Woman of the Week: Julia de Burgos

Julia de Burgos

“I am life, strength, woman.”

              Julia de Burgos, our third Woman of the Week, is a more tragic figure than some of the other featured women. Although her story does not contain a “happy ending” typical of posts like these, that does not make the story any less important to tell.

              Julia de Burgos was born on February 17, 1914, in Carolina, on the island of Puerto Rico. The tribulations of Burgos’ life started from a young age. She was born the oldest of thirteen children, but saw six of her younger siblings die as a result of malnutrition. The Burgos family ended up moving from Carolina to Santa Cruz, where Burgos would graduate from Munoz Rivera Primary School in 1928. Following her graduation she was awarded a scholarship to attend University High School in Rio Piedras. Unable to turn down the opportunity for a greater education, the family once again packed up their home and moved. Education became an important theme in the life of Julia de Burgos, and in 1931, she enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, to pursue a degree in teaching.

              The future was looking bright for 19 year old Julia de Burgos. In 1931, she graduated with her teaching degree and she secured a job at Feijo Elementary School in Barrio Cedro Arriba of Naranjito, Puerto Rico.  During her time as an elementary school teacher, Burgos also worked as a writer for a children’s program on public radio. Ever an outspoken woman, Julia de Burgos used the public radio as a platform to spread her political beliefs to a captive audience. Unfortunately, Burgos was allegedly fired from the program for giving her activism a voice on the radio. Although a roadblock, Burgos did not let her termination bring about the end to her advocacy. In 1936, she became a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was elected Secretary General of the Daughters of Freedom, the women’s branch of the Nationalist Party. During this time she attempted to plant the seeds of Puerto Rican independence into the hearts of her fellow islanders.

              The passion that Burgos showed in her participation with the Nationalist party was also reflected in her writings. She published a total of three books, but the last was published posthumously in 1954. The style of her writing was lyrical poetry, and each poem would focus on at least one of three major themes. She was either writing about intimacy, the land she came from, or the social struggles of oppressed groups. Many believe that Julia de Burgos was a writer ahead of her time. Her work has been asserted to anticipate the writing of several iconic feminist and Hispanic authors.

              At the time it seemed that the story Julia de Burgos was going to leave behind would be one of inspiration. She had overcome adversity, gotten an education, and created a life for herself based on her fundamental beliefs. Unfortunately, that is not how her tale ends. What undermined her in the end was one of the three main themes that Burgos found herself writing about. Intimacy proved to be something that Burgos would struggle with throughout her life. In 1934, she married Ruben Rodrigues Beauchamp, but in 1937, they were divorced. After her divorce she began to take romantic interest in a Dominican physician named Dr. Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullon. It is said that many of her poems at this time focused on the love that she held for Grullon, but after a trip to Cuba that the two took together tension began to show in their relationship. She ended up leaving him on the island, and booking passage to New York City, where she would meet her second husband Armando Marin. This final attempt at love ended the same as the first, and in 1947 the marriage ended in divorce. It is said that the divorce caused Burgos to lapse into both depression and alcoholism.

              The decline of the poet began after her second divorce, and in 1953, she wrote one of her last poems. The poem was title Farewell in Welfare Island and it is throughout the text Burgos foreshadows her own death. The last time that Burgos was seen alive was June 28, 1953. After that day she had left the home that she was staying in and disappeared without a trace. It was later discovered that she had collapsed on a sidewalk in Spanish Harlem. She had died of pneumonia in a Harlem hospital at the age of 39. With no one to claim her body the city gave her a pauper’s burial in a potter’s field. After some time Burgos friends and family got word of her death and were able to claim the body and have Julia sent home to Puerto Rico. There she received a hero’s burial, and a monument was erected in her honor at her burial site.

              The life of Julia de Burgos offers many lessons to the people of today. All of us have the potential to be the hero of a story, but that potential can become the very thing that brings about our own downfall. Julia de Burgos allowed for the failures of her love life to become her legacy, which brought her nothing but sorrow; if she had only looked a little harder she would have seen that she was wrong. Since her death, Burgos has been honored by the Spanish Department at the University of Puerto Rico with an honorary doctorate in Human Arts and Letters. She has also been honored in: Carolina, Puerto Rico, New York City, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Illinois, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Willimantic, Connecticut. All of these places and people beyond her failures, and chose to honor the innovative author. We are all human, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life, but we do not need to allow those mistakes to rule our lives. In the end, we can find Julia de Burgos to be an inspiration. Her ideals and passion can move us, but her ending serves to teach us. The only way for us to achieve the ever coveted “happy ending” is to let go our trials and keeping walking the path we have laid out for ourselves.

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Rachel Anderson