Vanessa Pérez Rosario is an associate professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at City University of New York, Brooklyn College, and the editor of Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement. She recently answered some questions about her book Becoming Julia de Burgos.
Q: How do you conceive of Julia de Burgos’s work as split into “two parts?”
Vanessa Pérez Rosario: We can think of Burgos’s writing in Puerto Rico and her writing and legacy abroad as two parts that speak to each other. One of the things that is most interesting about her is that she continues to explore the themes she wrote about while in Puerto Rico, greater freedoms for women, affirmation of blackness, and exile, from abroad. These themes take on new dimensions in her work from abroad. In the book, I track her migratory routes from Puerto Rico to Cuba and then New York, where she lived for over 10 years. Her migrations contribute to the challenge of telling her story, but it is also what makes her compelling and current.
Q: Why did Julia de Burgos leave Puerto Rico and move to New York?
Pérez Rosario: Several different factors influenced Julia de Burgos’s decision to leave the island for New York in January 1940. The turn in Puerto Rican politics away from the nationalist and independence movement played a role in her decision to migrate. Also, many Puerto Rican writers, artists and musicians left the island for New York in those years in search of a wider audience, publishing houses, recording studios and greater opportunities to continue to develop their craft. Julia de Burgos wanted to be a part of this.
Q: Why was New York City a unique place for Burgos to define her cultural identity?
Pérez Rosario: In New York, Burgos visited the opera, ballet, music halls and participated in the cultural life of the city. She also developed cultural networks and recited her poetry regularly in different cultural venues and political events. She wrote for various cultural and political Spanish-language publications in New York and became actively involved in the Puerto Rican and Latino community there. From New York, Julia de Burgos continued to conceive of a more expansive Puerto Rican identity, one that was broad enough to include the diaspora which continued to grow during the 1940s and 50s.
Q: Burgos’s status has grown in the last few decades. Was there a turning point during which she was embraced by certain communities?
Pérez Rosario: There are at least two historical moments where we see a renewed interest in Julia de Burgos’s life and work. The civil rights movement of the 1960s is one of those moments. The women’s movement of that era led to a renewed interest in the poet on the island by feminist writers, artists and literary critics. At the time, the first book-length study on Julia de Burgos was published in Spanish in Puerto Rico. In the New York, the Nuyorican Movement of the 1970s led to ethnic revitalization and search for a deeper understanding of Puerto Rican history and culture that so many New York Puerto Ricans were distanced from. This coincided with the publication of an anthology of Puerto Rican Spanish-language poetry translated into English. As Latina feminists sought for intellectual genealogies during the women of color movement, they reclaimed Julia de Burgos as an ancestor.
Additionally, the turn of the twentieth-century was another moment where writers and artists reclaimed Julia de Burgos as an inspiration and a cultural icon. The 1990s marks the so-called “Latin explosion” when Latinos were recognized as a consumer category in the United States. This coincided with the Spanish-American war centennial and one hundred years of U.S. domination in Puerto Rico. This decade witnessed the cultural and commercial iconization of Latin American women and Latinas who died tragically at a young age, such as Eva Perón Duarte, Frida Kahlo and Selena Quintanilla. Julia de Burgos became the icon of Latino New York. She is inscribed on the streets of El Barrio, East Harlem in the form of murals, cultural centers and street corners. These cultural sites and places to publicly and collectively mourn and remember Julia permit the community to both mourn its past and affirm its renewal.
Q: Many others have focused on the tragedy of Burgos’s life, especially her death. Did you hesitate covering some of that ground within Becoming Julia de Burgos?
Pérez Rosario: Much has been written about Julia de Burgos’s mysterious death on the streets of Harlem in 1953. I felt at times this overshadows how talented she was as a poet. Burgos’s life and death have been shrouded in gossip and myth. When I set out to write this book, I wanted to focus instead on her work, her politics, the world she lived in, and her contributions to Puerto Rican culture both on the island and in New York. As I developed this project, I realized that these stories about her life and death captured the imaginations of readers everywhere. I think it’s important to honor that.