MTYT Bonus: Looking Ahead to a Puerto Rican Read In

René Picó and Charlene Klassen Endrizzi close their inquiry with a bonus post looking ahead to their upcoming Puerto Rican Read In, scheduled for Fall 2018. We hope our read-in helps children connect to cross-cultural experiences through common everyday interactions and ponder cultural misunderstandings some mainlanders hold about a group of American citizens from another region in the United States.

Looking Ahead to a Puerto Rican Read In

CHARLENE: Here are a few broad questions for you to consider. René, to help teachers think ahead to their interactions with Puerto Rican children’s books. Why do some mainlanders (and even some Puerto Ricans) see our islanders as immigrants?

RENÉ: That is a good question. For more than a century, U.S. mainlanders and some Puerto Ricans de aquí perceive many Puerto Ricans de allá as “foreign” when they migrate to the mainland. Many go from being one of the islanders to being an instant minority within their own country because of how they look or sound.

Are Puerto Ricans immigrants? Politically, they are not. They just come from a different geographic location within their established political nationality. They are U.S. citizens who move within the borders of their country. Would you label a Texan or Arizonian or even a Hawaiian as an immigrant?

Culturally, they are something “unfamiliar.” Long ago Puerto Ricans forged their own identity and culture. Spanish is their main language, so linguistically Puerto Ricans become something foreign. Socially, Puerto Ricans are part of a developing society in the tug-of-war between world empires. On one side, there are four centuries of Spanish folklore and lifestyles that contributed to the Catholic religion, social customs and culinary gifts. On the other side, there is a century of mainland American influence (i.e., new political ideals, fast foods, shopping centers, cultural modes and the English language–within the formal core of Puerto Rican education). When I was in school, I learned English mostly during English class. Today’s generations obtain an earlier exposure to English through television, video games and social media.

CHARLENE: This month we used commonplace terms like Nuyoricans, Afro-Puerto Ricans, etc. to identify Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland. Can you further explain the notion of de aquí or de allá within people’s perceptions?

RENÉ: Every human enters a new cultural experience with developing understandings of self. A new environment influences how humans define themselves on their own and among others. Our books gave us the opportunity to explore the cultural identities of Puerto Ricans de aquí and de allá in the stories of Arturo Schomburg, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Sonia Sotomayor and other fictional characters.

To understand their thrust to define themselves, we must answer “What is a Puerto Rican?” Imagine this island nested between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, crisscrossed by colonizers and colonized, and people from all over the world struggling for a new life in the Americas. For many, la Isla del Encanto became a permanent destination. Once on the island people created their cultural niche. Culture is learned, not inherited. It did not matter where people came from; they became part of a new human experiment in the tropics.

Most Puerto Ricans retain mixed heritages, not a rarity in the milieu of the Caribbean melting pot as noted by Puerto Rican historian Arturo Morales Carrión (1991), “Thus a Puerto Rican may be blonde or black, may show some traces of Indian heritage, or may look Corsican or Sicilian. Or may have a French, Danish, British or German surname… But let no one be fooled: he is a Puerto Rican.” Like any human, a Puerto Rican carries a mixed bag of experiences to the mainland; sometimes experiences are selectively forgotten or cultivated.

CHARLENE: The nonfiction aspects of The Coqui and the Iguana and Parrots Over Puerto Rico offer a window into the gifts of natural resources. What lessons can be learned regarding the conservation of these resources and our interactions with nature?

RENÉ: Our texts emphasize the symbiotic relationship we establish with our natural surroundings. The environment helps define what and how we do things. The sights and sounds of nature help define us culturally. Puerto Ricans identify with the coquí as a major symbol of the native fauna.

For the Puerto Ricans de aquí, the sights and sounds of that enchanted island in the middle of the Caribbean are fantastic stories to be lived. To Puerto Ricans de allá, the natural environment is their home, a home which needs to be carefully nurtured as society evolves. The story of the parrots gives us an example of how delicate that symbiotic relationship is for all species, human and birds. It makes us cognizant of the need to pay attention to the health of the Patria, the fatherland and its inhabitants. The parrot recovery program is one of those efforts to keep the sights and sounds of our beloved island alive, thus keeping a piece of our cultural roots thriving.

CHARLENE: Before we close our conversation, I must admit that I expected to find more Puerto Rican children’s books. While there are a handful of Puerto Rican texts we did not have time to consider (such as Arroz Con Leche: Popular Songs and Rhymes from Latin America, by Lulu Delacre, My Name is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada, Ya llegan los reyes magos/The Three Kings are Here! by Georgina Lazaro) the void of Puerto Rican books saddens me. I think back to Walter Dean Myers concerns, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?… There is work to be done.”

RENÉ: Charlene and I invite readers to help us expand our search for culturally responsible children’s books, texts that reflect the socio-political and economic diversity of the human archipelago named Puerto Rico. We hope to hear about books we missed or overlooked and how those texts impact your learning experiences.

This is a bonus installment of July’s MTYT Series. Last week we discussed two books featuring Puerto Rican women. In our third week we looked at the sights and sounds of Puerto Rico. Before that, we talked about Roberto Clemente and Tito Puente, and all the way at the beginning of July is a post about Arturo Schomburg. Check back next week to start a new conversation on a Sense of Place!

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