Photograph from the Pura Belpré Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY
Puerto Rican, Language, Children’s Folklore, Cultural Activism, Library Work
Pura Teresa Belpré is remembered most notably for being New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian, establishing and expanding the library system’s Spanish-language catalogue. During her long and prolific career, she also collected and published many Puerto Rican folk tales and other folklore from New York City’s Puerto Rican diaspora.
Born in Ciales, Puerto Rico, Pura Teresa Belpré Noruegas graduated from Central High School located in Santurce, and began her higher education studies at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras in 1919 to become a teacher. Travelling to New York City in 1920, she left her university studies behind and briefly worked in the garment industry. She was hired by the public library at 135th Street in Harlem and became the first Puerto Rican hired by the New York Public Library system (NYPL). Her Spanish language skills and work with the children’s division of the library led to her completing her studies at the Library School of the NYPL and to expanding the Spanish language catalogue. She moved to the 115th St. branch transforming the library into a cultural center for New York City’s Spanish speaking community.
Known as Pura Belpré, she published her first book, Perez and Martina: A Portorican Folk Tale (1932), an English-language children’s book based on a Puerto Rican folktale recollected from her family’s repertoire. She continued working to expand bilingual and cultural programming for Puerto Rican children through folktale storytelling as well as through outreach work with community organizations.
In 1943, Belpré married Clarence Cameron White, an African American composer, conductor, violinist, and musicologist. Two years later, she resigned her post with the library to dedicate herself fully to collecting, writing, and publishing Puerto Rican folktales for children but returned to work for the NYPL after White passed away from cancer in 1960. Belpré continued doing outreach work and publishing for the remainder of her life. Her papers held at the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College are an important repository for the study of Puerto Rican children’s literature, folk tales, and legends.
Pura Teresa Belpré was not only the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system, she made a home for New York’s Spanish-speaking community in the NYPL system, and was also one of the first Puerto Ricans to publish in English, providing bilingual access to traditional folktales for new generations of an expanding Puerto Rican diaspora.
Among Belpre’s publications of interest to folklorists are:
Perez and Martina: A Portorican Folktale (1932/1961); published in Spanish (1991)
The Tiger and the Rabbit, and Other Tales (1946/1965)