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Pura Belpré Lives At La Casa Azul

By Clarisel Gonzalez

Aurora Anaya Cerda remembers watching an East Harlem screening of Centro’s documentary Pura Belpré: Storyteller and being "captivated" by the tale of the life of this legendary storyteller, pioneer Latina librarian and author of folktales for children.

As Anaya Cerda worked on her dream of opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore in East Harlem in 2012, she knew Belpré would have a special place at La Casa Azul Bookstore. That is why La Casa Azul has a special section dedicated to Belpré and to the writers and illustrators who have won the prestigious Pura Belpré Award. And that is why last year the bookstore held its first festival in her honor. But this year they wanted to do something bigger: a three-day festival, for which they partnered with Centro.

Belpré was the first Puerto Rican and Latina librarian to work for the New York Public Library system, where she enriched the lives of children through her pioneering work of preserving and disseminating Puerto Rican folklore. She was also known for championing bilingual literacy and for creating diverse programming centered on Latino culture.

"She matters for so many reasons," said Anaya Cerda, who is Mexican-American. "She's a groundbreaker as a librarian for Puerto Ricans, for Latinos, for El Barrio. She paved the way for someone like me to have a bookstore in El Barrio, just blocks from the library that she worked. We are aligned in so many ways. I really honor her, celebrate her and look up to her."

La Casa Azul is a special bookstore, dedicated to providing cultural and educational programs through literature and art. Cerda’s vision is for the store to be a center for fostering public awareness and appreciation of the arts by being a focal point where people come to find art and books and to participate in culturally based programs that celebrate Latino traditions and literature. Belpré, she said, fits right in. She is an important figure that La Casa Azul wants more Latinos and New Yorkers in general to know about.

This year's festivities kicked off with an intimate afternoon workshop for educators focusing on Pura Belpré's life and work. Fifteen educators discussed the current trends in bilingual literacy and how to incorporate bilingual and bicultural tools in school programming.

Marilisa Jimenez-García, a research associate at Centro who specializes in children’s literature, spoke to educators about Belpré and why Latino children's books matter. Jimenez-Garcia also provided the educators with resources to use in the classroom. She said academics, educators, bookstores and community members need to get together to have dialogues on the cultural work of children's books and the trends and problems in children's literature.

Children's books, she said, are not just about cute characters and colorful stories. And Belpré’s certainly were not. "We sometimes forget how powerful her work is."

In addition to the educator’s workshop, Casa Azul’s fair included a screening of the Belpré documentary and a family day featuring puppet making, book making and storytelling time.

Pedro Juan Hernández, senior archivist at Centro who attended the educator workshop, said that Centro has played a leading role in promoting Belpré’s legacy. It is home to the Belpré papers, which he said is one of the most popular collections in the Centro Library and Archives. "I think it's fantastic that La Casa Azul is helping to keep her legacy alive. It's a great venue to promote what she did and discuss issues of identity, migration and history in the heart of the community," said Hernández. He invites educators and community members to use the archives as a resource for such things as exhibits to share her legacy with the community at large.

Rosa Bonilla-Gómez, a teacher at Vanguard High School in Manhattan, who also attended, said she has used Belpré's storybooks with her teenage students to practice Spanish because she liked the storyteller’s frequent use of puppetry and community style of storytelling. Her students play different roles from the books and discuss the stories. "At first, they laugh because they see it as a children's book, but then they have so much fun playing their roles." Bonilla-Gómez said, adding that they also love to see the colorful images of the book illustrations that Bonilla-Gómez projects on a smart board. She now hopes to visit the Library and Archives to learn more about Belpré's history to incorporate into the classroom.

Galia Sandy, Casa Azul's school programs coordinator, said this year's celebration was expanded from one day to a three-day festival to include educators and other adults as a way of bringing awareness and recognizing a woman "who was in this neighborhood and had such an impact."

Throughout the celebration, attendees also viewed Centro’s traveling exhibit, Pura Belpré: In Her Own Words, which was on display at La Casa Azul for a week. The exhibit chronicles her professional life.

While the three-day celebration has ended at La Casa Azul, visitors can still enjoy the special Pura Belpré section as a way of honoring her legacy and become acquainted with the Pura Belpré Award winners, which is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. The award is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, an ALA affiliate.

As a Centro partner, La Casa Azul is now also selling the Belpré products that Centro has produced, including the Pura Belpré: Storyteller documentary and The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author and New York Public Librarian, edited by Lisa Sánchez González. These products are also available online at the Centro Store