Tuesday, August 26, 2014

KidLit in Puerto Rico: Part Two

Picking up where I left off last time.

So I went to Puerto Rico and found quite a few interesting children's books.  In my last post, I discussed anti-bias/anti-racism textbooks and collections of poetry, so now I'm going to bring it on home by exploring some of the nonfiction(ish) literature I came across.

The first book is Everywhere Coquís / En Dondequiera Coquíes (Hooper, 2007), which can be found in many, many Puerto Rican gift shops and caught my eye because of its appealing construction -- you can read the book in Spanish and then turn it over and flip it upside down to read it in English.

I've categorized this book as nonfiction, but that's only partially true, since the overall plot of the book is fictional, while many of the details present factual cultural information about Puerto Rico.  In this story, a group of coquís -- tiny but vocal frogs that are widely beloved in PR -- are chased out of the rainforest by parrots and wander through the countryside and into the city, where they encounter several well-known sights, like a piraguas (snowcone) vendor, artists who craft vejigantes (traditional masks) and santos, and musicians playing traditional music.

La Mano Poderosa (All Powerful Hand)
and Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings)

Honestly, this book disappointed me for a couple of reasons.  First, I thought it would be a purely nonfiction, scientific presentation of coquís: their history, anatomy, habitat, etc.  Second, I'm concerned about the "tourist" nature of the text.  While the aspects of Puerto Rican culture depicted in the book -- food, art, music -- are definitely important and worth learning about, they don't cover the many and complex ways of being Puerto Rican.  Therefore, this book can be a sweet, charming way to introduce children to the island and some of its cultural practices, but reading other books is necessary to prevent kids from possibly developing a narrow, stereotyped view of Puerto Rico.

Next I have to discuss the vast amount of information on the Taínos (the indigenous people living in Puerto Rico when the Spanish arrived) that I encountered during my trip -- nearly every museum and gift shop sold Taíno artifact replicas and books.  Since many of us living in the US aren't familiar with Taíno history, here's a very brief overview (source):

  • The Taíno people lived in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and many other areas of the Caribbean.  Their ancestors probably first arrived in this areas around 400 B.C.
  • They first encountered Europeans (led by Columbus) in 1492.
  • By the 1530s, most Taíno people had died due to warfare, disease, and slavery brought by the Europeans.  Also, many indigenous women married Spanish men.
  • Although (probably) no one in the Caribbean has 100% indigenous ancestry, there are many people who identify as Taíno and keep Taíno cultural practices alive.
...Which brings me to two children's books dealing with indigenous topics.  First up is Tai: El Pequeño Tayno / Tai: The Little Taíno (Otero, 1972/2007), the first in a series of historical fiction texts about a little boy going about his business in pre-conquest Puerto Rico.

In this story, Tai eats breakfast, takes a bath, helps his family with chores, watches artisans creating ceramic wares, says hello to the local leader, and helps fisherman unload their fresh catch from their canoes.  Clearly, this book's creators want to teach children about various aspects of Taíno life in the past, including daily work, recreation, clothing, vocabulary, etc.  Everything about this book seems aboveboard -- the language is respectful, and the illustrations look accurate.  However, I'm definitely no expert in Taíno culture, so I'd be interested to hear what a more knowledgeable reader might have to say about this text.

Overall, reading this book left me with several questions about how the Taínos are perceived in Puerto Rico today.  How many people identify as Taíno?  How are these people viewed and treated by the government and other Puerto Rican residents?  What and how do children learn about Taínos and the Spanish invasion in school?  Lots of interesting topics to investigate.

Finally, I present to you De Cómo Nació El Amor / How Love Was Born (Álvarez Astacio, 2010), a book that I want to love but just can't.

It's another book that tries to pay homage to indigenous peoples, but, sadly, it just doesn't work.  Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

"This book is a myth about the origin of love; that very love for life that we feel in the depths of our heart.  The mythical space, created by the illustrations in this book, is based on the picturesque depictions from various indigenous groups around the world; those that once existed and those that are still in existence today."

Two sets of questions: First, where did this myth come from?  Is it a story that comes from a specific group of people, or is it yet another made-up story that seems nice because it "sounds Indian"?  If this tale does come from a specific group of people, why are those people not named in this book?

Second, why take a bunch of different indigenous art styles and mash them together?  Is the illustrator homogenizing indigenous cultures, implying that they're all more or less the same?  Because of these problematic elements, it would be best to use this book to teach kids critical reading skills but not to teach them about indigenous peoples.

To wrap up, I'd like to recommend exploring local children's literature offerings when you go on trips, either here in the US or abroad.  Doing so can really enrich your experience by teaching you more about your surroundings or by giving you something to ponder as you travel.  I hope you're having a great week, and I'll see you next time!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

KidLit in Puerto Rico: Part One

Well, I’m back from my trip to Puerto Rico, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to visit such a culturally rich and beautiful place.  After spending some time in Vieques, I was able to travel to El Yunque Forest – the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System – and Old San Juan.

El Yunque was breathtaking and unlike anything I’d ever seen before…

View from the Mt. Britton tower 

Los Picachos 

World's cutest tiny waterfall

But I’m a sucker for cities and LOVED San Juan.  Wandering through the Museo de las Américas, peering into the grand old churches, and sipping coffee were especially enjoyable.  (The coconut latte at Don Ruiz = very yes.)

Calle San José 

El Morro fortress 

Catedral San Juan Bautista 

La Virgen de Monserrate @ El Museo de las Américas

And because I’m me, of course I kept my eyes open for children’s literature and other types of multicultural educational texts along the way.  I was extremely curious about what I’d find, since I’m familiar with plenty of Puerto-Rican-American kidlit (such as works by Judith Ortiz Cofer, Carmen Bernier-GrandEsmeralda Santiago, and Lulu Delacre), but, aside from the civic action comics I found in Vieques, I’ve never encountered any children’s books from Puerto Rico.

Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.  While the books I found certainly aren’t representative of all Puerto Rican children’s literature, I stumbled upon some very interesting titles in museum shops and independent bookstores. 

First up are two textbooks that I encountered in several stores.  Arrancando Mitos de Raíz (Uprooting Myths of Race) is an instructional text for teachers that focuses on dispelling racial myths and stereotypes about Puerto Rican people of African descent. 

Alongside this work was a textbook for students about Puerto Rico's African heritage called La Herencia Africana.

I loved seeing these books, since evidence of African cultural practices is very strong on the island, and so many Puerto Rican people have African ancestry.  Also, sadly, people of color face a lot of discrimination in PR, just as they do in the rest of the United States and other parts of the world.  However, I'm left wondering how popular these textbooks are in Puerto Rican schools and teacher preparation programs.  How widespread are anti-racist educational programs on the island?

Next, we have some poetry.  La Rosa Va Caminando (The Rose Goes Walking) is a collection of poems written by a young girl, Elsa Tió, between the ages of five and nine.  Still an active writer today, Elsa was a literary prodigy who crafted poems about subjects like nature, family, and love, and Sofía Sáez Matos has sumptuously illustrated Tió's verses with painted collages reminiscent of Eric Carle's work.

At Librería La Tertulia, a small store packed with some wonderful books in both Spanish and English, I came across another compilation of poetry for children -- Poemas con Sol y Son (Poems with Sun and Sound).  

This volume features poems from all over Latin America, and Puerto Rico is represented by six poets.  My personal favorite is by José Antonio Dávila:

La luna más que redonda
hoy está llena.
Tiene la cara hinchada
como el que tiene
dolor de muelas.

(The moon is more than round -- 
tonight it's full.
It has a swollen face
like someone who has
a toothache.)


Well, I think I'm going to make this post a two-parter, so STAY TUNED for more Puerto Rican children's literature -- next time, I'll focus on non-fiction.  I hope everyone is having a wonderful start to the new school year!  (And if you're not a teacher, parent, or student... Happy Mid-August!)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Paz Para Vieques: Civic Action Comics

Greetings from Puerto Rico!

For the past week, I've been here in Vieques doing some house-sitting (thanks again for the hookup, Heather!), beach-bumming, hammock-laying, and mofongo-eating.  The natural beauty here is incredible, and I've fallen in love with the flamboyán trees, semi-wild horses, and chirping frogs at night.

Also, this baby iguana says "hey."

However, Vieques is a complicated place with a rocky past and a problematic present.  (Don't get me wrong -- it's a beautiful island full of wonderful people, but its particular struggles are worth noting.)  Basically, back in the 1940s, the US government decided it would be a great idea to use Vieques for target practice.  The Navy, or la Marina in Spanish, purchased a large amount of land on the island and used this space to test bombs and various other weapons, resulting in the contamination of the environment and loss of livelihood for many of the local residents.

In 1999 a Naval employee, David Sanes, was killed when a bomb missed its target during a military exercise, and the world became very aware of Vieques' situation.  Protesters in Puerto Rico, the US, and Latin America demanded that the military withdraw from the island, and by 2003 the Navy was gone.

When I first got here, I began to feel down and guilty about the US government's imperialist belief that they can barge into people's homes and make a mess of things.  (To be fair, the US isn't alone in this behavior -- many big, powerful governments do the same.)  But as I've learned more and more about the way that the people of Vieques stood up for themselves, I'm filled with hope.

Then the other day when I visited the old fort, I found another sign of hope and strength in the form of (surprise!) children's literature.  In the museum gift shop, I found three comic books about Vieques and immediately snatched them up.  

When I got home and read through them, I discovered that they were published by el Grupo de Apoyo Técnico y Profesional para el Desarrollo Sustenable de Vieques (GATP, or the Group for Technical and Professional Support for the Sustainable Development of Vieques), an organization of professionals and university professors dedicated to progress and positive development on the island.

Created in 2002, during the height of the protests on Vieques, these books were written by local students and deal with subjects like:

  • The military's presence on the island
  • Urban planning
  • Ecological conservation
  • Local social issues (poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy)
  • Health
  • Democratic citizenship and leadership

If you'd like to take a look at all of the books (five total), they're available online here.

How cool is that?!  These books can serve as an excellent model for students who might want to use literature as a strategy to take action against inequity.  Teachers, take note -- writing, illustrating, and disseminating civic action comics is a great way for young people to address problems at school and in the wider world, like bullying, racism, or any other type of injustice.

When I came to Vieques, I never expected to find any products of critical literacy, and encountering these comics made my day and my entire vacation.  They're symbols of resilience that I'll cherish forever.

Next up: El Yunque National Forest and then San Juan.  I'll keep you posted on what I find there!