Reflections on the Pura Belpré Award: An Interview with Sandra Ríos Balderrama

Sandra Ríos Balderrama and Oralia Garza de Cortés began working together in 1986 to create what would become the Pura Belpré Award. The award was established ten years later (with the help of Linda Perkins and Toni Bissessar) for writers and artists whose work  “portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” Our May/June 2021 special issue focused on the award in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary. Here, ­Alicia K. Long interviews Balderrama for an update on the award since then and her thoughts on its direction.

ALICIA K. LONG: Sandra, starting almost forty years ago, you and Oralia Garza de Cortés were hard at work trying to gather support to create an award for children’s books about “the Latino cultural experience.” The award was established in 1996. In 2016, Oralia said: “The Pura Belpré Awards lay the groundwork for the recognition and inclusion of Latino authors and illustrators for children onto today’s literary stage.” How do you see the award today?

SANDRA RÍOS BALDERRAMA: My comadre Oralia expressed this perfectly. As for today, there is always more room for untold and yet-to-be told stories, stories written and illustrated by people who reflect the diversity of experiences and imagination within Latino/x/e cultures in the United States. The need cannot be filled because the world is ever generative with always more stories to be told. Therefore, the stage is wide open and always will be.

With this openness we must all make an effort to increase representation in the books reviewed, honored, and awarded. At the end of the day, each one of us must ask: Did I go above and beyond to create meaningful inclusion at this book review table? Did I make a better-than-good-faith-effort to seek out and achieve inclusion? Am I tired, maybe exhausted, from making one more phone call, from asking to see yet one more book by a new author, from reviewing illustrations that challenge my own experiences, and yet at the same time, am I satisfied that I gave it my all?

Is the book about the Oaxacan experience in California included among the finalists? Was the book about a young Black Colombian character considered? What happened to the book by the trans author who is both Japanese American and Central American? The Pura Belpré Award was based on our shared passion to amplify voices, to magnify the abundance of illustration, and to achieve equity and social justice in libraries and show the world as it truly is.

AKL: The award now includes a Young Adult Author category, and the number of Latino/x/e titles for young adults being published has grown. What do you think of this expansion?

SRB: I am for expansion that is both generative and intentional. My concerns are based on the question: how do we expand without weakening meaning, authenticity, and quality?

In the future I would prefer to see two different selection committees (one for children and one for YA) that can focus on each of the age ranges of book content and illustration, giving them the attention they deserve. I would also like to see an illustration award for YA. What is our literary stage without visuals and vision for young adults? If books are not published in a given year, then no award will be given for illustration, but once again, in the vein of Oralia’s and my vision, we always looked at potential. Would not an illustration award for YA books encourage and initiate the creation and publication of such books? Yes!

I do not know the current process for selecting committee members but hope that there is equity found at every Pura Belpré Selection Committee table in terms of the number of REFORMA members and ALSC/YALSA members. Both ALSC and YALSA are divisions of ALA, while REFORMA is an affiliate of ALA and a professional association in its own right. REFORMA is the place where the award was envisioned. And, of course, all that applies to the authors, illustrators, and books also applies to the committee members. They must represent the vitality and diversity of Latino/x/e cultures and of all members who work with these beautiful cultures in their communities, never forgetting but rather actively seeking the presence of Black, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and nontraditional experiences on the committee.

AKL: What do you think is the future of the Pura Belpré Award and of books for Latino/x/e children and communities?

SRB: The future is us: people who are passionate about books representing our world as it truly is. Books that are written and illustrated by people who are from the world as it truly is — Black, brown, Indigenous…full of culture and color. We are a microcosm of ALA, of this country, and of this world, our minds and souls must remain without boundaries. And connected to this thought is that as we change how we look at the whole world, so must our BIPOC communities and the award itself step into the future together.

Just as I begin to spout strategies for activism, I stop and think about the librarians throughout the country, currently being terrorized by other minds and souls that are entrenched in fear and displaced by visceral anger. As I speak of an open and boundary-less literary stage, there is also the movement to restrict access to that stage and to remove the floor from it. There is no time here to discuss the breadth and depth of survival, resistance, counterforce, and the fight for human rights, but perhaps for now, perhaps, we go back and follow the roots.

Do you feel the touch of Pura Belpré on your shoulder? Our namesake. With patience, Pura wrote the stories she couldn’t find on her library bookshelves. She provided services bilingually and outside of the library. She created ways for her community to appreciate stories visually and aurally with her puppet shows. She gave and continues to give us strength.

Oralia Garza de Cortés (left) and Sandra Ríos Balderrama in the 1980s.
Both photos in this article courtesy of Sandra Ríos Balderrama.

Will you picture Oralia and me in her hotel room in the late 1980s? We were typing a proposal on a little rugged laptop atop an ironing board. Her mobile printer cranked out the papers ever so slowly. I rushed out the door and ran to the ALSC meeting. Oralia ran to the REFORMA meeting. It was at an ALA Midwinter conference. Resistance and fear met us. Yet at the end of the day, we’d remove our shoes, laugh at our audacity, be angry for having to prove our existence, and then finally fall asleep to the vision of a future with Juana Medina, Eric Velasquez, Adriana M. Garcia, Carlos Aponte, Rudy Gutierrez, Margarita Engle, Yamile Saied Méndez, and so many, many more who have won the award and who have been honored by it. We dreamt about them. We knew they were out there somewhere and in here — I am pointing to my heart. And then to your heart. Do you hear our shared beat? Our universal drum? May our Ancestors always be connected.

I send love and strength to all today. Oralia and I see you and we love you for the roles you take in the many battles to keep our stories ever PRESENTE! Let the Pura Belpré Award continue to grow alongside the communities we represent and serve.

From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future.

Alicia K. Long

Alicia K. Long teaches multicultural materials for children and young adults at the University of South Florida's School of Information. She also presents family literacy and bilingual programs in public libraries and is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri.

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