The Life and Legacy of Poet Julia de Burgos

The "Remembering Julia" mural by Manny Vega is found on 106th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Avenue in El Barrio. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario/La Prensa)

The “Remembering Julia” mural by Manny Vega is found on 106th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Avenue in El Barrio. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario/La Prensa)

Julia de Burgos was a daughter of Puerto Rico; she was also a daughter of El Barrio. Along with the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants who came to New York in the 1940s and ’50s, she found a home in East Harlem. A mural, a cultural center, and a street with her name, among other signs of her presence in that part of the city, honor her legacy.

A teacher and writer, de Burgos made important declarations through her poetry. She was a feminist and an advocate for Puerto Rican independence. And at a time when the most brutal racial discrimination was the norm, she celebrated her blackness: Ay, ay, ay, I am black, pure black; kinky hair and Kaffir lips; and flat Mozambican nose.

Like many of us who remember the beauty of our countries, Julia paid tribute to the nature of the “Isla del Encanto” [Island of Enchantment, a name for Puerto Rico] in such memorable verses as those from her poem “Río Grande de Loíza”: Where did you take the waters that bathed my body in a sun blossom recently opened?

Julia de Burgos died at the early age of 39, but she left a body of work that made her into one of the most influential Puerto Rican and Latin American poets of the 20th century. At the 100th anniversary of her birthday, a long list of prominent poets and writers are keeping admiration for her work alive.

Born on Feb. 17, 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos grew up in the neighborhood of Santa Cruz, a poor area of that city. The only one of 13 siblings who finished high school, she got her teaching degree at the University of Puerto Rico at 19.

She started her career as a poet when she was very young, influenced by the writings of Luis Llorens Torres, Clara Lair, Rafael Alberti and Pablo Neruda, among others. During her life she published two collections of poems. Her third book was published posthumously in 1954.

In 1936 she joined Hijas de la Libertad (Daughters of Liberty), the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party led by Pedro Albizu Campos, who promoted the island’s independence.

In 1934 she married the journalist Rubén Rodríguez Beauchamp, whom she divorced in 1937. Later on, she had an intense romantic relationship with the Dominican historian, physician, and politician Juan Isidro Jiménez Grullón, who would inspire many of her poems. The relationship lasted a few years and was followed by another brief marriage (1943-1947) to the musician Armando Marín.

After her last failed attempt at love, de Burgos lived alone in New York. Despite having many admirers and a vigorous professional life, she fell into a deep depression and alcoholism. On July 6, 1953, she collapsed on a sidewalk in El Barrio and died of pneumonia in a Harlem hospital a few hours later. Since she wasn’t carrying any ID when she died, de Burgos was buried as “Jane Doe” or NN at the public cemetery on Hart Island.

Upon noticing her absence, her friends began to look for her, and even El Diario/La Prensa published a notice. After several days of intense searching, her body was exhumed and sent to her hometown, Carolina, for a solemn burial.

That sorrowful ending secured the prophetic fame of her poetry. A few months before she died, de Burgos wrote her only poem in English, “Farewell from Welfare Island,” which reads:

It has to be from here,
right this instance,
my cry into the world.
My cry that is no more mine,
but hers and his forever,
the comrades of my silence,
the phantoms of my grave.

Julia de Burgos had died, but her poetry would continue to inspire new generations.

Julia de Burgos in New York

– In 1940 she moved to New York with the great love of her life, the Dominican exile Juan Isidro Jiménez Grullón. The following year, the couple moved to Havana. In 1942, after separating from her lover, de Burgos returned to New York, where she would work as a journalist, an employee in a chemistry lab, a lamp seller, an office clerk, and a seamstress, among other occupations.

– On Friday April 5, 1940, the Asociación de Periodistas y Escritores Puertorriqueños (Association of Puerto Rican Journalists and Writers) paid homage to her at the auditorium of Wadleigh High School at 215 West 114th Street in Manhattan.

– On May 10, 1940, she  read her poetry at the Longwood Casino, at 867 Longwood Avenue in the Bronx.

– In 1948, she moved to 538 West 123rd Street in Harlem. In the ’50s, she lived in different places close to 103rd and 104th streets in El Barrio, and also in Brooklyn.

– Throughout 1948 she was hospitalized a number of times at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, due to her continuous health problems.

– On July 6, 1953, she was found unconscious and without identification on the corner of 106th Street and Fifth Avenue. She was brought to Harlem Hospital and died that same day. Given the lack of identification, her body was buried in a public grave. Later on, her body was transferred to Puerto Rico and buried at the cemetery in Carolina, close to the Río Grande de Loíza [Loíza River], which inspired her famous poem from 1935. In 2006, the corner where she was found, was named Julia de Burgos Boulevard.

– In 2006, on 106th Street between Lexington and Third avenues in East Harlem, a mosaic mural titled “Remembering Julia,” by the artist Manny Vega, was inaugurated.

– In 2011, a mural called “Soldaderas” (Women Soldiers) by Yasmin Hernández was inaugurated at the community garden Modesto Flores Garden, on Lexington Avenue between 104th and 105th streets. A block away, inside the old building of P.S. 72, is the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, one of the mainstays of cultural life in El Barrio.

Visit El Diario/La Prensa’s special webpage [in Spanish]: “Julia de Burgos: 100 años”

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