Today, enjoy another episode of The Island Across the River by Jaime Martinez Tolentino. Have a nice Monday, Yareah Magazine readers!
I could see how those would have been insurmountable obstacles during the 1940’s, a full ten years before worsening economic conditions on our island forced half a million Puerto Ricans to emigrate to New York City. As for the linguistic prejudice, at the time, the terms “diversity” and “multicultural” were still limited to the pages of the dictionary.
José picked up where he had left off.
“At first, Julia lived with relatives in Queens, but since there were virtually no
Puerto Ricans there that she could interact with, she discovered the Barrio and she often took the subway there.”
“Well, then, when your friend saw her she was going somewhere!” I stated, self-satisfied, as if I had won an argument.
“Not so fast, muchacho!” interjected Mr. Madera. “After a while of doing that, she didn’t even know where she was going. Nor did she care.”
“Go on, compadre! Explain it to the boy,” said Papi, seriously.
“You see, Jaimito; from 1946 on, Julia took to drinking heavily. In fact, she became an alcoholic. She developed cirrhosis of the liver, and she was in and out of several different hospitals on numerous occasions.”
I couldn’t help but look at my mother, who reminded me of the picture of Julia de Burgos that I had seen in my book. Except, that my mother was not a poet, and she was certainly not an alcoholic, but I’m sure that, in her own way, she had suffered much of what Julia had.
Then, to conclude the conversation that had put a damper on everyone’s spirit, José Madera delivered a bombshell.
“Her relatives in Queens got sick and tired of having to bail her out of jail for public drunkenness or of having policemen bring her home totally inebriated, and so, they threw her out on the street. She went back to El Barrio and found a place to live.”
José rested a minute before continuing.
“The old man that I knew from El Barrio told me that after that, whenever he ran across Julia in the subway, she was always drunk or passed out, either on the train itself, or in some subway station. Her clothes were always soiled, and she reeked of alcohol, vomit and urine.”
I couldn’t believe what my father’s friend was saying! If I had heard this many, many years later, I would immediately have thought about Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, or the great Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, who committed suicide in 1938. The world had been terribly cruel to those women because they had defied social norms and had dared to be great writers in a world in which that distinction was supposed to be doled out only to men.
However, the high school junior that I was at that moment did not know this yet. Nonetheless, I made a mental note right then and there to read my Julia de Burgos book of poetry attentively, from cover to cover, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I could only scoff at what José Madera had said. Great poets don’t ride the subways drunk and soiled!
“Your friend was probably exaggerating, José, or he confused Julia with someone else,” I sentenced firmly, but, I wasn’t at all convinced of what I had just said.
After my mother, my father and José Madera had left, I began to devour my Julia de Burgos book, hoping to disprove what José’s friend from El Barrio had told him. My hero,…
Keep on reading next Monday. Enjoy your week, Yareah friends!