In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Lucía Gonzalez talks about her grandmother’s scary stories, the stories that people from different countries may all know, and her interest in the life of librarian Pura Belpré.
Transcript: Lucía M. González
I grew up listening to stories, everything was a story, everything was, like had a magic of its own. Every night at 8:00, the lights went out in my entire town and it became really, really dark. And the adults hated that because, of course, they couldn't listen to their radio, this and that.
But us children, we loved it because that was the time we'd gather around my great aunt, Nena, who was 84 years old, when I was like 6 or 7, and she would just tell stories. And her favorite stories to tell us were her scary stories. And that was, I am traumatized for life because of her scary stories, but we loved to hear those stories.
And every night we would just listen to stories of Great Aunt Nena. My Great Aunt Nena, she never learned to write and read, and she never traveled away from the town where I lived, where I grew up. But she used so many stories. And even to this day, because you never forget the stories you're told, to this day, when I gather with my family in Cuba, my cousins and so on, all we do is, "Remember this story? And remember that story?" We all go back to our childhood, to those days where we sat around Nena and listened to those stories.
Handing Down Stories Across Generations
We have wonderful stories. Like all cultures, like all people, stories make the backbone of our culture. And through stories, in the early years children learn behavior, children learn the culture through the characters in the stories, and these stories that are part of the oral tradition are very important because they have carried the culture from generation to generation, and that's how we learn to interact. We have the stories about the little half chick, el Medio Pollito, and this is, when a parent tells you, "This is going to happen to you just like Medio Pollito," you know you have those points of referral.
You know what your mom is telling you and you know what's going to come if you behave just like Medio Pollito. Or if you are conceited like la Cucarachita Martina, "Te pareces la Cucarachita Martina, you look just like la Cucarachita," You know the story, you know how they act, and you know you're not supposed to act like that because you have the stories for reference.
That's what stories do. And I always tell parents, even if they don't know how to read English, the best thing they can do for their children is to tell them their stories. Because that's how they're giving them the culture. You can not hammer culture over their heads, you know, "I'm going to teach you the culture." Tell them the stories. And that's how they are going to be part of your culture, the parents' culture.
Lucía's Favorite Section in the Library
Storytelling, and stories were always part of my family tradition. We always had stories in my family, and especially we always shared stories, and there was always a time that was dedicated to the sharing of stories.
And when I came to the United States and of course when I went to library school and graduated, I became a children's librarian. And I started looking through the folklore, you know, 398.2 section of the library, that was, wow, the greatest section of the library for me, I looked through all those stories.
And I said, "This is fascinating." And I started looking at stories that were so similar from the ones that I learned from my Great Aunt Nena who I said before did not know how to write and read. But I started seeing the connection, the universality of these stories that were part of the folklore of all the peoples of the world.
And how somehow there was something binding them together. That got me interested in folklore and orality. And then I narrowed it more to the Latin American culture. I was telling stories to Latino parents, right? And I discovered that we were all telling the same stories.
But the mothers would be fighting among each other because that was not the way they heard it. Little details in the story, but they were the same stories. So I thought, this is something that binds us as a people, those stories.
And that's when I started my research. But I was already telling the stories and sharing the stories with the children and the families in the library.
Pura Belpré: A Visionary
Pura Belpré was a wonderful woman. She was a woman ahead of her times. She was a great storyteller and a great children's librarian. She saw the library as a way to bring the community together, and she saw that the library could not be within the library, but it had to be taken outside of the library.
She was a visionary. She was already talking about outreach to the Latino community. And not only outreach with what the library was giving them, but learning about the community and bringing the library to the community in the language of the community.
She saw the importance of library services in the language, in the Spanish language to the Latino families. She saw the importance of telling the stories from the Latino culture, and making sure that the children learned and knew about their culture through stories.
That was very amazing because she started working in the New York public library in 1921, and that was a long time ago. I mean, right now we about outreach services and multicultural collections, but she was a visionary and that was for me her greatest contribution.
Pura Belpré was my role model…as a children's librarian, I want to be like Pura Belpré. I want to have the impact in my community that Pura Belpré had in her community. Her writings, all that was part of her librarianship.
But her impact to this day, it's there and…she lit the way, let's say, providing us with guidance as to how to work with our community, and bring communities to libraries.
A Dream Come True: The Storyteller's Candle.
I always wanted to write the story of Pura Belpré. And it was my dream. And I said it once in a meeting of librarians and publishers, and I didn't know that in the group there was the executive director of Children's Book Press. And I said, "My dream is to write a story, the story of Pura Belpré."
And some months passed, and I was on my way back from Denver, Colorado, from telling stories there. And I was in the airport and I got this call from Children's Book Press, and they were calling me to see if I, to ask me if I was interested in writing the story about Pura Belpré. They had one more book for that year, you know, how they have so many books they publish a year, and they wanted to do this one about Pura Belpré, if I was interested, and I just, I couldn't believe it. It was like my dream come true.
And that was very special because on that trip I was coming from a school that I was an artist in residence. I had been telling stories, it was a migrant workers' school. And the night before, I had been telling stories for three days, and it culminated with a family story day program.
And it was raining and it was snowing, this was January. And snowing. And the parents were expected to come with the children, right, and the principal comes to me and says, "Don't worry if they don't come, because usually they don't come."
And 7:00 when it's program time, they started coming. The children bringing the parents. And I could hear some of the kids that had been with me with the stories, I could hear their voices. One of them was saying, "Ah, Pa, Ah, Pa, esa es Señora (it's the Señora)."
So I was coming, from that trip, my heart so filled, you know. And then right there I get asked to write the story. So it was like it had to be that way.
And so from there I just took a week to write the story, I took a week off from work. Not to write it, to research the story. I went to New York City and I did a lot of research at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, where the archives are. They were very helpful. I went through letters from her students, all kinds of materials. I saw her original puppets, the ones that she used, Perez and Martina.
Oh, it was just wonderful. And then I visited all the libraries that she had worked, the New York public library. And I did all my research, it took a whole week to do that research. Then I took that home and then I sat and I started looking for a voice.
Who's going to tell the story? And one of the videos, Pura Belpré herself said she did not want a story about her. And so I said, through the letters of the children, and I said it has to be from a child because the impact of this woman and her stories on the lives of the children at the time.
And so that's how I told the story about her work, and the children that were luckily or that were fortunate to live in that time and to go the library where she was telling the stories.
Welcoming Latino Families at the Library
Librarians working in Latino communities and communities that are changing, that are seeing more and more Latinos move into the neighborhoods, the first thing that I recommend is that they learn about the community.
Don't think that, don't take for granted that what you have is what they want, that what you have is what they need. Because you have the story hours that has been very successful and you think that they're going to like it.
Well, start from zero. Go out and learn the community, work with them, become aware of the organizations, of the community groups and organizations. Have someone in the library that is going to speak the language of the community. That is key, because they need to feel welcome. And the best way to make them feel welcome is to speak their language. That's number one.
Then the collection. They're here in a new culture. But when they walk in there and they see those books that look so familiar to them, they see those stories that they read when they were children — now I'm talking about the parents — that's making them feel welcome. It's that feeling that the library is for them, the library knows them, the library wants them there, and the library speaks their language. I think that basically, start from ground zero, don't assume anything. Get together with that community and work with it.
Getting to Know REFORMA
REFORMA is the National Association for Library Services, for the promotion of library services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking community. REFORMA is the leader in library services to Latinos because we bring awareness of the community, we bring aware of, professional awareness, how to serve the Latino community. We have many resources, we work on resources for Latinos. We sort of, we…try to guide, and offer as much as possible guidance to libraries everywhere that are serving Latino communities.
So libraries, libraries…librarians can come to REFORMA for that special help. "I have a community, what books do I get for them, where do I buy the books, what are children at this age reading, bilingual books, do we get bilingual books or do we get Spanish books?" All that, all that is part of REFORMA's job as the national organization.
Celebrating Día Every Day
You may not know this, but Día is the baby of REFORMA. Día was born with Reforma. Pat Mora who was the originator of Día de los niños/Dís de los libros initiative, brought it to REFORMA first, and we embraced Día.
And when it grew so much that we just could not hold it anymore, then we passed it onto ALSC (Association of Library Services to Children), that was a bigger organization, and we worked on Día together to set up a Children's day/Book day.
I promote Día every day of my life. Every time I go to a school and I get the opportunity to talk to the teachers, to the media specialists, the first thing that I talk to them about is, "Do you celebrate Día, Día de los niños/Dís de los libros? Are you aware of the resources that are at the ALSC website, the ALA ALSC website about celebrating Día?"
I'm a promoter of Día everywhere that I go. Through my work with REFORMA, through my work as a librarian, in my job, in my job with Broward County Libraries, I started celebrating Día countywide. To me it was very important to start it and to continue it.
We got funding and we celebrated it as a system-wide festival of of Día de los niños/Dís de los libros. It was very successful. We got a grant from the Association of Library Services to Children at the time. They were funding some grants and it was a great event.
And now if you go to the Día website, you'll see the Broward library's events there. We won that year the Mora award. Now the Mora award is given to the, to a school library or a public library that celebrates Día in a way that they partner with families and community organizations, and promote reading, and give out books and so on.
So the best program, and we have a lot of competition, the best program from a school or public library, they submit whatever it is that they do for the celebration of Día, and there is a committee in REFORMA, it's called the Mora Award Committee.
And we give out an award. And the award is thanks to the generosity of Pat Mora and her family. They're able to do that. And this year we're celebrating the 15th anniversary of Día. So it's going to be very, very special. Very special.
A Night of Stories: Noche de Cuentos
Now we have a new initiative which is Noche de cuentos (Story Night). And Noche de cuentos is based on…the oral traditions. It's based on bringing families together through storytelling. Noche de cuentos just started this year, and it's celebrated on March 22nd, we joined the world community at the celebration of World Storytelling Day.
Very particular here in the United States because that's the, Latino families come together through stories, we celebrate our oral culture, our oral history. And so that's a brand new initiative and I'm looking forward to growing it next year.
It was very successful this year. And I'm hoping very much that it will just grow like Día. Día and Noche. You read all day and you tell stories at night.
Excerpt from The Storyteller's Candle.
I am Lucia Gonzalez and I am going to read to you from The Storyteller's Candle:
"But then, that afternoon a special guest came to Hildamar and Santiago's class. She was a tall, slender woman with dark eyes that sparkled like luceros in the night sky. When she spoke her hands moved through the air like the wings of a bird.
"Buenos días, good morning," she said. "My name is Pura Belpré. I come from the public library and I bring stories and puppets to share with you."
Ms. Belpré told stories with puppets in English and in español. Everyone laughed at the story of silly Juan Bobo chasing a three-legged pot. At the end of her show, Ms. Belpré invited the children to visit the library during the winter vacation.
"The library is for everyone, la biblioteca es para todos," she said. Hildamar couldn't wait to tell everyone in El Barrio the good news.
An award-winning author, storyteller, and children's librarian, Lucía M. González is a dynamic and versatile performer who likes to work with audiences of all sizes and ages. Her presentations include string stories, puppetry, audience participation, and anecdotes about growing up in Cuba and coming to America.
Her classic Cuban folktale, The Bossy Gallito (Scholastic, 1994) was awarded the Pura Belpré Children's Literature Honor Medal by the American Library Association, and selected for New York Times' Top 20 All Time Favorite Children's Books by the "Great Children's Read." Her second book, Señor Cat's Romance (Scholastic, 1997), a collection of popular folk tales from Latin America, also received immediate recognition.
Her most recent book, The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos (Children's Book Press, 2008), is an homage to Pura Belpré, New York City's first Latina librarian, which was selected as a Pura Belpré Honor Book for both narrative and illustration in 2009.