Un Libro a la Vez: How This Revolutionary Librarian and Puppeteer Brought Spanish Books to the Public Library

Pura Belpre with purapuppets Born February 2, 1899 Cidra, Puerto Rico Died July 1, 1982 New York City, New York


It’s not a secret that Nueva York, New York, is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and Latinos make up a major part of its rich culture. Thanks to the fearless Latina, Pura Belpré, the 25% of the population that speaks Spanish in the city have access to books in their language in the Biblioteca Pública.

When Belpré arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico in 1921, although she originally wanted to be a teacher, she got a job at the public library. But being an educator stayed with her, and she started telling children’s stories in Spanish with puppets. Once she ran out of books in Spanish, she started writing her own, such as Firefly Summer; Juan Bobo and the Queen’s Necklace; Ote: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale; and Pérez and Martina, a love story between a cockroach and a mouse. As noted in the documentary film Pura Belpré: Storyteller, “She wrote for children, so she knew she had to paint with words.”

At this time, nobody was doing what Belpré was doing, and with these stories, Belpré inspired a lot of kids. One of them was Belen Garcia, a New Yorker also of Puerto Rican descent, who remembers going to the library to listen to Belpré’s stories with her school friends. Garcia was so inspired that she became a librarian and has been working in the New York Public Library for 45 years. She remembers how hard it was to find Spanish books when she was a kid. “Their parents didn’t let them come to the library because they thought the library was only English,” Garcia told NPR.

Visnela Rivas, born in the Dominican Republic, was also inspired by Belpré’s good work and decided to become a librarian because of her. As a Washington Heights librarian in New York City, she hopes to inspire Hispanic children as Belpré did. “As a Latina librarian we have a responsibility to continue doing the work that she started,” Rivas told NPR.

Today, Pura Belpré’s work continues to create an impact for Latino children, encouraging the inclusion of more multilingual books, so they can learn about their heritage and language un libro a la vez, one book at a time.


Nueva York: New York, in Spanish.

Diverse: Showing a great deal of variety; very different—in this case, different cultures.

Biblioteca Pública: Public Library, in Spanish.   

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