By Marilisa Jimenez Garcia, Ph.D.
Since this list debuted last year, Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico, and the island’s devastation, along with its gradual recovery, further exposed the erasure of Puerto Rico’s history as a U.S. colony and the laws and policies governing its people. Yet, this list has also generated excitement and interest from authors, artists, and educators who found the list while they were searching for curriculum materials on Puerto Rico for young readers, including English-language learners. This list provides educators with counter-stories which celebrate the aesthetic and intellectual contributions of Puerto Rican artists and storytellers for the K-12 classroom.
The 2018 edition features more self-published authors and authors working currently in Puerto Rico which deal with the social justice themes listed here. As a whole, the books on this list highlight characters with agency and self-determination. Children’s texts from Puerto Rico rarely receive the same attention or distribution as those published in the United States. For this reason, I also feature an independent Puerto Rican bookseller on the list for those interested in ordering books for classrooms and libraries.
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.
Puerto Rico Strong: A Comics Anthology Supporting Puerto Rican Diaster Relief and Recovery by Vita Ayala, Fabian Nicieza, and Joammette Gil
Lion Forge Comics, 2017.
This comics anthology debuted in March 2018 and served as a fundraising campaign for Puerto Rican disaster relief. The comic does not shy away from difficult moments in people’s history including Hurricane Maria, the Ponce Massacre, and the sterilization of Puerto Rican women by the government in the 1950s-1960s. Yet, the stories also center contemporary Puerto Rican history which allows for conversations about parallels between past and present struggles. Because of Puerto Rico Strong, educators have a text relevant for young readers which they can use to illustrate, document, and discuss the community’s struggle against the law of PROMESA (Puerto Rican Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016)—the U.S. federal oversight board managing economic debt. Additionally, and important for people’s history, the book’s diverse array of characters encourages young people to consider the triumphs of the community’s collective, intergenerational legacy as opposed to the heroism of one leader.
María Chucema Techaba Su Choza by Tere Marichal Lugo
Veteran storyteller and illustrator Tere Marichal has created a series of tongue-twisters (trabalenguas) which center, among many social justice issues, feminist and environmental justice themes. Maria Chucema is a familiar folk female character in Puerto Rico which Marichal, in this Spanish-language text, presents as a self-reliant, Boricua woman who revels in her collection of books.
Although written before Hurricane Maria, the story celebrates a Boricua woman who takes it upon herself to fix her leaking roof which threatens to destroy the books she loves so dearly. This story affirms and complements the wonderful stories many saw on social media during and after Hurricane Maria of ciudadanos gathering resources, clearing roads and repairing damaged buildings and even power lines. Marichal’s text and illustrations celebrate reading and storytelling culture in contemporary Puerto Rico, including a visual and literary homages to the UPR’s Centro Para El Estudio de la Literatura, Escritura, y Literatura Infantil (CELELI) yearly Maratón de la Lectura (check out the poster in Maria Chucema’s living room) and another to storyteller, Pura Belpré. The heroine holds a copy of and refers to Belpré’s beloved tale Perez and Martina. This short book allows educators to explore with young readers how authors in the diaspora influence those in Puerto Rico and vice-versa.
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 superheroine 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.
Tulipan, The Puerto Rican Giraffe by Ada Haiman and illustrated by Atabay Sánchez-Haiman
Self-published, 2014 (English and Spanish editions available)
This series may be ordered in English and Spanish. Ada Haiman wanted to create a character which would defy stereotypes and familiar tropes associated with Puerto Ricans. Her book resists the traditional folk culture of coqui frogs and flamboyan trees. Instead, Haiman, a former professor of English at the UPR, delivers a thought-provoking tale of a Puerto Rican giraffe who struggles with her identity since she may not be what people expect. Tulipan celebrates with young readers the benefits of being bilingual and bicultural and lets children know they never have to divide themselves to embrace who they are. Haiman also offers a window into circular migration for young readers returning to the island after living in the states, and vice-versa. Tulipan challenges young readers to think beyond stagnant symbols of the past in considering what it means to belong to a community.
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 Puerto Rico has been used in the past as an experimental 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 military base for decades, from the persepctive of Beba. Beba, a manatee swimming off its shores, 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 U.S. 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 (YLP) 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 United States. It 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 continue 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 in 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.
Julia, Corazón de Una Poeta by Wanda de Jesús Arevelo and illustrated by Mrinali Álvarez Astacio
Fundación Puertorriqueña e las Humanidades, 2017.
This Spanish-language gem, narrated in verse, tells the story of poet and revolutionary, Julia de Burgos. Wanda de Jesus, an award-winning writer and teacher at the University of Puerto Rico elementary school, did extensive research on the life of de Burgos and her influence on the diaspora communities in the United States. Educators and young readers can delve into this research in the book’s epilogue. At the same time, the story is told from the perspective of an inquisitive, creative young girl who loved learning and loved words— and who became one of the most renowned poets in Antillean and Latin American traditions.
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.
Hector Aparicio, Owner
In Bayamon, Aparicio Distributors is the only independent children’s bookstore in Puerto Rico and offers children’s books and educational supplies. Aparicio’s store includes classes and workshops for children and parents that support the whole child.
Hector Aparicio, the store’s owner, takes great care in creating an environment encouraging a love for lectura. The store also has a delightful children’s storytelling theatre, El Bosque de los Cuentos (complete with a talking tree) that is under repair after Hurricane Maria.
More than a bookstore, Aparicio’s store is also a hub for authors, artists, educators, and parents looking for ways to supplement the various problems affecting literacy and literature education in Puerto Rico, including lack of public support for school and public libraries, lack of culturally-relevant texts in curriculum, and lack of visibility and support from mainstream publishers. Aparicio offers titles from around Latin America and the Caribbean which may never show up in children’s bookstores in the United States. Consider ordering your bilingual and Spanish-language books directly from the store.
- #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.
- Social Justice Book’s Puerto Rico Booklist
- Caribbean Connections: Puerto Rico. Edited by Naomi Ayala, Rashida Welbeck, and Lynora Williams
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.