Julia de Burgos
One the most iconic Puerto Rican poets of all time, Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) advocated for independence, social justice, and feminism through her writing and her activism. Born in Carolina to a working-class family, she was the eldest of thirteen children. and the family struggled to be able to send their children to school. In 1933, de Burgos completed a two-year teaching certificate program at the University of Puerto Rico and became a teacher soon after. During this period, she began her career as a writer, and in 1938, de Burgos self-published her first book, Poema en veinte surcos (Poem in Twenty Furrows). Her second volume, Canción de la verdad sencilla (Song of the Simple Truth, 1939), received the literature prize from the Instituto de Literatura Puertorriqueña (Institute of Puerto Rican Literature). In 1946 the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature awarded her a journalism prize for the essay “Ser o no ser es al divisa” (To Be or Not to Be is the Motto). Her third, and final collection, of poetry, El mar y tú (The Sea and You), was published posthumously in 1954, and includes poems that de Burgos wrote while living in Cuba and New York, many of which reveal a deep sadness and loneliness experienced by migrants living far from their home country
The 1930s was a tumultuous decade in Puerto Rico as unemployment grew as a result of the Great Depression, which reverberated throughout the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans protested and struck for better work conditions and a living wage. The Nationalist movement was at its height during this period. De Burgos’s poetry grappled with class and gender issues, U.S. colonial rule, and the legacy of slavery on the island, thus influencing the ideas of countless future generations of Puerto Rican artists and activists, both on the island and in New York. She advocated for Puerto Rican independence and social justice, and joined the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, a decision that put her at odds with many of her intellectual peers. Her radical politics likely cost her a job as a writer of a public radio children’s show, titled La Escuela del Aire, part of a U.S. educational campaign on the island. At age 25 de Burgos left Puerto Rico for Cuba and eventually settled in New York City.
De Burgos also supported her family with her writings. Throughout her life, de Burgos sent money to her family from both Cuba and New York. To assert her independence as a woman, she not only wrote extensively against sexism, but enjoyed several love affairs. After divorcing her first husband, she added the possessive “de” (meaning “of,” usually used to signify marriage) to her surname, symbolically taking possession of herself. In New York, de Burgos worked various odd jobs before becoming a journalist for Pueblos Hispanos, a weekly Spanish-language newspaper in New York that sought to forge a pan-American identity. The rise of McCarthyism in the United States and Puerto Rico led to the surveillance and repression of all individuals believed to be Communist sympathizers. Burgos’ affiliation with Pueblos Hispanos led to her surveillance and contributed to her difficulty in finding work. Despite her achievements, de Burgos lived precariously, which eventually affected her physical and mental health. On July 5,1953, she collapsed on 106th Street in East Harlem and died several hours later in the hospital of complications related to cirrhosis and pneumonia, in the early morning hours of July 6th. Although her life was punctuated by heartbreak and economic instability, her lifelong and pioneering commitment to justice and Puerto Rican rights, made her a foremother to multiple movements, including the Nuyorican movement of the 1970s.
For further reading: Jack Agüeros, Songs of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos (Curbstone Press, 1997) and Vanessa Pérez Rosario, Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon (Urbana-Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2014).