My research and recovery work on Pura Belpré, which has spawned so much interest in the past couple of years, obviously had something to do with inspiring my new book, Puerto Rican Folktales/Cuentos folcóricos puertorriqueños. When I discovered her papers in the archives of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies many moons ago, I knew I had opened a door into a world of tales that had been over five hundred years in the making. I opened that door in the library but, once I left the archives, exploring what I found became an epic journey. The journey was long because the folkloric legacy of Puerto Rico is extremely rich, and it ranged far and wide because this legacy is also buried deep in a kind of global textual labyrinth.
This is the kind of challenge that I like; unfortunately, perhaps (some might think), since it requires the kind of time and concentration that most scholars these days would deem inefficient for their careers. Yet I found it fascinating, thrilling really, and, anyway, academic efficiency has never been my thing. Belpré likened herself to the Boricua “Johnny Appleseed,” but I felt more like the Boricua tomb raider traveling (whether in my imagination or on a plane, to other times or other places) to unearth and rescue ancient and priceless treasures.
You see, Puerto Rico is not the little place it seems to be on the map. Borikén is, in fact, part of the New World’s most ancient cultural crucible. Puerto Rico has always been a crossroads, and Boricuas have always been a travelling people, even long before Ponce de León showed up. What happened in Puerto Rico at the dawn of what historians call “modernity” is a virtual key to the map of the Americas’ past and the present—not just culturally, but socially, politically, and economically too. Exploring this map is, to me, a sacred trust. And in honoring that trust, I spent a lot of time pondering one central question: How can I pay homage, respectfully, to such an ancient and foundational storytelling tradition in my own unique way?
Answering this question was not easy. I had to recover the original design in order to revise it in a newly authentic way, which meant a lot of writing and tossing and rewriting and revising until I got it just right. When I first started drafting the stories in my new book, I was emulating the storytellers I had found and read. This included not just Belpré, but a host of others (many of whom Belpré also read and borrowed from) who have reworked this tradition in their own ways. Like all folkloric traditions, each generation revises them for their audiences. Finding my own voice as a storyteller, a voice that was true to a lot of things—some perhaps unique to my own life—required a lot of courage. I knew I had to be true to the oral traditions I had learned myself as a child, to the written traditions I had read (and critiqued) as a scholar, and to the audiences I envisioned reading the book.
In finding my own voice as a cuentista, I finally understood that I simply could not tell stories the way they had been published in the past. I realized I was going to have to be unfaithful at times to the type of folklore that I had found in dusty old papers and books. There are no princesses or kings in my stories. Nor will anyone find lessons about proper bourgeois behavior. I knew I had to write stories about the heroes and heroines I am familiar with, the kind of magic I am familiar with, the world I am familiar with, the actual history of Puerto Rico I am familiar with (as a student and as a professor), and to do all of this storytelling minus the rigid “morals” that characterize the Eurocentric tradition that is so profoundly etched in insular Puerto Rican literature. It is truly amazing what one can do with the elements of a folktale. Whether the story has a sad or happy ending, what happens in it has to illustrate some kind of human crisis and resolution. What a writer does with the rest is up to her. True north on my storytelling compass finally became very clear to me; it indicated a path to the kind of social justice I yearn to see. Sometimes this compass pointed toward Puerto Rico, of course, but it also pointed to Chicago, Connecticut, New York, Los Angeles, and everywhere the diaspora resides, struggling, thriving, and surviving in style. The readers I had in mind do not necessarily live in a bubble that protects them from knowledge of unfairness in the world. I imagined them getting lost in the book and feeling their own lives—both the beauty and the fears that we all share—affirmed on the way out of it.
The reason why Belpré’s story “Inés” is my favorite of all her stories is because it is the wildest tale she ever wrote. The plot of the story is the legend of the flamboyant, but she made it come alive in fantastic ways. Her work as a whole is fairly tame, especially her renditions of legends, but in this story she pushed her usual limits. I do not think it is a coincidence that it is one of her unpublished stories. After studying her life and work for so long, I found her storytelling style to be rather archetypal and sparse. I think that is what made sense to her as a woman of her time and place; it made sense to her given the children she had in front her at the story hours and those she imagined as her primary (and very young) audience. One of her goals was to be an “authentic” storyteller, and authenticity in her circles during the early to mid-twentieth century adhered to certain conventions. I also believe she was a conservative person—that was just her personality type, and it shows through in her work and her letters, though her thinking about advocacy for low income and bilingual children seems to become more politicized later in her life, after she became a widow and began working again in the New York Public Library in the milieu of the civil rights movement. Though the multiple copies of “Inés” in her archival papers are not dated, I would hazard a guess, based on the risks she took with this story and the evidence of revisions in the various drafts, that she wrote the draft I included in the volume of her work sometime in her 70s.
Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Belpré, but I would like to think that she would be amused if not pleased with my new book. She might have been scandalized by a few of the stories, but I think she would be supportive. I believe that she was just that kind of elder. Her commitment to literary craftsmanship, to educating others about Puerto Rican folklore, and to keeping it alive in the diaspora and beyond are the qualities I admire most about her and that I think about too as I write in my own wild and wooly way.
Lisa Sánchez González is the author of the definitive book on Pura Belpré. In the The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writings of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author, and New York Public Library Librarian (Centro Publications, 2013) Sánchez González collected, edited, and annotated over 40 of Belpré’s stories and essays, most of which had never been published. Her introduction to the volume is the most extensive study to date of Belpré’s life and writing.
© Lisa Sánchez González. Published by permision in Centro Voices on 17 December 2014.