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Despierta
Julia de Burgos: Soul Rebels series

2005
Mixed Media on Masonite
76" x 19"

Soul Rebels Installation, detail, El Museo Del Barrio, NYC

Julia de Burgos was born in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. She is most known for her feminist, nationalist poetry that was very much ahead of her time. Julia lived a tormented life, torn between her island and New York, between loves and enraged by the continued colonialism in Puerto Rico. She died in 1953 in El Barrio/ East Harlem, on the same street as El Museo Del Barrio.

I painted Julia in a way that I've never seen her before in photos. Her face is inspired by an actual photo of her, however her hair, her clothes, her stance, the background all came to me directly from the imagery evoked through her poetry. In total there are 16 poems collaged into this painting. Every detail/ element in the painting can be connected to one of those poems. For example her clenched fist appears next to the collaged text of the poem "Somos puños cerrados". The poem "Amaneceres", which refers to personal awakenings and dawnings is collaged, within the colors of the sunrise in the background. "Almamarina" where her spirit fights with its commitment to the land of Puerto Rico, yet is being summoned by the sea, inspired the seascape and the blue and green colors of the composition. The blue and yellow colors are also tributes to goddesses Yemaya and Oshun since Julia was very much a daughter of both the sea and the rivers. The green cane leaves with black shadows and the machete pay homage to warrior orisha of war and justice, Ogun.

Vivo en el gran desfile
De todos los patriotas
Que murierón de ira
Y de ira despiertan


I live in the great parade
of all the patriots who have died of anger
And from anger awaken

The above excerpt is taken from her poem "23 de Septiembre", which speaks of the Grito de Lares uprising of 1868 and its legacy within the on-going struggle for Puerto Rican liberation. The concept for this piece is that out of anger, Julia is awakening or returning from death. I began the research for this painting while in Puerto Rico. During that trip I had picked up a copy of Claridad newspaper with a two page spread on Machetero Comandante Filiberto Ojeda Rios. I returned to NYC to work on the Julia painting and two weeks after my return, on the anniversary of El Grito de Lares, Filiberto was assassinated by the FBI. It was around this same time that I discovered Julia's most nationalist poetry. Her words and imagery were more hardcore than most poems I had seen coming from the island. This concept of "de ira despiertan" evolved to Julia and our dead martyrs returning out of anger to avenge the loss of those who have had to shed blood for Puerto Rico's liberation struggle. I could feel the rage in Julia's spirit around the tragedy of Filiberto and around the continued colonialism in Puerto Rico. The folks collaged around the top of the panel include Grito de Lares leader, Ramon Emeterio Betances, as well as Julia's Nationalist comrades and contemporaries, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, Clemente Soto Velez and Juan Antonio Corretjer, the latter two also being fellow poets. Filiberto's image is also included.

Hoy quiero ser hombre
Sería un obrero
Picando la caña
Abrazos arriba
Los puños en alto
Quitandole al mundo
Mi pedazo de pan

Today I want to be a man
I'd be a laborer
Cutting cane
Arms up
Fists high
Taking from the world
My piece of bread

With this portrait I present Julia as having transcended beyond the poet lady who died in el barrio; I present julia as a warrior ancestor. In her poetry, she describes the jibaro as the ultimate soldier for liberation. She also identifies herself as a soldier for liberation. Inspired by her poem "A Julia de Burgos" where she sees herself as two women, one succumbing to socially imposed roles and the other her true, artist self, I remove the make up, the pressed curls and the skirt, dressing her as a jibara with a machete, bringing her closer to her own utopia. Standing in front of the cane fields, having traveled a path that she just carved out with the machete in her hand, references the poem "Yo misma fui me ruta".

Lastly her feet are firmly planted in fresh river water. In between her feet, collaged into the painting, is the text to perhaps her most famous piece, "Rio grande de Loíza". Julia understood war like the fiercest soldier and she not only battled fiercely, but she loved fiercely. She loved those who touched her heart and she loved every element of her nation, its people, its hills, its fields, its rivers and seas. Julia lives in all of these and seeks to be remembered not as a drunken, brokenhearted woman who collapsed on the cold streets of El Barrio, but as a "gran patriota" alive with rage, battling until Puerto Rico is free.