Things That Matter

Julia De Burgos Had A Short Life But Her Legacy Continues To Inspire Afro-Latinas Today

Julia de Burgos was a woman ahead of her time. The prolific writer, feminist, and activist — born in Carolina, Puerto Rico in 1914 — excelled in her craft long before anyone was ready to acknowledge it. Her world wasn’t prepared for an Afro-Latina academic that would defy conservative tradition. And so, she challenged it with her words.

Like Puerto Rico in the 1920s and 30s, Julia de Burgos was also coming of age.

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It’s as if they were both figuring out who they were going to be and what they would represent. The main difference between the island and de Burgos is that she took broader steps much faster than the island could keep up. In her short life, De Burgos’s accomplished so much despite being born in extreme poverty. In many ways, she was a survivor and a fighter. De Burgos survived malnutrition when her six younger siblings could not. She survived Hurricane San Felipe Segundo, Puerto Rico’s only Category 5 to ever strike the island — when more than 300 other unfortunately did not.

At age 24 she self-published her book of poetry.

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In 1939 she released “Poema en veinte surcos” (“Poem in Twenty Furrows”). Even at that young age, de Burgos was already married, a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and working as a teacher. Poetry, however, was her real love.

Her work dealt with the issues she knew best: poverty, Puerto Rico, and a desire to live.

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It’s astonishing to know that such a young woman could write so beautifully about her homeland’s disgraceful history of colonization and slavery at the hands of the Spanish. She was a strong advocate of Puerto Rico’s freedom from Spain and becoming a nation. In 1939, De Burgos became a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and also the Secretary-General of the Daughters of Freedom. Her role was seen as controversial, at least by the United States. Writer Molly Crabapple noted that the FBI interrogated De Burgos because they suspected her of being a nationalist and communist.

Biographer Vanessa Pérez Rosario told the New York Times that De Burgos’ notion of what Puerto Rico was more significant than the island could aspire to.

“She already envisioned an idea of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity that was much broader than what was being articulated on the island at the time,” Rosario told the New York Times.

Her thoughts and ideas were too much for Puerto Rico’s elite circle of male intellects, and so, in 1940, she left the island and set for another island, the island of Manhattan. By this time, de Burgos had already published two more collections of poetry and was divorced. She had begun a relationship with a Dominican political exile named Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullón who was her equal intellectually, but not in social status. He came from an affluent family.

“I want to be universal,” de Burgos said to her sister when she arrived in New York City, according to Ms. Magazine. De Burgos did just that and moved to Cuba for a while but returned to Manhattan where she was once again a starving artist this time “facing racial, ethnic and linguistic discrimination.”

Regardless of those harrowing obstacles, de Burgos — who no longer was with Grullón — continued to work as a writer and also a journalist for a local Spanish-language newspaper. Puerto Rico also recognized her achievements and awarded an honor from the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature and an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico.

In the mid-’40s, De Burgos had remarried though that relationship also ended in divorce.

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According to her niece, María Consuelo Sáez Burgos, de Burgos became depressed and turned to drinking. Her alcohol abuse led to “cirrhosis of the liver and respiratory disease.”

Her death, however, is probably the saddest end to her prolific life. The Times reports that police found de Burgos unconscious on the streets of Harlem. She died at the hospital in 1953. She was just 39 years old. And, because she didn’t have an I.D. when police took her to the hospital, she was listed as a Jane Doe. She was buried in a random cemetery and was finally discovered by her family weeks later. Her remains were later exhumed and taken back to Puerto Rico. Despite that tragic ending, her legacy lives on in her poetry, and more importantly in the people, she continues to inspire.

Fans of de Burgos, or those curious about her work can turn to the following books: “Poemas exactos a mi misma,” “Poema en veinte surcos,” “Canción de la verdad sencilla,” and “El mar y tú: otros poemas (1954).” Most of them are available on Amazon.


READ: 21 Things You Didn’t Know About Celia Cruz, The Indisputable Queen Of Salsa

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9 Bios About Latinas Poderosas To Read This Women’s History Month

Fierce

9 Bios About Latinas Poderosas To Read This Women’s History Month

While we should be reading narratives by and about women year-round, March, which has been designated Women’s History Month in the United States since 1987, is an ideal time to start or double down. Through literary biographies, written by or about female change-makers and barrier-breakers, we can educate ourselves on the historic women who fought to bring about progress or the personal battles they overcame to live inspiring and purposeful lives. 

Considering the contributions of powerful Latinas have been minimized or erased from public consciousness, it’s no surprise that their narratives are also often missing from curated books lists. That’s why one of the best ways to celebrate women this month is by picking up and reading the tales of our trailblazing foremothers or the badasses who are shaking things up today. 

Here, peruse through a list of autobiographies and biographies about Latina powerhouses in politics, social justice and entertainment, and choose one (or more) to read this month. If you really want to be inspired, try to get through the entire list by the end of the year.

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Published in 2014, nine years after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the first-ever Latina to sit on the highest court of the land, My Beloved World is a memoir that recounts Sotomayor’s life from the housing projects in the Bronx, New York, to the federal bench. The bestseller reveals the groundbreaking Puerto Rican’s challenging upbringing, including an alcoholic father and her personal struggle with juvenile diabetes, and how she envisioned a different life for herself through entertainment role models that allowed her dream up a career in law.

Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” by Michelle Vogel

McFarland and Company

Old Hollywood actress Lupe Velez lived a life that the press loved to gossip about. Not only was the Mexican talent cast for sexy and fierce-tempered roles, spawning the nickname “The Mexican Spitfire,” but the myths about her life beyond the cameras also spurred rumors and scandal. Ugly fables about her death in 1944 left the trailblazing Latina actress with a notorious legacy. But in Michelle Vogel’s 2012 biography of Vélez, she finally puts damaging untruths to rest and tells the honest tale of the life and career of one of the most important Latinx figures in entertainment. 

Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon by Vanessa Perez Rosario

University of Illinois Press

Few poets have captured a nation, symbolized an era and bloomed into a cultural icon like Julia de Burgos. The Afro-Puerto Rican writer, who spoke in poetry and prose about her homeland’s colonial status, her relationship with land, her experience of migration and her plight as a woman of color, impacted culture and politics both in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. In this first full-length English-language biography of de Burgos, Perez examines the late writer’s life as a poet and a political activist and bridges her contribution to nationalist literature as well as Nuyorican art and culture. 

Azucar! The New Biography of Celia Cruz by Eduardo Marceles

Reed Press

If you’ve already watched Celia, the 80-part novela about the Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz, and are looking to dive deeper into the life of the late Cuban icon, you’ll want to devour Eduardo Marceles’ Azucar! the Celia Cruz Biography. Like the series, the book delves into Cruz’s life as a political exile and a successful singer but includes unpublished personal interviews and conversations between the talent and the author, including bits about her popular relationship with Pedro Knight, her sometimes overlooked humanitarian work and her fatal illness.

To Selena, With Love by Chris Perez

Penguin Publishing Group

The gifts, story and beauty of Selena Quintanilla has captivated audiences young and old for three decades. But even those who have watched the 1997 classic film hundreds of times, know her songs by heart and have participated in online fandom communities will learn a lot about the late Queen of Tejano by reading To Selena, with Love, a memoir written by her widower Chris Perez. In the book, published in 2013, Perez shares intimate details about the superstar and their relationship, including how it grew from friendship to forbidden romance to a lovely marriage that ended too soon.

Maria Montez: Su Vida by Margarita Vicens de Morales

Cayena Press

If you’re looking for an illuminating Spanish-language read about a Latina icon who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, you need – like have to! – pick up Margarita Vicens de Morales’ Maria Montez: Su Vida. The book, published in 2004, reveals the story of Maria Montez, the Dominican Old Hollywood actress who was hailed “The Queen of Technicolor,” detailing the superstar’s rise to fame, the times her life mirrored the roles she played, her relationships and motherhood as well as her early and sudden death. 

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero and Michelle Burford

Henry Holt and Co.

While most of the biographies and memoirs on this list so far have centered on rise-to-fame stories, Diane Guerrero’s In the Country We Love: My Family Divided focuses primarily on how our country’s broken immigration system tore her family apart in her youth. In the book, published in 2016, the Colombian-American actress shares how her parents were detained and deported when she was just 14 years and how she was forced to live with family friends in order to continue her education in the United States and build her career. In sharing her nightmare-turned-to-life story, Guerrero highlights a fear and struggle of millions of undocumented people living in the country.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey

Andy Cohen Books

A global icon and one of the most talented artists of all time, Mariah Carey’s personal life, much like her reserve of chart-topping songs and albums, has been dissected in the press for decades. But with 2020’s The Meaning of Mariah Carey, a memoir the Venezuelan-American megastar co-authored with Michaela Angela Davis, she is speaking her truth in her own words. The book shares the “triumphs and traumas” as well as the “dreams and debacles” that helped form Mariah Carey, the person and the artist in the spotlight, touching on childhood trauma, racism, songs, relationships, motherhood and more.

Rita Moreno: A Memoir by Rita Moreno

Celebra


Before Rita Moreno became everyone’s favorite actress, the Hollywood legend was a simple Puerto Rican girl who, like many in the 1930s, was making her way from the archipelago to the Bronx, New York, with her family for greater opportunity. In Rita Moreno: A Memoir, the now 89-year-old shares how music and performance helped her cope with her tumultuous childhood and how her talent brought her to Broadway, then Hollywood and, of course, to becoming the only Latinx talent to win an Oscar, Grammy, Tony and two Emmys. Throughout it all, Moreno is frank about the racialized sexism she experienced in the entertainment industry, the passionate romances that injured and supported her, and creating an equally dazzling life and career.

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Today, Puerto Rico Celebrates Emancipation Day–the Day When the Island Officially Abolished Slavery

Things That Matter

Today, Puerto Rico Celebrates Emancipation Day–the Day When the Island Officially Abolished Slavery

Photo via George W. Davis, Public Domain

Today, March 22nd marks Día de la Abolición de Esclavitud in Puerto Rico–the date that marks the emancipation of slaves in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, enslaved peoples were emancipated in 1873–a full decade after the U.S. officially abolished slavery. But unlike the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico celebrates today as an official holiday, where many businesses are closed.

The emancipation of Puerto Rican slaves was a very different process than the United States’. For one, the emancipation was gradual and over three years.

When the Spanish government abolished slavery in Puerto Rico 1873, enslaved men and women had to buy their freedom. The price was set by their “owners”. The way the emancipated slaves bought their freedom was through a process that was very similar to sharecropping in the post-war American south. Emancipated slaves farmed, sold goods, and worked in different trades to “buy” their freedom.

In the same Spanish edict that abolished slavery, slaves over the age of 60 were automatically freed. Enslaved children who were 5-years-old and under were also automatically freed.

Today, Black and mixed-race Puerto Ricans of Black descent make up a large part of Puerto Rico’s population.

The legacy of enslaved Black Puerto Ricans is a strong one. Unlike the United States, Puerto Rico doesn’t classify race in such black-and-white terms. Puerto Ricans are taught that everyone is a mixture of three groups of people: white Spanish colonizers, Black African slaves, and the indigenous Taíno population.

African influences on Puerto Rican culture is ubiquitous and is present in Puerto Rican music, cuisine, and even in the way that the island’s language evolved. And although experts estimate that up to 60% of Puerto Ricans have significant African ancestry, almost 76% of Puerto Ricans identified as white only in the latest census poll–a phenomenon that many sociologists have blamed on anti-blackness.

On Puerto Rico’s Día de la Abolición de Esclavitud, many people can’t help but notice that the island celebrates a day of freedom and independence when they are not really free themselves.

As the fight for Puerto Rican decolonization rages on, there is a bit of irony in the fact that Puerto Rico is one of the only American territories that officially celebrates the emancipation of slaves, when Puerto Rico is not emancipated from the United States. Yes, many Black Americans recognize Juneteenth (June 19th) as the official day to celebrate emancipation from slavery, but it is not an official government holiday.

Perhaps, Puerto Rico celebrates this historical day of freedom because they understand how important the freedom and independence is on a different level than mainland Americans do.

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