Overlooked No More: Julia de Burgos, a Poet Who Helped Shape Puerto Rico’s Identity

Julia de Burgos’s poetry explored issues like Puerto Rico’s colonial past, the legacy of slavery and American imperialism.

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people who went unrecognized.

When the poet Julia de Burgos left Puerto Rico at 25, she vowed never to return. It was a promise she would keep.

It was a bittersweet departure. For much of her short life, de Burgos championed Puerto Rican nationalism and identity through her writing. She self-published her first collection of poetry, “Poema en veinte surcos (“Poem in Twenty Furrows”) in 1938, when she was 24.

Her work explored issues like the island’s colonial past and the legacy of slavery and American imperialism. In her poem “Río Grande de Loíza,” she addressed the pain and violence suffered by natives of the island and African slaves along the Puerto Rican river.

Río Grande de Loíza! ... 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.

Born into poverty, she trained and worked as a teacher before marrying at 20. Divorced three years later, she began an intense romantic relationship with Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullón, a Dominican political exile and an intellectual from a prominent family. Her poetry gave her entree into Puerto Rico’s intellectual circles, yet she did not really fit. It was the 1930s, after all, and she was a divorced woman in a conservative Roman Catholic society, as well as working class and of African descent. The Puerto Rican intellectuals shaping the island’s identity were not ready to embrace the idea of social justice for African descendants — much less feminism.

She had to leave. Yet in absence, she would become a force to be reckoned with. De Burgos, who died on July 6, 1953, is now considered one of the literary foremothers of Puerto Rico and the Nuyorican movement in New York.

“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,” said Vanessa Pérez Rosario, an associate professor of Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, who wrote “Becoming Julia de Burgos” (2014), a book about the poet’s life and work. (Translations of the poetry quoted here are from this book.)

De Burgos departed for New York in 1940 to be with Jimenes Grullón, following him to Cuba later that year. She remained with him in Cuba for two years.

In July 1940, she received a Puerto Rican literary prize for her second collection of poems, “Canción de la verdad sencilla” (“Song of the Simple Truth”). Pérez Rosario described in her book how de Burgos, in a letter to her beloved sister Consuelo, said she was surprised that her work could be judged fairly.

But this would prove the highlight of her time in Cuba. Her relationship with Jimenes Grullón deteriorated, in part because of his family’s objections. By 1942, she was back in New York.

There, de Burgos continued to write, becoming a contributor and editor of the Spanish-language socialist periodical Pueblos Hispanos. Her poetry and writing were not only a means of expression, but also a means of supporting herself and her family.

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Credit...Sandra Rodriguez Collection, via Center for Puerto Rican Studies

Julia Constanza Burgos García was born on Feb. 17, 1914, to Francisco Burgos Hans, a farmer, and Paula García de Burgos, in Carolina, P.R. She was the oldest of 13 children. Death and hardship were constants in her life: She saw six of her younger siblings die. She was close to her family, and some of her siblings eventually joined her in New York.

When she divorced her first husband, Rubén Rodriguez Beauchamp, instead of reverting to her exact maiden name, she chose to add “de” before Burgos, which in Spanish indicates marital status or possession.

“She thus became Julia de Burgos, symbolically taking possession of herself,” Pérez Rosario wrote.

In 1943, de Burgos married a second time, to a Puerto Rican musician named Armando Marín. That marriage, too, ended in divorce.

The final years of her life were hard. She was depressed and an alcoholic, according to her niece, María Consuelo Sáez Burgos.

She spent extended periods in and out of the hospital and developed cirrhosis of the liver and a respiratory disease as a result of her alcoholism.

Even so, she continued to participate in cultural, literary and political events, according to Sáez Burgos. “She never stopped being herself to the end,” she said.

Mystery surrounds the final hours of her life. Police officers found de Burgos on the street, unconscious and without identification, in the early hours of July 5, 1953. She was admitted to Harlem Hospital, where she later died. The official cause of death was pneumonia, made worse by the cirrhosis.

“It wasn’t until after some time, that Julia had not been in touch, that the family began to worry,” said Sáez Burgos. After weeks of searching, they discovered that not only was she dead, but that she had also been buried anonymously in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island. Her remains were exhumed and repatriated to Puerto Rico.

In a way, de Burgos anticipated this in her poetry. In “Poema para mi muerte” (“Poem for My Death”), she wrote:

What shall I be called when all remains of me

is a memory, upon a rock of a deserted isle?

A carnation wedged between the wind and my own shadow,

death’s child and my own, I will be known as a poet.

In death, she finally received the recognition that she had desired all her life. Her final collection of poetry, “El mar y tú” (“The Sea and You”), was published posthumously by her sister Consuelo. The University of Puerto Rico awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1987. There are public schools in Puerto Rico, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago named after her. In 2010, the Postal Service commemorated her life with a stamp for Hispanic Heritage Month.

And the island finally embraced its poet. “Julia de Burgos not only spoke her reality,” Sáez Burgos said. “ She spoke about all of us.”

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