Molly Crabapple in the New York Review of Books:
After, when the sea will curl violently
They will say: “it is the fatal conscience of that girl,
She had many sins because she always lived in verse
And what you do on earth, on earth you pay for.”
—From “After,” by Julia de Burgos
In 1928, when Julia de Burgos was fourteen, Hurricane San Felipe devastated Puerto Rico. The Category Five storm left not a single building unscathed, least of all the wood casita in a mountain barrio in Carolina where De Burgos was born. Three hundred people died in what would be, for the next ninety years, the most violent storm in the island’s history. Julia de Burgos did not record her experience.
Puerto Rico’s most famous poet and greatest literary figure, De Burgos is as significant a cultural icon for the island commonwealth as the artist Frida Kahlo is for Mexico. Every line of De Burgos’s verse is imbued with passion, feminist self-assertion, and love of homeland. As with many female artists, De Burgos’s life story added to her legend, though her romantic life and untimely death threatened to overshadow her work by turning her into an allegorical figure for the patria’s humiliations. Yet, outside of Puerto Rican communities, she is largely unknown despite the fact that her poetry, while firmly rooted in place, addresses the universal human subjects of love, war, and self-creation.
De Burgos’s life spanned Puerto Rico’s full entrenchment as a colony of the United States, while her public life as a writer took place against the backdrop of the twentieth-century’s global conflict between fascism and democracy. The problems Puerto Ricans face today, as their impoverished island fights for survival in an era when the international order seems to be coming apart, are the legacy of the struggles De Burgos faced. In January, I traveled to Puerto Rico with my father, carrying a copy of Julia de Burgos’s letters, visiting the places she had lived, trying to hear her voice.