- The Puerto Rican "Rainbow":Distortions vs. Complexities
. . . All Americans . . . whether they realize it or not, are living in a mestizo/mulatto civilization that enjoys the cultural heritage of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. . . . To be Nuyorican is to be universal, is to be existentially wired to . . . Spanish-speakers, English-speakers, and people anywhere whose existence cannot be categorized or labeled by language, nationality, or race.Nicolaás Kannellos (iv)
The Puerto Rican experience is truly a multifaceted reality. There are not only many distinct Puerto Rican experiences, but two distinct societies as well. "Two Puerto Rican worlds emerge: one in Puerto Rico, the other in the continental United States; both increasing in size; linked together by airline flights, telephones and television" (Fitzpatrick xiii). Unfortunately, many U.S. children whom I encounter in classrooms and public library story hours do not know either world. These young people know only the formulas of popular juvenile books. They seldom see Puerto Rican history and culture accurately reflected in children's literature or the racial and cultural mix that is characteristic of Puerto Ricans—the blend of Taino culture (Native American), African culture, and Spanish culture. They are not exposed to the political ambiguities that result from centuries of colonization, first by the Spanish and, after 1898, by the United States. In fact, because the publishing world currently under-represents or misrepresents the Puerto Rican reality, literature about Puerto Ricans is almost non-existent in the United States; only three hundredths of 1% of children's book publications between 1972 and 1982 included Puerto Ricans and only half were fiction, i.e., 28 titles (Sonia Nieto, "Self-Affirmation . . .," 212). In a more recent study, Nieto found only nineteen books published about Puerto Rico between 1983 and 1991 ("We Have Stories . . .," 179).
This paucity of books has serious consequences for both Puerto Rican and non-Puerto Rican children. For the former group, it produces a perception of invisibility—an impression that fosters low morale, low motivation, and low levels of self-esteem. For the mainstream child, this invisibility signals an indifference on the part of adult society and a willingness to treat the U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans as second class. A few preliminary facts:
• Literature about Puerto-Ricans has been largely the work of non-Puerto Ricans, and negative stereotyping is pervasive.
• Since Puerto Rican society is multiracial, multicultural, and in large degree bilingual, these elements are typically incorporated into works by Puerto Rican authors, but largely overlooked by non-Puerto Ricans.
• The migratory process between Island and mainland has created different experiences for different generations; a realistic narrative needs as background an understanding of the time, place, and circumstances surrounding immigration.
• The influences of colonialism and capitalism are felt by mainland and Island inhabitants in different ways; since these differences produce unique influences upon identity, characterization is incomprehensible unless this context is made clear.
• The literature has, so far, been primarily suited to older audiences—a fact stemming from the overall scarcity of books, as well as from the complexity of the subject.1
Ill-informed Authors, Inauthentic Images
The gap between the actual Puerto Rican experience and the images of the typical juvenile novel would not go unnoticed by a Puerto Rican adult, but children tend to accept the printed word. They have no adequate defense against the misinformed actions of mainstream authors, publishers, book critics, librarians, and teachers. Their parents are not part of the book establishment and there are no public institutions designed to assist them as reading advisers for their children. The Puerto Rican literary critic Sonia Nieto has provided astute analyses of stereotypical books, but her writings may reach a relatively small portion of those in the publishing and teaching professions.2 In any case, both language and imagery in mainstream children's books are often inauthentic.
An example of inauthentic language is provided by Myron Levoy's use of the term compadre in A Shadow Like a Leopard (1981). The story features a Puerto Rican boy, Ramón Santiago, surviving in New York City. He encounters, in one scene, a Colombian store owner, Mr. Herrera, and is told that he is...