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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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