By Marilisa Jimenez Garcia, Ph.D.
Recent national news reflects the public’s lack of knowledge of the U.S. as a country in possession of colonies, such as Guam and Puerto Rico. In a 2016 poll, many Americans were unaware that Puerto Ricans born on the island were U.S. citizens. Moreover, Puerto Ricans remain one of the largest Latinx populations in the U.S. with a continuous migration and diaspora resulting from over a century and half of U.S. interventions and economic upheaval. Puerto Rican students’ schooling experiences are shaped by this paradox of access to American citizenship while still feeling unwelcome and marginalized in U.S. classrooms (Rolon-Dow and Irizarry, 2014).
The current economic crisis in Puerto Rico, and University of Puerto Rico student-led movements fighting for a public audit of the debt, make teaching about Puerto Rico an excellent opportunity for discussions about the role of young people in social change. A group of scholars have already created an excellent resource called the #PRSyllabus, which I highly recommend. Below, I have prepared a short primary and secondary source bibliography for teachers in the K-12 classroom utilizing youth literature, textbooks, and comics.
These books are meant to facilitate discussion on various issues in Puerto Rican history and culture, including colonialism, race, gender, and environmental justice. This list is only a sample. Teachers are encouraged to search for further resources and to continue challenging students to critique how books represent Puerto Rican history and culture, particularly with regard to issues of race, class, and gender.
The Economic Crisis and Hurricane Maria
A difficult and confusing subject even for adults, yet many Puerto Rican students may be entering classrooms in K-12 and higher ed within this framework. Though these resources are not about the numbers and policies creating the crisis, they provide opportunities to talk about the consequences of the crisis for youth and their families.
La Borinqueña by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez.
Somos Arte, 2016.
Perhaps, no other text for young people exists that so immediately places in their hands every component of current and past moments in Puerto Rican history. Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez created La Borinqueña to lift morale in response to the economic crisis. The response to the comic has been overwhelming; even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is rumored to be a fan.
The comic deals with issues of anti-blackness, environmental abuses on the island, education, and the recent Pulse Nightclub shooting, all in the context of a superherione who is meant to stir Puerto Rico’s ability to persevere in the midst of insurmountable odds.
The comic, published in 2016, also features a particularly relevant storyline regarding a storm and a massive blackout on the island. Miranda-Rodriguez seemed to anticipate the ways in which Puerto Rico was vulnerable to environmental injustices in the event of a powerful weather event. Miranda-Rodriguez’s powerful drawings of the heroine flying into flooded streets provide educators with the opportunity to discuss the various consequences for Puerto Ricans in light of Hurricane Maria.
The moment Marisol transforms into La Borinqueña is also an incredible example of the power of culturally-sustaining pedagogy. Young people might discuss, and problematize, how the comic specifically depicts women as a symbol for the nation.
¿Y Porque? by Georgina Lázaro León and Antonio Martorell.
Editorial SM, 2017. Spanish.
On the surface, this picture book about a grandfather and his grandson, who continually asks questions, would seem removed from the current crisis. Lázaro León is a Pura Belpré honor winning author and one of the most prolific Puerto Rican picture book authors today. However, this recent book, written in Spanish, contains an important story about how adults explain the everyday and inexplainable to children, and how children struggle to understand the “whys” in the world. A beautifully told and illustrated book from Martorell, a master Puerto Rican painter, with a simple message for difficult times.
From Vieques to Peñuelas, the complications of colonialism mean Puerto Rico is often subject to unjust conditions and policies which bring pollution and toxic waste.
¡Achú Achú, Pirulo! by Pamy Rojas
Pirulo is a manatee who is suffering from the effects of pollution in Puerto Rico. Children can follow his adventures and sympathize with his desire to stay in his home, regardless of the threats to his environment. This book is written in Spanish.
Beba and Little Sister Island / Beba y la Isla Nena by Rafael Landron
Editorial Campana, 2010. Bilingual English/Spanish
Given the various environmental injustices made apparent by U.S. governmental responses to Hurricane Maria relief, it is important to remember how the Puerto Rico has been used in the past as an experiemental site for chemicals, coal ash and other hazardous materials by U.S. agencies. This endearing book, written by Rafael Landron, tells the story of the island of Vieques, a miliary base for decades, from the persepctive of Beba, a manatee swimming off its shores. Beba witnesses test bombs and their consequences for her world and rallies other marine life in an attempt to defend the island. The bilingual story of Beba gives children another perspective on the activist victory of 2003 who gained the exit of the Marines from Vieques.
Una Fiesta Azul by Georgina Lázaro León
Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 2016. Spanish
A magical world unfolds under water for a dolphin and his friends. The simple joy of the story underscores the importance of having a clean ocean and balanced ecosystem.
Race, Class, and Colonialism through the Eyes of a Child
El Bronx Remembered and Nilda by Nicholasa Mohr
Arte Público Press, 1973. Harper Trophy, 1975.
Both El Bronx Remembered and Nilda relate, practically and poignantly, the lives of Puerto Rican young people in New York City during the 1940-60s. Nicholasa Mohr creates some of the first characters to speak “Nuyorican” in U.S. letters. The issues of race, class, and colonialism, which young people encounter in these texts, however, are as relevant today as when Mohr penned them.
Youth Activism and Puerto Rican Studies Movement
Teachers should consider discussing the role that young people have played in Puerto Rican history and social change, perhaps connecting the current economic crisis and the UPR student movement to past youth movements.
The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano
Evelyn Serrano is coming of age in the middle of the rise of the Young Lords Party in Spanish Harlem, El Barrio. Evelyn witnesses the YLP’s garbage offensive and their 1969 takeover of the Spanish Methodist Church in order to instill a breakfast program. Evelyn also learns, from her Abuela, the history of the Ponce Massacre. All of this is part of Evelyn’s development into a young woman who wishes to see herself and her people represented in U.S. history.
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Daniel José Older creates one of the most riveting fantasies for young readers with a kick-ass AfroBoricua protagonist. The scenes in Columbia University provide an interesting moment to revisit past ethnic studies movements and reflect on how they may have been contained by academic institutions. A wonderful story to think about self-education for liberation.
Indigenous and AfroBoricua History
It is difficult to find books which represent Indigenous characters and do not exoticize native peoples. Similarly, there is also a lack of AfroBoricua characters in Puerto Rican literature for youth. However, here are some recommendations for teaching.
Tai: A Young Taino Boy by Neco Otero
Editorial El Antellano, 2007.
A graphic novel about the everyday life of a young Taino boy who also happens to be a cacique in training.
Arrancando Mitos de Raíz by Isar Godreau et al.
Editora Educación Emergente, 2015.
This new textbook is a groundbreaking resource for educators for anti-racist pedagogy on the island and in the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. Includes historical readings and activities, including beautiful illustrations highlighting the island’s African heritage.
Grandma’s Records and Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velasquez
Walker and Company, 2001 and Walker Children’s, 2013.
Eric Velasquez creates a strong, nuanced AfroBoricua young male lead who learns some of his best lessons from his grandmother. Grandma’s Records and Grandma’s Gift emphasize a love of art and culture as a form of encouragement and transformation. The illustrations are excellent and recreate historical places in New York for Boricuas, such as La Marqueta.
Spanish and bilingualism continues to be an important component of Puerto Rican student’s lives.
Call Me Maria by Judith Ortiz-Cofer
Judith Ortiz-Cofer was a poet who asked readers to participate and what it feels to see and experience the world as a bilingual, its strengths and contradictions. This book, a mix of poems, essays, and prose, is the story of a young girl who learns to use English artfully as a tool of resistance. Maria also narrates her experience of losing her last name, something many young Latinxs may relate to.
Influential, Intellectual Boricuas
One of my former students at Hunter College once commented in class that before taking my course, she had never thought of Puerto Ricans as “intellectual.” Notwithstanding Puerto Ricans contributions to music, film, and sports, I wanted to offer here a few resources on thinking about the intellectual contributions of Boricuas to areas such as libraries, scholarship, and political thought.
The Storyteller’s Candle by Lucia Gonzalez and Lulu Delacre
A beautiful portrait which recreates what it was like to attend a story time at the New York Public Library during Pura Belpré’s tenure in East Harlem. Lucia Gonzalez’s story provides moments of delight for young readers while Lulu Delacre’s illustrations capture the essence and history (even using old newspapers as part of the background) of Puerto Rican migrants in the 1930s.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built the Library by Carol Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez.
This picture book illustrated by award-winning artist Velasquez promises to delight young readers with the story of Arturo Schomburg, the groundbreaking AfroBorica scholar and librarian who founded the collection that is today the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. An excellent opportunity to talk to kids about what it means to identify as AfroLatinx.
ICePé Comic series
Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
A fun and inventive series in Spanish in which readers encounter beloved heroes and heroines from Puerto Rican history such as Emeterio Betances, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, and Ramon Powers. The series also features a diverse cast of Puerto Rican child characters who participate in the adventures.
- #PRSyllabus: a list of resources for teaching and learning about the current economic crisis in Puerto Rico.
- Nieto, Sonia (ed). Puerto Rican Students in U.S. Schools. Routledge, 2000
- Rolon-Dow, Rosalie and Jason Irizarry. Diaspora Studies in Education: Toward a Framework for Understanding the Experiences of Transnational Communities. Peter Lang, 2014
- Santiago, Roberto (ed.) Boricuas Influential Puerto Rican Writings An Anthology. Random House, 1995
- List of Afro-Latinx children’s books
- Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Penguin, 2011. Also see the Harvest of Empire film.
- Recommended organizations and films.
Marilisa Jiménez García is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in Latino/a literature and culture. She is an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University and a member of the See What We See coalition.