The Multifaceted Legacy of Poet Julia de Burgos

Mural of Juia de Burgos and Frida Kahlo (Photo by Francisco Reyes II)

Mural of Julia de Burgos and Frida Kahlo (Photo by Francisco Reyes II)

When she collapsed in the street on July 6, 1953, 39-year-old Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos was just a body lying on a sidewalk in Spanish Harlem. Unable to identify her, the authorities buried her in the city’s potter’s field. It took a month for her family to claim her remains.

Almost 60 years later, to say that she is no longer unknown is an understatement: De Burgos is one of the most ubiquitous faces on the streets of East Harlem. The corner of Fifth Avenue and 106th Street, where she died, now bears her name – as does a cultural center based a few blocks away – and her image appears in several street murals. “Soldaderas,” by Yasmin Hernández, shows de Burgos holding hands with Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, “their hearts exposed and connected, much like they did in their poetry and art,” says the artist.

Becoming Julia de Burgos

Becoming Julia de Burgos

Now, the first book-length study in English about the poet and political activist pulls together the comments, visual art, and tributes to de Burgos, putting the spotlight on the poet’s growing influence in the U.S. In “Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon,” (University of Illinois Press) author Vanessa Pérez Rosario explores de Burgos’ life and work, putting a positive and powerful spin on what has more often been told as a tragic tale. The author will discuss her book Dec. 4 at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in Manhattan.

“So much has been written about her on the island,” said Pérez Rosario, an associate professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. “But none was really published here, that focused on her, and that looked at her influence and legacy here.”

In Puerto Rico, where she was born in 1914, Julia de Burgos is prominent as a literary and patriotic figure. She was openly associated with the Nationalist Party, which advocated independence from the U.S.

De Burgos’ biographer, born in Washington D.C. and raised in Puerto Rico, recalls reading in school de Burgos’ famous poem “Río Grande de Loíza,” an ode to the island’s natural beauty and its “enslaved people.”

De Burgos left Puerto Rico in 1940 after divorcing her first husband. Along with the eroticism contained in her poetry, her marital separation caused her to clash with the island’s highly patriarchal society. Her complicated love life, budding alcoholism and tragic death were seen back home as a byproduct of her migration. Many Puerto Rican writers of her generation – including René Marqués in his play “The Oxcart” and Pedro Juan Soto in his anthology “Spiks” – offered a bleak portrayal of the growing Boricua community in New York in the 1940s and ’50s.

For these authors, “the move to New York is seen as the death of Puerto Rican identity” and “almost a slow suicide,” said Pérez Rosario. “I didn’t see it that way. I saw her legacy and what she inspired in writers and artists here as a celebration, an affirmation of Puerto Rican identity.”

In fact, Pérez Rosario argues that the poet’s tragic death helped turn her into an icon among immigrants in El Barrio. “Some people have written about this phenomenon with the singer Selena or Eva Perón – Latinas who died a horrible kind of tragic death at a young age,” she said. “Remembering her is a way of measuring the progress of the community, when we compare our life with what it was like in the ’50s.”

The author suggests that de Burgos, who in her later years started to write in English, could be considered a precursor of “Nuyorican” identity, the homegrown cultural movement championed by such writers as Piri Thomas and Pedro Pietri. “It was about a more expansive idea of identity because it incorporated other elements in Harlem, such as African-American identity, and also other Latinos who lived in New York,” said Pérez Rosario. “There was a sense of this need for solidarity, working together, which have been picked up and more developed by the Nuyorican movement in the 1970s.”

This community activism is reflected in the poet’s contributions in the 1940s to the Spanish-language magazine “Pueblos Hispanos: Semanario Progresista” (Hispanic Peoples: Progressive Weekly). The publication was affiliated with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and the Communist Party of America, which led the FBI to open a file on de Burgos.

Although she was never taken to court – unlike her colleague Jesús Colón – Pérez Rosario says that de Burgos lost a government job at the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in Washington, where she had moved briefly in 1943, after being interrogated for her political affiliations.

Pérez Rosario, who is also the editor of the book “Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), said that she is planning to publish de Burgos’ “Pueblos Hispanos” articles in a bilingual edition next year.

It’s not just political activists who make a claim on de Burgos’ influence.

While poems like the feminist statement “Yo misma fui mi ruta” (“I Was My Own Route”) have clearly influenced other women writers, Pérez Rosario has also documented instances in which de Burgos has been turned into a gay emblem.

“Two writers make her a lesbian figure, which she was not, as far as I know,” says the scholar.

Pérez Rosario, rather, sees de Burgos as an early figure of “sexilio” (or “sexile”) – “the idea of people who leave their country to escape gender oppression,” first coined by theorist Manolo Guzmán in the 1980s to refer to LGBT migration, now more broadly defined by Pérez Rosario. “I extend the term to include [heterosexual] women who leave for similar reasons.”

The poet is also remembered as an Afro-Caribbean icon. Her ode to blackness “Ay, ay, ay de la grifa negra” (which can be roughly translated as “lament of the kinky-haired black woman”) pays tribute to her African roots. According to Pérez Rosario, artist Manny Vega, author of the first mural devoted to de Burgos in East Harlem, said: “I made her a little darker than she really was because that’s how I see her,” referring to his 2007 mosaic “Remembering Julia,” located on 106 Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue.

In the U.S., interest in de Burgos keeps growing in the decades since her death, most likely because most of her work, originally written in Spanish, was not available in English for many years.

“She became more iconic in El Barrio after the publication of Jack Agüeros’ translation of her poetry in the 1990s,” said Pérez Rosario referring to “Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos” (1996). “It made a huge difference.”

Pérez Rosario has personally witnessed this boom. She first started researching the poet for her Ph.D. dissertation in 2004, only five years after the play “Julia de Burgos: Child of Water,” by Carmen Rivera, opened at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater.

“Back then, the Julia de Burgos Center didn’t exist. They were struggling to get it, but it had not been named,” she remembers. “The street had not been renamed, and some of these murals had not been created yet.” Finally, it seems, the poet has gotten her due.

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