Monday, October 20, 2014

Publishing Perspectives: Interview with Carmen Milagros Torres, Puerto Rican Children's Literature Scholar

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. One aspect of publishing that hasn't been covered in the series before is academic publishing, but today we're breaking the mold. Below, Carmen Milagros-Torres shares her view of Puerto Rican children's and youth literature from inside the halls of academia.

Carmen is a children's writer and Ph.D candidate at the University of Puerto Rico whose main research focus is Afro-Puerto Rican children's literature. She's also a former contributor to Anansesem and she and I took Maya Gonzalez's online children's writing and illustration course together earlier this year. I'm very excited both by the scholarly work Carmen is doing as well as her potential as a children's writer. Expect great things to come from her!

I love to learn, and I especially love to learn about other cultures, so it was a delight to get the whistle-stop tour of Puerto Rican children's literature from Carmen. We traded emails recently and here's what she had to say.

Carmen Milagros Torres
 S.E.: First of all, I know you're in the middle of grad school studies and teach as well so thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy life to do this interview. You're pursuing a Ph.D in Caribbean Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico with a special interest in Afro-Puerto Rican children's literature. Can you share a bit about your doctoral work? 

C. M T.: I want to first thank you Summer for the opportunity to share my love for children’s literature with your readers, especially the work from Caribbean writers. As you mentioned, I am in the dissertation stage of my doctoral studies under the mentorship of Dr. Alicia Pousada. I began my studies in Caribbean Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus in the Fall of 2009. At that time I wanted to integrate Caribbean children’s literature within my Linguistics studies but had no idea how I would do so. In my first course, offered by Dr. Mervyn Alleyene, I started exploring race within children’s literature with the works of Fernando Picó's The Red Comb and Rebecca Tortello's Nancy and Grandy Nanny. This paper became the first step towards what became my field of research.

S.E.: Your essay titled 'Puerto Rican Children's Literature and the Need for Afro-Puerto Rican Stories' was published in Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature this July (volume 52, number 3). As you note yourself in the essay, "there is an absence of documentation of the history and development of Puerto Rican children's literature", so when I saw the essay in Bookbird I had to reach out to you. What do you think explains the lack of research and can you see any ways to address it?

C. M T.: Puerto Rico has had a very complex colonial experience. This is one of the factors explaining the lack of formal documentation of the development of Puerto Rican literature. Since 1898, The United States has played an integral role in the educational policies established in our island. This relationship with American culture has overshadowed the contributions of Puerto Rican writers who are many times better known in the diaspora than in their homeland.

An example of this collective amnesia is Pura Belpre’s contribution to Puerto Rican culture in the diaspora. Very few people know about Pura Belpre’s lifelong dedication to keeping the Puerto Rican literary tradition alive.  I was one of these people. I had taught children’s literature for over ten years at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao (UPRH) and had no idea of the importance of Pura Belpre’s work. It was only three years ago that I discovered her valuable literary contribution and nowadays I emphasize her work in my courses and mention that there is even an award named after the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library.

Teacher candidates in Puerto Rico receive their formal education from an American/ British perspective.  Our students read great American works for children such as Charlotte’s Web, The Giver, and The Chocolate War just to mention some titles. But these teacher candidates do not read works that portray the Puerto Rican experience such as Carmen Bernier Grand’s In the Shade of the Nispero Tree. They graduate lacking an important component of their professional development.

This reality continues in our educational system. Our public school system mirrors American educational policies in most cases especially when it comes to the teaching of English. The policy makers often just incorporate a methodology or approach that has been successful in the United States without taking into account the cultural reality of our ESL learners. This means that the resources used are American-focused and the Puerto Rican literary tradition continues to be ignored by educators and students alike.

An example is the curriculum maps that were used up to the end of the 2014 academic year. If we look at the suggested titles from 4th- 6th grade, there is only one Puerto Rican book, Esmeralda Santiago's memoir, When I was Puerto Rican. This reality should be of great concern for educators in the island.

This situation is being addressed through a grassroots movement led by dedicated educators who wish to create a positive change in our educational system. Dr. Anibal Muñoz, English professor of the University of Puerto Rico Humacao is one of the forerunners in incorporating Puerto Rican literature in the English classroom. As an English teacher in the public school system he realized that students did not relate to the works assigned in the English courses. This inspired him to create his own literary work to meet the needs of young adult ESL learners. He has since published two English novels, The Cleansing of Unwanted Puerto Ricans and The Sweet Puerto Rican Money.  He also published a collection of short stories titled Borincuan Times and just recently he published iPReople. His books have been used in public and private schools as well as at the university level with positive responses from educators and ESL learners. As president of PREWA (Puerto Rican English Writers Association), his goal is to ensure that culturally relevant literature is incorporated in the English classroom.

PREWA works to make sure that works by local writers are included in the resources that the Department of Education (DEPR) provides students. They also organize forums; the first one was held in November 2012 at UPRH. The keynote speaker was Prof. Manny Hernandez, another educator who has contributed immensely to the incorporation of culturally relevant literature in the ESL setting. Prof. Hernandez is also an author who has published The Birth of a Rican as well as edited a compilation of culturally relevant works to be used with young adult ESL learners.

S.E.: From what I understand, Puerto Rican children's literature has traditionally had a strong folkloric or historical emphasis, echoing the focus of Pura Belpré, the renowned Puerto Rican New York City librarian and chidlren's author. This is something that continues today. However in your essay you state that "the folkloric representation of Puerto Rican culture lacks a balanced representation of the full extent of Puerto Rican cultural diversity." Can you tell us more about that?

C. M T.: When most Puerto Ricans are asked to define their cultural heritage, it will be presented from an indigenous and/or European perspective. In children’s literature the coquí is a very popular figure that in our subconscious is linked with our indigenous heritage since these amphibians are native to our island.

Juan Bobo is another very important character who is represented as a jíbaro. Jíbaros are represented in contemporary times with the stereotypical image of a white Puerto Rican as different studies have shown. An analysis of this portrayal is presented in the article “The missing half: Preliminary notes for a comparison of Juan Bobo and Bobo Johnny stories of Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Anguilla” written by Dr. María Soledad Rodríguez and published in the 2003-04 issue of Sargasso.

Pura Belpre’s beautiful book of legends titled Once in Puerto Rico documents many Puerto Rican legends.Carabalí by Cayetano Coll y Toste is the best known legend that portrays our African heritage. The book is a classic but not many Puerto Rican younger generations have read it. But even in this work, there is an absence of those Afro-Puerto Rican legends that must have existed once in our island. Puerto Rican society has silenced the voice of Afro-Puerto Ricans and this is reflected in the works produced.

Within mainstream Puerto Rican children’s literature there is a lack of African or Afro-Puerto Rican characters. The books that have portrayed Afro-Puerto Ricans are mostly all out of print.  Examples of these out of print titles are Ana Lydia Vega’s Celia and el Mangle Zapatero, Fernado’s Picó’s The Red Comb, Carmen Bernier Grand's In the Shade of the Nispero Tree and María Rijos Guzmán’s bilingual book Y llegaron los esclavos/ So the Slaves Came.

This lack of Afro-Puerto Rican children and young adult titles is evidenced by an Amazon search through the ezine Anansesem's online bookstore. This was one of my most important resources for identifying Afro-Puerto Rican children and young adult titles. Whenever I discovered a new Puerto Rican title in the Anansesem bookstore, I was able to purchase it as a used book.

When I go to the few bookstores that still exist in Rio Piedras near the university where I study, most booksellers couldn’t provide any children or YA books with Afro-Puerto Rican characters. The bookstore Libreria Magica has been another important resource in my research. The owners of this bookstore have a used books section and I have been able to obtain other Afro-Puerto Rican books that I had no idea existed such as Lcdo. Marcos A. Rivera Ortiz’s Aventuras de la juntilla: Cuentos de Maturí.

This literary scavenger hunt demonstrates that the African component of our identity has been ignored. This has been documented in formal studies. Recently Isar Godreau of the University of Puerto Rico Cayey with a group of researchers published the book Arrancando mitos de raiz: Guía para una enseñanza antirracista de la herencia africana en Puerto Rico (Pulling up Myths from the Root: Designing and Implementing an Anti-racist Curriculum about the African Heritage in Puerto Rico) presenting how the Afro-Puerto Rican legacy has been erased or distorted in our society. The work is based on a five-year study conducted in elementary schools in Cayey and Arroyo. The work showed that many students did not feel comfortable with their African heritage

Pura Belpré (1899-1982) was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. She was also a children's author, collector of folktales, and puppeteer.

Children's books written by Pura Belpré.
She is known for her seminal adaptations of Puerto Rican folktales.

S.E.: In your essay you write that "Puerto Rican children's literature is rich with the legacy of the legends of the Tainos." The tainos were the indigenous people who inhabited the island, and there are still Taino heritage groups living in Puerto Rico today. What do you see is the value of publishing children's stories from the Taino oral tradition?

C. M T.: The Taino oral traditional must be kept alive as many great Puerto Rican writers are doing with their publications. They were the native inhabitants of our island. Their heritage flows in our blood along with that of the Europeans who settled in the island and the Africans who came here voluntarily (the mejías- free blacks) as well as those who were uprooted from their continent through the slave trade.

One recent work for young readers that portrays our indigenous heritage is Ed Rodríguez’s Kiki Kokí which has appeared in its English and Spanish versions. In this story we see how the coquí is interwoven with our Taíno heritage.

Children’s writers should include in their future works the active role Taino women had within their communities. In the winter of 2007, I attended a New York University (NYU) winter workshop that was offered that year in Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico. Participants were taken to the Ceremonial Park Tibes of Ponce where a guide gave us a tour and mentioned that Taino women had been caciques in their community. This information was so surprisingly new to us. I discovered in that moment how little we know of our culture. Even though there have been works published about the role of women in Taino society, these books are not known to the great majority of readers.

Picturebooks featuring Puerto Rican taino legends

Artist's rendition of 16th century Tainos.

S.E.: Juan Bobo, an iconic Puerto Rican folkloric character has also been the inspiration for many of the stories published for Puerto Rican youngsters. I think I read somewhere that something like hundreds of children's books about Juan Bobo have been written in Spanish and English. Can you tell us a little about this character? Where does the Juan Bobo character come from and why is he so popular?

Vintage photo of Puerto Rican jíbaros
C. M T.: Juan Bobo is indeed an iconic Puerto Rican children’s character. As you mentioned, the number of titles published featuring Juan Bobo is immense. As a child, my mother and grandparents in San Lorenzo would tell me of the adventures of this unforgettable boy who seemed to understand things differently from the way most people did. He has appeared in many children’s plays presented in Puerto Rico. He has also appeared in children’s TV shows such as the well-known program, En Casa de María Chuzema, sponsored by the public television Channel 6 in Puerto Rico. In this show, he was portrayed as a boy learning different educational skills such as the alphabet.

I have not conducted any formal research on the Juan Bobo character even though he does appear in an unpublished novel I wrote years ago. In my story he is portrayed differently from the customary representation. From my first-hand experience, the appeal of this character can be compared with the appeal that Anancy spider has in the English-speaking Caribbean. Juan Bobo, like Anancy, usually gets away with his antics. While the adults get upset by his behavior, he demonstrates a valid point, i.e., if instructions are not clear, they are liable to different interpretations. By the way, thanks to the work of Casa Paoli of Ponce, I discovered that Puerto Rico also has Anancy tales. That is another topic for future discussion.

Looking at Juan Bobo from the perspective of the jíbaro construct, I see this character as a rebellious figure resisting the feudal-like nature of Puerto Rican society after the abolition of slavery which has been portrayed by Puerto Rican writers such as Abelardo Díaz Alfaro. Jíbaros (mountain-dwelling peasants) were often labeled as lazy because they worked just for their needs and dedicated the rest of their time to “laziness” as some articles have discussed. But they were rebelling against the new post-abolition regime which forced them to work for the rich without obtaining any real economic gain aside from meager wages on which they barely survived. So I believe Juan Bobo stories show that the jíbaros, who were portrayed as naïve and vulnerable to being tricked by the educated, rich hacendados (estate owners), were not as stupid as believed. They valued their freedom and their refusal to work more than was necessary was a way of making a statement.

Your question has sparked my interest in conducting research in this area. So in a future conversation, I would love to continue this discussion of the Juan Bobo character in Puerto Rico (for he has appeared in other countries).

Juan Bobo, typically depicted barefoot, wearing a pava (traditional straw hat worn by Puerto Rican farmers), and with tattered pants. From Juan Bobo Goes to Work illustrated by Joe Cepeda.

Juan Bobo as depicted by Jess Yeoman in Juan Bobo and the Bag of Gold.

Juan Bobo picturebooks. Note the similarities and differences.

S.E.: The coquí, a species of frog native to Puerto Rico, also shows up in Puerto Rican children's literature a lot. I've seen so many picturebook renditions of the coquí, it's quite fascinating. In your essay you cite Doris Troutman Plenn's 1950s book, The Green Song, as an early classic in the coquí tradition. How does one explain the appeal and longevity of the coquí in Puerto Rican children's literature? What do you think children find appealing about coquí characters?

C. M T.: Animal characters appeal to the imagination of children. Many of the best known and loved children’s characters are animals or toy figures. I grew up enjoying Winnie the Pooh, the squirrel Miss Suzie, the mouse Miss Bianca, as well as Peter Rabbit.  Many children’s books portray animals or toy animals as their main characters such as the Curious George books, The Velveteen Rabbit, and the well-remembered and loved spider Charlotte and her friend Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web

Contemporary books and children’s TV programs continue portraying animal characters such as the picturebook Olivia by Ian Falconer, winner of the  2001 Candelcott Honor award and the animated TV shows Peppa Pig, My Little Pony, Doki  and Julius Jr. This year's  Newbery Award was given to the book Flora and Ulysses written by Kate Di Camilo featuring a squirrel who obtains supernatural powers including the ability to write poetry.

A coquí
Since the coquí is a native of the island of Puerto Rico, it is the expected literary manifestation for Puerto Rican children’s literature; it has become the favorite animal to include in children’s stories written in our island. So when we look at the children’s books published in Puerto Rico and the diaspora, yes, the coquí is a very popular character.

Popular bookxs featuring the coquí include the classic novel The Green Song by Doris Troutman, There’s a Coquí in my Shoe by Marisa De Jesús, and The Song of the Coquí by nuyorican writer Nicholasa Mohr. Even Puerto Rican actor, producer and comedian Sunshine Logroño published El coquí que quiso ser sapop/The Coquí that wanted to be a Bullfrog in 2007.

In addition of the appeal animal characters have for young readers, there is also the reality that the coquí has become a symbol of Puerto Rican identity. A person just has to visit any artisan fair to see the coquí portrayed in many of the works these artists create. There is even a saying “Soy de aquí como el coquí” (I am from here like the coquí). The musical group Menudo, in their golden era in the 80’s, sang a song whose lyrics said “Oh, coquí, no hay nadie que ame tanto a nuestro pais” (Oh, coquí, nobody loves our country more than you).  So the coquí has become synonymous with Puerto Rican identity for most of the inhabitants of our island. This is another reason why the coquí prevails in Puerto Rican children’s literature over other animals inhabiting the island like parrots or lizards.

A few picturebooks featuring the famous Puerto Rican coquí.

S.E.: You're writing a collection of children's stories titled "Coquíes, Drums and Dreams". I'm extremely excited about that by the way! You submitted three of the stories, "The Coquí Song", "Adannaya's Sugar" and "Dancing Bomba" to us over at Anansesem and we were happy to publish them. What can you tell us about the collection?

C. M T.: Wow! I must first begin by thanking you and your editorial group for providing me with my first publishing experience. Having my work published in Anansesem motivated me to continue writing and even to dare to dream of someday publishing a collection of children’s stories.

The stories that are part of the collection Coquíes, Drums and Dreams started as a writing exercise for a course I was taking in the Institute of Children’s Literature in 2009. I wanted to write children’s stories but had no idea what to write about. During that same time, I was taking a graduate course with Dr. Alma Simounet and had finished reading the book Esclavos Rebeldes by Guillermo Baralt. In the book I learned that white sugar was prized over brown sugar due to the chemical process that it underwent making it more expensive. This fact prompted my idea for my writing assignment; the retelling of Rumpelstiltskin since I had seen how Patricia Storace had written the beautiful story Sugarcane: A Caribbean Rapunzel. That is the story behind “Adannaya’s Sugar”.

The following semester, I was taking the course “Language and Power” offered by Dr. Nicholas Faraclas.  We had an oral presentation and paper as our final work. I wanted to continue working with Caribbean children’s literature. At that time I read a very interesting essay titled “The Cinderella Complex” by Jean Dubino. Also during this same period, Disney had released their movie The Princess and the Frog which featured the first Afro-American princess. I did research to find out exactly how Disney broke away from its stereotypical portrayal of princesses. My discovery was that there were no major changes with Tiana compared to Cinderella, Snow White or Belle. As I was preparing my presentation, I got inspired to write a story in response to Disney’s stereotypical portrayal of female characters and “The ungrateful coquí” came to life.  I presented the story to my classmates with a very positive response.

The following semester, Prof. Vivian Mayol who worked at that time at UPR Río Piedras campus was coordinating a children’s writing competition. “The Coquí Song” had been published in Anansesem and a classmate commented about my story to one of the English professors who read and liked it. I decided to finally submit “The Ungrateful Coquí”. The jury, composed of Dr. Alicia Pousada and Dr. Robert Dupey, awarded first prize to this story which was such a surprise and honor for me.

I decided that I wanted to continue writing Caribbean adaptations of fairy tales portraying strong Afro-Puerto Rican female characters. The short story collection will have eight short stories which include the two which were published in Anansesem as well as “Amapola in her Dream”, “Anything, but Black”, “Fat Girl”,  “Roberto and Julia Eva”, “Shadows and Masks” and “Upon a Star”. These stories are part of my dissertation proposal.

The dissertation is titled “Un-Silencing the Afro-Puerto Rican Voice”. The work proposes the use of culturally relevant literature to help ESL learners develop their language skills in English. The culturally relevant work proposed is from an Afro-Puerto Rican perspective due to the discovery of the lack of Afro-Puerto Rican portrayal in children’s literature. The short story collection Coquíes, Drums and Dreams is proposed as an alternative to begin addressing this need for Afro-Puerto Rican literature.

The goal is to publish the short story collection after I successfully defend my dissertation in the near future. As soon as this becomes a reality I will share the good news with you.

S.E.: Your husband, the Puerto Rican artist Erick Ortiz Gelpí, has often illustrated your stories. Do you plan to partner with him for this collection or on future projects?

C. M T.: Erick Ortiz Gelpí has collaborated illustrating many of my literary projects such as the works that have appeared in Anansesem. For my short story collection he suggested that I should be actively involved with the illustration process. So for this short story collection I will be the illustrator except for the cover page which will feature Erick’s artwork. It has been challenging, but as he stated, fulfilling, for it becomes a project that has been produced through this literary and artistic experience.

For future projects, he will sometimes be the illustrator as in the past. At other times he will act as a facilitator so I can express through art the literary message I wish to portray in my work. It will be a very interesting literary-artistic alliance.

S.E.: In the essay you discuss some contemporary realistic children's books featuring Puerto Rican characters, some set in America like Grandma's Records by Eric Velasquez, and some set in Puerto Rico like In the Shade of the Nispero Tree by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand. In terms of themes and subjects, what are some contemporary trends in realistic Puerto Rican children's fiction?

C. M T.: Puerto Rican children’s fiction has continued to be published but it doesn't have the support it needs so it can be accessible for a great numbers of readers. The disappearance of bookstores and the few publishing houses in the island has made the publication of children’s books a difficult task to accomplish. Since I have focused in the last six years on compiling of data about Afro-Puerto Rican literature, I have not had the opportunity to do formal research on new trends in realistic Puerto Rican fiction which is greatly needed.

Efforts have been made to provide our young readers with high quality literary works. For eight consecutive years, the literary contest La Barca del Vapor has awarded the winning story publication through their publishing house. And the works are excellent. The recipient of the first award was the children’s writer Tina Casanova with her story Pepe Gorras, o la extraña historia de un perro sin cabezas/Pepe Gorras or the Stange Story of a Headless Dog which I greatly enjoyed. I also read the 2010 award-winning Dale la vuelta written by C.J. García  and La escuelita do-re-misteriosa by Isabel Arraiza-Arana, also winner of this important award.

The works appeal to young readers because they portray children in a realistic way and explore the concerns young people have such as the main character in the novel Dale la vuelta who is skeptical about adults and their knowledge since she can access anything via online search engines like Google. These works need to be more accessible for children. The titles I have had the opportunity to read are action-filled and humor is an important component within the development of the plots.

Just two weeks ago there was a used book festival held in a mall in the south of Puerto Rico. Local bookstores had stands at this event. When I approached these stands searching for books from the La Barca del Vapor series, they had no titles available at the festival. That for me was very lamentable since an opportunity was lost for children to enjoy these works.

Realistic chidlren's fiction featuring Puerto Rican protagonists

S.E.: We were both students in Maya Gonzalez's amazing online course, "The Heart of It: Creating Children's Books That Matter" earlier this year. It was so fun being in the classroom with you. What was that experience like for you and how do you plan to apply what you learned moving forward?

C. M T.: The course “The Heart of It: Creating Children’s Books that Matter” is a course all children’s writers/illustrators should take. I took this course in the midst of completing my dissertation so there are many ideas roaming in my head looking for another opportunity to flourish under the mentorship of Maya’s creative suggestions.

I grew artistically with this course. I dared to experiment with media I would never have used prior to the course. Another accomplishment that came out of this experience is that I wrote a contemporary fiction story which I wish to publish next year titled “Nieta de…” (Granddaughter of…). This story portrays a special granddaughter-grandmother relationship. The grandmother is a very creative character who does not fear what others think of her and she is an Afro-Puerto Rican woman. Her character breaks away from stereotypical portrayals of Afro-Puerto Ricans and elderly persons in contemporary times.

The course also provided the opportunity to share with many talented writers and illustrators, like you  Summer, who have inspired me to continue exploring my creative possibilities. It was a blessing to discover that there are many of us pursuing this literary dream of providing children with diverse experiences and to experience that community. All of the participants showed me the importance of giving a voice to the diversity that makes our world the magical place it is and of giving our children the voices that need to be heard in the books they read. So I want to formally thank Maya for her dedication to such an important cause.

Before I end this interview I want to thank you once again Summer for the support you have given to Caribbean children’s literature. Your ezine has become a resource for those who, like me, want to discover the rich children's literature tradition and works  for children produced in the Caribbean. Many of the accomplishments I have achieved in my graduate studies are due to the great work you have done in favor of the Caribbean voices of children and young adults. Now that I am on the threshold of completing this academic stage, I look back and can see the great contribution that you have made to this field. It has been an honor meeting you and your work. My goal is  to continue collaborating with your cause in the future years to come.

Carmen Milagros Torres is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao. She is currently completing a PhD in Caribbean Linguistics and writing her dissertation titled “Un-Silencing the Afro-Puerto Rican Voice". Her interests include photography, crocheting and reading children's literature, especially Caribbean children's books which highlight the Afro-Caribbean experience. She sits on the Board of Directors of the Puerto Rican English Writers Association.