Born into a poor peasant family in rural Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos, a remarkably intelligent girl, received schooling because of money collected among her equally poor neighbors. Eventually she earned a teaching degree. Her experiences as a rural teacher and her agrarian background added to her deep concern for the exploited workers and for the women subjected to male-chauvinist cultural patterns. Her contact with common people also ignited her interest in local politics, especially in independence-seeking revolutionary movements.
Burgos is best known for her strongly feminist poems. Her poetry is thematically diverse; it includes an inclination to the erotic and to social activism. Burgos’ feminist poems present a philosophical consideration of the role of women in Puerto Rican society. By such questioning, Burgos explores womanhood issues in her efforts to break away from restrictive social patterns. Her definition of womanhood encompasses multiple facets: the woman yearning for motherhood (which she herself never fulfilled), the social nonconformist who openly challenges sexist traditions, and the devoted citizen and political activist.
Her political involvement with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which aggressively promoted the independence of Puerto Rico by means of revolutionary guerrilla warfare, added to her poetry a marked sense of patriotism. Her idea of a pure, lush countryside clashed with the realities of an increasingly urbanized and, therefore, Americanized Puerto Rico. Committed to international activism, Burgos also wrote against Fascism in Spain during that country’s civil war.
Burgos’ life can be examined as an example of a commitment to fight social injustice. At a time when racial discrimination was rampant, Burgos, a woman of black descent, fought such restrictions. Racism was certainly her major problem upon arriving in New York City in 1942, where she lived until her death. In New York, although she was a renowned poet and fully bilingual, Burgos was obliged to take menial jobs. She fought back, however, by writing against such oppression. Her alcoholism led to her early death.
Burgos stands out as a early feminist activist at a time when Puerto Rican culture restricted women to the traditional roles of spouse and mother. The inclusion of feminism in her poetic production, which she links to political activism, puts Burgos on the cutting edge of an incipient movement in Puerto Rico and in the United States. It may be more significant, however, that her life reflected her cherished beliefs.