Some of the most influential figures in children's lives are the teachers and librarians who grace their ears with fairy tales and folklore from countries and places, both real and make-believe. The early learning stage in a child’s life, when imagination roams free and longs to be transported to different worlds and to meet different characters, is when a children’s librarian’s work and passion can leave a lifelong impact on them. One of the most important storytellers in The New York Public Library’s history was Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian.
115th Street, story-telling group, African American children with Miss Pura Belpré. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 100838
Pura was born in 1899 in Cidra, Puerto Rico, where she grew up listening to her grandmother’s folkloric tales about Martina the cockroach, Perez the mouse, and simple Juan Bobo. These figures would serve as some of the focal characters featured in Pura’s storytime sessions hosted throughout library branches in New York City.
In 1920 Pura traveled to New York City to attend her sister’s wedding and immediately fell in love with the opportunity and hustle and bustle of the eastern metropolis. Pura loved New York so much that she left behind her studies to become a teacher at the University of Puerto Rico and took a job as a seamstress in the city’s garment industry.
Children’s Librarian Pura Belpre. Photo: Bronx Library Center.
Opportunity came knocking when The New York Public Library began recruiting Spanish speaking workers and eventually offered Pura’s sister a job as a Hispanic Assistant at the 135th Street Branch in Harlem that she rejected. Instead, Pura, who spoke English, French, and Spanish, accepted the position and was catapulted into the world of librarianship under the mentorship of respected librarian Ernestine Rose.
Eventually Pura would become a librarian and later be transferred to the 115th Street Branch that was home to a growing Puerto Rican population. Here Pura’s storytelling skills and puppeteering would become major community attractions that showcased her grandmother’s folkloric tales during story sessions.
Pura’s puppeteering sessions were so beloved in classrooms and libraries all across New York City that the stories were eventually published as children’s books, some of these include Perez and Martina and Juan Bobo.
Following Pura’s marriage to acclaimed violinist Clarence Cameron White and a brief leave of absence from work, Pura eventually returned to her passion of librarianship and storytelling at the Library.
Pura Belpré’s legacy as a librarian, educator, and children’s storyteller has been cemented in her many works and an award created in her honor. Each year the American Library Association honors a writer or illustrator who embodies the Latinx cultural experience through one of their works with the Pura Belpré Award.
For more information about Pura Belpré please visit Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies to view her letters and papers. And, please view the Bronx Library Center’s video presentation about Pura Belpré below.