A Theatrical Night with Pura Belpré:
Walking Outside the Book

By Clarisel González

With a suitcase full of colorful puppets and props, bilingual actress, storyteller, singer/songwriter and puppeteer Flor Bromley performed one of her favorite theater roles: Pura Belpré, the storyteller and performer.

“It touches my heart to play Belpré and to share her stories; I feel like a kindred spirit,” said Bromley at the March 27 Pura Belpré: Walking Outside the Book event, sponsored by Centro and SEA (Society of the Educational Arts, Inc.).

The event spotlighted Belpré’s role as a performer, with the goal of sharing Belpré in a manner in which she herself employed. The evening also included a panel presentation by artist Manuel Morán, a puppeteer and founder and CEO/executive director of SEA and by Centro researcher Marilisa Jiménez-García, who specializes in American and children’s literature studies.

With her lively reenactment of Belpré’s Perez and Martina: A Puerto Rican Folktale, Bromley dressed like Belpré and used puppets to narrate the love story between a cockroach named Martina and a mouse named Pérez. This Puerto Rican folktale describes the adventure of the lively and beautiful Martina, a Spanish cockroach, and her many suitors. One by one she rejects each suitor’s offers to marry her, but when Pérez the Mouse asks for her hand, he wins her love. After their wedding, they live happily. But the beloved and charming folktale ends tragically.

Bromley, who has played the role of Belpré for about four years, said Martina never grows old. It continues to be a story for children and adults alike. “They relate to any story that is told with passion and from the heart,” she said.

Belpré was known for collecting many folktales from Puerto Rico, translating them into English and publishing them as children’s literature. She is also known for writing Juan Bobo and the Queens’s Necklace: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale. Juan Bobo is another beloved character in Puerto Rico. Pérez and Martina is considered to be the first story Belpré wrote and published, and it is one of the most popular. Bromley said Belpré’s Martina as well as The Storyteller’s Candle are definitely among her favorites to re-enact.

Jiménez-García said Belpré wanted to be remembered as a Johnny Appleseed. Calling Belpré by that name, Jiménez-García spoke of how the storyteller was scattering seeds promoting such things as children’s literature and Puerto Rican heritage through her writings and storytelling rituals. Belpré’s legacy, she said, is still with us today even though many have not even read her out of print books. Jiménez-García also spoke about several other folktale favorites of Belpré, including The Tiger and the Rabbit, as well as of her folktales representing the Taino, Spanish and African roots of Puerto Ricans.

Morán, a puppeteer and actor, discussed how his theater is dedicated to sharing Belpré’s stories. He remembered that it was after a performance at a school in East Harlem that he first learned about Belpré. He said a teacher told him, “You are like the new Pura Belpré but with a theater.” He started researching Belpré, became fascinated by her and realized that she had to be an integral part of Teatro SEA. Among other things, Teatro SEA has brought back the Story Hour with Pura Belpré, a revival of her legendary bilingual story hour, which gives a new generation of children the opportunity to be a part of this cultural, creative and interactive experience that combines storytelling with puppets. The story hour is part Teatro SEA’s The Pura Belpré Project, which is perfect for presentations at libraries, schools and small group settings.

In addition to being a talented author and puppeteer, Belpré was the first Puerto Rican/Latina librarian in the New York Public Library; was an advocate for bilingual story hours at libraries; wrote the first mainstream Latino storybook in U.S. publishing history; and had a major children’s literature award named in her honor by the American Library Association.

Bromley, the actress, said Belpré deserves to be better known for the many contributions she has made. As the first Puerto Rican and Hispanic librarian in the New York Public Library, she said, Belpré promoted the importance of being bilingual and multicultural in New York City. “I want to help make her more known because I think she deserves it,” Bromley said.

To purchase Pura Belpré’s book and DVD documentary visit: The Centro Store

To learn more about Pura Belpré’s collection at the Centro Library and Archives Click Here