Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blog Roundtable: Carmen Milagros Torres on Race in Puerto Rican Children's Lit.


Welcome to day 1 of the first ever Blog Roundtable on race and cultural diversity in Caribbean children's/YA books. Today, we will hear from Carmen Milagros Torres, an English Professor at the University of Puerto Rico. This is Carmen's first time on the blog and I'm pleased to have her here: welcome Carmen! Without further ado, let's hear what she had to say!

Oh, and I forgot to say yesterday that Roundtable participants were asked to answer a brief questionnaire. Below is Carmen's completed questionnaire.


Your name (first name alone is fine): Carmen Milagros Rivera
The nationality(ies) you identify with: Puerto Rican
Your self-described racial identity: Afro-Caribbean:
Your experience reading Caribbean children's and/or YA books, either in print or online: 6
 *Rate yourself on the following scale of 1 to 10.

1 - You haven't read any Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading, but you have read reviews or summaries of such books.
2- At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have NOT read Caribbean children's or YA books outside of required school reading.
3 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
4 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
5 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
6 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
7 - You review Caribbean children's or YA books (on a blog, website, in a newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal or other media outlet) and have read and reviewed AT LEAST 5 such books.
8 -You have read 0-3 Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
9 - You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
10 - You have read MORE THAN 1 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written AND published a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)


Race in Puerto Rican Children's Literature

by Carmen Milagros Torres

Puerto Rican children’s literature has not focused its work to the issue of race. Many Puerto Ricans have tried to look away from the reality that a hidden racism exists. These persons have tried to whiten Puerto Rican society to outsiders and this is reflected in its mainstream literature written for children (Loveman, 2007.)

While other Caribbean countries have characters like Anancy the spider that was influenced by its African legacy, in Puerto Rico, the character of traditional literature that stands out is Juan Bobo who is a jibaro. Jibaros have come to represent Puerto Ricans but jibaros are really those white Puerto Ricans who mainly lived in the mountainous center of the island. Jibaros are represented with Spanish physical traits i.e. light skin and straight or soft wavy hair.

Red Comb - PbkHowever, some books have appeared in print that have shown other facets of race in Puerto Rico. An example of the race and diversity in Puerto Rico is the picture book The Red Comb by Fernando Pico. The story takes place in Caimito, a sector in Rio Piedras which is now part of the island’s capital San Juan. This area is mostly populated by Afro-Caribbeans because many liberated slaves established themselves in this community.

Vitita is a young girl who discovers a runaway slave her house yard. In this community lived Pedro Calderon, a mulatto who made an occupation of capturing runaway slaves and returning them to the owners. This contradictory situation where a mulatto was insensitive to the slaves’ oppression shows the way many people in Puerto Rico have looked away and ignored their African heritage. Rosa Bultron, a woman of the community reminds her neighbor that they also carry a past of slavery and oppression. On page four of the book this is presented in the conversation between Rosa Bultron and her neighbor Nepomuceno:

“Have you forgotten that our grandparents came to this island on a tiny, waterlogged
boat after fleeing from an Englishman’s plantation in Antigua?” scolded old Rosa Bultron. “What would have become of them if Pedro Calderon had been alive those days?”

It is with the guidance of Rosa Bultron that Vitita is able to help the runaway slave. At the end of the story, the runaway slave, now called Carmela, becomes part of the community but with a hidden identity. No one in the community except Rosa Bultron and Vitita knew that she was the slave that had recently escaped and Pedro Calderon had tried to capture.

This story presents to children a part of history that mostly goes untold. It highlights the African heritage of our island. In my research which is in the preliminary stage, I found books that deal with Tainos (pre- Columbian inhabitants of the island of Puerto Rico) or characters that represent the European heritage of Puerto Rico. Books like The Red Comb are rarely seen and discussed in schools. These books are not usually found in children’s homes.

Race and the diversity in the Caribbean is a topic that has not been fully explored in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico needs to strengthen its production of children’s books not only in Spanish which is the primary language spoken in the island, but in English as well. Most of the books found for children are those that portray American society and lifestyle distancing more children from their Caribbean heritage. Writers in Puerto Rico must look for ways to get their stories published and more writers should join us in this objective. Publication is very difficult in Puerto Rico which has caused many to desist in entering this field.

El Coqui Que Quiso Ser Sapo (Spanish Edition)Instead of race, identity is the theme that prevails in the books children are exposed to. Books like La Cancion Verde by Doris Troutman and El Coqui que Quiso Ser Sapo by Emmanuel Sunshine Logrono present Puerto Rican identity through the image of the coqui. The coqui is a small brown amphibian similar to a frog that was originally found only in Puerto Rico and sings "Ko-KEE!" during the night. A study of Puerto Rican identity through the coqui should be done, since it is a very popular character in Puerto Rican children’s books and is always associated with the island’s identity.


Notes:

-González, Jose Luis (1993). Puerto Rico: The Four-Storeyed Country. Princetown, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishing.
-Loveman, Mara & Muniz, Jeronimo O. (2007). How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and Intercensus Racial Reclassification. American Sociological Review, 72, 915-939.
-Pico, Fernando. (1991). The Red Comb. Rio Piedras, PR: Ediciones Huracan


***

Carmen Milagros Torres is an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao. She teaches Basic English, Business English as well as Children’s Literature. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in Caribbean Languages and Literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. Her field of specialization is Caribbean Children’s Literature. She teaches Children's Literature at the University of Puerto Rico- Humacao (www.uprh.edu) and includes Caribbean Literature in her courses. In 2008, she worked with an Electronic Book Project where her students wrote Caribbean stories and presented them in Power Point. They created a blog, the address for which is is http://ingl4326.wordpress.com/. Carmen's children's story "Dancing Bomba" was published in the December 2010 issue of Anansesem Caribbean children's ezine.

Summer Edward is a Children's Literature and Publishing Consultant. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children's writers and the School of the Free Mind's inaugural Way of the Book Honor Award given to artist-authors demonstrating long and sincere commitment to changing the world through children's books. Learn more about her here .

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