We Have Stories to Tell

A Case Study of Puerto Ricans in Children’s Books

By Sonia Nieto

Approximately 5,000 children’s books are published yearly in the United States.1 Of these, a tiny minority focus on Latino themes or characters, either in the United States or in their native countries, in any substantive way. When such books are published, they frequently do little more than perpetuate romantic images or stereotypes that belie the traditions and day-to-day lives and experiences of Latinos.

In stark relief with the neglect and depreciation of the Latino experience in children’s books is the reality of the United States as the twentieth century draws to a close: A special 1990 Census report revealed that the Latino population is highly diverse, increasing dramatically, and on the road to becoming the nation’s largest minority.2 According to this report, there are nearly 21,000,000 Latinos living in the United States. They now constitute over 8% of the total

U.S. population, a 40% increase since the 1980 census.3 Of these, about 63% are Mexican-American, 11% are Puerto Rican, and 5.5% are Cuban. The remainder are Central Americans, other Latin Americans and Caribbeans. Latinos live in every major metropolitan area in every state and in many rural and suburban areas as well. Although the majority live in three regional areas (the Southwest, the Northeast, and Florida), no area in the United States has remained untouched by the Latino presence.4

The apparent contradiction between the dramatically growing numbers of Latinos in the United States and their invisibility in popular children’s literature raises a number of issues. One concerns the images that persist in the media. Even when present in children’s books, Latinos have often been shown in a number of different, but equally negative, roles: portrayed as either simple, happy-go-lucky characters content to put things off until “mañana,” or as hapless victims of “the culture of poverty,” Latinos are found swinging sticks at piñatas in fiestas or swinging sticks at one another in gang fights. The result is that neither Latinos nor their non-Latino peers have been well served because the range of images that help define the complexity of their experience within the United States is missing.

In addition, many books with Latino characters have been written by non-Latinos who are often woefully unfamiliar with the lived realities of those about whom they are writing. This leads to a related problem of others outside the community making decisions about such issues as what constitutes Latino literature, what genres best represent the cultures involved, and which of the many Latino cultures get visibility.

Finally, Latinos are often presented as a monolithic group, as if the vast differences in national origin, geography, native language, race, class, and place of birth, among others, did not exist. The feeling that “if you’ve seen one Latino, you’ve seen them all” is perpetuated in children’s literature when no provisions are made for such differences.5

Latino Children’s Literature

A paucity of research has been done on Latino children’s literature in the United States. The little that has been done has centered on specific groups within the larger Latino category, that is, on Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, or others. Given the great differences within Latino groups in, among other things, ethnicity and history in the United States, this approach is understandable.

One of the first references to Latino children’s literature was about Puerto Ricans. As early as 1974, the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC), widely acknowledged to be one of the “best-known purveyors of criteria and guidelines for eliminating stereotyping and bias” in books, published a special issue on Puerto Rican themes in children’s books.6 To their surprise, the CIBC discovered that 100 children’s books with what could loosely be termed “Puerto Rican themes” had been published since the 1940s. All focused in some way on the Puerto Rican experience, either on the island or in the United States, and had one or more protagonists who were Puerto Rican. The CIBC concluded that the great majority of the 100 books were pervaded by racism, sexism, and an ethnocentric colonialism. Specifically, they said, “Far from finding the books accurate and authentic, the reviewers discovered extraordinary distortions and misconceptions ranging all the way from simple misusages of Spanish to the grossest insensitivities and outright blunders, including editorial errors that in ‘non-minority’ books would never be tolerated.”7

The following year, the CIBC followed up with a special issue on Chicano (Mexican-American) materials. This time, 200 children’s books, including some texts, were reviewed.

Ass with the previous review2, the books were characterized by an abundance of stereotypes and “an attitude of benevolent superiority.”8 Some of the images they uncovered defied reality. The best-known stereotypes, that of Mexican men wearing wide-brimmed hats snoozing under a giant cactus, and those of what they called “serapes, piñatas, burros, bare feet, and broken English,” were widely accepted and maintained despite the fact that the vast majority of Mexican Americans are urban dwellers and speak English. In textbooks, the situation was just as bad. Most made no acknowledgment of the existence and contributions of Mexicans to what is now the Southwest United States. The same held true for Mexican Americans in the present: “In most instances,” the CIBC found, “they are left out entirely. This is so despite the fact that Chicanos constitute the second largest minority group in the U.S.”9

Ten years after the special issue on Puerto Ricans first appeared, the CIBC asked me to do a follow-up to determine whether newer books were less biased and more accurate than those published prior to 1972. I found 56 titles that had been published in the 10-year period from 1973 to 1983. A small number of books reflected a more comprehensive understanding of Puerto Rican reality, but the majority were still assimilationist, stereotypical, and pervaded by racist assumptions of inferiority. The fact that more of these books were written and illustrated by Puerto Ricans had a decidedly positive effect on their quality and accuracy. Nevertheless, most continued to be written by non-Puerto Ricans with a limited awareness of and experience with Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. My general conclusion was that “… there is a need for more books with accurate and positive messages, books sensitive to the true realities of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.”10

Until the 1980s, most research had focused on Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. Almost no attention had been paid to other Latinos. Even though Central America has been in newspaper headlines and television news for years, its presence in children’s books has remained almost inconsequential. Once again, it was the CIBC that undertook the only study of its kind in this area: to analyze some 71 books, including 31 history texts, to determine whether Central America was portrayed accurately in books for children in the United States. A panel of 15 reviewers knowledgeable about Central America found that it was overlooked in most history books. The fact that Central America is either omitted entirely, given fewer pages, or simply referred to as “a bridge between North and South America” in most books is indicative of the unimportance with which it has been treated. As in previous research, the reviewers found that many of the books were full of racial and ethnic stereotypes as well.11

This brief review underscores two realities: a paltry number of children’s books focusing on the Latino experience have been published in the United States; and precious little scholarly work has been done in this area. How has the situation changed in the past several years? The following section will focus on a case study of Latino literature to highlight the continuing debate and some specific dilemmas related to using multicultural literature in the classroom.

A Case Study

I made the decision to use a case study approach focusing on only one national origin group precisely because of a major dilemma concerning scholarly work on Latinos, that is, the tendency to lump all Latinos together under one general heading. Although reasons for doing so are certainly legitimate at times, this practice undermines the very way that groups define themselves. One would be hard-pressed, for instance, to find a Latina who would define herself as such; she would be more likely to say that she is a Chicana or a Dominican or a Peruvian. The terms Latino(a) or Hispanic are useful when we want to express the deep connections among all of us in the Americas who are descendants of native inhabitants, Spanish and other European colonizers, and enslaved Africans, or any combination of these groups.

This is a powerful legacy that extends from the southern-most tip of Latin America, to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, to what is now the Southwest United States. As such, it needs to be recognized and affirmed. Such broad categorizations can nevertheless too easily hide regional or other vital differences that then become invisible. For example, although a Dominican and a Salvadorian may both be Spanish-speaking, Catholic, and middle-class, the largely indigenous heritage of Salvadorians and the African heritage of Dominicans may be hidden if one uses only Latino to identify both. The many native languages of the original inhabitants, some of which are still actively used today, may not be apparent if we refer to both Guatemalans and Bolivians as simply Hispanic. This general label may hide the fact that for many people in Latin America, Spanish is a second rather than a native language.

The collective legacy of Latinos cannot be denied. Thus, the perspective on Puerto Rican children’s literature that I present here will surely sound a responsive chord among other Latinos. A Mexican and a Chilean may both smile at a fondly remembered children’s rhyme; a Cuban and a Colombian may share the painful experience of being discriminated against in the United States because of their Spanish accents. But rather than fall into the trap of perpetuating the perceived interchangeability of Latinos, I have chosen to focus on only one group. Because of my own background and experiences, I can speak both more authoritatively and critically about the Puerto Rican experience than about others. Although I do not claim to speak for all Puerto Ricans, I can provide one insider’s view.

New Literature Since 1983

The purpose of using this case study of Puerto Rican children’s literature is two-fold. First, it will serve as an example of how Latino children’s literature has changed over the past dozen years or so. I was interested not only in the number of books written since 1983, but also in the genres they represent.

The second purpose for using this case study is to suggest some directions for the future of Latino children’s literature within what is considered mainstream children’s literature and curricula.

I began by trying to locate all the children’s books published in the United States since 1983 that could be said to deal in any way with Puerto Ricans. To be as inclusive as possible, I considered all genres: fiction, nonfiction, anthologies, book-length stories that included Puerto Rican characters, and revised editions of earlier books. I included Puerto Rican and non-Puerto Rican authors, and considered books for all ages from preschool through young adult. I even included books that appeared to be about Puerto Ricans, even if they did not specifically identify the characters as such. As I read these books, three recurring, sometimes contradictory, themes became apparent. These are:

  • the continuing invisibility of Puerto Ricans in the field of children’s literature;
  • the absence or neglect of the family and family life in some of the books, including a reluctance to include anything but the most superficial aspects of culture and a continued stereotyping of Puerto Ricans; and
  • the emergence of an incipient children’s literature that is beginning to illuminate the Puerto Rican experience.


By 1991, the Puerto Rican presence in children’s literature in the United States was still almost invisible. Although the number of Puerto Ricans residing in the United States has more than doubled to over two million during the past three decades, one would never know it by their presence in children’s books. Only 19 books published or reissued since 1983 were found. Even this number is misleading because almost a third are books that were published previously and either released in a new edition or reissued by another publisher. If we consider the fact that about 40,000 children’s books were published during the same time period, this number is only a tiny fraction of one percent.

Compared to 100 books found in 1972 and 56 books published in the period from 1973 to 1983, 19 books in the years from 1983 to 1991 can hardly be called progress.

What accounts for this apparent backslide in the presence of Puerto Ricans in children’s literature? One explanation is the political mood of the country and how it is reflected even in publishing policies and practices. The past dozen years or so have been among the most politically conservative in U.S. history.

The recent history of the publishing industry echoes this trend. Whereas Puerto Rican themes might have been more trendy in the early 1970s (20 books were published in 1973, the year when more books about Puerto Ricans were published than ever before or since), the same is not true today. There have been times in the past eight years when no books were published (1983 through 1985). The largest number (5, 5, and 4) were published or reissued in 1986, 1988 and 1990, respectively. A progress of sorts, these numbers may represent a renewed and emerging interest on the part of publishers to locate and print a more multicultural literature.

Another explanation for the dearth of Latino, and specifically Puerto Rican, children’s literature may have to do with the limited number of published Puerto Rican authors. The percentage of books written and illustrated by Puerto Ricans or other Latinos is now greater than before. Probably not coincidentally, the most blatant of the negative stereotypes found in previously published books has

decreased. Nevertheless, a still unacceptably low number of books are written by Latinos and specifically by Puerto Ricans. Of the 19 books reviewed, 11 were written, edited and/or illustrated by Latinos; of these, however, only seven were written by Puerto Ricans, and four of these were written by one Puerto Rican. In the three anthologies published during those years, 11 Puerto Rican authors were included. Although these numbers are a hopeful sign in that the proportion of books written by Latinos has increased dramatically, the overall number of books is still disappointingly low.

It is also evident that Latino children’s literature has differed from other U.S. children’s literature in that it has not been limited to traditional children’s themes in main-stream literature. Latino children’s literature has revolved around folklore, legends, riddles, games, poetry, and stories in the oral tradition rather than specifically on the childhood or adolescent experience.

A good example can be found in the stories, riddles, and poems in Kikirikí, one of the few Latino children’s anthologies published recently. With selections in English and Spanish (none of which are translated into the other language), this anthology convincingly reflects this tradition. Cirilo Toro Vargas’12 “adivinanzas” are typical of traditional children’s literature from Puerto Rico and his “El gallo que no cantaba” is a funny and charming story about a rooster that could not say “Kikirikí” but could only talk like people. He would instead wake up saying “Amanece!” (Dawn is breaking!) and only through the intervention of his Fairy Godmother, who explained that his problem was a lack of pure air and pollution, did he overcome this curious malady.

Franklyn Varela-Pérez’s story of “How the Water of the Bay Turned Silver” is an equally engaging story told in the form of a traditional legend. In the same anthology is Victor Hérnandez Cruz’s poem “Taíno,” that links the children of Puerto Rico to their ancestors (“your tongue is Taíno/when you eat guava/paste or juice/you can get it at/the store/on the corner”). And Nicholasa Mohr’s short story, “A Special Gift,” brings readers to the Puerto Rican experience in the urban centers of the United States by telling a story of a child who reluctantly but lovingly releases her apartment-bound bunnies at a sanctuary in New York City. Many of the stories in this anthology, and in the one that preceded it, Tun-ta-ca-tún, are typical of the oral tradition of family stories told by Puerto Ricans around the kitchen table, whether here or on the island.

Because children’s stories have tended to be family or community stories, Puerto Rican children’s literature has often been a version of adult literature. The fact that some of this literature is marketed in the young adult category here in the United States, although it may have originally been written and intended for adults is revealing. Cuentos, a bilingual collection of Puerto Rican short stories for young adults, is an example of this. An anthology published in the 1970s, Cuentos is actually a series of short stories written by a superb representation of Puerto Rican authors. Some of the stories happen to be appropriate for young adults because of their style and level rather than because they deal specifically with issues of relevance to young adults.

Some of the stories written by Nicholasa Mohr, notably El Bronx Remembered and In Nueva York, were also originally intended for adults but have consistently been marketed for young adult readers. The same is true of Silent Dancing, a beautifully written and evocative collection of autobiographical essays that can be appreciated by only the most sophisticated young adults. The classification of these books in the young adult category is sometimes arbitrary and does not necessarily mean that the themes, language, or content were intended for young adults.

Recurrent Use of Stereotypes

Although the Puerto Rican family and family traditions are more salient in newer books than ever before, a few books, primarily those written by non-Latinos, continue to demean or exclude the family and to repeat worn stereo-types. The absence of the family as a central concern may be true of children’s books in general, but it is a troubling oversight in books that focus on Puerto Ricans. First, the family is crucial to an understanding of the Puerto Rican experience. This focus on family is true of other Latinos as well. Interactions among siblings, relationships between parents and children, and the connections among all family members, including the extended family and those referred to as como familia (close friends who for all intents and purposes serve the same role as family) are absolutely indispensable to understand if one is to reflect the Puerto Rican experience with any accuracy.

The characters, story line, and setting of Secret City, U.S.A.by Felice Holman provide a graphic example of family invisibility. It should be mentioned at the outset that the author has never claimed that her main characters are Puerto Rican. It is unclear whether they are or not. Their country of origin is never specifically named, Spanish is not used, and most characters have nicknames that even belie a Spanish language heritage. Nevertheless, there are hints of their Latino heritage throughout the book and they live in New York (where over half of the two million Latinos are Puerto Rican). Thus, it is used as a case in point. The very fact that no mention is made of their ethnicity can be taken as a slight; while the protagonists’ ethnicity may not be important to the author, it certainly would be to many young Latino readers. No matter what the ethnicity of the characters, however, the same disservice is done to them whether they are Dominican, Cuban, or South American.

What are the hints of Latino ethnicity? The main character, Benno, and his best friend Moon come from what the author calls the “islands” and Jojo, Benno’s grandfather, speaks in a “musical language.” Benno’s cousins who have recently come from “the islands,” both have Spanish names (Juan and Paco). And although Jojo’s name used to be José, he changed it. There is also a Tío Chico and a number of other references that make it clear that the main characters are indeed Latinos.

Except for Juan and Paco, Tío Chico, and Jojo, the families of the main characters are barely mentioned. After Jojo dies, Benno’s family is mentioned only in the most superficial and unflattering ways. The majority of references made to family and community are highly negative. In one scene, the people in the neighborhood are described: “At the sides of the stoops, the men, out of work or on welfare, stand in little groups nodding at each other or punching each other out … At the corners, knots of teenage kids or older boys play cards, smoke, deal in drugs, or stolen objects. It’s the commerce of the slums” (p. 23).

In the midst of overwhelmingly damaging images of people and community appears the most positive adult character in the book: Marie Lorry, a white woman, a “nice and pretty lady” who is a social worker at a local hospital and the only adult who is supportive of Benno. Her influence on him is more powerful than that of anybody else.

One searches in vain within these pages for strong Latino adults. The curious absence of any reference to family in Secret City represents such an extreme example of the denial of the importance of the family that it is far-fetched and unbelievable. Not only are the families of children in this story unresponsive, but in fact the only support and love they can find is from communities outside their own.

Whereas Secret City represents an extreme case of the invisibility and inaccurate portrayal of the family, other books are more subtle in their characterizations. One of the ways in which this is done is through a reluctance to include any but the most superficial aspects of the family culture in the stories. This may be an overreaction on the part of writers to past criticisms about stereotyping and racism, but it also reflects the authors’ ignorance of the Puerto Rican experience and uneasiness in dealing with it.

The story Somewhere Green by Karin Mango includes a Puerto Rican, Angel Rivera, who is the boyfriend of Bryan, the protagonist. Some of the author’s characterizations reveal her lack of in-depth experience with the Puerto Rican community. First, highly unlikely utterances come out of Angel’s mouth. When he wants to help her renovate the family townhouse as a surprise for her parents who are away, he says, “Why didn’t you tell me, Bryan? It’s terrific fun,” (p. 64) and he also refers to Bryan and her brother and sister as “lucky devils” (p. 87). Neither of these expressions are believable in the day-to-day language of a New York Puerto Rican. Because Bryan doesn’t know the customs of “his Puerto Rican background,” she is reluctant to take the initiative in their relationship. “It was pretty sure though, that girls didn’t do the asking in his kind of world” (p. 55). Later, he is portrayed as believing that women simply cannot be architects: “In his experience girls could be teachers or nurses or housewives. If they were less lucky and lower down the scale, they had to do low-paying menial jobs for survival. The idea of architecture in that context was frivolous as well as freaky” (pp. 136-137). Although it is certainly true that there is no great abundance of Puerto Rican female architects, these thoughts are more likely the author’s than his.

The depiction of Angel’s mother is equally superficial and displays an ignorance of the Puerto Rican community and a demeaning use of the Spanish language. First, Mrs. Rivera is described as screaming his name to call him home: “‘An-hell!’ followed by a lot of shrill, staccato Spanish” (p. 29). Although an English-speaking mother might call her child home in much the same way, it is doubtful she would be so patronizingly characterized. Later, Mrs. Rivera, in describing the protagonist’s father, says, “Ah, sí. Tall, blond señor.” ( p. 93). Using Spanish as a stage prop with which to identify characters’ ethnicity has been a common ploy in children’s books. Used with much less frequency now than in previous books, it still tends to result in a degrading use of the language.

Although code-switching (switching from one language to another) is common in the Puerto Rican community, it is not done in the way that the author has Mrs. Rivera speaking. Very often, authors with little sense of the language will simply insert a word or two that they know in Spanish in an effort to make their stories seem more believable, and will in the process make them less so. It also results in misspellings, misplaced accents, and faulty constructions. (“Erés tan bonita,” Angel tells Bryan, misplaced accent and all).

The use of English among Puerto Rican characters is also often stilted and contrived. This is directly related to some authors’ ignorance of the way their characters would actually use language. The dialogue in Secret City is probably the most annoying in this regard: “Whady’a want? Ya want yer mama and papa don’t care whatcha do? (p. 35); “How come is that?” (p. 17) are typical constructions used.

This less-than-credible language use is in stark contrast to the dialogue of urban teen-agers used by Walter Dean Myers in Scorpions. Set in Harlem, this powerful story is about the friendship between Jamal, an African-American boy and Tito, who is Puerto Rican, and the very real dangers young men in urban communities face with gangs, guns, and violence. Myers’ use of dialogue is believable and natural. In addition, there is a tacit understanding of the Puerto Rican family. Tito, in explaining to Jamal what grandmothers in the family are like says, “ … your grandmother is suppose to take care of you. She said in Puerto Rico everybody treats their grandparents like they were the real mother in the house. She said that your family is more important in Puerto Rico than here” (p. 33). Scorpions is a good example of children’s literature that, while not focusing centrally on the Puerto Rican experience, treats it with respect. There are no cases of misspelled words or trite expressions here.

Illustrations may also help perpetuate incomplete or inaccurate images. Even when the text is good, the illustrations may fall into facile stereotypes. The poetic story Flamboyan by Arnold Adoff, with its beautiful descriptions of the girl named for the flame tree and the island of Culebra, is an example. Although the illustrations are dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful, some are also unauthentic. The illustrator, Karen Barbour, who according to the jacket spent time in both Martinique and Hawaii while working on the book, has apparently never been to Puerto Rico. Some of her illustrations are more evocative of Mexican motifs than of the Caribbean; and scenes of women carrying baskets on their heads are more typical of other Caribbean countries than of Puerto Rico.

Stereotypical or incomplete characterizations of Puerto Ricans are not only made by non-Latinos. The anthology Where Angels Glide at Dawn, an anthology of stories most of which were originally written in Spanish and translated into English, is a good but uneven attempt to provide a range of Latino voices about the Latino experience. One of the few stories about a Puerto Rican family, “Fairy Tale” by Barbara Mujica, repeats some of the same patterns. The main character is Monica, a 15-year old Puerto Rican girl living in New York who yearns to go to college. Her mother, Angela, wants her to go to vocational school instead: “Why should the girl be sitting in a classroom when she could be out earning money? It didn’t make sense to her” (p. 79). Monica tries to do her studying before her mother gets home because “Angela would make a fuss if she caught Monica studying” (p. 78).

A hardly believable characterization, this contradicts the educational aspirations of Puerto Rican parents for their children that are often overly or naively optimistic. Education is generally viewed within the Puerto Rican community, particularly among the poor, as the one sure way out of poverty. Although it is true that some parents might urge their children to go to vocational school because they see it as the only realistic alternative to going to college, one would be hard-pressed to find a Puerto Rican parent who would be upset if she saw her daughter doing homework.

In the same story, Angela, whose “mouth generally worked like a submachine gun” (p. 89), is a bullying, shouting, and name-calling shrew with her husband. Monica’s ideas about Puerto Rico are also less than positive: “Monica had never been particularly interested in Puerto Rico. She associated the birthplace of her parents and grandmother with fried onions and black beans, both of which made her feel bloated and gassy” (p. 86). Even putting aside the fact that black beans are more typical of Cuban than of Puerto Rican cuisine, there is an inherent problem with these kinds of images. Certainly all of the characterizations in the story are possible, but because they present primarily negative images, they are also incomplete. What makes this particular story more disturbing is that these issues are simply presented; they are neither broached as dilemmas nor used as a literary strategy for further development within the story.

A more representative Puerto Rican children’s literature, however, does just that. The search for an authentic literature is not the search for an upbeat, consistently positive, sentimental, romanticized, or idealized reality. Rather, it is the search for a more balanced, complete, accurate, and realistic literature that asks even young readers to grapple with sometimes wrenching issues. It is literature that is neither sanguinely positive nor destructively negative, but one that attempts to reflect the range of issues and possibilities within the community’s experience.

Defining a Children’s Literature

This brings us to the third, and by far most promising trend: a slowly emerging children’s literature that is beginning to reflect the Puerto Rican community in more depth. Before discussing this literature in more detail, let me first define it.

For the purposes of this review, I have chosen to focus on books published in the United States. Most have been written in English, some are bilingual, and a small number are collections that include both Spanish and English. This is not meant to overlook Puerto Rican children’s books published in Puerto Rico (the children’s books written by the highly acclaimed Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferre come to mind) or to dismiss Spanish translations of American books or Europeans fairy tales (which in any event cannot be classified as Puerto Rican literature). Rather, it is to situate the responsibility for Puerto Rican children’s literature on those of who live in the United States, whether we are Puerto Rican or not. The necessity of opening up the literature to all young people in the United States, regardless of ethnicity or native language, is thus stressed. This multicultural perspective is important for all children because it works against the tendency to ghettoize literature so that only Puerto Rican children read Puerto Rican authors, only African-American children read African-American authors, and so on.

Puerto Rican children’s literature, at least as it stands now, is literature that has been written by Puerto Rican authors. This is not to deny the importance, even the absolute necessity, of non-Puerto Rican authors writing about Puerto Ricans, which Walter Dean Myers has done so consistently and convincingly. Milton Meltzer’s Hispanic Americans, Arnold Adoff’s Flamboyan, Johanna Hurwitz’s ClassPresident, among others, are all examples of books that have focused on Puerto Rico or included Puerto Rican characters in a credible way. They are good additions to a field that has far too few such depictions.

It is also conceivable that in the future, authors of non Puerto Rican backgrounds may be able to write what can be described as Puerto Rican children’s literature: stories and other literary genres that capture the mood and texture of the lives of Puerto Ricans in realistic and believable ways. For this to occur, they should probably have had close and enduring relationships with at least part of the Puerto Rican experience. Given the increasing interdependence of communities and the growing awareness of multiculturalism in our society, this may be possible. Myers’ work, for example, certainly approaches this situation. Without the willingness on the part of authors to engage in these relationships, however, we are left with only outsiders’ interpretations of insiders’ lived realities.

Puerto Rican children’s literature is founded on the tenets of a bona fide Puerto Rican literature and based on the panorama of experiences within the diversity of the community itself. Not afraid to confront sometimes painful realities, it is also not averse to celebrating the small triumphs that individuals and the community can achieve in spite of overwhelming odds. It is quintessentially good literature. A synopsis of each of the books that I would include under this category is found at the end of this article.

What characterizes this literature and how is it defining the Puerto Rican community? First, excellent Puerto Rican children’s literature is excellent literature, period.

While based on a particular ethnic experience, its particularity does not necessarily make it provincial; its messages are meaningful for all readers. These messages revolve around themes of growing up, confronting the advantages and disadvantages of difference, learning to accept and respect oneself and others, and developing pride in and a sense of responsibility to one’s community.

Second, Puerto Rican children’s literature depicts our multiple realities. Whether it is an urban experience, such as that chronicled by Nicholasa Mohr in El Bronx Remembered, or set in Puerto Rico, as are Cirilo Toro Vargas’ stories, or both as in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing, the literature speaks of a variety of experiences, many of which are unknown to some among us. Good literature does not simply replicate our lives, but challenges us to expand our experiences and shed our preconceptions.

Third, this children’s literature is based on the tenets of Puerto Rican adult literature. My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits by Richard García is a rather harrowing but funny and completely believable ghost story as told within the Puerto Rican experience. Atariba and Niguayona, from the same publishing company, is told within the framework of legends and folklore of Puerto Rico. The short stories in the anthologies I’ve recommended also reflect this history. The books by Lulu Delacre are notable in this regard. Based on songs, rhymes, and games from Latin America, including Puerto Rico, her books will help older readers recall some of the sounds and musical notes of their youth, while teaching others that they are a part of this tradition, whether or not they have experienced it.

Fourth, good Puerto Rican children’s literature, although not falling into simple stereotypes, is also not squeamish about posing some difficult and conveniently unspoken dilemmas. In Going Home, for example, Nicholasa Mohr confronts the generation gap, the tendency among many Puerto Rican parents to be overprotective, the sometimes unreasonable rules of conduct for females within the family, first love, the difficulty of adjusting to the island with its less-than-sentimental realities, and the pain of being rejected within both the United States and Puerto Rico — and all of this in less than two hundred pages. In the process, both positive and negative portraits of particular characters emerge. The best thing about this book is that it avoids becoming either defensive about being Puerto Rican or idealizing the experience. This, and many of Mohr’s other stories, pose difficult issues in frank ways that young readers can understand and empathize with. The stories sometimes broach these issues in hilariously funny ways, as is true of some of the stories of El Bronx Remembered.

An incipient literature of this type is not without its problems, however. The books included in the list at the end are not of equal quality. Some are better written and developed than others. Some, such as Lulu Delacre’s books, have lovely and evocative illustrations; the illustrations in others, such as Atariba and Niguayona and My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits, are bizarre and may reinforce stereotypes of, for example, Taíno Indians as strange and exotic. Some cannot escape the biases and prejudices of their time or of the community which they represent. In Nilda, for instance, Puerto Ricans are portrayed primarily as victims. Not surprisingly in a story that takes place during World War II, there are also a number of racist references to “Japs.” Others such as In Nueva York, have negative but sometimes depressingly accurate portrayals of women. Nevertheless, books such as these offer young people the chance to be exposed to and discuss issues of oppression and of the community’s response and responsibility to confront it.

Puerto Rican Children’s Literature

Using Puerto Rican children’s literature in the classroom should be guided by the same principles as using any good literature. I would suggest three guidelines:

  1. Children’s literature should permeate the curriculum. No literature should be seen as an appendage to the curriculum. Simply dropping a story or a poem here or there in the curriculum is meaningless unless it is presented within a context of the history and culture. Viewed this way, children’s literature can be a key part of the interdisciplinary content to which students are exposed. Although there are few resources for integrating Puerto Rican literature into the curriculum, some are available.13

In spite of the scarcity of curriculum resources, teachers can also help make multicultural children’s literature part and parcel of what and how children learn. For instance, Felitawould be a natural to include in a unit on families in the elementary grades. When studying bodies of water, teachers can read “How the Water of the Bay Turned Silver: A Story About Puerto Rico” by Franklyn Varela-Pérez (in Kikirikí). For older students, a unit on identity can include Ortiz Cofer’s SilentDancing, which explores the developing identify of a young girl whose family moves back and forth between Puerto Rico and the United States. If children’s literature is to be meaningful, it cannot be separated from the rest of the curriculum.

  1. Literature can challenge children to become knowledgeable and respectful of others. Using multicultural children’s literature will help readers to understand that everyone has a story to tell. Until recently, most stories have reflected a very limited range of realities. Using Puerto Rican children’s literature can result in Puerto Rican children developing a healthy respect for their community and in non-Puerto-Rican children understanding the importance of different experiences in people’s lives. Using a standard of excellence that celebrates only the stories and perspectives of one group is damaging to all children. Rather than viewing experience different from their own as “weird” or “ethnic,” young readers can learn to approach literature with an understanding that we are all ethnic and therefore influenced by our backgrounds and experiences. At the same time, they can learn that ethnicity is only one difference, and that the unique character of every individual needs to be respected and affirmed.
  2. Literature should prepare children for a critical love of reading. Exposing children to excellent literature can motivate them to seek all kinds of literature. In addition, it can challenge them to become critical of everything they read. As children learn to interact with and respond to all literature with a more open and flexible outlook, they can learn to be critical and questioning of what they read. The purpose of using Puerto Rican literature is not to romanticize or uncritically accept the experience it may depict, but to develop the tools to critique both it and the printed word in general.


“The teacher read a story about me today!” said an excited second grader to his mother after his teacher had read the class Yagua Days. Although this is an everyday experience for children within the majority culture, children from other cultures typically do not have the opportunity to see themselves in books. Not surprisingly, it can be an experience of self-affirmation and pride. But because children’s literature in the United States has yet to catch up with the dramatic demographic changes in our society or with growing sensibilities toward diversity, many youngsters develop the impression that books are not about them, their families, or communities, but rather always about “the other.” It is the responsibility of teachers and schools to make it possible for all children to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the books that they read. Equally important, they need to make it possible for all children to see the experience of others different from themselves reflected in the books that they read.

Puerto Rican children’s literature is woefully underrepresented in mainstream children’s literature. Rather than simply negative images, there are almost no images of Puerto Ricans in children’s books. Of those few books that are published, some are still full of stereotypical and unconvincing story lines, characters, and situations. Yet in the midst of these negative images, a vibrant, but as yet incipient and tentative, Puerto Rican children’s literature is developing. Written by a group of writers who represent a range of experiences, viewpoints, and aesthetics, this literature is demanding a space for the voices of those who have until now remained relatively silent. They are demanding that the mainstream be widened to accommodate us all. They are beginning to let everybody know that we have stories to tell.

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I would like to thank Roberto Marquez of Mt. Holyoke College for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Sonia Nieto is an associate professor in the Cultural Diversity and Curriculum Reform Program in the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This article is condensed and reprinted with permission from Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8, Violet Harris (ed.), Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1992. A paperback edition of the book is now available for $19.95. To order, call the publisher at 800-934-8322.

For notes, see p. 23