Listening to the Words of Puerto Rican Poet Julia de Burgos After Hurricane Maria

The flag of Puerto Rico. (Getty Images)

Artist and writer Molly Crabapple retraces the steps of twentieth century poet Julia de Burgos, who was born in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and lived and worked throughout the island, Cuba, and the United States before an early death in 1953. De Burgos is largely unknown outside of Puerto Rico; Crabapple weaves a story of the poet’s literary accomplishment and the origins of her feminist, nationalistic ideals, with that of Puerto Rico’s resilience in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

What was truly to blame for her decline? Was it thwarted ambition? Government surveillance? Poverty? Her knack for stirring up jealous gossip? The racism and sexism any brown woman would have faced? In New York, she worked blue-collar jobs: power press operator, sales clerk, seamstress. She stormed out of a factory after fighting with fascists, quit a newspaper because the director was reactionary. Her marriage collapsed in stages. She drank. She had boyfriends. This kind of hard-living, fast-loving bohemianism might have been acceptable for a Hemingway; not so much for a Puerto Rican woman.

In 1948, cirrhosis forced her into the first of a series of long-term hospitalizations. Famously, she put “writer” as her profession on the intake form for Bellevue. Staff crossed it out and wrote in “suffers from delusions.” In the hospitals, her skull was measured. She was experimented on, injected with hormones, confined to a wheelchair, exhibited to medical students. The nurses exclaimed over her kinky hair.

She kept writing. Every time she was offered a ticket back to Puerto Rico, she declined.

In 1953, six weeks out of the hospital, Julia de Burgos collapsed on a Harlem street near Central Park, and died. She was thirty-nine years old. She carried no ID and, with no one able to identify her body, was buried in a potter’s field on Hunt’s Island. After a month of inquiries, her friends in Puerto Rico located her, had her body exhumed, and brought her home at last to Carolina.

During my visit, I could not see the memorial De Burgos’s hometown had built for its most famous daughter. It was closed because of damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

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