Growing up we owned one volume of the Enciclopedia de Cultura Puertorriqueña. The thick tome titled “Hombres Ilustres” (Illustrious Men) contained short biographies of all the men who shaped the history of Puerto Rico. From composer Juan Morel Campos to visual artist Jose Campeche; from teacher Rafael Cordero to poet and politician Luis Muñoz Rivera; as a child I could glean in just a few minutes time read, what it took to make one illustrious (distinguished).
Even when a few women’s biographies sneaked in, predominantly, the book was about “men”. Illustrious women like Lola Rogriguez de Tiò, Julia de Burgos, and Mariana Braccetti were among the very few. Women whose extraordinary contribution could not be ignored by historians. However, as I used that book many times throughout the years to do my homework, it did not escape me that the most basic requirement to be illustrious, was to be born a man.
“It did not escape me that the most basic requirement to be illustrious, was to be born a man.”
In the observance of Women’s History Month I wanted to make a pause to reflect on some of the mujeres who helped shape the way I think, inhabit, and move in the world as a human being, mother, partner, friend, preacher, and writer.
#1 Milagros Cordero Rodriguez – Poet and Professor
I still own the copy of her collection of poems titled “Imagenes del Pensamiento” (1984). This poetry book found its way into our home at a time when my mom was expanding her own horizons. At the time, the department of home economics was offering courses for adults (all women) at my middle school. I recall my mom taking classes on cooking, crafting, and fashion pattern making. It was in that time, that my mom brought home this chapbook. It was my first exposure to a contemporary female poet. I always thought poets, in general, were made and discovered after they died.
“I always thought poets, in general, were made and discovered after they died.”
Cordero Rodriguez was a teacher and professor in my hometown. At some point we lived in the same suburban section of town. She was never my teacher formally, but she taught me many things despite the fact that our paths did not cross physically. I read her biography on the book’s jacket many times. Imagining how she felt through her illnesses and sufferings. I wondered, “How is she able to write so beautifully about love and life?” In her poetry there was no trace of bitterness. She seemed to embrace her womanhood with grace. Something I struggled with all my life. It was through her poems that I first learned about the grief of losing of a pregnancy. She opened my eyes about being vulnerable, amorous, and majestic, all at once. I had already dabbled with poetry as a young child as a way of expressing my musings, discoveries, and frustrations. Cordero Rodriguez’s chapbook introduced me to poetry beyond the realm of the therapeutic and to world of poetry as literature.
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#2 Julia de Burgos – Poet and Women’s Rights Activist
I first heard of Julia de Burgos, when I was really young, a public service tv spot played often raising awareness about domestic violence and Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, “the first refuge home for survivors of domestic violence in Puerto Rico, since 1979”. In school we read often her famous poem Rio Grande de Loiza (Spanish) (English). I do not recall exactly how, I got the impression that Julia de Burgos was a scandalous figure.Perhaps because she was a divorced feminist, with strong political opinions that were not quite polite at the time. Because of the implicit racism that permeates Puerto Rican culture, I didn’t know, until recently, that Julia was of African descent. Perhaps I missed it for not paying attention in Spanish class (which it’s highly unlikely). I wanted to be like her: care free, opinionated, giving everybody and their “que diran” (gossip) a middle finger.
“I wanted to be like her: care free, opinionated, giving everybody and their “que diran” (gossip) a middle finger.”
I’m not assured that was her demeanor, but that is how I imagined she wanted to be, when I read her poem “A Julia de Burgos”. I gathered from reading her poetry, Julia longed to be at home in her skin, sensual and sexual. She was convinced and convicted, that there was a better way of being, not only for women, but also for the people of Puerto Rico. I like Julia, without knowing her; I wanted to grow up to be just like her. And perhaps, I have indeed.
#3 Magali Garcia Ramis – Journalist and Novelist
We read her popular novel “Felices Dias Tio Sergio” in middle school. It was my first exposure to magical realism, defined by Merriam Webster as “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” It is the same genre of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Cien Años de Soledad” and Isabel Allende’s “The House of Spirits.” I could relate to the type of mysticism that requires an active imagination that aids the understanding of reality, at times difficult to grasp, especially when we are younger. The story of this family through the eyes of the young tomboy-ish protagonist, like myself, taught me that all families have their complex stories of love and dysfunction. Secrets and polemics that most often, in Puerto Rican culture, we deal with quietly, never mentioning them by name, even when they are popular knowledge.
“All families have their complex stories of love and dysfunction. Secrets and polemics that most often, in Puerto Rican culture, we deal with quietly, never mentioning them by name, even when they are popular knowledge.”
As it is the case with the implicit “homosexuality” of Tio Sergio, it seems the reader gets it, but no one in the actual novel formally addresses it, at least out loud. I was fortunate to have Garcia Ramis as my professor of journalism at the Escuela de Comunicacion Publica (COPU) at the University of Puerto Rico (la iupi). For a special project, she granted me an interview and I asked her all the questions I wanted about her writing. She was gracious and sweet, characteristically her. She was patient with me. As a budding insecure journalist, I probably did all the things I was not supposed to do. I learned my vocation from her with the energy of a star struck pupil, who wanted to absorb all she could from the master. To her I am grateful.
#4 Isabel Allende – Novelist
Funny, open, an unapologetically truth telling writer. Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits landed in my hands when my forever BFF, who was a grade ahead of me, had it assigned for her Spanish class in high school. “You should read it,” she said as she handed me her copy of the book. The following year, I read it again when it was my turn to take the class. I wrote my first reader-response poem for my 11th grade paper on the book. I remember reading my first spoken word in front of my class and being bitten by the bug of performance and audience engagement when my classmates applauded my reading with enthusiasm. It was a proud moment! I have become an adult while reading almost all of her published works. I learned about the strength of a mother’s love reading Paula, an autobiography about Allende’s daughter, who died of cancer. I learned about, and experienced, the delicious intersection of food and sex reading “Afrodita”.
I learned about, and experienced, the delicious intersection of food and sex reading “Afrodita”.
While living in Puerto Rico, I am not sure what would’ve been the odds of “meeting” my
idol. There are some perks to living in New Jersey, where I’ve had the pleasure of seeing up close some wonderful personalities in the greatest city in the world, New York City. When in 2014, we learned that both Allende and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) would be reading from their new novels at 92Y, my best friends and I went for it. I was able to look at her up close and personal, as she asked me for my name, and elegantly autograph a copy of The House of Spirits, and her then new thriller Ripper. #bucketlistit
#5 Maya Angelou – Poet, Among Other Amazing Things
She knew why the caged bird sings; she wrote as if to me, knowing exactly that I would eventually sing. She gave me hope. I first experienced Maya Angelou my senior year of high school. January 1993. MTV. Bill Clinton’s inauguration. “On the Pulse of Morning.” Her words transported me away far away to where I wanted to flee. Her soothing powerful voice brought me home, to the safe place my soul hungered for. When I wanted to rescue myself from the debris of self-doubt, guilt, and shame, Maya Angelou’s poetry gave me courage.
When I wanted to rescue myself from the debris of self-doubt, guilt, and shame, Maya Angelou’s poetry gave me courage.
I read her autobiography The Heart of a Woman while I was doing my seminary studies.
It was a time of great inner transformation in my life. Angelou was a companion seer who taught me about love and loving, forgiving and letting go, falling down and rising, about being relentless, and never giving up on whom I love, and what I believed to be right, true, and just. Maya Angelou was many things, but most importantly she was her; no one else. A singer, actress, dancer, civil rights activist, writer, mother, lover, friend, teacher; she taught me that we do not have to settle for one thing, but that we can reinvent ourselves and live out all the things we have brewing inside of us. There is enough time for all, if we commit ourselves to living out the best version of ourselves. When it comes to living with purpose, Chronos has no tyrant authority.
When it comes to living with purpose, Chronos has no tyrant authority.
Maya Angelou rose up to be with our Creator, and I am thankful that by living with purpose she made it possible for a broken jar like myself to have some hope to be useful in some way. My only desire is that I will pay it forward the rest of my life.
I thank God for all the good mujeres who blazed a trail before us. I thank God for these five; and one more, mi mami, the best kept secret and gift God gave to my sister and I.
Who are the women who shaped you? It’s worth noting and sharing with the world; so that the world may know and help celebrate them.