There are more than 5.1 million Puerto Ricans living outside the island, and with a projected population loss post-Hurricane Maria of at least 14 percent by 2020, the diaspora is poised to swell – drastically.
With a surge in exodus comes an increased need for ways to maintain a sense of identity for those who have made the difficult choice to leave, and Libros 787 – named for the island’s main area code – is one such link. The brand new e-commerce initiative gathers a diverse and bountiful crop of Puerto Rican literature, from icons like Julia de Burgos to historical nonfiction to children’s books, in a single online shop that ships worldwide.
“Puerto Ricans in the states have to dial 787 almost every time they want to connect with their friends or relatives here in Puerto Rico,” founder Carlos A. Goyco Blechman tells me. “So it’s like an analogy: We’re connecting not phone calls, but the literature and the culture from the island to people outside.”
Goyco’s co-founder Gerardo Enríquez Rivera is a psychology student at the University of Puerto Rico’s campus in Ponce (where Goyco’s also based). He runs a writing and photography blog, Expresión Recóndita, with his girlfriend, Omarys Cedeño Oliveras. Launching the ambitious project amid the instability after the storm was difficult, Goyco says.
“We did whatever it took to get [the launch] situated for December 5,” he says. “We had to even drive [to meet] with the authors or even the [publishing houses] here in Puerto Rico [even though we didn’t have appointments]. Because the communication lines were so bad, we had to appear there and tell them what Libros 787 was without even having the page yet, because we didn’t have anything.”
But it was exciting too, he emphasizes. The mission of connecting diasporicans with culture back home drove the duo to accomplish a feat that, even without the hurdles of a humanitarian crisis, is a hefty one. Libros 787 successfully signed six houses, including the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. Most of these, Goyco says, didn’t have the capability to support online sales.
“They really like it. They feel like they are exporting their books…because most of them don’t have the e-commerce side, they have physical bookstores. And most of them don’t even have bookstores because they’re publishing houses,” he says. “Most of them are kind of older, they’re more in their 50s or 60s, and we’re bringing this structure that is new for them and opening new markets for them. So they’re liking it.”
For the month of January, Libros 787 rounded up the shop’s top-selling titles, resulting in an incredibly varied mix that reflects the myriad sides of diaspora life – both missing one’s culture as well as the desire to make deeper connections. La vitrina rota, o ¿qué carajo pasó aquí?, a humorous historical work that begins with the 1898 arrival of the US and runs through today’s Fiscal Control Board implemented after the passing of PROMESA, is on the list – alongside a coloring book that explores Taíno culture.
Educational (and fun) selections for younger generations, whether born in Puerto Rico or outside the island, can be a critical tool for families.
“Because they’re not going to show [kids] history books, like really dense books, so they’re trying to find children’s books to show them in a simpler way, to keep the culture alive,” Goyco says.
It’s promoting and selling the works of independent authors, too. One of those is The Life of Noah, a fiction work from Orlandito González in which the main character is a Puerto Rican man living in New York. It’s one of several English-language titles available.
Furthering its reach is a partnership with Brands of Puerto Rico, the online shop that culls merchandise from Puerto Rican sellers of all kinds. And it recently gained entry into a startup acceleration program – eventually, Goyco says, Libros 787 will sell e-books, and potentially apply the same philosophy of amplifying the literature of other Spanish-speaking countries.
The stellar response Libros 787 has received on social media (and in actual sales) means all of its authors and publishing houses get a massive boost through an audience that’s actively seeking out Puerto Rican culture – whether they’re missing home, newly discovering their roots, or hoping to share what it means to be Puerto Rican with others.