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Celebrating Puerto Rican Poet Julia de Burgos on the 100th Anniversary of Her Birth

Julia de Burgos

Julia de Burgos. Screencap from video.

Poem titles given in English correspond with dual-language collection Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos.

February 17th marked 100 years since the birth of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), considered by many be the country's national poet. Although her body of work was relatively small, consisting of some 200 poems, the poetry of Julia de Burgos has succeeded in capturing readers’ imaginations and touching their hearts ever since her first book of poems, Poemas exactos a mí misma, was published in print in 1937.

De Burgos only published three books of poems during her life: the aforementioned Poemas exactos a mí misma [Exact Poems to Myself], Poemas en veinte surcos [Poems in Twenty Furrows, 1938], and Canción de la verdad sencilla [Song of the Simple Truth, 1939]. A fourth book, Mar y tú y otros poemas [The Sea and You and Other Poems], was published in 1954, after her death at age 39. The high quality of de Burgos’ poetry has earned her work a permanent place among the best Latin American poetry of the 20th century.

Julia de Burgos was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and was the only one of 13 siblings to attend university. Although she did not graduate, she succeeded in obtaining a teaching certificate at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1936 she joined the women's branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, The Daughters of Liberty, who advocated for Puerto Rican independence under the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos. She spent time living in Cuba and in New York, where she died of pneumonia in 1953. Because she carried no identification at the time of her death, she was buried in an anonymous grave in New York. Her remains were later transferred to a burial site in Carolina thanks to friends who were able to find the grave and claim her body.

De Burgos has become deeply imbedded in the collective imagination of Puerto Ricans living on the Island, as well as those of the diaspora. In the following video, Puerto Ricans of New York read excerpts from one of de Burgos’ most famous poems, “Yo misma fui mi ruta” (I was my own route).

According to José Gómez Biamón in his article for the online publication El Post Antillano [es], most of the activities commemorating de Burgos’ centennial took place outside of Puerto Rico:

[...] En el ámbito del Caribe Hispano, ha habido actividades, que demuestran un gran interés por el centenario, según se ha visto en la prensa recientemente. Específicamente, en la República Dominicana han develado un busto en honor a Julia de Burgos, en una plaza de la capital dominicana. Además, en Cuba la editorial Casa de las Américas ha expresado comunicados de júbilo, por la celebración del centenario. Igualmente, en los Estados Unidos ha habido varias actividades culturales, específicamente recuerdo ver en la prensa las fotos de un vistoso mosaico en una Calle del “Barrio” en Harlem, New York. Cabe mencionar, que en España, durante los últimos meses, también ha habido actividades y varias publicaciones relacionadas con Julia de Burgos.

[...] Judging by what has appeared recently in the media, there have been activities in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean that demonstrate a great interest in the centennial. Specifically, in the Dominican Republic, a bust in honor of Julia de Burgos was unveiled in a plaza in the Dominican capital. Furthermore, in Cuba, cultural organization Casa de las Américas has shared messages of celebration of the centennial. Likewise, there have been various cultural activities in the United States; in particular, I remember seeing photos of a remarkable mural on a street in “El Barrio,” in Harlem, New York. It should also be mentioned that in recent months, there were various activities and publications related to Julia de Burgos in Spain.

However, it should be noted that a large number of commemorative and celebratory events [es], like lectures and concerts, have taken place in Puerto Rico as well.

In an article on 80 Grados [es], Puerto Rican singer and composer Zoraida Santiago remembers Julia, who has been one of her great inspirations:

Este año hay mucha celebración de centenario. Sinceramente, me alegro. Pero espero que nos sirva para algo.

Que la celebración del centenario de Julia de Burgos nos sirva para rescatar la poesía. La suya y la de todos y todas las poetas.

This year the centennial is being widely celebrated. I'm sincerely happy. But I hope that it will serve a purpose.
I hope the hundredth anniversary of Julia de Burgos’ birth will serve to rescue poetry. Her poetry, and that of all poets.

Juan Camacho, in his blog post about Julia de Burgos, warns about the danger of her memory being reduced to the stereotype of the bohemian poet who lived a tragically short life:

Como cualquier ser humano de su época y de la nuestra, Julia enfrentó problemas e inconvenientes en el transcurso de su vida. Unos los pudo vencer, otros no. No obstante, entendemos que es injusto que se le recuerde, más allá del consenso de su calidad como poetisa, como la mujer fracasada, alcohólica, excesivamente romántica y pasional, enajenada de la realidad.

Julia fue más que un poema romántico; fue más que una relación amorosa; fue más que una mujer que enfrentó problemas.

Es hora de rescatar, sin que tengamos que reescribir la historia, a la otra Julia. A la otra Julia que también reclama la joven escritora Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro cuando escribe:

“Quiero conocer a la Julia revoltosa y desobediente; a la Julia de la rebelión, la que se codeó con Don Pedro Albizu Campos; que escribió cartas a favor de la excarcelación de Juan Antonio Corretjer; aquella que sostenía reuniones con grandes pensadores y libertarios como Juan Bosch…”

Like any human being of her time, or ours, Julia faced problems and obstacles over the course of her life. Some, she could overcome; others, she could not. Regardless, beyond the consensus about her excellence as a poet, it's unfair to remember her as a struggling alcoholic, excessively romantic and passionate, estranged from reality.

Julia was more than a romantic poem; she was more than a love affair; she was more than a woman who faced problems.
Without rewriting history, it's time to rescue the other Julia. The Julia sought by the young writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro when she writes:
“I want to know the unruly and disobedient Julia; the Julia of the rebellion, the one who rubbed shoulders with Don Pedro Albizu Campos; the one who wrote letters advocating for the release of Juan Antonio Corretjer from prison; the one who met with great thinkers and libertarians like Juan Bosch…”

Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez [es] has perhaps best articulated the reasons why we remember Julia de Burgos and, furthermore, how we should remember her:

Alargada en el espíritu de cuantos admiramos su hembría insurgente, enroscado su nombre en los labios de a quienes nos deslumbra su universo hecho de verso, a Julia de Burgos la llamaremos Poeta ahora, después y siempre. Y no porque la recordemos. Y sí porque la sentimos. Que como un grito integral, suave y profundo, estalló de sus labios la palabra.

Embedded in the spirit of all those who admire her rebellious femininity, her name entwined on the lips of those stunned by her universe of verse, we call Julia de Burgos a Poet, now, later, and always. Not because we remember her, but because we feel her. Like a primal cry, smooth and profound, her words burst from her lips.

You can find more information on Julia de Burgos here [es].

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