Julia de Burgos
One of the joys of writing for damesnet is the endless journey of discovery of extraordinary women from around the globe. My latest dame designate is the poet and activist Julia de Burgos, born into a poor family in Puerto Rico in 1914. She was the eldest of 13 children, 6 of whom died in childhood from malnutrition.
She trained and worked as a teacher before marrying at the age of 20; she then joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which campaigned for the country’s independence. De Burgos subsequently became Secretary General of the Daughters of Freedom, which was the women’s branch of the party.
Her writing was initially published in journals and newspapers, and in 1938, at the age of 24, she self-published her first collection of poetry, Poema en veinte surcos (Poem in Twenty Furrows). Her work was influenced by some of the great Hispanic writers of the day, such as Luis Llorens Torres, Clara Lair, Rafael Alberti and Pablo Neruda.
She travelled around Puerto Rico, giving readings of her works. The themes reflect the suffering she saw in her country’s history: its colonial past and the legacy of slavery and American imperialism; but she also celebrated the beauty of its landscape.
One of the names for Puerto Rico translates as ‘Isle of Enchantment’; de Burgos’ poem Río Grande de Loíza combines her love for her country with her grief at its suffering:
Río Grande de Loíza! … Great river. Great tear.
The greatest of all our island tears,
But for the tears that flow out of me
Through the eyes of my souls for my enslaved people.
De Burgos’ first marriage ended after three years. Although her poetry gave her an entry into intellectual circles, she was of African descent and divorced in a Roman Catholic society at a time when attitudes were extremely conservative, so she was never fully accepted by the elite.
In 1940 de Burgos left Puerto Rico for New York to be with her lover, Jimenes Grullon, a political exile from Domenica. She followed him to Cuba, and in July 1940 was awarded a Puerto Rican literary prize for her second collection of poems: Song of the Simple Truth. In a letter to her sister de Burgos expressed surprise that her work could be fairly judged in her home country.
The relationship with Grullon ended two years later, and she returned to New York. There she wrote for the Spanish language socialist periodical Pueblos Hispanos. Alcohol and depression began to take over her life, but she continued to participate in literary, cultural and social events.
On July 6 1953, de Burgos was found unconscious in New York in a street in the Spanish district of Harlem, and was taken to hospital where she died. She was not carrying any ID, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Her friends and relatives finally tracked her down, and her remains were exhumed and transported back to Puerto Rico for a hero’s (heroine’s perhaps?) burial later that year.
As so often happens, in death Julia de Burgos finally received the acclaim that eluded her in life. Her final collection of poetry, The Sea and You, was published posthumously by her sister. The University of Puerto Rico awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1987. Many cities in the US have honoured her and in 2011 she was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.
Here is an extract from her Poem for my Death:
What shall I be called when all remains of me
is a memory, upon a rock of a deserted isle?
A carnation wedged between the wind and my own shadow,
death’s child and my own, I will be known as a poet.