The youngest of eleven children, César Abraham Vallejo (vuh-LAY-oh) was born on March 16, 1892, in Santiago de Chuco, a provincial town located high in the northern Andean Sierra of Peru. From that relatively isolated starting point, he grew into one of the most influential and revered poets in the Spanish-speaking world. Moreover, through the diligent work of translators, Vallejo’s influence now reaches poets, critics, and readers working in English, Italian, French, German, Russian, Japanese, Quechua, and many other languages.
To contextualize Vallejo’s poetry, one might look to the pattern of suffering that emerges from his biography. More specifically, that suffering ranged from the personal to the political, and it extended seemingly from his first breath to his last. In fact, his birth itself embodies the matrix of cultural, religious, political, and psychosocial tensions that would fuel his agonized writing and life, as he was born the grandson of two indigenous Chimu grandmothers and two Spanish grandfathers, both of whom were Catholic priests. At the other end of his life, on his deathbed, he was said to have lamented the failing Republican war effort in Spain.
Early in life, Vallejo also suffered a steady stream of failed love affairs, with one such failure even driving him to attempt suicide. Fortunately his amorous turbulence subsided in January, 1929, with his commitment to live with his future wife, Georgette Phillipart, whom he would marry in 1934. Nevertheless, his life was one of nearly continuous suffering. Complicating that, he felt conflicted over feelings of private despair, which he considered self-indulgent in relation to the massive, overwhelming sadness and suffering of the universe. Thus, whether gazing upon a star at night or into the eyes of a shackled prisoner, Vallejo continuously sensed a totalizing, universal agony permeating existence and thereby reinforcing his personal ontological insignificance.
One of the early benchmarks of Vallejo’s suffering came in 1909, after he had finished his primary education in Santiago de Chuco and his secondary education in nearby Huamachuco. He began a job in the mines at Tamboras, and that exposure to the archetypical agony and exploitation of laborers would mark Vallejo permanently and deeply. In particular, he was pained by the laborers’ seemingly unjust and agonizing working conditions, about which he would write in all of his full-length books of poetry, as well as his novel El tungsteno (1931; Tungsten, 1988), about life at a tungsten mine.
In 1911, Vallejo left the mine and moved to Lima to become a physician, but he dropped out of school within the year. He then moved to Huánaco, where he began to teach for the first time, which is biographically significant for two reasons. First, teaching would prove one of Vallejo’s sporadic sources of income throughout his life. Second, in this instance, he was tutoring the children of an affluent mine owner and therefore was exposed again to painful discrepancies in class, wealth, and power.
Vallejo’s sensitivity to political inequality was intensified in 1912, when he began to work as an assistant cashier on a sugar plantation. Again he found the laborers’ working conditions to be inhumane, and he found his Catholic upbringing of little help in understanding such agony. This, then, is pivotal as an emergent moment of Vallejo’s feelings of the...
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