Julia de Burgos: Iconic Afro-Puerto Rican Poet & Civil Rights Activist

Julia de Burgos is considered one of the most iconic Latina and Puerto Rican poets

Juliia de Burgos

Flyer for poetry reading by Julia de Burgos, 10 May 1940. Pura Belpré Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY.

Part of National Poetry Month is uplifting the art of writing poetry, as well as contemporary poets doing the work of fostering a love for poetry in our communities. But it’s also a chance to celebrate those who have come before us, the changemakers who carved a path for all the generations after them to follow. One poet who deserves more recognition is Julia de Burgos, an Afro-Puerto Rican poet, teacher, journalist, and civil rights activist who fought for Puerto Rican independence, mobilized and inspired her community through poetry, and advocated for equal rights for minority groups all across the island including women and African and Afro-Carribbean writers. Through her political and literary work, she helped pave the way for the Nuyorican movement in the ’60s. She’s also known for serving in political office as the Secretary General of the Daughters of Freedom of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in their female-led branch. She’s left behind a powerful legacy for P.R. and Latin America overall, and she deserves to be celebrated this month and every month. Read on to learn more about Julia de Burgos, a groundbreaking writer and activist who changed the poetry landscape for the better.

Early Life

Julia Constanza Burgos García was born in rural Carolina, Puerto Rico in 1914 to a German father, who was a farmer and a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard, and an Afro-Puerto Rican mother. She was the oldest of 13 children but almost half of her siblings died from malnutrition. Still, she had intelligence and ambition, and she loved to read literature. She was especially inspired by the writings of Luis Llorens Torres, Clara Lair, Rafael Alberti, and Pablo Neruda. In 1928, she was able to attend University High School on scholarship and later attended the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus in order to become a teacher. Far exceeding what was expected of most women during her time, she graduated with a teaching degree when she was only 19-years-old. Soon after, she was able to secure a job at Reijoo Elementary School in Cedro Arriba, Naranjito and also wrote for a children’s radio program sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Instruction.

However, not a year after she started teaching, she married her first husband Ruben Rodriguez Beauchamp, which ended her career. After they divorced, she made the radical decision of choosing not to simply change her name back to her maiden name Burgos. Instead, she decided to add “de” to her name, which traditionally is a marker of marriage and possession. To her, this was an open defiance of gender norms and allowed her to reclaim control over her identity post-divorce. For the rest of her life, she was then known as Julia de Burgos.

Political and Literary Career

From there, de Burgos rose to prominence in the political landscape as the general secretary of Frente Unido Femenino, or the Daughters of Freedom, which was the female-led branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. In this role, she delivered rousing speeches, wrote letters, and protested in support of political movements on the island. One demonstration was organized by the National Party to commemorate the abolition of slavery and to protest the imprisonment of Pedro Albizu Campus, the Afro-Puerto Rican Nationalist Party president who’d been imprisoned for his activism. Protestors were met by police forces who killed 19 protestors and wounded 200 more over the course of 15 minutes. This tragedy became known as the Ponce Massacre, which motivated de Burgos to write a series of poems condemning the state-sanctioned violence and advocating for national independence and freedom from U.S. occupation. This solidified her as a rising voice in Puerto Rico’s literary and poetry scene.

In 1938, she published her very first poetry collection, titled Poema en veinte surcos, loosely translated as Poem in Twenty Furrows. In an effort to sell copies, she traveled all over the island performing and giving readings to the public. She published a second volume, entitled Canción de la verdad sencilla, or Song of the Simple Truth, the following year, which earned her a Puerto Rican literary prize. It would also be the last collection of poetry published within her lifetime.

Though she was well-respected among the working class, she struggled to be accepted or welcomed by other intellectuals in literary circles on the island. Not only was she a divorced woman in an overwhelming Catholic culture and a Black woman at that, but her peers also weren’t interested in mixing politics with poetry, much less the politics she advocated for like feminism and Afro-Puerto Rican civil rights. Feeling isolated, she decided to move to Cuba with her partner and physician Juan Isidro Jimenes Grúllon and further her studies at the University of Havana. After permanently relocating to New York in 1940, she was still able to continue with her writing, working as a columnist for Pueblos Hispanos and publishing her poetry and journalism work in various New York-based, Spanish-language newspapers. She also remained an active political advocate, working with African American activists in Harlem and continuing to fight for P.R.’s independence.

Famous Works

In addition to her two poetry collections, de Burgos’s sister posthumously published a third volume of work entitled El mar y tú: otros poemas, or The Sea and You: Other Poems. All of her work explored themes of Blackness, feminism, love, migration, nationalism, nature, anti-imperialism, independence, and the violence that was inflicted on Indigenous and African communities during colonial times. She never shied away from her identity as an Afro-Puerto Rican or discussing hard topics in her work, like in her poem “Río Grande de Loíza.” Named after a river on the island, she reckons with its colonial history that people would otherwise not want to think about: “Río Grande de Loíza! Río Grande. Great river. Great flood of tears. / The greatest of all our island’s tears /save those greater that come from the eyes / of my soul for my enslaved people.”

Another one of her famous poems is entitled “To Julia de Burgos,” which acts as a feminist manifesto for herself and women everywhere. Throughout the piece, she separates herself from traditional female roles in island society, like being a subservient wife to her husband, women who need make-up to feel beautiful, or women who lie to get to positions of power. Instead, she claims complete autonomy and power: “I am life, strength, woman…I am nobody’s, or everyone’s, since I give myself to everyone / to everyone in my pure feeling and in my thought…only my heart rules / my thought; I rule myself.” Over the course of her life, she composed over 200 poems, which continue to resonate with readers today.

Death and Legacy

In 1943, de Burgos married Armando Marín, a musician, but this marriage also resulted in divorce. Affected by grief and heartache, she fell into depression and alcoholism, which saw her in and out of hospitals. Around this time, she wrote her very last poem entitled “Farewell in Welfare Island,” which is believed to be one of her few English-language poems. Interestingly, the poem offers a dark perspective of life and even seems to foreshadow her own death near the end of the poem.

Months later, she disappeared from home without leaving a trace of where she went. Unknown to anyone who personally knew her, she had collapsed on a sidewalk in Harlem and died from pneumonia at the age of 54. No one had identified her nor did she have identification on her. She ended up being buried without a headstone in a potter’s field before friends and family were able to find her body and have her transported to her birthplace for a proper hero’s funeral in P.R. as she requested.

Both during and after her lifetime, de Burgos won many prizes for her work including the Institutos de Literatura and Cultura Puertorriqueña poetry prizes and an honorary doctorate in Human Arts and Letters from the Spanish Department of the University of Puerto Rico. Her portrait has been memorialized in a U.S. first-class postage stamp and a mosaic mural in Harlem. She has also been the namesake for many streets, schools, parks, and cultural centers including the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center in Cleveland, the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center in East Harlem, and Julia de Burgos Park in Chicago. Two documentaries have been made about her life including Julia…Todo En Mi and Vida y poesía de Julia de Burgos. She continues to be an inspiration for the next generation of Latina and Puerto Rican poets.

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