Julia de Burgos, Puerto Rican Treasure and Cultural Icon

Julia de Burgos

 

Julia de Burgos (January 17, 1914 – July 6, 1953) 

Poet, essayist, feminist, political activist, and nationalist

I first discovered the poetry of Julia de Burgos’ in Señora Esteves’ Spanish class when I was a sophomore at the Liceo Ponceño, a private, all-girl school, in the colonial city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. I like to think that Julia de Burgos came into my life when I was ready for her—I was sixteen, and I was a sponge for everything literary and artistic.

We were fortunate to have Señora Esteves, who introduced our class to the lyrical poetry of Julia de Burgos and Luis Llorens Torres, and the classic Puerto Rican novel, La Charca by Manuel Zeno Gandía, which I fell in love with. The following year, we read works by other Puerto Rican writers: Enrique Laguerre, Jose De Diego, Lola Rodríguez de Tío, Luis Muñoz Rivera, Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, Alejandrina Benítez de Gautier, and Jose Gautier Benítez.

But it was the cultural icon, Julia de Burgos, who captured my socially-conscious, sixteen-year-old heart, and inspired me to write poetry.  I immediately fell in love with her hauntingly beautiful poetry, her tragic death at age 39 on a street in Spanish Harlem, and her near-mythical status as Puerto Rico’s most beloved and celebrated poet, after her death. In my youth, Julia’s poems had a strong impact on me as I was already a budding feminist, a writer, and a painter. Reading her work takes me home-to Puerto Rico, and I know her writing influenced my descriptions of places, because of the ways in which I describe the ocean and the hurricanes of 1900 Puerto Rico in my novel, A Decent Woman–they are characters in the story.

My father explained to me that his Russian ancestry had a lot to do with my passion for tragic, raw stories, and my flair for the dramatic when I was younger. My Puerto Rican mother knew I was a romantic, free spirit, which always worried her, so she kept good tabs on me, which was probably a good thing when I was sixteen. They sent me to a Catholic, all-girl, junior college in Northern Virginia after I graduated high school, where I got into more things than they ever knew about. Poetry should have been the least of their worries!

If you haven’t discovered Julia de Burgos, you’re in for a treat–her poetry collections can be found on Amazon in English and Spanish. I’m ending this post with one of my favorite poems in Spanish and an English translation below it for you to enjoy.

Happy birthday, dear Julia Constanza Burgos García.  I never look at rivers without thinking of you.

RÍO GRANDE DE LOÍZA

¡Río Grande de Loíza!… Alárgate en mi espíritu
y deja que mi alma se pierda en tus riachuelos,
para buscar la fuente que te robó de niño
y en un ímpetu lo te devolvió al sendero.
Enróscate en mis labios y deja que te beba,
para sentirte mío por un breve momento,
y esconderte del mundo, y en ti mismo esconderte,
y oir voces de asombro, en la boca del viento.
Apéate un instante del lomo de la tierra,
y busca de mis ansias el íntimo secreto;
confúndeme en el vuelo de mi ave fantasía,
y déjame una rosa de agua en mis ensueños.

¡Río Grande de Loiza!.. Mi manantial, mi río,
desde que alzóse al mundo el pétalo materno;
contigo se bajaron desde las rudas cuestas
a buscar nuevos surcos, mis pálidos anhelos;
y mi niñez fue toda un poema en el río,
y un río en el poema de mis primeros sueños.
Llegó la adolescencia. Me sorprendió la vida
prendida en lo más ancho de tu viajar eterno;
y fui tuya mil veces, y en un bello romance
me despertaste el alma y me besaste el cuerpo.

¿Adónde te Ilevaste las aguas que bañaron
mis formas, en espiga del sol recién abierto?
¡Quién sabe en qué remoto país mediterráneo
alguien fauno en la playa me estará poseyendo!
¡Ouién sabe en qué aguacero de qué tierra lejana
me estaré derramando para abrir surcos nuevos;
o si acaso, cansada de morder corazones,
me estaré congelando en cristales de hielo!

¡Río Grande de Loíza! Azul, Moreno, Rojo.
Espejo azul, caído pedazo azul del cielo;
desnuda carne blanca que se te vuelve negra
cada vez que la noche se te mete en el lecho;
roja franja de sangre, cuando baja la lluvia
a torrentes su barro te vomitan los cerros.
Río hombre, pero hombre con pureza de río,
porque das tu azul alma cuando das tu azul beso.
Muy señor río mío. Río hombre. Único hombre
que ha besado en mi alma al besar en mi cuerpo.

¡Río Grande de Loiza!… Río grande. Llanto grande.
El más grande de todos nuestros llantos isleños,
si no fuera más grande el que de mi se sale
por los ojos del alma para mi esclavo pueblo.

 

English translation:

Río Grande de Loíza

Río Grande de Loíza!… Elongate yourself in my spirit

and let my soul lose itself in your rivulets,

finding the fountain that robbed you as a child

and in a crazed impulse returned you to the path.

 

Coil yourself upon my lips and let me drink you,

to feel you mine for a brief moment,

to hide you from the world and hide you in yourself,

to hear astonished voices in the mouth of the wind.

 

Dismount for a moment from the loin of the earth,

and search for the intimate secret in my desires;

confuse yourself in the flight  of my bird fantasy,

and leave a rose of water in my dreams.

 

Rio Grande de Loiza!… My wellspring, my river

since the maternal petal lifted me to the world;

my pale desires came down in you from the craggy hills

to find new furrows;

and my childhood was all a poem in the river,

and a river in the poem of my first dreams.

 

Adolescence arrived. Life surprised me

pinned to the widest part of your eternal voyage;

and I was yours a thousand times, and in a beautiful romance

you awoke my soul and kissed my body.

 

Were did you take the waters that bathed

my body in a sun blossom recently opened?

 

Who knows on what remote Mediterranean shore

some faun shall be possessing me!

 

Who knows in what rainfall of what far land

I shall be spilling to open new furrows;

or perhaps, tired of biting hearts

I shall be freezing in icicles!

 

Rio Grande de Loiza!… Blue. Brown. Red.

Blue mirror, fallen piece of blue sky;

naked white flesh that turns black

each time the night enters your bed;

red stripe of blood, when the rain falls

in torrents and the hills vomit their mud.

 

Man river, but man with the purity of river,

because you give your blue soul when you give your blue kiss.

 

Most sovereign river mine. Man river. The only man

who has kissed my soul upon kissing my body.

 

Rio Grande de Loiza!… 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.

 

(All quotations are from Julia de Burgos, “Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems,” compiled and translated by Jack Agüeros. Curbstone Press. Translation copyright © 1996 by Jack Agüeros.)

 

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