Luis Palés Matos

Luis Palés Matos

Outstanding Puerto Rican writer, known as one of the foremost proponents of negroide poetry in Puerto Rico and Latin America.

Luis Palés Matos was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on March 20, 1898. He was the son of poets Vicente Palés Anés and Consuelo Matos Vicil, from whom he inherited his literary vocation, which he shared with his five siblings. He attended primary and secondary schools in Guayama. At age 16, he contributed to his high school magazine as an editor and to various local newspapers, experience that served as a preamble to the publication of his first book, Azalea, in 1915. This book was identified with Latin American modernism and showed clear influences of authors such as Rubén Darío, Julio Herrera Reissig and Leopoldo Lugones.

His family’s precarious financial situation after the death of his father forced Palés Matos to abandon his studies, which he never formally renewed, and he become self-taught. Evidence of this was his numerous visits to the town’s library and a lecture he delivered there, and later his participation in countless literary discussion circles. He held a wide variety of jobs, such as a rural schoolteacher, an apprentice draftsman in the government irrigation office, a lawyer’s aide, a postmaster, an office worker at the Fajardo Sugar Corporation, editor of the newspaper El Pueblo in Fajardo, municipal secretary of Fajardo, secretary of San Juan, sergeant at arms for the House of Representatives and secretary to the president of the Puerto Rico Senate. His only job that was directly related to his vocation as a writer was that of poet in residence at the University of Puerto Rico, where he worked during the last ten years of his life.

In January of 1918, he married Natividad Suliveres. That same year they moved from Guayama to Fajardo and their first son, Edgardo, was born. There, he directed the local newspaper El Pueblo and dedicated himself to writing traditional Puerto Rican poetry. In 1919, his wife died from tuberculosis. Her death greatly affected the writer and was the inspiration for his book of poems El palacio en sombras, written in 1919 and 1920 and published in 1924. After her unexpected death, Palés moved to San Juan, where years later, in 1930, he married again, to María de Lourdes Valdés Tous, to whom he dedicated his poem “Versos para María.”

Once settled in San Juan, Palés regularly attended activities at the Puerto Rican Athenaeum and took part in informal discussions with other important contemporary writers such as Nemesio R. Canales, Alfonso Lastra, Luis Muñoz Marín and José I. de Diego Padró. Along with the latter, Palés represented a new avant-garde poetry in Puerto Rican literature, a movement that would become known as diepalismo and was distinguished by the tone and musicality of the verses. While in San Juan he also contributed to the newspapers El Imparcial and El Mundo and the magazines Puerto Rico Ilustrado and La Semana. The latter was edited by Nemesio Canales.

In 1924, Palés Matos became involved in politics in Puerto Rico and joined the Puerto Rican Alliance, promoting the ideal of independence for the island. During this time he earned a reputation as an orator.

In 1925, Canciones de la vida media was published, a book that shared the modernist style of his earlier writing. In 1937, the first edition of Tuntún de pasa y grifería was issued, a book that won First Prize in Literature from the Puerto Rican Institute of Literature and whose success extended beyond the island and into the literary circles in the Antilles and Latin America. The work’s importance is based on its appreciation of the Afro-Antillean culture within Puerto Rican literature and its dedication to using sonorous language and onomatopoeia in the poetry. Furthermore, Tuntún de pasa y griferíawas a stylistic precursor to the black poetry that influenced important Antillean and South American authors such as Nicolás Guillén of Cuba.

During the 1950s, Palés Matos traveled to various universities and cultural institutions to offer speeches, lectures and symposia. In 1957, Spanish critic Federico de Onís wrote the preface to the first anthology of Palés Matos’ poetry, collecting his work from 1915 to 1956. His novel Litoral, which was never finished, was published in serial form in the University of Puerto Rico weekly newspaper and the government newspaper El Diario de Puerto Rico. The writer’s life was ended by a heart attack in Santurce on February 23, 1959.

Author: Christian D. Camacho Castro
Published: May 15, 2012.

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