Julia de Burgos – Activist and Poet

Considered by many to have been the greatest Puerto Rican poet, and counted among the great poets of Latin America, Julia Constancia Burgos García was an outspoken activist on civil rights issues relating to women, as well as being an advocate for the independence of Puerto Rico and a promoter of literary works by Afro-Caribbean writers. The Julia de Burgos Park in Carolina, the place of her birth, features a sculpted bust of the poet by Puerto Rican sculptor Tomás Batista, and a number of landmarks, buildings and streets bear her name, both in Puerto Rico and the United States.

Julia de Burgos
Born in Barrio Santa Cruz, Carolina, on 17 February 1914, Julia de Burgos had twelve younger siblings, half of whom did not make it to adulthood due to the extreme poverty of the family. Despite their dire circumstances, Julia had a gift for seeing beyond the hardships and appreciating the beauty of nature, and her first published work Río Grande de Loíza spoke of her childhood as a being a poem in the river. Upon receiving a scholarship to attend the University High School in Rio Piedras, the entire family moved there. She later enrolled in the Rio Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico with the intention of becoming a teacher, and in 1933 graduated with a degree in teaching, at the age of 19 years. Julia de Burgos took up a teaching post at the Feijoo Elementary School in Naranjito’s Barrio Cedro Arriba.

Julia de Burgos married Ruben Rodrigues Beauchamp in 1934, ending her career as a teacher in order to spend more time writing. In 1936 she was elected Secretary General of the Daughters of Freedom, a non-partisan organization attached to the Nationalist Party, of which she was a member. Her political activities and literary pursuits proved to be very time-consuming, which affected her marriage, and they divorced in 1937. By this time her work was being published in newspapers and journals, and she published three books of her poetry. Julia promoted her first to books by giving book readings at various venues throughout Puerto Rico. Her third book was published posthumously in 1954. The subject matter of this talented poet’s works addressed issues relating to the social struggle faced by the oppressed, particularly women. Critics saw her as the pioneer of feminist writers and poets, quoting a memorable phrase from one of her works where she says: “I am life, strength, woman”.

Sadly, following the failure of her relationship with Dominican physician Dr. Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullon, as well as the failure of her subsequent marriage to musician Armando Marín, Julia slipped into depression. One of her final works, and her only poem written in English, reflected her state of mind at the time, where she speaks of her “cry into the world” and the “phantoms of (her) grave”. She was residing in New York at the time of her death at the age of 39. She died of pneumonia in hospital following her collapse on a sidewalk in Spanish Harlem. Having had no identification with her, she was given a pauper’s burial on Hart Island. A group of her friends and family later claimed her body, and Julia de Burgos was reburied, this time with the dignity and respect she deserved, in the Municipal Cemetery of Carolina, Puerto Rico, where a monument was built in her honor. While Julia de Burgos may have died much too young, she left an enduring literary heritage that continues to be appreciated.