The story behind a street sign in New York City is inspiring and sad and heartening. Located at the corner of East 106th Street and Fifth Avenue, the street sign reads–“JULIA DE BURGOS Boulevard.” Curious about the sign and Julia de Burgos, I did research to learn more. That is how I discovered the inspiring and sad and heartening story. First here is the inspiring part:
A teacher, poet, and activist, Julia de Burgos was a tall woman with brown wavy hair, a heart-shaped face, and dark eyes that, according to one of her friends, “looked as if they were trying to penetrate a person’s soul.” Born Julia Constanza Burgos Garcia in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, she grew up captivated by a river she later celebrated in her famous poem,
Rio Grande de Loiza
Rio Grande de Loiza with the line “My wellspring, my river.”
After graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos taught in an elementary school, wrote many poems, and published two books. A fearless advocate for justice and equality, she participated in the fight for Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S. (Its status is still being debated.) She criticized the treatment of women: “I am life, strength, woman,” she declared. She spoke out for the rights of poor people and of minorities.
Involved in an intense love affair with a fellow activist, Julia de Burgos left Puerto Rico. Together they moved back and forth between Cuba and New York City. When the relationship end, she remained in New York City, where she had relatives and was acclaimed as a poet.
In time, however, and now for the sad part of the story, she was overwhelmed by poor health, alcohol addiction, and debilitating depression. The street sign with her name marks the place where she collapsed on July 6, 1953, and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she died. No identification was found on her body, so Julia de Burgos was buried in a cemetery for unknown or destitute people.
Now for the heartening part of the story: Friends and relatives soon noticed she was missing. Determinedly searching, they finally located her burial place and had the coffin with her body exhumed and returned to Puerto Rico. Poets, writers, activists, political leaders honored her at her funeral and burial in Carolina, a city through which the Rio Grande de Loiza flows.
U.S. Postage Stamp
Julia de Burgos Park, Bridgeport, CT
Memorial Mural by Manny Vega, 106th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Ave., New York, New York