Happy birthday, Pura Belpré!
Pura Belpré (1899-1982) was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. She was also a writer, collector of folktales, and puppeteer.
Belpré was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico. There is some dispute as to the date of her birth which has been given as February 2, 1899, December 2, 1901 and February 2, 1903. She graduated from Central High School in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1919 and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. Soon thereafter, in 1920, she interrupted her studies in order to attend her sister Elisa’s wedding in New York City, where, except for brief interludes, she remained for the rest of her life.
Belpré’s career in the New York Public Library commenced in 1921, and she pioneered the library’s outreach within the Puerto Rican community. However, like many of the Puerto Rican women who migrated to New York in the twentieth century, Belpré’s first job was in the garment industry. Her Spanish language, community and literary skills soon earned her a position as Hispanic Assistant in a branch of the public library at 135th Street in Harlem, having been recruited and mentored by Ernestine Rose, head of the Harlem library. Belpré became the first Puerto Rican to be hired by the New York Public Library (NYPL).
In 1925 she began her formal studies in the Library School of the New York Public Library. In 1929, due to the increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans settling in southwest Harlem, Belpré was transferred to a branch of the NYPL at 115th Street. She quickly became an active advocate for the Spanish-speaking community by instituting bilingual story hours, buying Spanish language books, and implementing programs based on traditional holidays like the celebration of Three Kings Day. In her outreach efforts, she attended meetings of civic organizations such as the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America and La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana. Through Belpré’s work, the 115th Street branch became an important cultural center for the Latino residents of New York, even hosting important Latin American figures such as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Belpré continued these efforts at the 110th street (or Aguilar) branch.