Ibarbourou, Juana de (1895–1979)

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Ibarbourou, Juana de (1895–1979)

Prizewinning Uruguayan poet who was noted for her path-breaking erotic work. Name variations: Juana Fernández de Morales; Jeanette de Ibar. Pronunciation: HWA-na day EE-bar-BOO-roo. Born Juana Fernández de Morales on March 8, 1895, in Melo, in the northeastern province of Cerro Largo, Uruguay; died in July 1979; daughter of Vicente Fernández (a Spaniard from Galicia) and Valentina Morales (daughter of a noted Uruguayan politician); attended religious and state schools; married Captain Lucas Ibarbourou, on June 28, 1914; children: one son, Julio César.

Achieved immediate fame with publication of her first volume of poetry (1919); honored as "Juana de América" (1929); awarded the Grand National Literature Prize of Uruguay (1959).

Major works:

Las lenguas de diamante (The Diamond Tongues, 1919); Raíz salvaje (Wild Root, 1922); La rosa de los vientos (The Compass Rose, 1930); (prose) Chico-Carlo (1945); Perdida (Loss, 1950).

The splendid marble Legislative Palace in Montevideo, Uruguay, was packed to capacity and the assembled guests strained to hear the words of one of Mexico's most noted authors, Alfonso Reyes. "She had taken possession of words," he intoned. "Juana in the North, Juana in the South, in the East, and in the West: everywhere words were displaced. Juana when one said poetry and Juana when one said, woman. Juana everywhere in America where there was a breath." The occasion was the elevation of Juana de Ibarbourou to the lofty position of "Juana of America." The honor was a reflection of her poetry which leaped national boundaries and touched emotions across a continent. It was an award that celebrated the primitive rather than the profound. Juana de Ibarbourou's work was passionate, deliciously irreverent, and heedless of convention and custom.

Born in the northeastern city of Melo in late 19th-century Uruguay, Juana was early exposed to poetry by her father. In 1947, she remembered her childhood and the time spent "under the verdant canopy of trained vines" where her father would recite works by Espronceda and Rosalia de Castro . "And here it can be said is where my poetic vocation had its genesis." In a biographical sketch, Dora Isella Russel notes that Juana's childhood was happy and normal. Indeed, Ibarbourou's autobiographical novel, Chico-Carlo, captures a carefree youth: "the moons of my childhood are all full, round, and dazzling. My childhood moon was innocent and full like my own life at that time." The romantic quarters of her moon came later, "when I was still an adolescent and was dreaming about love, suffering, success, and death." Literary critic Sidonia Carmen Rosenbaum wrote that she "passed her childhood, and the years of ardent dream-filled adolescence, in those rustic—almost wild—surroundings. They in turn communicated to her all their fragrance and élan." She published her first poems at age seven or eight in the local newspaper of Melo, El Deber Civico.

Her first schooling took place in a convent and subsequently in a state school that now bears her name. In both, she was reportedly mischievous and inattentive. Poetry was the only assignment that could focus her attention. At age 19, she fell in love with and married Captain Lucas Ibarbourou; two years later, in 1916, their only son was born. As a military family, they moved frequently, and Juana came to know Rivera, Tacuarembó, Rocha, and Canelones. In the meantime, she was quietly composing the poetry which would launch her into the public eye and establish her reputation.

It was in 1918 that the family moved to the capital, Montevideo, where she sought out the literary editor of the newspaper La Razón, Vicente A. Salaverri, and handed him a bundle of poems by Jeanette de Ibar—a pseudonym which Salaverri characterized as "innocent and ridiculous." He received the work with "distrust," according to Rosenbaum, but read them with growing enthusiasm and admiration. As Salaverri said: "She was an Hebraic poetess, of a contagious pantheism and a fragrant sensuality." Some readers agreed and compared her free verse with the erotic lyrics of the Biblical Song of Songs. Juana's poetry attracted an immediate and fervent audience.

Manuel Gálvez, one of Argentina's leading novelists, wrote a prologue to a collection of Juana's poems entitled Las lenguas de diamante (Tongues of Diamond) which was published in Buenos Aires in 1919. Such an action on Gálvez' part was extraordinary and gives a good indication of the attractive powers of her verse. The context of the times was also important; 1919 was a most unusual year. World War I had produced a good deal of anxiety in South America, for the relatives of many immigrants to the New World were at war in the Old World. Revolution had brought down the Russia of the tsars and Bolshevik revolution threatened to erupt in the streets of South America's capitals. The poetry of Juana de Ibarbourou was a welcome escape from the state of acute anxiety that gripped many Latin Americans. She was young, fresh, a breath of morning air, a new beginning. With regard to Uruguay, Ibarbourou's popularity also mirrored a spirit of progress and change that characterized the country. The civil wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were over, and the nation was in the process of establishing its reputation as the "Switzerland of South America." Uruguay was reestablishing its identity just as Juana de Ibarbourou was establishing hers.

This primitive love, this constant ardor which youth inspires, and which, she records in pages that breathe the purifying air of nature—and exude its fragrance—is what made her unique, and, in her manner, unsurpassed in Spanish American letters.

—Sidonia Carmen Rosenbaum

By all accounts, she was not overwhelmed by her sudden fame and continued to produce poetry for an eager audience. There is no question that her poetry was narcissistic. She contemplates herself and delights in her body. In the words of literary historian Enrique Anderson-Imbert, "Young, spoiled, inviting, she felt in her flesh the power of her beauty." Ventura García Calderón sees in her writing "a miracle of simplicity" and "an ingenuous inventory of Narcissism." In Juana's words, "I am free, healthy, happy, young and brunette." And, in the opinion of Rosenbaum:

here was a woman ruled not by morals, or conventions, which she dared to overlook—nor even by those yielding, but sheltering barriers that the "timidity" of the sex imposes—but by a primitive urge to be taken simply as one plucks a fruit, picks a flower, or drinks in the refreshing waters of a stream.

Other interpretations reach a bit deeper into the waters and portray Juana de Ibarbourou as a woman who dared to come to terms with the position of a woman in a patriarchal community and society. She was the "defying nymph" who was able to communicate her own feelings of female self-realization, according to Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz . In a similar vein, Ibarbourou is now seen as one of the precursors of today's feminist movement. She was a rebel who in her writing broke conventions to give expression to her most private and intimate thoughts.

Ibarbourou was successful in a patriarchal society because she was not perceived as a threat. Most of her readers were content with the innocence and beauty of youth that Juana projected. Beyond her poetry, she enjoyed a reputation as the perfect wife. Unconventional, yet appealing poetry, within the context of a conventional life, assured her a place of esteem in Uruguay and the other Southern Cone countries.

The instant success of Las lenguas de diamante was followed in 1920 with El cántaro fresco (The Cool Pitcher) and in 1922 with Raíz salvaje (Wild Root). The latter reflects confidence and a maturity missing in her earlier poetry. One critic captured the subtle shift in her writing with the phrase, "The clear laughter of Chloe [the rustic beauty] had become the ambiguous, mysterious smile of the Gioconda [Mona Lisa]." In the mid-1920s, Juana turned her attention to education and compiled two anthologies for use in Uruguay's schools. One, entitled Páginas de literatura contemporánea, was published in 1924 and included examples of contemporary literature. The other, published in 1927, was a collection of prose poetry called, simply, Ejemplario (Examples).

The year 1929 marked the high point of her glory, a year in which her fetishistic admirers demanded that she be honored by the Uruguayan legislature as Juana de América. The ceremonies celebrating her apotheosis may also be seen as a watershed in her life, for Juana's later literary efforts would take a different direction, a direction full of intimations of her mortality.

La rosa de los vientos (The Compass Rose), published in 1930, addresses the passage of years and their effect on Juana de Ibarbourou. With maturity in mind and body, there emerges in her verses a repeated concern with creation and renewal; the fresh and clear images of her earlier work become more obscure. Anderson-Imbert notes that her poetry shows "less feeling and more thinking"; Concha Zardoya sees Juana's work taking a graver and more profound tone, distant and meditative. There is a growing awareness of death. But there is also the defiant sense of triumph over death. For Juana, death becomes transformation rather than annihilation. "Charon: I will be a scandal in your boat" is a poem that chides death yet fails to remove her fear of it.

In the 1930s, Juana's works assumed a deeply religious tone as she sought answers to the vexing problems of mortality. Los loores de Nuestra Señora (Praises of Our Lady) and Estampas de la Biblia (Bible Scenes), both published in 1934, and a poem about Saint Francis of Assisi which appeared a year later, revealed in the author uneasiness, uncertainty, and anxiety. A deeply spiritual religious quest was indicative of a deeply seated devotion that underlay her pantheism and the pagan qualities of many of her earlier poems.

Still popular in the public eye, Juana continued to win handfuls of medals and honors. In 1938, the three great woman poets of the continent were honored at a grand celebration in Montevideo. Gabriela Mistral , the Chilean poet who would later win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Alfonsina Storni , the frustrated Argentine rebel who was only months away from taking her own life, and Juana de América represented an apogee of collective creativity. Gabriela Mistral said of Juana Ibarbourou's writings: "They are very profound, even though they appear to be so innocent; Nature, daughter of God, and Juana, daughter of Uruguay."

Juana's husband died early in January 1942, and she turned to writing an autobiographical novel of her childhood. Chico-Carlo appeared in 1944. While many of the scenes do in fact tell us of Juana's childhood, the novel is so broadly generalized as to be essentially universal. Indeed, Juana told the story of a young Haitian reader who wrote to her with the conviction that in Chico-Carlo he found echoes of his own childhood. Juana's childhood, filtered through time, appeared wholly innocent, almost perfect. Its resonance in other countries and cultures was produced by the fact that it related what was good about childhood and triggered nostalgic memories for her readers. An interest in children continued in 1945 with the publication of Los sueños de Natacha (Natacha's Dreams), a play for young people.

In 1947, Juana de Ibarbourou received yet another great honor when she was made a member of the Uruguayan Academy of Letters, even though it had been 17 years since the publication of her last truly significant work. That would change with the tragic loss of her mother in 1949. The first poem in Perdida (Loss), published in 1950, was entitled "Time." Juana sadly notes the passage of time and, with it, her life. Youth was gone, as was the narcissism and innocence of those days. One critic noted that Perdida was her sky, her abyss, her mountain. Melancholy and introspection mark a work that is in many respects a confessional. Juana de Ibarbourou would keep on writing, and those themes would be continued in Oro y tormenta in 1956. But Perdida in reality completed the final cycle of her most important work. The Union of American Women of New York proclaimed Juana "Woman of the Americas" in 1953, and she won Uruguay's Grand Prize for National Literature, awarded for the first time in 1959. Juana de Ibarbourou died in July 1979.


Anderson-Imbert, Enrique. Spanish-American Literature: A History. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1969.

Díaz-Diocaretz, Myriam. "'I will be a scandal in your boat': Women poets and the tradition," in Susan Bassnett, ed., Knives and Angels: Women Writers in Latin America. London: Zed Books, 1990.

Ferro, Hellén. Historia de la poesía hispanoamericana. NY: Las Americas Publishing, 1964.

Ibarbourou, Juana de. Obras completas. 3rd. ed. (with a biographical sketch by Dora Isella Russel). Madrid: Aguilar, 1968.

Katra, William H. "Uruguay," in David W. Foster, comp. Handbook of Latin American Literature. NY: Garland, 1987.

Miller, Beth. ed. Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.

Rosenbaum, Sidonia Carmen. Modern Women Poets of Spanish America. NY: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1945.

Zardoya, Concha. "La muerte en la poesía Femenina Latinoamericana," in Cuardernos Americanos. Vol. 71, no. 5, especially pp. 265–270.

suggested reading:

Franco, Jean. The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1970.

Paul B. Goodwin , Jr., Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut