The poetry of Ester Feliciano Mendoza is a world apart, a loving refuge for children. Her books (poetry, short stories, legends, myths, vignettes, articles) give expression to the author’s poetic voice – maternal, cultured, modern. Her poetry was aimed specifically at children, who were the undeniable center of her interest.
Fantasy and reality intertwine in her world and live together in peace, enjoying the beauty. There is no room for pride or aggression, just for dialogue and expressions of tenderness, for respect and spiritual elevation. Found there, in her world of song, are simplicity and illustration, art and pedagogy, intuition and experience, enthusiasm and hope. It is always a school with open balconies, an island and an overlook for contemplating life and sharing the joys of nature. Here, in this realm of lullabies and songs, she is ever present: poet, mother, teacher.
Ester Feliciano Mendoza was born in Aguadilla, on the western edge of Puerto Rico. There she attended elementary and secondary school and her first verses were published in the magazine Ambito, which was edited by writer Enrique Laguerre. She moved to San Juan to attend college and soon joined the Musarañilandia group of youths. With a teaching certificate (Normal School diploma, 1938), she began working as a teacher in the public and private schools.
When she began her family, she moved to the countryside, where she wrote textbooks for the High Council on Education and worked with the School Libraries organization. She also wrote and published some of her work: Nanas, poetry (1945); Arco Iris, poetry and short stories (1951); Coquí, poetry and short stories (1956); Voz de mi tierra, essays, vignettes and other articles published in the newspaper El Mundo (1956); Nanas de la Navidad, poetry (1959).
Later, she returned to the city as a graduate student and professor at the University of Puerto Rico. She earned a Masters of Arts degree and a Ph.D. while also writing new works: Nanas de la adolescencia, poetry (1963); Cajita de música, short stories (1968); Antonio Pérez-Pierret, (1968); Sinfonía de Puerto Rico, myths and legends (1968); Nanas, poetry (1970); Ala y trino, poetry (1980); Ronda del Mar, poetry (1981); Juana de Ibarbourou, oficio de poesía, (1981); Ilán-ilán, poetry (1985); and Romancero de la conquista, poetry (1986). Islamar (1988) was published posthumously. In 1983, after she retired for health reasons, she was named professor emeritus at the University of Puerto Rico.
Among the recognitions she received were the Ladies Civic Club Award (1958) for her book Coquí and again in 1982 for Juana de Ibarbourou: oficio de poesía; first prize and gold medal for Ronda del Mar in the Third Pan-American Literary Contest (1962), presented by the Union of American Women, Guatemala, and second prize in the Fifth Contest (1964) for Nanas; and the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature prize (1970) for Sinfonía de Puerto Rico and again in 1987 for Romancero de la Conquista. In 1983, she was selected Puerto Rico Woman by the Union of American Women.
Some of her works are still read as texts in schools in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala and Argentina.
She died December 30, 1987.
Her children’s poetry
Part of the children’s poems by Ester Feliciano Mendoza were born alongside her work as an educator, in the years she was an adviser to the Model Schools, directing the reading circles. They were poems to be enjoyed read aloud – and they were poetic, idiomatic and formative teaching instruments. Other poems arose from the family setting, inspired by her children or the children she cared for in nursery school.
Poetry written for children has its own requirements. It must be accompanied by certain characteristics that are necessary for the specific intuition and psychology of the small reader. Although it appears simple, it is an art, or an adventure of discovery; a task not all writers can achieve. They must learn to see certain things that are invisible except to children, and the particular way that children experience them and express them.
Children like movement, variety, poetic anecdotes, and flights of imagination, though not extravagant ones, but rather ones linked to what they know, what is near and real. They like the extraordinary and the marvelous, things that change suddenly and without explanation. Children also like things that are curious and surprising, that are expressed musically and with a sense of humor, simple, understandable and colorful language. They are delighted by anything related to nature: “treasure of smells, colors and sounds.” The plants, the trees, the animals and their habits, and the ways humans behave. They more readily accept short pieces told in a synthesized and entertaining way; all that incites their creativity. On the contrary, they do not like the long and monotonous. They tire very quickly of that which bores them.
Children’s literature, as Ester Feliciano Mendoza developed it, is part of the soul of the child, written to be enjoyed. She always maintained a balance between the poetic and the moralistic, between the imaginative and day-to-day reality. She created for children a world of illusion, without pulling them out of the world they lived in, but rather helping them to organize it, beginning with observation and understanding. She improved their relationships with their environment, arousing their awareness of life and cultivating respect and love for her and for all things.
To delight, to hold interest, to instruct and to education her small readers, the author paid attention to variety, both in the motifs and themes, as well as in the poetic forms. These three aspects must be considered in reference to each of her books; but perhaps a simple list will do.
The main motifs are real or imaginary situations involving people, animals and things; fortuitous encounters, nature in all its aspects, geographic features, water, rain, rivers, the sea, the wind, the roads, the seasons of the year, holidays (Christmas, Three Kings Day…), changes in nature, the variations of the day, the birth and growth of animals and plants, common activities and marvelous events.
Among the most important themes are love, friendship, knowledge, life, God, nature, children, mother, work, respect, and solidarity, the relationship with the environment and the meaning and sense of things.
In terms of the literary forms most often used: poems and songs; lullabies; romances and short romances; stories, games and fantasies; narration and description; myths, legends, recreations of literary or historical people or events; simple reflections, prayers… and dreams.
Among all of these forms, the author had a marked preference for lullabies. She is known for her lullabies and her name is associated with that kind of poetry, “the finest and most tender of our children’s literature” (I. Freire).
In 1945, her first book, Nanas, appeared. Nanas de Navidad in 1959 was followed by Nanas de la adolescencia in 1963 and a fourth book, Nanas, in 1970, with a preface by Margot Arce, reprinted in 1980. More than three decades of singing to children on her lap with the same inspirational impulse and the same tenderness; with poetry that was always the same and always different.
These books demonstrate Ester Feliciano’s great sensitivity. They are poems that spring from folklore, as Margot Arce has noted, and are pervaded by flavor, the loose and relaxed ways of popular poetry; keeping, to one side, “the rhythmic grace, the light air that she intertwines with the traditional Spanish rhythms of stanzas, romances, couplets and seguidillas,” while, on the other side, a modern and cultivated tone that is shown in the structure and the nature of the images, in the way in which she draws on the folkloric treasure of games, poems, riddles and tongue twisters, transfiguring and adapting it to her personal style, psychic state, and, above all, to the role that nature and the Puerto Rican landscape play as an environment and support for poetic effusion.
All this seems fresh in Feliciano Mendoza’s hands, integrated with children’s fantasies, wrapped up in the same enthusiasm. This poetry conveniently uses personification as a way to bring closer and to humanize whatever inanimate entity and it turns to animalization to achieve certain effects (wonderment, representation of vices or virtues, compassion, camaraderie, ridicule…). Because constant adaptation is required to enter and live in a child’s world, the poems are always short, varied in tone, open to discussion, with very appropriate rhythm (both in the lively way of expressing the topic, as well as the musicality of the verses – in their harmony, rhymes, refrains, onomatopoeia and alliteration).
The art of finishing the poem is strength. To all this, we must add the use of poetic, original and suggestive images. They are symbols, metaphors and comparisons that come from nature, an important element in children’s poetry. A nature particularly identified with that of her island (Puerto Rico, one of her main motifs) with topics such as the sea, the flora and the fauna.
In conclusion, the children’s poetry of Ester Feliciano Mendoza, is art and tenderness, but also message. It is an excellent formative instrument that nurtures children’s intellects and models their character. It teaches them to observe their surroundings, to discover the miraculous, to discern the voices and rhythms, the colors and movements of nature, to develop aesthetic and moral values. It grows their awareness, along with their imagination.
De la Puebla, M. Ester Feliciano Mendoza: “un mundo aparte”. Mairena: Veinte poetas puertorriqueños del siglo XX, p 138-146, Año XX No. 45-46, 1998. San Juan.
Author: Mario A. Rodríguez León O. P
Published: September 15, 2014.
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