Julia de Burgos, Foremother of a New York Latinx Intellectual Tradition

Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014); 224 pages; ISBN 978-0252080609 (paperback)

• October 2016

Vanessa Pérez-Rosario’s introduction to Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon opens with the story of the poet’s death. Or, rather, the story of how Burgos was found unconscious by two New York City police officers on a street corner in East Harlem in 1953. I knew of Burgos—growing up in Puerto Rico and attending Puerto Rican public schools, I am almost certain we had to memorize “Rio Grande de Loíza” for La Semana de la Lectura . . . or maybe it was La Semana de la Puertorriqueñidad? In my thirties, I remembered only a little of the poet. But that story? That I remembered. In my mind, I had always associated Burgos with a certain island-based cultural pride. As a Nuyorican, and as a return migrant, I prickled at notions of national culture, and so Burgos was filed away in my brain. Reading about her death brought her back to me, immediately.

However, Pérez-Rosario takes readers away from that scene quickly. In fact, the book does not dwell on the circumstances of Burgos’s death but instead underscores how she lives on in the works of Latinx writers and artists. Over five chapters, Pérez-Rosario traces a loose chronology of Burgos’s work and her cultural influence after her death. Reading Burgos under a different light, Pérez-Rosario extends her analysis to how Burgos was/is received by other Latin Americans writers and artists in the United States and the Caribbean. The “becoming” of the title unfurls, like the verb tense indicates, over the several chapters and across national borders. It indicates a process, movement, the nomadic essence in Burgos’ writing that Pérez Rosario deftly traces.

The goal of the book, according to the introduction, is to propose “a new way of reading Burgos’ work, life, and legacy, focusing on the escape routes she created to transcend the rigid confines of gender and cultural nationalism” (1). In chapter 1, Pérez-Rosario looks at Burgos’s first poetry collection and her burgeoning social, political, and creative consciousness. She also points out how this part of Burgos’s life coincides with her marriage and divorce. Chapter 2 takes on Burgos’s second and third poetry collections and puts them in the perspective of her departure from Puerto Rico for New York City, her brief sojourn in Havana, and her love affair with fellow writer and intellectual Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullón. The focus of chapter 3 is Burgos’s writing for Pueblos Hispanos, a Spanish-language newspaper in New York City, and the transnational ties that developed. Chapter 4 moves from Burgos’s work to the work of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban diasporic writers who are building on Burgos’s legacy. Lastly, chapter 5 looks at the influence of Burgos’s work and words on visual culture in East Harlem.

One of the striking things about the book is that Pérez-Rosario always makes the transnational connections between Burgos’s work and other countries. For Pérez-Rosario, Burgos’s influence is not limited to Puerto Rican culture. In fact, Pérez-Rosario proves that Burgos’s identity is not limited to the island, and we see Burgos struggle with the limitations of national identity (and nationalism as a political agenda) from the first chapter. Pérez-Rosario reads the poet’s move to New York as another migrant leaving not for economic reasons but for idealistic, personal reasons.

I enjoyed reading Pérez-Rosario’s discussion about nomadic subjects in Burgos’s writing, a concept touched on in most of the chapters. In her analysis, nomadic subjectivity is more than just an idea that repeats itself in Burgos’s writing; Pérez-Rosario connects the idea of the nomadic subject in Burgos’s writing to bigger frameworks, such as Latinidad and migration. In chapter 1, for example, Pérez-Rosario brings poetry, history, journalism, and essays/manifestos to show how Burgos yearns to be free of the cultural and physical constraints of the island.

The major framework of the book is the loose chronological arc that ties with the notion of “becoming” seen in the title. However, Pérez-Rosario excels when she moves away from the well-researched sociohistorical context and dives into the motifs in Burgos’s writing. Pérez-Rosario brings in concepts such as nomadic subject, sexile, and Latinidad to better understand the poet’s appeal after death, all of which render Burgos an icon. I wanted Pérez-Rosario to delve deeper into the concepts, and perhaps that is my bias as a literature major. However, that approach would require focusing more on Burgos’s writing, and Pérez Rosario keeps the book remarkably condensed. She aims for breadth, which is important considering that this is the first study in English of Burgos’s work.

I also wish that Perez-Rosario had dedicated a chapter to Burgos’s third book, El mar y tú, which was published posthumously in 1954. She includes it in chapter 2, as part of a broader conversation that includes Burgos’s second book, Canciones de la verdad sencilla (1939), and her letters to her sister in Puerto Rico. Although some of the images in the poems are similar between books, context is important. Perhaps a discussion of how El mar y tú came to be published, or a discussion of its posthumous reception, could broaden the conversations about Latinidad, cultural identity, and nomadic subjects.

But the biggest takeaway for me from this book? As a Puerto Rican migrant and a writer, reading about Burgos’s influence and ideology felt personal. I grew up thinking of Burgos as poetisa de la nación puertorriqueña, the poet of the Puerto Rican nation, and Pérez-Rosario introduced me to a rebellious, passionate, inquieta Julia de Burgos. “Poetry, writing, and art have often been described as a lifeline for women artists and as a vehicle for self-dicovery and self-expression,” Pérez-Rosario writes in chapter 1. “Although Burgos did not give birth to those ideas, the explicit expression of her relationship to her art is part of her legacy to subsequent generations of women artists” (42). After reading Becoming Julia de Burgos, I no longer think of Burgos’s legacy as belonging on the island I left more than a decade ago but as belonging to the complicated, multidimensional Latina writer I am today.


Liana M. Silva, PhD, is a writer currently living in Houston. Once upon a time she was a writing instructor and a graduate writing specialist; now she teaches English at a high school in Houston and is managing editor for Sounding Out! A Blog about Sound Studies. She was the only woman of color among the editors of the professional newsletter Women in Higher Education. Her major writing project at the moment is research for a book about postcards. Find her on Twitter at @liana_m_silva.