Un Poquito Complicated: Spanish and the Pura Belpré Award

When the Pura Belpré Award was established in 1996, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA) made clear that it was intended to recognize Latinx creators “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” Guidelines further make it clear that these books can be “published in Spanish, English, or bilingual formats.” However, the realities of U.S. publishing and the U.S. Latinx identity make it less likely — especially for middle-grade and young adult — that eligible works will be written in Spanish at all.

The phrase “Latino cultural experience” is, of course, fraught with complexity. How do we define that cultural experience? Is there an overarching (if not singular) characteristic of Latinx lives that we can use as a touchstone for measuring the portrayals in these books? The community itself grapples with these questions of identity on a daily basis, trying to push past colorism and internalized colonialism to celebrate the rich diversity of people with deep ties to Latin America. Many reject any umbrella term altogether, whether it be Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic.

Contemplating these issues, I am amazed at how well the Belpré committee manages to carry out its task. Each Latinx author and illustrator has a different cultural experience from every other. But, I remind you, the award is for “creators whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates” that experience. Consequently, the committee ends up, in effect, judging to what extent a title under consideration is an #OwnVoices exploration of the creator’s particular slice of Latinidad. No easy task, unless there exists some shared characteristic of all Latinx culture.

A candidate for a unifying element is suggested by a phrase in the full name of REFORMA: “Spanish Speaking.” What if the award sees Latinidad as marked by the presence of Spanish, especially geographically rooted, place-specific dialects that provide texture and verisimilitude, separating Belpré titles from other less-authentic uses of the language? The centrality of Spanish to the “Latino cultural experience” is further implied by the definition of Latino in the terms and criteria of the award: “people whose heritage emanates from any of the Spanish-speaking cultures of the world.” That conceptualization of the term may be at variance with present-day understanding of Latinx (“hailing from Latin America, either directly or through ancestry”), but it underscores the award’s interest in the Spanish language.

Three more points from the award’s terms and criteria deserve scrutiny if we’re to fully understand what role Spanish might play in portraying the “Latino cultural experience.” First, eligible books can be in “Spanish, English, or bilingual formats.” But these books must have been “published in the United States or Puerto Rico.” And finally, the authors or illustrators recognized must be “residents or citizens of the United States or Puerto Rico.”

Historically, Latinx people have been marginalized in the U.S. for more than a century, our voices elided from the national intellectual conversation. Key to that erasure has been the suppression of Spanish as a language of instruction in our schools, even while non-native speakers are encouraged to take it as a “foreign language.” Consequently, it is less likely that authors from the fifty states will have the skills, confidence, or desire to produce books for children entirely in Spanish than to produce them in English (though this is not necessarily the case with our Boricua siblings). Many Latinx writers don’t speak Spanish. Others feel their Spanish is too limited or too colloquial. Even fluent speakers may be deterred from using Spanish because they lack knowledge of the mechanics of its written forms.

The strictures of the publishing industry make it tough even for those of us who are bi-literate to create Spanish-language work. For the longest time, it was nigh-on impossible to get an original work in Spanish published (“There’s no market for this” has been the traditional response of Big Five gatekeepers). And until recently, a Latinx author seeking to write and publish a book for children written in a place-specific form — for example, Chicano Spanish of the borderlands — would find such an endeavor blocked from multiple angles. The tide has definitely turned, however, through the efforts of smaller presses such as Lee & Low, Arte Público, and Cinco Puntos. Now most New York publishing houses have begun to buy into the importance of authentic Spanish-language literature in their offerings.

The confluence of all these elements helps us understand why only one recipient of the Pura Belpré Award (2010 narrative honoree Federico García Lorca by Georgina Lázaro) has been written entirely in Spanish. Or why books with fully bilingual text in English and Spanish make up fewer than a quarter of the titles, from Family Pictures / Cuadros de familia by Carmen Lomas Garza back in 1996 to 2020’s Sharuko: El arqueólogo Peruano Julio C. Tello / Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello by Monica Brown, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri. Other award-winning titles have been released in two separate editions, the original English and a Spanish version, with the Belpré given to the English text, usually because someone other than the author has translated the book into Spanish.

None of the above is meant to disparage either English-language Latinx writers or the award itself. But it strikes me as eminently important to understand the socio-political realities of publishing in the U.S. faced by those of us attempting to center the “Latino cultural experience.”

What you will see in most of our work is a reflection of the reality we navigate. The narratives unfold in English, with Spanish sprinkled in the way it is in our own lives: at specific moments full of particular emotions, with people whose relationship with us can only be conveyed by code-switching, the cultural and linguistic fusion that underpins our identity.

In that liminal nepantla, Ernesto Cisneros (in Efrén Divided) has Efrén Nava learn from his “Soperwoman” mother that “Spanish is a part of who we are.” Sal Vidón learns from his mom (in Sal & Gabi Break the Universe) to mumble “cacaseca” at dudes whose “poop is so played out.” In Furia, Yamile Saied Méndez deftly represents Camila Hassan’s Spanish as English text while highlighting key phrases of her particular Argentinian dialect in Spanish text. And in my own They Call Me Güero and The Smoking Mirror, Mexican American kids in South Texas speak the Tex-Mex I grew up with, no apologies made.

It’s a bit of a tightrope act, of course. Many Pura Belpré recipients have included glossaries of Spanish words at the back of their English texts. Sometimes those words have been italicized; increasingly, they aren’t any longer.

Like Latinx people, Spanish also exists in a linguistic no man’s land in the U.S. Not a foreign language, but one suppressed. Relegated in popular media to shadows, gardens, servants’ quarters, kitchens. Forced to adapt to survive. Becoming a mestizaje like many of us who speak it.

In that way, Spanish is indeed at the heart of the “Latino cultural experience.” Our relationship to the language, yearning for it when it is stripped away, relishing it wherever it brings us closer to the people and customs we cherish, fighting against it when it attempts to re-assert colonial hierarchies that once used the language to erase one set of our ancestors.

Our complicated relationship with Spanish as a community symbolizes all the other complexities of our collective identity. It is ultimately an indispensable lens for viewing literature crafted for our children.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25.

David Bowles

David Bowles is a Mexican American author and translator from South Texas. His two dozen books for young people include 2019 Pura Belpré Honor Book They Call Me Güero (Cinco Puntos) and the forthcoming My Two Border Towns / Mis dos pueblos fronterizos (Kokila/Penguin), in Spanish and English editions.

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