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Thu, 02.02.1899

Pura Belpré, Afro Puerto Rican Writer born

Pura Belpré

*Pura Belpré was born on this date in 1899.  She was an Afro Puerto Rican writer, collector of folktales, and puppeteer.  

Belpré was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico.  She graduated from Central High School in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1919 and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, where she originally planned on becoming a teacher.  

However, like many Puerto Rican women who migrated to New York in the twentieth century, Belpré's first job was in the garment industry.  But, in 1920, Belpré interrupted her studies to attend her sister Elisa's wedding in New York City, where she was recruited by a public library effort to hire young women from ethnically diverse backgrounds.  

This job led to a remarkable career that had Belpré travel the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories in English and Spanish, something that hadn't been done before. Belpré broke the barriers that led the Spanish-speaking community to believe the library was "only English." Except for brief interludes, Belpré remained in New York City for the rest of her life.  Belpré's career in the New York Public Library began in 1921, and she pioneered the library's outreach within the Puerto Rican community. 

Her Spanish language, community, and literary skills soon earned her a position as a Hispanic Assistant in a branch of the public library at 135th Street in Harlem, having been recruited and mentored by Ernestine Rose, head of the Harlem library. Belpré became the first Puerto Rican hired by the New York Public Library (NYPL).  In 1925 she began her formal studies in the Library School of the New York Public Library.  In 1929, due to the increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans settling in southwest Harlem, Belpré was transferred to a branch of the NYPL at 115th Street. She quickly became an active advocate for the Spanish-speaking community by instituting bilingual story hours, buying Spanish language books, and implementing programs based on traditional holidays like the celebration of Three Kings Day.

In her outreach efforts, she attended meetings of civic organizations such as the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America and La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana.  Through Belpré's work, the 115th Street branch became an important cultural center for the Latino residents of New York, even hosting important Latin American figures such as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.  She continued these efforts at the 110th street (or Aguilar) branch.  Belpré's library career is intimately tied to her literary career.

The first story she wrote and published was Pérez and Martina, a love story between a cockroach and a mouse. Belpré also collected many other folktales from Puerto Rico, translated them into English, and had them published as children’s literature.  In 1940, Belpré met her future husband, the Black composer and violinist Clarence Cameron White. They were married on December 26, 1943, and Belpré resigned from her position to go on tour with her husband and to devote herself fully to writing.

When her husband died in 1960, Belpré returned to part-time work in the library as the Spanish Children's Specialist, which sent her to wherever there were large numbers of Latino children. In 1968, she retired from this position. Still, she was persuaded to work with the newly established South Bronx Library Project, a community outreach program to promote library use and to provide needed services to Latino neighborhoods throughout the Bronx.  

Belpré wrote the first major Juan Bobo story published in the United States, Juan Bobo, and the Queen's Necklace: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale. It was published in 1962. She received the New York Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture that same year.  Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, died on July 1, 1982.  Her archives are held and maintained by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. 

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