Historical Highlights: Julia De Burgos

Historical Highlights: Julia De Burgos

Story | Michaela Clem-Jacobs

Each month, a SEALED contributor will feature a prominent figure from history. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, SEALED writer Michaela Clem-Jacobs introduced us to Puerto Rican activist and artist Julia de Burgos.

Courtesy | Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center

Julia de Burgos is not the name that the Puerto Rican poet, activist, educator and artist was born with. She was born Julia Constanicia Burgos Garcia.  She did not marry into her name, or change it in an attempt to fit in.  She changed and added “de” to her name to symbolically take possession of herself.  This stance of power was reflected throughout almost everything she accomplished.  Her poetry not only was praised for its beauty, but also was controversial for its social commentary.  And her work as a social activist towards helping Puerto Rico gain independence from American government and its subsequent dictatorship greatly impacted what the country of Puerto Rico is today. 

De Burgos was born in 1914 as the eldest of thirteen children, and from the beginning of her life was active and determined.  She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico when she was nineteen and published her own volume of poetry in 1938 as a 24-year-old.  Always persevering and ambitious, De Burgos traveled around to personally sell her books.  Her first volume, Poema en Veinte Surcos (Poem in Twenty Furrows), explored Puerto Rico’s history of slavery and the effects of American Imperialism. In the poem, De Burgos praises Puerto Rico’s natural beauty but compares it to the suffering experienced by enslaved Puerto Ricans. 

‘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.” 

Outside of her poetry, De Burgos was a highly active member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was eventually elected as Secretary General for the Daughters of Freedom- a feminist branch of the party.  The phrase “nationalism” may ring an alarm in the heads of some readers because of the decidedly negative impact of Nationalism in America, but in this context it was quite different.  The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was founded during the 1920s in response to the strict government control over Puerto Rico, headed by the United States President-appointed Governor.  This American appointment led to the assassination of two Puerto Rican government officials, and the attempted assassination of a Puerto Rican federal judge.  Besides fighting for the advancement of Puerto Rico, she also was an influential feminist. 

De Burgo’s life was short, but undeniably full of impact. She passed away at the young age of 39.  When we study and appreciate her impact, it is important to not romanticize her death and her struggles with alcoholism that came beforehand.  When a prominent person dies young, we tend to grieve, praise their hard work, but then move on, romanticizing them into history.  While we absolutely must appreciate their work, it is also our responsibility to continue their legacy and fight for their causes, and not just give empty praise.   Let us remember them by carrying on their legacy through our actions.

“When the multitude uncontrolled runs,

The ashes of injustices, burnt, left behind,

And when with the torch of the seven virtues,

The throng to the seven sins gives chase,

I will be against you and against all

That is unjust and inhuman.

Upholding the torch… I shall be among the throng”

To Justlia De Burgos

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