José Gualberto Padilla was a poet, physician, landowner and mayor of Vega Baja. He was a principal proponent of the descriptive and satirical poetry of the 19th century in Puerto Rico. Under his pseudonym, “El Caribe,” he gained notoriety for a dispute with the Spanish poet Manuel del Palacio, who wrote offensive verses about Puerto Rico.
José Gualberto Padilla was born in Old San Juan on July 12, 1829. His parents were José María Padilla Martínez and Trinidad Alfonso Sotomayor y Ramírez, a native of Venezuela. He attended elementary school in Añasco, the town where his father worked as a lawyer and a notary. In 1843, he went to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to study medicine. While there, he founded and directed a liberal newspaper, La Esperanza, along with other young Puerto Ricans, in which he criticized the Spanish monarchy and the political situation in Puerto Rico. In 1845, after his father’s death, he moved to Barcelona, where he continued his studies. He worked for various newspapers to support himself. In 1855, he published his first satirical and political poem, titled “Zoopoligrafía.”
Padilla returned to the island in 1858 and settled in Vega Baja, where he worked as a doctor and owned a sugar mill. La Monserrate, as his ranch was called, generated enough income to allow him to treat poor patients for free. He abolished slavery on his ranch before the Spanish government officially outlawed it on March 22, 1873.
Padilla was elected mayor of Vega Baja twice, and in both times he donated his salary to the municipality. In 1859, he was a founding partner of the Economic Society of Friends of Puerto Rico, which was led by Román Baldorioty de Castro. He was also a member of the Vega Baja Revolutionary Board and participated in the planning of the Grito de Lares uprising, which led to his imprisonment in Arecibo in 1868. While he was in prison, he wrote a series of poems that Manuel Soler y Martorell later collected in a book called Nuevo Cancionero de Boriquen (1872).
During these early years in Puerto Rico, he contributed to various island periodicals. His poems were published under the pseudonym “Trabuco.” Later, he adopted the pen name “El Caribe,” which he used for the first time to sign some quatrains that satirized the director of the San Juan newspaper El Duende (1866), a Spaniard named Vicente Fontán, who regularly criticized and looked down on local customs.
It was under the name “El Caribe” — which alluded to the combative nature of the Caribe Indians who had lived in much of the Greater Antilles — that Padilla gained fame. He used it in the magazine Almanaque de Damas and the newspapers El Palenque de la Juventud and El Porvenir. His contributions received many comments although the identity of the author was unknown.
In 1874, a dispute broke out between the poet Manuel del Palacio and El Caribe. Palacio had lived on the island for a few months after being exiled from Spain for writing satirical verses about Queen Isabel II. When he returned to Spain, he published some verses that were offensive to Puerto Rico. Padilla, an agile writer, paraphrased de Palacios’s sonnet, “Puerto Rico,” and turned it into a counteroffensive against the poet. The book of poetry, Para un Palacio, un Caribe, contains all of the poems Padilla wrote in defense of Puerto Ricans.
In 1880, his poem “Contra el periodismo personal,” received an award from the newspaper El Buscapié, owned by his friend Manuel Fernández Juncos. Between 1886 and 1888, he contributed to the San Juan newspaper El Palenque de la Juventud. Shortly thereafter, he left the world of letters, frustrated by the political turn the island had taken. On his estate, he dedicated himself to writing “Canto a Puerto Rico,” a work that was left unfinished when he died on May 26, 1896.
Although he was best known for his short satirical works, El Caribe also wrote other forms of poetry, including elegies, odes, madrigals, songs, sonnets, fables and octaves. His verse is distinguished by the correctness and cleanness of the form and by his adherence to the techniques of the great Spanish poets of the Golden Age. His work addressed themes of love, morality, friendship and nature.
In the early 20th century, his daughter, the poet Trina Padilla, known as the “Daughter of El Caribe,” collected his poetic works, which had appeared in various publications, and published them in 1912 in two volumes titled En el combate and Rosas de pasión.
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Rivera de Alvarez, Josefina. Diccionario de literatura puertorriqueña. 2a ed. Vol 2. San Juan, P. R.: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1974. Impreso.
Rivera de Alvarez, Josefina. Literatura puertorriqueña: su proceso en el tiempo. Madrid: Partenón, . Impreso.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 16, 2014.
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