A New Spin on Old Puerto Rican Folk Tales

Illustration by Teófilo Olivieri for "Pérez and Martina" in "Puerto Rican Folktales/Cuentos folclóricos puertorriqueños," wirtten by Lisa Sánchez González

Illustration by Teófilo Olivieri for “Pérez and Martina” in “Puerto Rican Folktales/Cuentos folclóricos puertorriqueños,” wirtten by Lisa Sánchez González

For some people it’s the flag, for others the music or the food, but for author and scholar Lisa Sánchez González, what defines Puerto Rican culture is storytelling.

“Whether it’s at a bus stop, over a kitchen table, in a classroom, in a poem or story, in music or the plastic arts, storytelling is part of our cultural DNA,” said the University of Connecticut English professor.

Sánchez González recently published “Puerto Rican Folktales/Cuentos folclóricos puertorriqueños” (2Leaf Press), a bilingual compilation of popular stories dating as far back as 500 years.

As a “child of the Puerto Rican diaspora” born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, Sánchez González had heard many of the seven tales featured in the book from her extended Puerto Rican family. “I spent many happy hours as a child, sitting at the kitchen table listening to their stories,” she said. The author was interviewed by Voices of NY in a series of emails.

Her father, she says, is the best storyteller she has ever met, “although most of his tales were about growing up in the South Bronx,” said the author. “There were funny stories, heroic ones and cautionary tales. The tone and ethical intent of the book were inspired by him.”

In 2013, Sánchez González published “The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writings of Pura Belpré” (Centro Publications), a biography of the leading Puerto Rican author, folklorist and librarian. This investigation inspired her to delve further into the Caribbean island’s rich cultural legacy.

Lisa Sánchez González (Photo by Ruth Halbach)

Lisa Sánchez González (Photo by Ruth Halbach)

“One of my many discoveries in the process of researching Puerto Rican folktales is that there are no collections like this in print,” said the scholar. “My goal in writing this book was to keep the tradition alive on the printed page, in my own wild and wooly way.”

Although many stories in the book are well-known, the author plays freely with them. “Pérez and Martina,” for example — about a vain cockroach who marries an ill-fated mouse — takes place in Windham Heights, Connecticut.

“When I first started writing [the stories], I was imitating previous storytellers,” said Sánchez González. “Frankly, what came out at first was boring, dry and kind of pedantic (like that tradition tends to be.)  So I gathered the courage to write in my own voice. I spiced things up!”

That is not the only story taking place outside the island. “Today, over half the Puerto Rican people no longer live in Puerto Rico. It made perfect sense to me to set some of the stories in the places where the Puerto Rican diaspora resides and where some of these stories have also taken root,” she said. “We are, for example, the single largest ethnic group in Connecticut. So, putting Martina in Willimantic made perfect sense to me.”

“Puerto Rican Folktales” also offers a spin on the tale of Yuisa, the cacica (Taíno female chief) who, legend has it, changed her name to Luisa in order to marry Pedro Mejías — a conquistador of African heritage — and died defending the Spanish crown from her fellow natives. In a complete turnaround, Sánchez González’ version has Yuisa taking Pedro to her village, and they both die fighting against the Spaniards.

According to the author, the original tale reflects the bias of historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who wrote it in the early 16th century. As a Spanish colonist, he “did not see the Taínos and people from Africa as fully human and ‘civilized,’” she said. “As a storyteller, I think he was at best a trickster; at worst, a liar. I took a lot of liberties with that one, and I think my version is more historically probable than Oviedo’s.”

Some of the stories have a dreamy, playful tone, like the fantastic “Marita and the Flamboyán,” set around the El Yunque rainforest and an ode to the lush vegetation of the island. “The China Tree” is the mischievously romantic story of a landowner who falls in love with a peasant after challenging her to an improvised poetry match.

Other stories, particularly the ones set in the present, address social ills such as domestic violence. “The Jíbaro and his Three Sons” is about an alcoholic father who is confronted by his estranged children. “The Purple Parka,” featuring the demon-like chupacabra creature, revolves around a homeless orphan child in Chicago who lost her parents to HIV.

According to the author, this type of content only reinforces the spirit of the book. “Folklore — real folklore — often tackles thorny and frightening realities,” said Sánchez González, noting that, for instance, some Irish fairy tales are also terrifying.

She wrote it in English, and the Spanish translation, by the musician Bairex, has a modern Puerto Rican feel. Martina’s interjection “My oh my!” for example, is translated as “¡Ea rayo!”, a common idiom in Puerto Rico. Teófilo Olivieri’s illustrations, in which the characters appear as silhouettes, are colorful, dynamic and expressive. The book also includes a glossary of Puerto Rican terms, many of them of Taíno origin.


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