Verses of Change – An Afro-Caribbean Poet’s Quest for Independence

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Julia de Burgos.

By Gabe Sanders.

Language is one of the most powerful tools for resistance.  Some dismiss language alone as incapable of effecting change.  However, history reveals that the ability to understand and communicate a language in a way that connects, empowers, and galvanizes the disenfranchised can itself be revolutionary.  Julia de Burgos – a name many Puerto Ricans consider synonymous with justice – was an Afro-Caribbean poet and civil rights activist who taught herself to speak in numerous tongues, including English, Greek, and Portuguese.  But, it was her command of the Spanish language that allowed her to mobilize Puerto Ricans – primarily through poetry – in the efforts to gain independence from the United States (US), establish equal rights for women, and combat racial discrimination.

She was born Julia Constanza Burgos García in Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 1914, and spent her childhood in the barrio (neighborhood) of Santa Cruz.[1] She was the eldest of 13 children, six of whom tragically died from malnutrition[2] – an indication of the degree of extreme poverty her family faced.  This unbelievable adversity left de Burgos with tremendous responsibility but also tightened her bonds with her parents and surviving siblings.  She would accompany her father, a farmer, to the cemetery, where in mourning she found a spiritual yet articulate side of her personality.  Drawing inspiration from the tribulations of her youth, the community she built in Santa Cruz, and the love for nature she developed swimming in the Rio Grande, de Burgos began writing and performing poetry for locals at a very young age.  In her own symbolic words, “All my childhood was a poem in the river, and a river in the poem of my first dreams.”[3]

At the age of 17, de Burgos enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico, where she studied education.  Just two years into her collegiate schooling, familial financial struggles compelled de Burgos to complete her studies and become the family’s breadwinner as an elementary school teacher in Naranjito, Puerto Rico.[4]  She was married in 1934 to Ruben Beauchamp, which ended her career as a teacher without dissipating her passion for educating children – a passion she continued to fulfill by writing for a children’s program on public radio.  By 1936, de Burgos’ revolutionary political beliefs had prompted her termination from the radio program but opened an opportunity to cultivate support for Puerto Rican women’s rights and national independence, as she was elected the Secretary General of the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party: the Daughters of Freedom.[5]

The following year, the Nationalist Party organized a march commemorating the abolition of slavery and protesting the imprisonment of the party’s leader by the US government.  Taking place in the city of Ponce on March 21, the demonstration was met with a 15-minute barrage of bullets fired by the Insular Police – the law enforcement agency that patrols the entirety of Puerto Rico – who killed 19 civilian protestors and wounded over 200.[6]  De Burgos, in the aftermath of the Ponce massacre, wrote a series of political poems vehemently reviling the governor-sanctioned slaughter and promoting the movement for Puerto Rican independence.  In one poem, “Rio Grande de Loíza,” she lamented the violence inflicted on native and Afro-Caribbean Puerto Ricans by invoking the imagery of the river that defined her childhood. “Río Grande de Loíza!” she writes, “Great river. Great tear. The greatest of all our island tears, But for the tears that flow out of me, Through the eyes of my souls for my enslaved people.”[7]  Demanding an end to the bloodshed both on the island and in Spain, where the Spanish Civil War was underway and taking nearly half a million lives, these powerful and emotive verses were compiled into de Burgos’ first collection of poetry in 1938, which she called “poema en veinte surcos” (“Poem in Twenty Furrows”).  At just 24 years of age, de Burgos was already considered one of the greatest poets of her generation.[8]

Although the brilliance of de Burgos’ work was respected, her outspoken feminism and use of poetry to champion civil rights issues sparked controversy among Puerto Rican intellectuals and fellow poets, most of whom were male.  Even her name was a source of discomfort in these upper-class circles.  After divorcing her first husband, she had elected not to return to her maiden name, Burgos, and instead precede it with the traditional indication of “marital status or possession,” “de,” “symbolically taking possession of herself.”[9]  In a poem opposing misogynistic customs, she wrote, “I wanted to be as men wanted me to be:
an attempt at life; a game of hide and seek with my being. But I was made up of presents; When the heralds announced me in the regal parade of old logs, my desire to follow the men was twisted, and the tribute waited for me.”[10]  This bold and progressive defiance of early 20th-century gender norms, among a myriad of audacious stands taken by de Burgos that were sure to ruffle elite feathers, made fitting in with conservative intellectuals nearly impossible.

In 1939, de Burgos made the difficult decision to leave Puerto Rico, initially taking up residence in Cuba, where during her studies at the University of Havana she was introduced to socialist revolutionaries and published her second poetry collection.  After receiving a Puerto Rican literary prize for this collection in 1940, turmoil in her romantic relationship led de Burgos to permanently relocate to New York City.  Although she was physically separated from the territory for which she strongly desired autonomy, de Burgos never wavered in her commitment to fighting for the human rights and independence of her people.  She found another medium for this advocacy in journalism, writing for the progressive New York-based newspaper, Pueblos Hispanos.[11]  Her poetry began to focus on love and heartbreak during her second marriage, which lasted from 1943 to 1947 and marked the beginning of a dark period of depression and alcoholism that would ultimately end her tragically short life.

On July 6, 1953, after collapsing on a Manhattan sidewalk and being hospitalized with pneumonia, Julia de Burgos died at the age of 39.[12]  Her third and final collection of poems, the last of which foreshadowed her untimely death, was published posthumously in 1954, demonstrating the extraordinary prescience of her work.  De Burgos died a herald of the “Nuyorican movement” – an effort initiated during the late 1960s by Puerto Rican artists in New York to empower fellow Puerto Ricans across the United States – and a symbol of her culture’s strength.  In her eternal wisdom and vitality, she left us with these words: “death is inevitable, but life is up to you.”[13]

[1] Taller Boricua/Puerto Rican Workshop Inc., Julia de Burgos, 2020.

[2] Vanessa Perez Rosario, Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon (University of Illinois Press, 2014).

[3] Rosario.

[4] Ivonne Belén, Julia, Toda En Mí Full Movie with English Subtitles, 2020.

[5] Julia Preston, “Guatemala Laureate Defends ‘My Truth,’” The New York Times, January 21, 1999, sec. World.

[6] Ivonne Belén, Julia, Toda En Mí Full Movie with English Subtitles.

[7] Rosario, Becoming Julia de Burgos.

[8] Taller Boricua/Puerto Rican Workshop Inc., Julia de Burgos.

[9]Overlooked No More: Julia de Burgos, a Poet Who Helped Shape Puerto Rico’s Identity,The New York Times, May 3, 2018, sec. Obituaries.

[10] Rosario, Becoming Julia de Burgos.

[11] “Overlooked No More.”

[12] Rosario, Becoming Julia de Burgos.

[13] Ivonne Belén, Julia, Toda En Mí Full Movie with English Subtitles.