Educator, journalist, essayist, poet and playwright. His short romantic works are characterized by social and political criticism and by the non-stereotypical representation of blacks in his writing. Derkes, a black writer, shattered the preconceptions of the era, avoiding caricatured representations of Puerto Rican blacks.
José Eleuterio Derkes Martinó was born in 1836 in Guayama, the son of slaves. Although little is known about his personal life, we know through his work that he studied under the tutelage of Rafael Castro, a teacher of Venezuelan origin. After passing the exams to become an elementary school teacher, he established a private school in his hometown in 1870, where he taught for twelve years.
He also founded two educational and recreational centers for artisans. After learning French on his own, he translated various French novels to Spanish. In 1874, he also established, along with other youths in Guayama, an ideologically reformist publication called El Martillo.
The same year, Governor and Captain General José Laureano Sanz y Posse ordered the dismissal of all school teachers who were “unfit to occupy the noble and civilizing mission to which they are charged.” This meant that practically all teachers of Puerto Rican origin were fired. He also stipulated that the government should grant operating permits to specific schools. The intent behind the measure was to favor teachers from Spain and prevent students from being influenced by separatist ideas.
Derkes was forced to close his small school and move to Ponce in search of work. He worked there as a home tutor teaching reading and French. In 1882 and 1883, he published the weekly El Agricultor, in which he lobbied for the interests of farmers and criticized the political, economic and social situation in Puerto Rico.
His literary work, part of the Puerto Rican romanticism branch, presents local styles, although it also shows European influences, particularly French and Spanish. His verses explore themes of love, friendship and religion, among others. Among the works in his book of poetry Poesías (1871), are the poems “El espíritu del cristianismo” and “La rosa marchita.”
In 1883, he wrote the satirical poem “La macabiada”, which was inspired by the epic poem “La sataniada” by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. In it, he criticized and ridiculed Governor José Laureano Sanz y Posse. A copy of the poem does not exist today, but its existence is known through bibliographical references from the era.
Notable among his prose works is the essay “La religion” (1871), in which he praises genuine religious faith and criticizes fanaticism. The essay is characterized by a simple and concise style. Also worth mentioning is his journalistic work for the periodicals of the island.
Derkes also wrote for the popular theater, following the models of Spanish playwrights. The dramas 䄚 Ernesto Lefecre o El triunfo del talento and its sequel, La nieta del proscripto, are set in the city of Paris, although they present conflicts related to the Puerto Rican social context. Both debuted at the theater in Guayama in 1871. Later, the tried his hand at comedy with Don Nuño Tiburcio de Pereira (1877), a story set in Mayagüez. In it, he not only criticizes the Puerto Rican social and political order, but also inter-racial relationships, which is one of the main themes.
Finally, in the traditional comedy Tío Fele (1883), he fully addresses the topic of racial prejudice. In one scene in the play, a family keeps its African heritage a secret by hiding the black grandmother in the kitchen. In his work, Derkes avoided the stereotyped image of blacks presented in the comedy theater, treating his characters with dignity. The same year that this work debuted in Ponce, he died of a stroke.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 03, 2014.
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