Las rutas de Julia de Burgos. Photo: Memo / Courtesy: Oscar Montero.
Las rutas de Julia de Burgos. Written by Oscar Montero. Directed by Memo. Staged reading by Teatro Iati. Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, Lehman College, Bronx, New York. April 1, 2011.
Oscar Montero’s debut play, Las rutas de Julia de Burgos, follows the migratory path of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) from Puerto Rico to New York City and Cuba, and finally back to New York, where she lived for the remainder of her short life. The play offers a biographical portrait of Julia de Burgos, drawing from the late poet’s letters to her sister and her poetry. For those who may not be familiar with de Burgos’s work, she explores political and feminist themes, the struggle for social justice, the independence of Puerto Rico, and freedom from systems of domination. Julia de Burgos forms part of the collective unconscious of Puerto Ricans both on the island and in New York. The subject of several works of visual art, short stories, ballets, articles, books, and creative works, the tragic victim narrative has predominated in most representations of her life. She is typically depicted as a creative, talented Puerto Rican woman whose appetite for men and alcohol led to her early death. In Las rutas de Julia de Burgos, Montero sets out to explore the complexities of Julia de Burgos, a poet and an intellectual far too multifaceted to be contained as a tragedy of victimhood.
The play places de Burgos’ poetry in its historical and social context, making it more accessible for the general public. A university professor of Spanish American literatures and cultures, Montero noticed that many of his students, particularly his Latina students in search of role models, connected powerfully to de Burgos’ most well-known poems, such as “Yo misma fui mi ruta”(I Make My Own Path) and “A Julia de Burgos” (To Julia de Burgos). Teaching Julia de Burgos became thus a successful introduction to poetry: her lyrical poems, particularly the verses that explore feminist themes of autonomy and breaking with socially acceptable roles, resonated with Latina and first generation students. This pedagogical focus was a driving force behind the creation of Las rutas de Julia de Burgos. Although the play has not been fully produced yet, staged readings by Teatro Iati can be booked on college campuses around the country.
The play opens with a scene at the morgue, where the hospital staff speculates about a deceased woman who had been discovered by New York City police officers on the corner of 106 Street and Fifth Avenue. The scene highlights the ambiguity surrounding de Burgos’ race as well as the discrimination she experienced as a Puerto Rican woman in New York. The next scene flashbacks to Puerto Rico, where we meet a young Julia de Burgos (Sol Crespo) and her sister Consuelo (Sandie Luna), who remains the poet’s confidante throughout the play. The two sisters talk passionately about the importance of their involvement with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Movement, their mother, and the intellectual circles of San Juan. This scene reveals the centrality of this form of relationship—the feminist bond between sisters—for de Burgos’ development as a writer and an intellectual.
The instant mutual attraction between de Burgos and Dominican intellectual Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullón (Mauricio Leyton) is palpable in the next scene, as the characters spend the entire evening of their first encounter talking about their shared passion for poetry and politics. Two years later, however, their relationship deteriorates as we begin to realize that Jimenes Grullón’s revolutionary politics does not include a politics of gender. Their relationship ends as passionately as it began, as the characters enter into heated arguments about Jimenes Grullón’s refusal to marry her because of her working class background and her status as a divorced woman, leading them to part ways permanently.
While the two principle relationships in de Burgos’ life make up the strengths of the play, the treatment of her final years in New York are also illuminating. Her primary interlocutor in New York is a Cuban bartender (Jordi Gimeno). At the local bar, they muse on the challenges of exile and immigration for people from Latin America and the Caribbean. Their conversations reveal the experiences of solitude, loneliness, and the challenges of finding work in the US. While the play is almost exclusively in Spanish, the use of Spanglish by the characters in the final scenes highlights the shift in perspective and identity that gradually takes place as the characters become integrated into life in New York. De Burgos shares with the bartender her poetry readings and her writings for the newspaper Pueblos Hispanos, revealing her commitment to her craft. A greater focus on her excitement at meeting poets Nicolas Guillén and Pablo Neruda in Havana and on the challenges she faced in establishing literary networks in New York and Puerto Rico would have strengthened this aspect of the play. Indeed, a greater emphasis on de Burgos’ dedication to writing throughout the play, and not just at the end, would have helped to challenge even more the narrative of migration and of her life as a tragedy.
While a full production would certainly enhance the play, the Teatro Iati actors breathe life into these historical characters. At the end of the play, the characters read in unison de Burgos’ poem “Yo misma fui mi ruta,” suggesting that she was a woman who followed her own path. Montero’s Julia de Burgos is an unconventional 1930s Puerto Rican woman and writer. In offering a complex picture of Burgos, Montero suggests that, while her migration to the US was not entirely successful, she is a figure who, like many other Puerto Rican women who migrated to New York, cannot be contained within narratives of tragedy and victimhood.
Vanessa Pérez Rosario is Assistant Professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. She is the editor of Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement (Palgrave 2010). She recently completed a manuscript titled Becoming Julia de Burgos: Feminism, Transnationalism, Diaspora. She is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including the Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship, the American Association of University Women Publications Grant and the Postdoctoral Fellowship from The Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
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