The Journeys of Julia de Burgos

— Natalia Santos-Orozco

Becoming Julia de Burgos
The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon
By Vanessa Pérez Rosario
University of Illinois Press 2014, 224 pages, $25 paperback.
¿Cómo habré de llamarme cuando sólo me quede
recordarme, en la roca de una isla desierta?
Un clavel interpuesto entre el viento y mi sombra,
hijo mío y de la muerte, me llamarán poeta.
—Julia de Burgos, “Poema para mi muerte”(1)

FOR THOSE LIKE me who have grown up in the north coastal Puerto Rican town of Carolina, the figure of Julia Constancia Burgos García (1914-1953), better known as Julia de Burgos, represents the icon par excellence. Roads, bridges, parks, schools, sculptures, everything in town talks about Julia and is named after her.

This vast mausoleum speaks about a young woman from our town who became an important and recognized poet and whose writings, especially her most famous poem “Río Grande de Loíza” (“The Mighty River of Loíza,” 1938) express something significant about our identity that deserves to be remembered. All these monuments, however, say little about her death.

Not many people know that she died alone, sick and poor on a street in New York. On the other hand, in academic and critical circles the story of her death and the sordid aspects of her life of alcohol abuse or her torrid and painful love life have become a powerful device for consecration as a national poet and icon.

The story of her life has been shaped as a legend that ultimately limits the appreciation of a rich and diverse literary work. In fact, little is known about her life in the diaspora, her political activism or, her work as a journalist, and how those experiences marked the evolution of her writing and her legacy.

Anyone visiting El Barrio, East Harlem, has encountered the name and image of Julia de Burgos in the streets, as well as in cultural and community centers. She has become an icon that links two very Puerto Rican experiences: the Island and the diaspora.

This is what Vanessa Pérez Rosario explores and highlights in her Becoming Julia de Burgos. The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon. This a relevant and pertinent approach, for those who want to meet the poet beyond the neat, harmless, desirable or victimized, institutionalized conception. Here they can discover a more human Julia through her facets as a journalist, feminist and anti-imperialist activist. They can also find her through the work of other writers and artists. These demonstrate the permanence of her legacy, the reception of her writings and the historic reformulations of her image.

A Subversive Voice

Significantly, Pérez’s book brings to light the influence of Burgos’s writings and her life in the Hispanic diasporic communities.

Poet, writer, mulatto, migrant, nationalist, political activist and feminist, Julia was a subversive voice in the context of the intellectual domain of the island of her time. These qualities are what make her work a beautiful proposal of resistance and liberation.

Indeed, Pérez begins her study of Julia Burgos by retelling and deconstructing the story of her death. She aims to reclaim a life whose appreciation, ironically, has been impoverished by the consecration and the idolization of the poet. For Pérez, Burgos’s writing creates a nomadic and migrant subject that seeks escape routes from what she conceived as restrictive notions of identity.

The author identifies and values those routes and strategies found in Julia’s poetry and other writings, such as her journalistic articles and personal letters. Among Burgos’s texts, Pérez discovers an identity that can be defined as fluid and diasporic, with neither geographical nor conventional ties.

Pérez explores Julia de Burgos’s writings and legacy in two parts. One corresponds to the writings done in the Island, the other to the works and legacy produced in the diaspora. The first chapter discusses the former aspect. The second chapter explores the process of leaving the Island and the transition to a new context through the study of the last collection of poems published in the island, the poems written in the diaspora and published posthumously and a selection of the personal letters written to her sister.

The final three chapters deal with her work in New York as a journalist and essayist and the reception and impact of her writings by way of examining the work of other writers and visual artists of the Hispanic diaspora in New York. Throughout, the author establishes an interesting dialogue with the most important critical production on Burgos’s work.

This book is thus part of the ongoing debate about the poet and also part of a broader discussion about Puerto Rican and Nuyorican literature and cultural practices developed by critics such as Juan Gelpí, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, Manolo Guzmán, Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, Juan Flores, Jorge Duany, Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, Rafael Bernabe and César Ayala, among others.

Island Writings

In the first chapter, “Writing the Nation: Feminism, Anti-Imperialism, and the Generation of Thirty,” Pérez makes a reappraisal of the most famous poems from Julia’s first collection Poema en veinte surcos (Poem in Twenty Furrows, 1938).

The analysis of poems like “Rio Grande de Loíza.” “A Julia de Burgos” (“To Julia de Burgos”), “Ay ay ay de la grifa negra” (“Oh My, Oh My, Oh My, of the Nappy-Haired Negress”) or “Yo misma fui mi ruta” (“I Am My Own Path”), reveal how at the time her poetry represented a counterpart to a powerful discourse of cultural nationalism that was to be consolidated through the formation of a literary canon that critics such as Juan Gelpí have defined as paternalista (paternalistic).(2)

This paternalistic discourse and canon reproduces traditional patriarchal family relations and dynamics in which the father or the masculine voice is the authority and the rest are subordinates. The poetry of Julia de Burgos is located outside and was a challenge to this paternalistic rhetoric that characterized most of her generation.

This discourse rose to prominence during the 1930s through the intellectual efforts of the so called Generación del Treinta (Generation of Thirty). According to Gelpí, in the case of some of its more influential members, such as Antonio S. Pedreira or Emilio S. Belaval, it is characterized by the defense of the Hispanic heritage (racial whiteness, Catholic morality, patriarchal social order, Spanish language) and geographical boundaries fixed on the island territory as elements that defined and determined Puerto Rican identity.

While reformulating Gelpí’s notion of Burgos’s poetry as a practice of resistance, Pérez seeks to demonstrate that the images of nature, and especially of water, attempt to construct a nomadic and fluid identity. The poetic strategies of this nomadic feminist subject are linked to the literary avant-garde movement on the one hand, and to her desire to manifest her nationalist political commitment by means other than those of the paternalistic rhetoric, on the other.

It is also through what Pérez calls “poetics of presence and authenticity” (38) that Burgos was able to go beyond limits placed in her path: “She persistently struggled for the rights of the oppressed. Here, she strips away all that clutters the self, arriving at a place of self-knowledge and self-understanding regarding her calling as a poet, a woman, and an artist.” (41)

Her poetry becomes a liberating experience through which she can release the tensions caused by the restrictive patriarchal discourse of the cultural nationalism of the 1930s. For Pérez, this poetry already anticipates her departure from the Island, her getaway from its geographical limits and her experience of the diaspora.

Thus, by comparing her political and feminist writings in New York and the poetic subject already present in her initial poetry, Pérez allows us to detect not only contrasts, but also continuities that define a Latin Americanist and anti-colonial consciousness that went beyond the boundaries of nationalist, patriarchal and paternalistic discourse.

In her second chapter, “Nadie es profeta en su tierra: Exile, Migration, and Hemispheric Identity,” the author examines Julia’s second collection of poems, the last written on the island, titled Canción de la verdad sencilla (Song of the Simple Truth, 1939), her third and final book of poems written in the diaspora and published posthumously as El mar y tú (The Sea and You, 1954), as well as a selection of her personal letters, which have been hardly studied by other critics.(3)

Pérez discusses the poet’s migration to New York, then her long trip and difficult stay in Havana and the final definitive return to New York, as personal journeys also linked to a wider common experience of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

The Nomad’s Passages

As the author points out, during the 1940s and 1950s the prevalent literary narrative in Puerto Rico characterized migration as a tragedy. Thus, Julia de Burgos became yet another symbol of this tragedy in the Puerto Rican collective imaginary, for both the Island and the diaspora. However, Pérez argues that Julia’s poetry and her personal letters to her sister Consuelo show that her migration experience can also be read as an escape from victimhood.

Through the concept of sexile, a term that links sexuality with the experience of migration, the author approaches Burgos’s work and manages to explain a subject shaped by the union of the situation of exile and a gender identity defined by the rejection of traditional roles and heteronormative codes of conduct.

The concept was originally coined by Manolo Guzmán to refer to a kind of exile resultant from a sexual orientation that violates such codes. Pérez expands it to include “heterosexual women who have been excluded and displaced because they are deemed sexually transgressive within patriarchal, heteronormative discourses.” (47)

In other words, sexile refers the queer migration or exile of heterosexual women, such as Julia, whose life choices and sexuality are questionable and rejected by the Caribbean patriarchal morality. Pérez identified the eroticism and the sensual tone of Burgos’s second collection of poems as another escape route and a strategy of resistance.

Burgos’s nomadic subject evolves through an intimate lyricism that appeals to silence, travel, isolation, paths, walking, to express a sense of displacement. In the last collection of poems, the images of the sea and death are the main routes of escape from a limiting reality. It is, according to Pérez, the climax of the nomadic subject developed in her earliest poems.

One of the most innovative chapters is the third, “Más allá del mar: Journalism as Puerto Rican Cultural and Political Transnational Practice.” In it Pérez studies the Hispanic diaspora press in New York during 1940s and its role as a venue of cultural and political transnational practices in which Julia de Burgos played a leading role and which unfortunately has not been properly addressed by the critics.

This press was a kind of territory of convergence and organization that dealt with the sense of marginalization, loneliness and isolation that often characterizes the experience of migration.
The author examines the participation of important historical figures of the Puerto Rican community in New York such as Jesús Colón, as well as figures normally not associated with it, such as the poet Juan Antonio Corretjer, while also discussing the influence of 19th-century Cuban revolutionary José Martí in the development of a press by and for Latinos in the United States.

Pérez underlines the importance of the newspaper Pueblos Hispanos (1943-1944) as an important instrument in the development of a sense of solidarity and integration within the Hispanic community in New York. The newspaper, run by Corretjer, promoted the socialist cause, and a progressive pan-Hispanism and transnational connections among Latin American countries.(4)

Julia de Burgos worked in Pueblos Hispanos from its inception as an editor and as a regular contributor on art and cultural topics. Through the study of the texts that Burgos published in Pueblos Hispanos and other newspapers of the time, Pérez brings to light the transnational vision of the cultural and political situation of the Puerto Rican community as well as the links with other Latin American countries.

Accordingly, the author sees her subject’s press articles as a continuation of the configuration of the nomadic subject that is also present in her poetry. Perez highlights and discusses the fundamental issues that Julia Burgos addressed in her articles, such as the independence of Puerto Rico from a human rights perspective and the anti-imperialist cause.

For the author, Burgos’s call for independence as a route towards decolonization and freedom can be read as an anticipation of Albert Memmi’s understanding of colonialism, and more specifically of his idea of the unavoidable need of revolt as the only way out of the colonial situation.

Pérez also argues that Burgos’s articles promoted Hispanic American culture in New York, facilitating the development of transnational relationships that allowed migrants to remain connected to and to influence politics in their home countries. She uses the example of the social and political commitment of Puerto Rican community that manifested itself in anti-colonial activism and the struggle for independence.

The critical subject that characterizes Julia’s voice in the press articles corresponds to the nomadic subject of her poetry. In Pérez’s words: “Political and cultural relationships cultivated at the paper allowed her to imagine more expansive and inclusive ways to be Puerto Rican, a process she had begun in her poetry written on the island and in Cuba. She embraced a heterogeneous sense of identity in which racial and gender differences encouraged hemispheric bonds of solidarity with migrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean.” (93)

The Legacies

In the final two chapters Pérez studies the various ways in which the work of Julia de Burgos has been received and how it continues to influence artists and writers of the diaspora.

Chapter 4, “Multiple Legacies: Julia de Burgos and Caribbean Latino Diaspora Writers,” examines an important selection of Hispanic-Caribbean writers from the diaspora that recreate and continually restore and remake the legacy of Julia de Burgos.

Pérez shows how writers and artists are persistently invoking, remembering or reinventing Julia. The concept of sexile is again useful to describe the influence of Julia de Burgos in writers like Manuel Ramos Otero and Luz María Umpierre. It is, among other things, the eroticism of Burgos’s poetry that guides the relationship of her work with feminist and queer writers and artists who identify with her rejection of the patriarchal, racist, classist and geographically defined canonic discourse.

Similarly, in the last chapter, “Remember­ing Julia de Burgos: Cultural Icon, Com­munity, Belonging,” Pérez highlights the various ways in which Burgos is represented through visual art, particularly her iconography in East Harlem, as part of what the author conceives as a “neighborhood mythology.”

Perez identifies two historical moments that are key to understanding the development of the iconographic figure of Julia de Burgos. The first is the rise of the civil rights movements of 1960s and the claim of visibility made by ??women of color in order to correct the historical omissions of racism and the patriarchal order. In this context, Julia was claimed as a symbol and her figure gained visibility through the work of artists like Lorenzo Homar.

The second moment is set during 1990s with the “Latin explosion” that registered and recognized the Latino community as part of the consumer market. In this other context, figures like Frida Kahlo and Eva Duarte Perón became commercial and cultural icons.

Pérez argues that the figure of Julia de Burgos went through a similar process as that of these Latin American women whose dramatic biographies shaped their images as cultural representations and objects of consumption. Yet Pérez’s map of the visual representations of Julia de Burgos illustrates the routes and changes experienced by her image, changes that tend to accentuate her revolutionary and radical character through, for example, bringing out her blackness and the graphic depiction of her political activism.

The charting of Burgos’s work, her poetic passages, her articles and personal letters,  allows us to visualize a complex, troubled and authentic self. In Becoming Julia de Burgos, Vanessa Pérez has managed to offer a demystified version of the poet, but at the same time an ennobling reconstruction of her life through the exploration of the ways she became the quintessential poetic icon.

It is a book that brings us closer to the historical and social dynamics that defined the course of Puerto Rican history of the 20th century through a figure that embodies it in her life and work. Migration, racism, sexism, poverty and marginalization are experiences that marked and determined the life of Julia de Burgos, but also an entire Hispanic community that remembers and embraces her as a symbol of resistance, as an inspiration to continue.

Notes

  1. 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 poet.
    —Julia de Burgos, “Poem for My Death.”
    Fragment translated by Vanessa Pérez Rosario.back to text
  2. Juan G. Gelpí. “El sujeto nómada en la poesía de Julia de Burgos”. Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico. 2nd ed. San Juan: La Editorial UPR, 2005, 29-48.
    back to text
  3. Recently, the personal letters that Julia de Burgos wrote to her sister were published as Cartas a Consuelo. San Juan: Folium, 2014. The collection constitutes a valuable and illuminating testimony of the poet’s life in her own words.
    back to text
  4. Pueblos Hispanos was sponsored by the American Communist Party and by CP-led unions such as the National Maritime Union. See César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 147-148.
    back to text

March-April 2017, ATC 187

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