de Burgos, Julia (1914–1953)

views updated

de Burgos, Julia (1914–1953)

Puerto Rican poet and political activist whose work celebrated Puerto Rican culture, explored woman's experience, and denounced injustice and exploitation. Name variations: Julia Burgos de Rodriguez, Julia Burgos. Pronunciation: WHO-lee-uh day BOOR-goes. Born Julia Constanza de Burgos on February 17, 1914 (some sources cite 1917) in the town of Carolina, Puerto Rico; died on July 6, 1953, at Harlem Hospital, New York City; daughter of Francisco Burgos Hans (a farmer) and Paula García de Burgos; graduated from Muñoz Rivera Primary School, 1928; graduated from University High School in Río Piedras, 1931; granted degree in education from the University of Puerto Rico, 1933; took postgraduate studies in languages at the University of Havana; married Rubén Rodríguez Beauchamp, in 1934 (divorced 1937); married Armando Marín, in 1943; no children.


Puerto Rican Institute of Literature Award for best book of the year for Canción de la verdad sencilla (1939); Journalism Prize of the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature (1946).

Grew up in rural Puerto Rico (1914–27); family moved to Río Piedras to further daughter's education (1928); worked as rural grade-school teacher and social worker (1934–36); published first poems in the newspaper El Imparcial (1937); published first volume of poetry Poema en veinte surcos (1938); published second book, Canción de la verdad sencilla (1939); traveled to New York and then settled in Havana, Cuba (1940); returned to New York (1942); worked as journalist for the weekly Pueblos Hispánicos (1943–44); suffered repeated bouts of alcoholism, depression and hospitalization (1946–53); collapsed on Fifth Avenue and died anonymously (1953); posthumous publication of final volume of poetry, El mar y tú (1954).


Poema en veinte surcos (Poem in Twenty Furrows, 1938); Canción de la verdad sencilla (Song of the Simple Truth, 1939); El mar y tú (The Sea and You, 1954). Collections: Antología poética (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Editorial Coquí, 1979); Canción de la verdad sencilla (2nd ed., Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1982); El mar y tú: otros poemas (2nd ed., Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1981); Obra poética (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, 1961); Poema en veinte surcos (2nd ed., Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Huracán, 1982).

Julia de Burgos, Puerto Rico's short-lived but beloved poet, was born in the countryside near the Rio Grande de Loíza and the town of Carolina on February 17, 1914. She was the youngest of thirteen siblings, only six of whom survived to adulthood. It is said that as a child she wanted to place the body of one of her departed siblings on a flower-strewn raft and float it down the Loíza in hopes that the water spirits would offer a more hospitable reception than the earth. On August 28, 1960, seven years after her death, other Puerto Rican poets would gather on the banks of the Loíza and, accompanied by the Chorus of the University of Puerto Rico, launch a flower-covered boat into the waters. According to María Solá in her introduction to Burgos' Yo misma fui mi ruta, Julia de Burgos "has become more than a writer and more than a national poet; she has become a legendary figure, with all that legend has of enchantment, fantasy and false illusion."

I was the strong roar of the jungle and the river and voice between two echoes, I ascended the hills.

—Julia de Burgos

The precarious economic situation of the de Burgos family mirrored the dismal economic conditions of Puerto Rico in the 1920s. Julia was raised by Paula García de Burgos , a sensitive, generous mother, and Francisco Burgos, a creative but alcoholic father. Julia shared many adventurous outings on horseback with her father, who entertained his daughter with the tales of heroes from life and literature, such as Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Napoleon, and Latin America's liberator, Simón Bolívar. Ironically, these pleasant overnight camping trips paralleled other outings in which a young Julia had to search for her father who often disappeared when he became drunk.

While de Burgos' father represented independence and adventure, it was her mother who first lead the young poet towards a love of reading and writing. Julia's mother was the center of the family, its strength, and the force that guided Julia and her siblings towards a better life. Paula de Burgos often sacrificed to provide an education for her children. She was Julia's spiritual center throughout life and her greatest source of inspiration and love. Raised in her mother's beloved garden, surrounded by the green hills of rural Puerto Rico, and nurtured by the presence of the Loíza River, Julia was from infancy inextricably tied to the land.

At the age of five, Julia began first grade in her neighborhood public school. For several years, in response to the family's economically motivated moves, she attended a series of schools in the area. For seventh and eighth grade, she was forced to leave her parents and live in the town of Carolina at the home of the Rosenda Romero family. Julia stood out as a scholar and won several prizes as an athlete. After she graduated from the Muñoz Rivera School, her parents sold their land and moved the family to Río Piedras, home of the University of Puerto Rico, in order to pave the way for a university education for their youngest daughter.

The move meant more economic hardship for the family and a loss of daily contact with the land Julia so loved, but she was able to enter University High School in 1928. Julia's mother struggled to pay her daughter's tuition. At times, Julia climbed through windows to attend classes that had been closed to her because of her family's poverty. These were years of hard work and isolation for de Burgos since social life with more wealthy peers was nearly impossible. She lived for her studies. Free time was dedicated to her beloved sports—basketball, track, and swimming. In May of 1931, she graduated with superior grades, having completed the four-year high school course in three years.

The following August, Julia de Burgos entered the University of Puerto Rico, graduating in May of 1933 with a degree in education. Almost immediately, she obtained her first full-time job, a position with the Puerto Rico Economic Reconstruction Administration, distributing food and milk and offering child-care education in poor neighborhoods. By 1935, the agency was closed, and Julia became a primary teacher in the town of Cedro Arriba de Naranjito. This signaled a return to the rural life that she so loved; it was also to be the last time that de Burgos would live in rural Puerto Rico.

While she had studied at the university, Julia's contacts with fellow students had introduced her to the Puerto Rican movement for independence from the United States. She would be an active proponent of Puerto Rican nationalism for the rest of her life. While this movement was

not widespread among the general population of Puerto Rico, many writers, artists and educators believed that Puerto Rico would best safeguard its special cultural heritage and thrive economically as an independent nation. Quite a few of this century's most famous and respected Puerto Rican writers and thinkers were, and remain, strong and vocal supporters of independence.

It was during de Burgos' initial years as a schoolteacher that Puerto Rico's revolutionary Nationalist Party, lead by the charismatic Pedro Albizu Campos, began to rise in prominence to coordinate the struggle for independence. In response to her own commitment to the nationalist movement, Julia de Burgos began writing poetry. She apparently completed a first book of verses, Poemas exactos a mí misma (Precise poems to myself) but the volume was never published and is now considered lost. In October of 1936, she addressed the first major convention of a coalition of groups working for Puerto Rican independence with a speech entitled "Women and the Suffering of the Homeland."

During these active years in which de Burgos habitually endured economic hardship, she continued to polish her poetry. In 1938, with the publication of Poema en veinte surcos (Poem in Twenty Furrows), she suddenly emerged as a mature voice in Puerto Rican poetry. The poems portray both a woman rebelling against her limiting circumstances and a recognition of the economic and cultural injustices that limited Puerto Rico and its people. Hand in hand with this indignant strength, however, the poems also reveal an inner struggle between a desire for personal freedom and the fears and insecurities this necessarily involves. Julia herself called this conflict "a game of hide-and-seek with my being."

Between 1935 and 1939, de Burgos looked for ways to publish her work, always the poet's hardest task. She was, however, determined, using funds saved from her own small salary to support her writing and publication. In order to distribute her verses, she traveled by bus throughout the Island of Puerto Rico, selling her first volumes wherever she could find willing vendors or a gathering of people.

During these years, she confronted a series of personal challenges. She married Rubén Rodríguez Beauchamp in 1934; by 1937, they were divorced. In 1935, her mother became ill with cancer, and after she lost a leg to the disease the cancer spread to her stomach. Julia had to deal with the emotional and financial burden of her mother's illness. Much of the money she had earned selling her books from town to town went to pay doctors. From a creative standpoint, however, these were among the happiest days of de Burgos' life. She formed part of the group of famous Puerto Rican artists and writers who were instrumental in the nationalist movement. Her friends included the leader of the group, Luís Llorens Torres, and poets Luís Palés Matos and Evaristo Ribera Chevremont, all stellar intellectuals who influenced the creation of contemporary Puerto Rican culture. In 1936–37, de Burgos worked with a radio "School of the Air" as a writer of educational materials for children. Her public support of nationalism caused her to lose the position, but not before she had written a series of dramas.

The year 1939 was a tragic and joyous one for de Burgos. In October, her mother finally succumbed to cancer. Days later, influential poets held a recital in honor of Julia de Burgos at the Puerto Rican Ateneo (institute of culture). The scholar Manuel Rivera Matos read an essay on "The Theme of the River in the Poetry of Julia de Burgos," and Julia recited the poem "My Mother and the River." On December 8, she published a new book of verses, Canción de la verdad sencilla (Song of the Simple Truth), for which she received the Puerto Rican Institute of Literature's award for best book of the year. This second book of poetry abandoned the historic themes related to nationalism to deal entirely with the question of love. It is dedicated, in de Burgos' words, to "the simple truth of loving you in yourself and in all else." Some of the poems speak of the ecstasy of fulfilled love; others foresee the difficulties and, finally, the anguish caused by love and the loss of individual freedom it entails.

In fact, much of de Burgos' life at this time was dedicated to projects she shared with Juan Isidro Jiménez Grullón, a doctor and political activist from the Dominican Republic. Identified by most as the great love of her life, Jiménez Grullón probably inspired the verses of her second published volume. From 1939 to 1942, de Burgos and Jiménez Grullón shared daily life and political activism in Puerto Rico, and later New York and Cuba. Jiménez Grullón's circumstances as an impoverished political exile only added to the economic instability that had always been part of Julia's life.

Her mother's death convinced Julia to leave Puerto Rico and follow Jiménez Grullón to New York early in 1940. January in New York was both stimulating and devastating for the poet. Impressed by the "fantastic" cultural opportunities, she also expressed distaste at the city, which she likened to "an enormous military barracks" where "there is very little family life." Her lifelong struggle between loneliness and independence began to play itself out in her poetry and life. Here, she continued to be involved in the movement for Puerto Rican independence. For a short time, she worked with the U.S. Census in order to send money back home to her family.

Finally in April, de Burgos left for Havana, again following Jiménez Grullón who had gone to the Cuban capital several months earlier. As she traveled from New York to Miami to catch a boat for Cuba, the past months of isolation led to pressing thoughts of suicide. Nevertheless, after visits to several Caribbean Islands, Julia settled in Havana and was fortunate to live in an apartment over-looking the sea. After traveling to various Cuban cities with Jiménez Grullón, she began studies of Greek, Latin, and French at the University of Havana in 1941 but was unable to complete her course work when she ran out of money for tuition. During this period, she spent a great deal of time with other Caribbean writers and artists and gave a series of interviews to local newspapers.

According to Yvette Jiménez de Baez , it is from Cuba that Julia "sang with her most authentic voice" and from this period came her book El mar y tú (The Sea and You). Due to lack of funds, she was unable to publish this third volume of poetry. Publication would have to wait until 1954, a year after her death. While in Havana, she also began another book of poetry, Campo (Country-side), which she never completed.

The poetry of El mar y tú speaks again of love both as a voyage on a rough sea and an eventual shipwreck. De Burgos expresses feelings of anguished rejection over love lost and finally turns again towards the possibility of death. Only poetry seems to give meaning to life:

Forgive me, my love, if I speak your name
Except for your song I am a bare wing
Death and I sleep together
Only my song to you awakens me. (Canción amarga)

In 1942, Julia and Jiménez Grullón resolved the legal impediments to marriage, but relations between the two had suffered, and they abruptly separated. In response, Julia left for the United States, this time alone. She went to New York, hoping to earn enough money to eventually return to Puerto Rico. She also dreamt of publishing more books of poetry that would live up to her early works so she could return home in triumph. But life in New York proved difficult. De Burgos was unable to find employment as a writer or teacher, and she held brief, low-paying jobs as secretary, translator, salesperson, seamstress, and machine operator. Ethnic and political discrimination often closed doors, and she frequently felt defeated and alone. By this time, de Burgos had begun to suffer from the alcoholism that would eventually lead to her death.

For a time, stability returned. In 1943, she met and married Armando Marín, worked for the weekly magazine Pueblos Hispánicos, regained contact with her family in Puerto Rico, and composed new poetry. In 1944–45, she lived with her husband for a year in Washington, D.C., working in an office during the day and attending night school to learn Portuguese. In 1946, she returned to New York where word reached her that one of her articles had received the journalism prize of the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature. A series of public homages were held for her in New York City.

But alcoholism continued to undermine her physically and creatively. In 1949, de Burgos was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. From this point on, she was in and out of various hospitals and grappled with long bouts of depression. On one occasion, she filled out the admission papers to the hospital and wrote "writer, journalist and translator" in the space for profession. Later, hospital staff crossed out those words and inserted "suffers from amnesia." They were unable to believe this thin, ill Puerto Rican woman could be telling the truth.

Finally in 1953, after another hospitalization, Julia de Burgos was released to family friends with whom she stayed for a few days. At the beginning of July, she disappeared into the streets of Manhattan. For over a month, friends and family searched for her, until they were informed of her death by the Bureau of Missing Persons. According to official records, Julia de Burgos was found unconscious on Fifth Avenue, taken to Harlem Hospital, and died shortly thereafter. Since no identifying documents could be found on her person, her body was deposited in the city morgue, and she was buried in a pauper's grave in Potter's Field. It was said that the poet was so tall that city workers had to amputate her legs to fit her body into the conventional pine coffin. She had died of pneumonia.

Julia's remains were exhumed through the intercession of the Puerto Rican Institute of New York. On September 6, 1953, they arrived in San Juan where, after much pomp and ceremony, Julia de Burgos was reburied in the cemetery in Carolinas, the town of her birth. She had never returned to Puerto Rico after her first trip to New York some 13 years earlier, but with death she was finally home: "I was a star open to all dreams/ Today I close myself from the world, and my songs are silent." In 1954, friends compiled some of Julia de Burgos' final poems from those last years in exile in New York. These were published along with El mar y tú, the volume she had written in Cuba but had never been able to publish in her lifetime.

The poetry of Julia de Burgos speaks often of love and the striking landscape of Puerto Rico. Because of this, her verses are sometimes compared to the early writings of the 1971 Nobel Prize winner, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904–1973). She also shared with Neruda a view of Puerto Rican reality that led her to protest against colonialism, injustice, exploitation and war. Some works are marked by pessimism. At times, de Burgos felt unable to bear the burden of so much personal disappointment and failed political struggle. Death became a tragic presence particularly in the poems from her final years.

Throughout her poems, as in her life, Julia de Burgos chafed against the role that Puerto Rican society had prescribed for women—the resigned passivity of the "good" wife and mother. More drawn to a spirit of rebellion, she chose to live in exile. Her poems often convey the impression of a free and sensuous spirit, joyously celebrating womanhood and nature. A few literary critics have identified in her work examples of militant feminism, which differentiate her from most of the other women poets of Latin America, with the exception, perhaps, of Argentinean Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938).

Her production was limited to three books, totalling about 150 poems, and a few more verses and articles that appeared in newspapers. Because her poetry sings about so many human emotions and still presents the social reality of Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos continues to be recognized and appreciated. Perhaps her greatest gift to Puerto Rican culture was the creation of a new option for women's literary voices. As María Solá wrote in her study of de Burgos' poetry:

The lyric voice created by Burgos at times expresses fury, audacious challenge, or ironic mockery; in all her texts she displays pride in her intelligence, talent and freedom. It is this new image of women that forms her greatest contribution, a vision that makes her a forerunner of the literature of today.


de Burgos, Julia. Yo misma fui mi ruta. Edited by María M. Solá. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1986.

Fox Lockert, Lucía. "Vida, pasión y muerte de Julia de Burgos," in Letras Femininas. Vol. XVI, no. 1–2, 1990, pp. 121–124.

Jiménez de Baez, Yvette. Julia de Burgos, vida y poesía. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Coquí, 1966.

suggested reading:

Acosta Belén, Edna. La mujer en la sociedad puertorriqueña. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1980.

Perez, Janet. "The Island, the Mainland and Beyond: Literary Space in Puerto Rican Women's Poetry," in Revista canadiense de estudios hispánicos. Vol. 14, no. 3, Spring 1990.

Torres-Robles, Carmen L. "Social Irredentism in the Prose of Julia de Burgos," in The Bilingual Review. Vol. 17, no. 1, 1992. p. 43.

related media:

Bernstein, Leonard (vocal score), Songfest: a cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra, Jalna Publications, 1988 (one of the songs is based on Julia de Burgos' poem, "A Julia de Burgos").

Julia de Burgos (16 mm) film biography with readings of her poetry, produced in New York by the Cinema Guild, around 1975.

Virginia Gibbs , Assistant Professor of Spanish Language and Literature, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa

About this article

de Burgos, Julia (1914–1953)

Updated About content Print Article