Puerto Rican Poetry and Dreams of the Independence: A Family Affair

xxxxxxxAlthough I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., removed from any Latina/o community, I spent many summers with my grandmother in Salinas, Puerto Rico, where everyone seemed related, somehow, and probably was, considering how many generations my mother’s family lived in this small town. Free to do what we wanted, my sister, my brother, my cousins, and I spent our days galavanting in the streets. We palmed quarters from my grandmother’s dresser to play pinball in the local bar, where older gentlemen sat at dominoes for hours. We bought pan de agua at the bakery around the corner or went to the theater to watch karate films or skated around the town center.

xxxxxxxMost days, we hitched rides to the beach in the beds of trucks. There, we lounged in the hammock, telling stories, went swimming or sailing, watched fishermen on the pier. We picked passion fruit from my uncle’s roof, or begged one of the older boys to climb the great tree and collect quenepas, Spanish limes, our favorite. At dusk, we wandered into the kitchen of my grandmother’s restaurant, where we always found her with her sister and the other women, preparing orders onto large silver trays, plate after plate: pescado al mojo, arroz con gandules, pastelles, mofongo, tembleque, flan.

xxxxxxxMy grandmother and great aunt, who put their brothers through medical school by working in that kitchen, welcomed us, their hands and faces slick with sweat and oil. The waiters would pull several tables together on the patio, where we could see the ocean, the pier, and on clear nights, the lights of Ponce—all the cousins sitting together, famished from a day of being in our bodies entirely. At night we took showers, rinsing the salt from our hair, our skin tight and slightly burned, before going to sleep, sometimes four to a bed.

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xxxxxxxWhen my grandmother locked the restaurant doors each night, she came home, got in bed and spent her last waking minutes reading from one of several books on her side table. Thumbing through them, I was always curious by the range of subject, genre, and language, though I had only ever heard her speak Spanish with any fluency. Some nights, I would knock on her door, and she would invite me onto the bed to talk about the day. If she liked what she was reading, she would become animated, again, despite the many hours on her feet, and go into great detail about the author and the work itself.

xxxxxxxOn one memorable occasion, my grandmother was reading Yerba Bruja, a book of poems by the Puerto Rican activist Juan Antonio Corretjer. Born in 1908, Corretjer was raised within a pro-Independence family. As he grew up, he attended rallies, joined political youth organizations, and wrote poetry, essays, and pamphlets on behalf of the cause, a cause that my grandmother, born nine years after Corretjer, also supported. Yerba bruja, which has been translated as “bewitched grass,” is also the Spanish name for a plant (kalenchoe pinantum) with several medicinal uses.

xxxxxxxIn the 1957 publication of this poetry collection, Corretjer uses the plant leaf as a metaphor, my grandmother explained, sitting up in bed. The poet had opened a book, she said slowly in a Spanish that I could understand, and found a leaf that had been used to mark the page. Corretjer was surprised to see that the leaf had continued to grow after it was pulled from the stem, just as Puerto Rico would grow after ties with the United States were broken. Puerto Rico would grow, overcoming adversities. In this way, yerba bruja became a patriotic symbol for Puerto Ricans.

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xxxxxxxIn those early years, before the highway made trips from the airport in San Juan to Salinas comparatively easy, I would go weeks without ever hearing English spoken by someone other than my siblings or cousins. But as I grew older, the presence of American commercialism grew stronger. One year, on the way to Salinas, we stopped at a Burger King, which seemed to me odd and foreign, within this context. As I grew older, I could see more advertisements for American products. On the radio more American music was being played. And each year, my grandmother seemed more frustrated with the assimilation, even in her small town, which for so long seemed relatively unaffected by the greater cultural influences of the United States.

xxxxxxxIt isn’t difficult to understand my grandmother’s hostility toward the U. S.. Born in 1919, merely 21 years after the Spanish-American War, when the United States annexed Puerto Rico, my grandmother must have bristled with distrust. In 1917, as a result of the Jones-Shafroth Act, Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship, so two months after the Act was passed into law, when the U.S. issued a draft for World War I, these newly named citizens were expected to serve. Coincidentally, the first Puerto Rican to be drafted was Eustaquio Correa, who shared my grandmother’s last name.

xxxxxxxMoreover, despite American success in promoting health and sanitation on the island, the United States did little to stabilize the economy or promote fair wages, particularly among sugar cane and tobacco workers, so the booming population had few resources. These, among many other issues, led to the formation of the Independent party. For my grandmother, poetry was a means of promoting a particular political agenda, its aim to speak for the people, to instill pride in a community, to bring them together in resistance to American rule and assimilation.

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xxxxxxxMy grandmother’s insistence on the relationship between art and politics must have been influenced, in part, by the emergence of another politically charged art form: the plena. The plena is a musical genre that began in the sugar growing regions of Puerto Rico’s southern coast around the late 19th century. Influenced by immigrants from the Virgin Islands, early plena blended both African and Spanish musical traditions. In the early 20th century, musicians began to compose lyrics. The songs covered various topics, humorous and profound, but the plena is referred to as “periodico canto [the sung newspaper] because the songs often deal with important current events” (Anderson 55).

xxxxxxxOne famous song tells the story of a woman who has been stabbed by her abusive boyfriend. But it moves beyond the personal tragedy to implicate the community, which knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it. “Temporal,” a song about San Felipe, a hurricane that walloped the island, expresses concern for the fate of its people. Another song tells the story of an American attorney who came to the island to challenge the agricultural system that was in place. In the lyrics, a shark, meant to represent Puerto Rico, eats the lawyer who threatens the livelihood of local farmers.

xxxxxxxAs a young boy, strolling the sidewalks, I heard this music blaring from cars, from bars, from the record store. The fast finger work on the guitar. The scratch of the metal comb along the husk of the dried gourd. The fingers slapping the tambourine-like percussion. The men’s imperfect voices wailing, lamenting, it seemed. One of my earliest and most vivid memories is from one of my grandmother’s parties, where a band of men dressed in crisp white shirts played late into the night and we danced well beyond my bedtime. This music, born in Ponce, Guayama, and Salinas, must have had a profound impact on my grandmother, shaping who she would become, her relationship to art and its role in the community.

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xxxxxxxAnother Puerto Rican poet who spoke out against colonial power and influence was Julia de Burgos, and my grandmother introduced me to her work as well. One summer evening, after closing the restaurant early, we went to a small video store to pick out a movie. As I was scanning the shelves in the small room for an American film, my grandmother spotted a documentary on de Burgos. That night we sat close to my grandmother’s small television to listen to poetry, as various grainy images of town plazas and landscapes flashed upon the screen. According to my grandmother, as a young adult, de Burgos lived, not only in the small town of Salinas, where she briefly taught, but in the very apartment in which we were sitting. According to my grandmother, who was only five years younger, the two women were friends.

xxxxxxxBorn in 1915, Julia de Burgos was the oldest of thirteen children. As a young adult, she became more politically active, abandoning her earlier aspirations to become a teacher. In 1936, she joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was elected Secretary General to The Daughters of Freedom, a women’s organization within the Party. De Burgos wrote three books of poetry, the last of which was published posthumously. Her lyric poems often addressed her personal life, but she also wrote politically driven poetry. At the young age of 39, Julia de Burgos died of pneumonia in Spanish Harlem.

xxxxxxAs with much of Corretjer’s poetry, de Burgos often turned to the landscape to convey a sense of national pride. “Flood my spirit,” she writes in “The Great River Loiza,” one of her most famous poems. As Edward Hirsch explains, the poet:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlinks her childhood river (“my well-spring, my river/since the xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxmaternal petal lifted me to the world”) to the source of her art xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(“and my childhood was all a poem in the river/ and a river in the xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxpoem of my first dreams”), and the grief of her native island.(183)
The poem ends:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxGreat river. Great flood of tears.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe greatest of all our island’s tears
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsave those greater that come from the eyes
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof my soul for my enslaved people. (41-44)

xxxxxxxAs I recall, this poem, in particular, spoke to my grandmother, who was less taken by personal narratives or issues of race and gender. She dismissed stories of racism and sexism with a wave of her hand, so I imagine the idea of writing about the LGBTQ experience would have seemed outrageous to her, if not downright shameful.

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xxxxxxxBy the time that I turned fourteen, my grandmother was asking, and often, how many girls I was dating—“Why only one?”—and if I had lost my virginity. Over the next few years, the questions became more personal, more inappropriate. What I gathered from her questions, from the way she beamed over my uncle, my older male cousins, was that men were not only free, but encouraged to “conquer” women. Then, one morning, as I was walking from the shower to my room in nothing more than a towel, my grandmother stopped me in the narrow hallway.
xxxxxxx“Are you gay?”
xxxxxxxHalf naked, water dripping onto the tiles, I paused. She had never—no one had ever—asked, and I wondered for a moment if she was inviting me to confide in her this secret that I had been carrying around most of my life.
xxxxxxxThen, her open hand rose up over her head, “Because if you are, I’ll beat you.”
xxxxxxxWhat I understood in that moment was that she wasn’t asking me if I was gay. She knew that I was. What she was telling me was that, under no circumstances, was I to admit it. That admission would bring shame upon her, upon the family. In her eyes, my own particular identity was in direct conflict with the identity of the larger family. So I kept the secret for ten years, bearing my own shame, doing my best to navigate the increasing hostility from my grandmother, my mother, and later, several of those beloved cousins, until ultimately, I felt that I could no longer visit this place, these people, I had once loved more than any other.

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xxxxxxxI I’d always admired my grandmother’s independent spirit, but as I grew older, I saw that her politics were more complicated than I had originally thought. There’s no question that she rejected the United States’s presence on the island, but did she really want independence? Alongside her books of fiction, poetry, and history, one could always find tabloid magazines from Spain. She seemed particularly eager to see photos of the king, of his children. She wanted to know the latest rumors, and became downright giddy at the thought of a royal European wedding.

xxxxxxxMy grandmother wasn’t only obsessed with Spain, but Italy, as well. My grandfather’s parents had immigrated from Italy, and I assumed, at first, that her fascination and romanticization of the country came from a longing for her husband, who died the year that I was born. To say something was Italian, or European, for that matter, was another way of saying that something was the best. This was often expressed in her aesthetics, whether considering fashion, food, furniture, art, or architecture. In regard to beauty, pale skin, bright eyes, light hair were the things to look for. I remember one day, looking at family photos with my grandmother. She gently took one in her hands.
xxxxxxx“You see,” she said, “Your mother was an unattractive young woman because of her coloring.”

xxxxxxxI was shocked to hear her say this about my mother, who I’d always thought beautiful, but I was also surprised because my grandmother had a darker complexion, dark hair and dark eyes, like my mother. Almost all the women in the family did, and they were all considered unattractive by my grandmother’s standards.

xxxxxxxMy grandmother often claimed that her complexion was a result of too much time in the sun as a child, but once, at dinner, when my brother innocently asked about my grandmother’s father—someone we knew nothing about—my grandmother became tight lipped and defensive. My aunt leaned over to me and whispered, “To learn about his family, we’d have to go to Africa.” As I grew older, it became clear that my grandmother felt shame as a woman of color. It seemed that she had internalized an awful myth about beauty and race. The irony, for me, at least, was that, politically, as an Independent, she seemed to reject colonialism, but as an individual, her own psyche had been overcome by these Eurocentric ideals that neither she nor her daughter, my mother, could ever live up to.

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xxxxxxxMy grandmother’s love of poetry ignited my own. I have always known that, but it is only recently that I have come to see how much she has shaped my understanding of poetry and its function for me as a gay, Latino man. When I began, I didn’t write to or for a community, as Corretjer did, as de Burgos did, as my grandmother would have had it. The first poems didn’t come from looking outward, but from a turning inward. My voice came out of a deep and painful silence, held years long, the written page a space in which I could openly acknowledge, for the first time in my life, my own fear, confusion, and desire. But implicit in that acknowledgement was a rejection of who I was supposed to be, a questioning of power systems, a renunciation of the cultural norms that had been imposed on me by my own family. If my grandmother had internalized a racism associated with Eurocentric ideas of beauty, I internalized the notion that I was shameful because of my sexual orientation. To listen to my own voice, to turn to the written word was the beginning of my own war, my own independence. In that way, Corretjer and de Burgos, even the plenas I heard growing up, remain models, as my grandmother always intended.

Work Consulted:

Anderson, Thomas F., and Marisel C. Moreno, eds. 
Art at the Service of the People: Posters and Books from Puerto Rico’s Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO) = El Arte Al Servicio Del Pueblo: Carteles Y Libros De La División De Educación De La Communidad (DIVEDCO) De Puerto Rico. Notre Dame, IN: Snite Museum of Art, 2012. Print.

Burgos, Julia De. Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia De Burgos. Ed. Jack Agüeros. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1995. Print.

Corretjer, Juan Antonio. Yerba Bruja: Portada De Rafael Tufiño. Guaynabo, P.R.: Publisher Not Identified, 1957. Print.

Fernandez, Ronald. The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the Twentieth Century. New York: Praeger, 1992. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. Poet’s Choice. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006. Print.

La Plena. Departmento De Instruccion Publica, Division De Educacion De La Comunidad, 1967. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjQfgbAmozQ>.