135th St. Branch of the New York Public Library (Pura Belpré’s First Library Branch)
Pura Belpré was the first Puerto Rican librarian to work for the New York Public Library (NYPL). Her passion for storytelling and her ability to bring communities together changed not just NYPL but librarianship as a whole. Belpré came to the New York Public Library during a time of growth for New York City’s Puerto Rican population. She was instrumental in the library’s development of services for Spanish speaking patrons and youth. She introduced outreach efforts, bilingual storytimes, puppetry, and cultural celebrations to the New York Public Library. As a Black Puerto Rican woman, Belpré celebrated and shared her heritage in a way that established strong ties between the NYPL and the city’s Puerto Rican population. For Belpré, it wasn’t enough to reach just the children of New York City. She published eight children’s books, and during her marriage to Clarence Cameron White, traveled the world sharing her stories along the way. To this day, her legacy lives on not only through her own stories but through the extraordinary children’s literature that is honored with the Pura Belpré Award.
Backstory and Context
Pura Teresa Belpré Nogueras was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico, on February 2nd. The year of her birth is reported to be sometime between 1899 and 1903. She was one of five children born to Felipe Belpré Bernabe and Carlota Nogueras. Pura grew up among natural-born storytellers and especially loved to listen to her grandmother’s folktales. Belpré was a bright student who enjoyed literature and was able to read Spanish, English, and French. Belpré planned to become a teacher and, with this goal in mind, enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico on September 8, 1919. Luckily, for the profession of librarianship, Belpré’s plans would soon change.
Pura first traveled to New York City for her older sister Elisa’s wedding in August of 1920. Though she originally intended to return to Puerto Rico, Belpré found work in the garment industry and decided to stay in New York after the wedding. At this time, immigration from Puerto Rico was incredibly high. Thankfully, the swift growth of New York’s Puerto Rican population had caught the attention of Ernestine Rose, the librarian at Harlem’s 135th Street Branch. Rose set out to hire a bilingual assistant to reach the underserved population. Originally, Belpré’s sister Elisa was recommended for the position, but when she turned it down, Elisa suggested Pura apply. Belpré spoke Spanish, English, and French and had a love for books and storytelling, which made her a perfect fit.
Belpré became the Hispanic assistant at the 135th Street branch on May 21, 1921. She was the first Puerto Rican to work for the New York Public Library and would become its first Puerto Rican Librarian, possibly the first in the United States. Pura’s position required her to work in both the children’s and adult departments of the library. Part of her responsibilities included “reading” the shelves. Belpré loved looking through the folklore and mythology section but became discouraged when she couldn’t find the Puerto Rican folk tales she had grown up hearing. Belpré began training to become a librarian at the New York Public Library’s Library school in 1925. She wrote her first Puerto Rican folk tale in Mary Gould Davis’s storytelling class. Davis praised Belpré’s retelling of Pérez and Martina, a tale about a beautiful cockroach who fell in love with a gallant mouse, that her grandmother had told her during her childhood. Davis was so in love with Belpre’s work that she gave her permission to share these unpublished stories at branch storytimes, at this time, presenting a storytime without a physical book was unheard of at the New York Public Library. Belpré’s storytimes were the first time that Puerto Rican folklore was shared not only at the New York Public Library but also at local schools. The positive reception of her work encouraged Belpré to write even more Puerto Rican folk tales.
In 1929 Belpré was transferred to the 115th St. Branch so they could better serve the burgeoning Puerto Rican population in Southwest Harlem. Belpré and the children’s librarian, Maria Cimino, instituted bilingual storytimes in both Spanish and Italian to entice the local children. After viewing a puppet show at the branch, Belpré became enamored with puppetry as a storytelling medium. She began the Cristóbal Colón Club so that library staff and children could act out tales with puppets. Belpré also began outreach efforts as a way to connect the library with more Puerto Rican families, especially those who did not know much about the library's services or had assumed that it was not a welcoming space for them. Belpré connected with children through her storytimes at schools, churches, and community centers. One of Belpré’s biggest successes at the branch was the implementation of cultural festivals. The first was El Día de Reyes or Feast of the Three Kings, a Latin American holiday that she had grown up celebrating in Puerto Rico. The event included Spanish language stories, as well as traditional music and dancing. It was a hit with the local Spanish speaking population and a sign that the library was open to them. Another benefit of the event was that it helped share Puerto Rican culture with residents of other backgrounds. It was during her tenure at the 115th St. Branch that Belpré published her first book: Pérez and Martina: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale. Thus her folktales began to find their way into libraries, schools, and homes across the country. In 1939 Belpré again changed branches as the Puerto Rican population began to congregate in the South Bronx, East Harlem, and Upper Manhattan. Upon arriving at the East 110th St. Branch, Belpré immediately began to incorporate the programs that had served her so well in the past. She again brought outreach, puppet theater, and bilingual storytimes to the forefront of library service and proved that when you provide thoughtful service to your population, they will come.
While presenting a paper on serving Spanish-speaking populations at the 1940 ALA conference in Cincinnati, Belpré met Clarence Cameron White, an accomplished violinist, conductor, and musicologist. The two married on December 26, 1943. After her marriage, Belpré took a year-long leave of absence from the library, to travel the world with her husband. After the year was up she ultimately decided to resign from the New York Public Library. Although she was no longer working at the library, Belpré continued writing, and storytelling while touring the world with her husband. It was during this time that Belpré published “The Tiger and the Rabbit” and Other Tales (1946), the first collection of Puerto Rican folktales to be published in English in the United States.
Following her husband’s death in 1960, Belpré returned to the New York Public Library as a Spanish Children’s Specialist. In this role, Belpré traveled to branches throughout New York City by conducting bilingual storytimes, selecting children’s books in Spanish, and aiding branches in their service of Puerto Rican families. While serving in this role, Belpré published a Spanish translation of Pérez and Martina, and Juan Bobo and the Queen’s Necklace: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale. Due to age restrictions, Belpré left her position as Spanish Children’s Specialist on March 1, 1968. However, this was not the end of her work with the New York Public Library. On June 1, 1967, the NYPL received a grant to create the South Bronx Library Project. The goal of the project was to foster and improve relationships with the rapidly changing communities that interacted with nine library branches in the South Bronx. Belpré began working on the project in 1968 as a contractor. Belpré once again began sharing her stories at libraries, schools, community centers, and daycares throughout the neighborhood. As part of this project, Belpré designed a collapsible puppet theater that she could easily transport between storytelling commitments. Pura taught the staff to create puppets, costumes, and props to aid in their storytelling. Belpré also helped create a list of Spanish language children’s books held by NYPL branches. This list served as a tool for teachers and librarians alike. From 1968-1978 Belpré published an additional five children’s books. One of which was Belpré’s first original story, Santiago. This book won the Brooklyn Arts Book Citation for style and illustrations in 1973.
Pura Belpré was honored by the New York Public Library with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her transformative work and years of service on June 30, 1982. She passed away in her sleep later that night. In her lifetime, Belpré published eight children’s books and shared countless stories with children around the world. In 1996, the American Library Association created the Pura Belpré Award in honor of Belpré’s contributions to youth literature and storytelling. Each year, the award recognizes marvelous work in children’s literature.
Denise, Anika Aldamuy. Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. New York , NY. Harper Collins, 2019.
Felicié, Ada Myriam. The Stories I Read to Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children's Author, and New York Public Librarian. Cnetro Journal, vol. 26, no. 1 193 - 195. Published Spring 2014. America: History & Life.
Hernández-Delgado, Julio L. . Pura Teresa Belpré, Storyteller and Pioneer Puerto Rican Librarian. Library Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 4 425 - 440. Published October 1st 1992. America: History & Life.
Jiménez-García, Marilisa. Pura Belpré Lights the Storyteller's Candle: Reframing the Legacy of a Legend and What it Means for the Fields of Latino/a Studies and Children's Literature. Centro Journal, vol. 26, no. 1 110 - 147. Published Spring 2014. America: History & Life.
Núñez, Victoria . Remembering Pura Belpré's Early Career at the 135th Street New York Public Library: Interracial cooperation and Puerto Rican Settlement During the Harlem Renaissance. Centro Journal, vol. 21, no. 1 52 - 77. Published Spring 2009. America: History & Life.