. . . Azzi makes an effort to understand and accept someone else. This understanding and acceptance, rather than tolerance, empowers all people.

The report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission does not, of course focus on the 1960s, but only uses it to contrast with the contemporary moment. It reports that little has changed for the Afro-Caribbean Britain, and that since Brexit, things have worsened for many other groups as well. So the last book I would point to is Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between (2012). This books look at Azzi, a young war refugee, as she enters Britain with her family. Like the immigrants of the 1960s, Azzi and her family have concerns about equitable treatment in their new home. But unlike the 1960s, Azzi and refugees like her have a greater fear that any rights they might have will be taken away. This fear is expressed in Azzi in Between, but Azzi herself is more concerned with being understood and accepted. When she meets people who help her, she in turn becomes helpful. When she is accepted, she becomes accepting. It is a lesson worth considering as Britain faces the challenge of a divided society. Tolerance does not heal. Acceptance does.

In the same Radio 4 report, Birmingham community activist Desmond Jaddoo commented that, “racial relations has never really been tackled properly on a no-tolerance basis”. Maybe we should stop thinking about tolerance of people who look or act differently from us, and start thinking about acting with “no tolerance” for racism instead.