Dear Friends and Readers,
People now murmur that I am your enemy
For they claim that in verses
I reveal your essence to the world.
They lie, Julia de Burgos. They lie, Julia de Burgos.
The voice uplifted in my verses is not your own: it is mine,
For you are garment and I essence;
And the greatest abyss lies between the two.
You are the cold-blooded puppet of social deceit,
And I, the driving splendour of human truth.
You, of courtesan hypocrisies…the honey; not I;
Whose heart is revealed in my poems…all.
You are like your world, selfish; not I;
Who dares all to be what I truly am.
You are merely the implacable, elegant lady;
Not I; I am life, I am strength, I am woman.
You belong to your husband, to your master; not I;
I belong to no one, or to everyone, because to all,
In wholesome feeling and thought, I give myself.
You curl your locks and paint yourself, not I;
I am curled by the wind; brightened by the sun.
You are homebound, resigned, submissive,
Confined to the whims of men; not I;
I am Rocinante galloping recklessly
Wandering through the boundaries of God’s justice.
You are not in command of self; everyone rules you:
You are ruled by your husband, your parents, relatives,
The priest, the seamstress, theatre, club,
The car, jewels, the banquet, champagne,
Heaven and hell and… social hearsay.
But not me, I am ruled by my heart alone,
My sole thought; it is “I” who rules myself.
You, aristocratic blossom; and I, the people’s blossom.
You are well provided for, but are indebted to everyone,
While I, my nothingness to no one owe.
You, nailed to the stagnant ancestral dividend;
And I, but one digit in the social cipher.
We are the encroaching, inevitable duel to the death.
When the multitude uncontrolled runs,
The ashes of injustices, burnt, left behind,
And when with the torch of the seven virtues,
The throng to the seven sins gives chase,
I will be against you and against all
That is unjust and inhuman.
Upholding the torch… I shall be among the throng.
–Julia de Burgos, from “Julia de Burgos (To Julia de Burgos)”
For those of us who admire Julia de Burgos, one of the most significant literary figures of Puerto Rico, we revere her because in almost every line of her poems, to a greater or lesser degree of subtlety, she never fails to embody a passion for life, and a love of her homeland and for her fellow human beings. We also recognize in de Burgos’s poem “Julia de Burgos (To Julia de Burgos)” an unrelenting and truthful autocritique of the divided self—a dual consciousness between convention and womanhood—as an evocation of the dualism of the Spanish language poetic tradition in the Caribbean. In contemplating this “divided self” or “dual consciousness,” many of us think of Puerto Rico as having a similarly profound and perpetual dualism: while being a United States territory and appreciating the ambiguous nature of American citizenship, it is still distinct from the states by being underrepresented and having minimal political leverage in Congress. Ever since Spain ceded ownership of Puerto Rico to the US following the Spanish–American War in 1898, the island continues to negotiate as much its status as a US territory as its complex legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. Yet despite the fact that it has never been recognized as a complete sovereign state, Puerto Rico has maintained a powerful national identity.
In 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane (also known as Hurricane San Felipe II) devastated Puerto Rico, killing over 300 people and destroying almost every building and home, including that of the 14-year-old de Burgos and her family. For nearly the next century, it would be considered the most destructive hurricane in the island’s modern history. On September 7, 2017, Hurricane Irma skirted the northeastern side of the island as a Category 5 storm, downing power lines and causing flooding on the island; just 13 days later on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm, becoming the worst natural disaster in the island’s history. Consequently, all of us and our fellow human beings around the world were in a state of shock by the news of at least 16 people dead, more than 80 percent of the island remaining without power, with no access to clean drinking water anywhere before former President Donald J. Trump’s arrival on October 3, 2017. How can we forget what he said at the press conference in San Juan, “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this.” Trump continued, “Sixteen people versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.” How egregious of Trump in dismissing the evidence of the death toll while declaring Maria as not a “real catastrophe” like Katrina as his proclaimed benchmark, hence belittling the unimaginable suffering across the island. Then, following this short briefing, Trump visited a church where he tossed paper towels into the crowd, like a baseball player tossing a ball to the crowd in a self-congratulatory manner.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s destruction and of the Trump administration’s unforgivable neglect, the Rail immediately sought out our friends here in New York City, including the remarkable curator and writer Yasmil Raymond, who brought her two colleagues, curators and writers extraordinaire Iberia Pérez González and Natalia Viera Salgado to one of our now-famous one-hour lunches at the Rail HQ. As we often evoke John Keats’s timeless remark on negative capability—“that is, when [an individual] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—we feel it is our moral duty to activate, to transcend, and to act above and beyond ways that we’re conditioned to otherwise. This inspired us to invite Iberia and Natalia as editors of this special issue with a single aim: to bring together the various communities in the arts and the humanities on the island, not only to restore its culture and environment but also to support our fellow human beings as the still continue to heal from this profound devastation. Knowing the intellectual and creative culture of the island is rich, with a deep history of creators of images, objects, stories, and beyond, we share this issue of the River Rail with our readers with a simple message: there is no singular Puerto Rican viewpoint, perspective, or character. We are all artists, writers, poets, musicians, revolutionaries, and above all, we are all a million things in-between life’s multitude of experiences with strength and dignity.
In solidarity with love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This River Rail issue is a dedication to the memory of our fellow men, women, and children who lost their lives to Irma and Maria. We share our immense thanks and deep appreciation to Yasmil Raymond for having introduced us to Iberia Pérez González and Natalia Viera Salgado, who share co-editorship of this landmark issue along with their friends and colleagues from the island. I’d also like to thank the Rail’s brilliant team for their invaluable dedication with discipline and enthusiasm, which is their labor of love that extends beyond work hours often into the night and weekend. Finally, we’d like to send our deep gratitude to our friends, the artist Lauren Bon and her colleagues at Metabolic Studio, whose everlasting commitment to environmental causes through the cross-section of art and activism has indeed inspired us at the Rail, hence as we are continuing to redirect the flow with the River Rail. We’d also like to thank our remarkable friends Ethan and Cordy Ryman as well as our comrades at the Richard P. Garmany Fund, the Morris and Alma Shapiro Fund, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for their generous support of the River Rail: Puerto Rico.