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!

No comments:

Post a Comment