José Agustín Balseiro, Humanist of the Year 1983

 

The absence was long, too long. Long were the roads I followed to cross the world. Now, in my final time, my Puerto Rico, I come so we together can evoke my past and my work. Because while I suffered longing for what was absent, in my most carefully held thoughts was born the work of the absent writer who put out there the flower and fruit that lived inside. 

This contact that we now reestablish is owed to the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities. Its executive director, Dr. Arturo Morales Carrión, and I worked together in more than one international conference of intellectuals focused on the hemispheric problems of the Americas and the knowledge of our land and its culture. Through his extraordinary performance for the Secretary of State for Puerto Rico, he left his mark on the institution. He contributed to bringing fresh air and renewing oxygen to the world. He related to others and to diverse cultures, motivated by the healthy impulse that unites and explains, that imagines and creates, to build ties to foreign sensibilities. In saying “Thank you,” I expand those sentiments to include also all the members of the Board of Directors who, in their session of January 26, 1984, agreed unanimously to name me Humanist of the Year. Particularly, I recognize Wilfredo Braschi for the kind reading we just heard. And I cannot begin the topic of my dissertation without remembering my companions who have preceded me: Lidio Cruz Monclova, Concha Meléndez, Margot Arce de Vázquez and Francisco Arriví.

I visited Spain in 1920. But not until two years later did I go to Madrid to seek literary fame. I took with me an essay, “The Poet and Life,” which had been published in Dr. Juan Bautista Soto’s magazine, Puerto Rico. Upon reading it, Andrés González Blanco, then vice president of the Literature Section of the Athenaeum, convinced me to present a lecture. He promised to accompany me to the same forum honored in the previous century by the master Eugenio María de Hostos. It was December 22, 1922. But in the evening of that day, González Blanco went to Toledo to see a sister who was very ill. And upon finding her in critical condition, he informed the Athenaeum that it would be impossible for him to accompany us. What to do?

A member of the Athenaeum, whose name I can unfortunately not recall, stepped up to the front of the stage. With the best of intentions, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen. This is José Balseiro, of Puerto Rico. His topic, ‘The Poet and Life.'” Then he returned to his seat. Me? I thought, “Short and sweet, and doubly short is better.”

The next day, among other newspapers, ABC, El Sol, and El Imparcial printed laudatory reports. Sixty-one years later, I reproduced them in my book, Literary Memories and Personal Reminscences (Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1981), which, like almost all of my works, is not in the bookstores of Puerto Rico. What did El Imparcial, for example, say of Ortega y Munilla, father of José Ortega y Gasset?

Yesterday, the young Puerto Rican man of literature, José A. Balseiro, took the lectern at the Athenaeum to discuss “The Poet and Life.”
The lecture, worthy of the distinguished public that listened to it, displayed the exquisite sensibility and vast culture of the speaker.
When Mr. Balseiro ended his notable speech, the audience, clearly pleased, widely applauded the cultured writer.
When I read such praise, I immediately went out into the street. There was a newsstand nearby. I bought various editions of the newspapers, witnesses to my first emergence in the Madrid world of letters. I handed over to the seller the money for 10 copies of each one. I had taken three steps when he called after me: “Wait, wait for your change, there’s a discount for resellers.” And he gave me the change. I felt like someone who, with one stroke, had obtained glory and fortune.

The good fortune I enjoyed from this lecture appeared to be telling me to take more steps along the path of the essay. But without setting aside the poetry that had already been published in Nuevo Mundo and La Espera and had been read on the radio by the young actress Juanita Azorín. The first of the two essays to follow, “Don Juan Tenorio and Don Luis Mejía,” I read, at the request of La Casa del Libro, at a series of lectures sponsored by Espasa-Calpe. The next, “Rubén Darío and the Future,” was written for the Editorial Renacimiento, which was preparing one of its so-called Complete Works. This was followed by “Gautier Benítez and the Spirit of His Era.” And then, a topic close to our land, “Something About French Musical Nationalism,” which was enthusiastically received by specialized publications in Paris, as was the next, “Shakespeare and the Musicians,” which was also commented upon by British, Spanish, and U.S. writers. Finally, after a long time, I revived the talk about Juan Morel Campos and the Puerto Rican danza that I had read at the Puerto Rican Athenaeum in San Juan on May 5, 1922.

Bringing these titles together, I published volume one of El Vigía.*

Why the name? When I was little, one day my father took me to the coast between my Barceloneta and Arecibo. We climbed a hill where, looking out into the ocean, he said to me, how marvelous to go far, far, far out to sea. From that time on, the name of that site, El Vigía,* mixed in my mind with my secret desires for adventures. How strange that decades later, when I wrote the Prologue to that book, I wrote these lines: “Voyage of passion, voyage of thought, voyage of dreams: in total, voyage of the culture…” “For each fruitless voyage, the hope for a better one…” “Sharpen your sight, search, investigate, speculate… The attempt and effort are yours. Everything else is up to God!”

 


* Work awarded the Hispano-American Prize for 1925 by the Spanish Royal Academy.

Perhaps it was the versatility of the content of the book, which traveled to various latitudes to keep alive the ties between the author’s home soil and other ports of the globe, that led it to be welcomed and find distant echoes: articles in the London Times Literary Supplement and in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (as it was then called) in Liverpool; in Les Nouvelles LittéraireVient de ParaitreLa Revue MusicaleLa Revue de L’Amerique Latine, of Paris; Neophilologus, of Amsterdam; I Libri del Giorno, of Naples; The New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Herald TribuneEl Mundo, of Havana; Caras y Caretas, of Buenos Aires… And, without underestimating individual comments — Farinelli, Croce, Mencken, Benavente — I should not fail to mention the readers of the prolific British writer Havelock Ellis, universally known for his The Psychology of Sex, for The Dance of Life, for The Soul of Spain… It saw light in The Nation(New York) under the title “Unchanging Spain” (February 16, 1927). And it read, in part:

With El Vigía we are in the most modern Spain. José Balseiro, now settled in Madrid and one of the most brilliant of the younger poets, novelists, and essayists, has his origin in America, in Puerto Rico… Balseiro is thus enabled to gain a standpoint , which is at once genuinely national and widely international.**
Havelock Ellis included me among the novelists. Blasco lbáñez did the same at Menton, as well as another equally masterful and courageous journalist, Luis Araquistain, who, later, imposed silence on his first impression. Let’s look at this strange case. In La Voz (Madrid, March 1, 1923) Araquistain published an article suggesting that the novels of Pérez de Ayala had merit only for their literary composition. And when I published volume two (1928) of El Vigía, which was not all praise for the author of Troteras y danzaderas, I placed, ahead of the opinion of Araquistain, who denied human beings were among Pérez de Ayala’s characters, this opinion from Santiago Ramón y Cajal:

…novelist with a strong mental texture in whose books emerge characters as profoundly human, universal and impregnable originals, and unmistakable humanism, etc., etc.
When Araquistain read my commentary in the signed copy I sent, he did not hide his annoyance. And, when he reprinted his article in one of his few books, he omitted his words about La ruta eterna. But I now save them from perishing. “…José Balseiro, a still-young writer whose first books promise in him an excellent novelist of Puerto Rican life” (El Sol, Madrid, Wednesday, February 9, 1927).

The opportunity to write fiction was open to me. Why, then, did I not write novels more often?

With the passage here of Hurricane San Felipe (September 13, 1928) my father was ruined. My duty was to return to Puerto Rico, where I refused two positions in law firms. Madrid had confirmed that the letters, as the poet Francisco Villaespesa had predicted in 1919, would be my path. And while I worked at a newspaper in San Juan, I received a cable from the University of Illinois, offering me a vacant spot on its faculty. How? Professor Charles Marden, director of Hispanic Studies at Princeton and president of the Modern Language Association of America, was asked to recommend a professor of the future, capable of writing. The erudite teacher had spoken with me at length in Spain and recommended me with enthusiasm.

I soon learned in Illinois that the faculty members who made a career were those who published with authority. And when I was asked to teach a seminar on the Spanish novel of the 19th century, I replied that there was no good textbook on the topic. “Well, I’ll write it myself,” I told myself, and I began Modern Spanish Novelists. It would be published in 1933. On May 13 of the following year, Azorín wrote in La Prensa of Buenos Aires: “The study of these novelists is fine, meticulous and penetrating.” But before Azorín (October 17, 1933), Professor Otis H. Green, who read the work for the Hispanic Collection of Macmillan Company of New York, Toronto and London, wrote to me: “I am not afraid of the reception your book will receive… Modern Spanish Novelists should be reprinted numerous times.”

Because of my success in these labors — the Editorial Universitaria printed the eighth edition of Novelists while Dr. Morales Carrión presided over the institution — I did not return to writing novels. But I began a new one when Ramón Menéndez Pidal recommended me, along with Tomás Navarro, from the Center for Historic Studies in Madrid, to succeed Gabriela Mistral, a visitor at our University.

The title of the novel would be En vela mientras el mundo duerme. I finished it in 1937. It would not be published until January of 1953. If the creatures in La ruta eterna wander through Puerto Rico and Europe, in the other the setting and the action, the topic and the characters, are predominantly of our island.

 


** In the original text: “With El Vigía we are in the most modern Spain. José Balseiro, now settled in Madrid and one of the most brilliant of the younger poets, novelists, and essayist, has his origin in America, in Puerto Rico… Balseiro is thus enabled to gain a standpoint which is at once genuinely national and widely international.”

Two local commentaries panned it.*** One called it a “work of very questionable artistic merits.” The other, with the same political passion, agreed. We hear the contrast between that opinion and those of some foreigners. Said Tomás Navarro:

The book takes advantage of many experiences of real life, extensive literary culture and broad understanding of modern social and political problems. All this brought to the stage with reflection and opportunity… The tone of the language is one of great serenity and correctness. On occasion, the sentences state sharp truths.

The magazine ínsula, of Madrid (issue 96):

…more than telling us about the lives of some very well drawn characters, it gives us a well defined air: Puerto Rico… more than pictures of characters, than psychological precision, than presentation and clashes of instincts and ideas, than very good prose…
The central character of En vela mientras el mundo duerme is Puerto Rico, the beautiful island of the Caribbean… In the style of this good Puerto Rican writer, we should note an expressive power very well bridled and contained… Thus, José A. Balseiro, Puerto Rican, is a good writer anywhere.

Experienced Cuban-Spanish novelist Alberto lnsúa, writing in La Vanguardia (Barcelona, April 20, 1956), praised En vela mientras el mundo duerme as “a tale between novelistic, philosophical and poetic” where the author’s “Hispanic feelings and thoughts are clear on every page.” lnsúa added:

First, for the clean and lightly Castilian prose; next, for choosing two Spanish characters settled on the island, a teacher and a priest, both rural, as those from whom the protagonist receives his best lessons; and finally, for the frequency with which our classic authors appear and resonate in the book…

U.S. professor Wilfred A. Beardsley, writing for “The Hispanic World” about the novel, said in Hispania: …”But throughout it persists a love for Puerto Rico, the little understood and overpopulated island.”

One of the most universal Dominican critics, Max Henríques Ureña, then a professor in Cuba, stated: “It is an animated slice of life with characters in sharp relief, such as Esperanza.”

Famed Chilean-Spanish critic Concha Zardoya, who taught at some of the main universities in the United States, wrote in the Modern Hispanic Review of New York: “We close José A. Balseiro’s book with the conviction that it is a work perfectly representative of the contemporary Puerto Rican novel.”

I could cite opinions from other figures of equal fame. But, allow me to remember one that is unforgettable for me, and for its particular and historical significance for many of you. On the first airplane flight that Luis Muñoz Marín made — from San Juan to a military base in Florida — he landed with a copy of En vela mientras el mundo duerme. “I am enchanted with your book,” he told me. “I read it all during the trip.” And when he got back to San Juan, he sent me a photograph of himself, dedicated this way: “For Balseiro, who with his pen honors the Puerto Rico symbolized by these mountains.” Muñoz appears in the glow of Jájome Alto, glimpsing distant loves, contemplating our land from within. . .

If you ask me which of my works contains the most of my sentiments, my thoughts, my dreams to reveal the love of my homeland in the years of the middle of my life’s path, I would quickly respond: En vela mientras el mundo duerme. But don’t bother to look for it. It may have been read outside of Puerto Rico. We have already heard numerous foreign voices. That first edition, made possible by one of the benefactors of our letters, Manuel García Cabrera, founder of the Library of Puerto Rican Authors, seems to have disappeared.

With a few exceptions, I am discounted here as a novelist. That does not bother me. I am consoled by the recognition of other letters and other authors. I remember that until 1909, when Rubén Darío praised Miguel de Unamuno as a poet, the master of El Cristo de Velázquez was almost not considered a poet in Spain. And I remember that it was Miguel de Unamuno himself, in the prologue of the second edition of his masterful Abel Sánchez, noted from Hendaya (July 14, 1928):

…However, this novel, translated into Italian, German and Dutch, had much success in countries that think and feel in other languages. And it began to have the same in our Spanish language. Especially after the young critic José A. Balseiro, in the second volume of his El Vigía, wrote a sharp essay about it. So much that this second edition now exists.****

It is curious, unquestionably, that two Americans from the Caribbean, Rubén Darío and I, opened the eyes of the Spanish world to two of the highest creative dimensions of the great genius of its culture. A letter of March 8, 1928, had circulated in Madrid, signed by Gregorio Marañón, Juan Cristóbal, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Luis de Zulueta, Wenceslao Fernández Flores, Melchor Fernández Almagro, Adolfo Salazar, Luis Jiménez de Asúa, Victorio Macho, Pío del Río Hortega and Eugenio Hermoso, inviting their colleagues in the sciences, the letters and the arts to join them to celebrate, with a banquet at the Fine Arts center, the success of that book, El Vigía ll. I will excerpt just one paragraph from that generous letter:

I am pleased to honor in Mr. Balseiro the artist and the gentleman. And because in the Spanish American way we so often waver between pompous and vain ways, I want to take advantage of this occasion to express a close, warmly cordial feeling as we gather around one of the most influential young writers in our language and one of the Americans who has shown the greatest affection and understanding of the traditions of Spain, serving the cause with rare talents and an exemplary character.

 


*** See Juan Enrique Colberg Petrovich, Four Classic Authors of Puerto Rico, “The Literary Case of José A. Balseiro,” pp. 163-210. Editorial Cordillera, San Juan, P.R. 1966.

Unamuno, the exile, did not abstain from being heard in his Spain. From Hendaya, he wrote a letter to be read at the banquet. That letter was read, in a voice charged with emotion, by the famous journalist Luis Calvo, who revealed some of the poetry recently created by don Miguel and sent to be read at the banquet. And, referring directly to the guest of honor, Unamuno affirmed:

Balseiro does not know how to hate. Above all, his work brought to the solitude of my exile an encouragement that appeared to me to come from a distant, clear morning from beyond the grave. Referring to those who often dissect a man who writes and slice me into three pieces… Balseiro recalls the purpose of Petrarch, the first humanist, and ends by saying of him that “his living eternity is the one and only daughter of the loving Cancionere.” What a fresh future these words of the poet and critic bring me…

This journey of Balseiro’s came to me, whispering encouragement, and after reading it and being moved by it I began to write my spiritual Cancionero of exile, of which I am sending a sample if you should wish to read some of it at this homage. It is the best my gratitude can provide.

And now, I must ask something of you. Read this letter of gratitude, read some of the songs that I owe so much to Balseiro, but do not publish any of that in that sad nation.

…So we clasp the generous hand of our Balseiro, a brother in Spanish civility, in civil Spanishness, who understands that criticism is a study of love and that the study of love is poetry.

From here in Hendaya, hearing the bells of Fuenterrabía, I send you the warmth of a revealed heart.

Miguel de Unamuno

12.III-1928

My latest novel — which is not the same as saying my last novel — is La gratitud humana (Mnemosyne Publishing Co., Miami, 1969). I began to write it at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. I went there at the insistence of my former post-graduate student at Illinois, Dr. Renato Rosaldo, an extraordinary scholar of the literature of his country, Mexico. Almost the next day after joining the faculty, I wrote the Dialogue-Prologue that has particular importance for understanding fiction. The first to understand it this way (incredible coincidence) was another former student of mine from my years in Illinois, Boyd G. Carter, an unequalled specialist in the works of Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera of Mexico.

Carter called La gratitud humana a “strange” and “intense” work of fiction. “In this novel there is a mordant, poetic magical realism.” “La gratitud humana is a new kind of abstraction, in a way, an allegory, maybe, that is not only sensualist, but also full of the contaminated rage of everything that is morally corrupt in humanity. As I read this,” Carter continued, “I have never read a novel so new and intriguing. José A. Balseiro reveals a notable new dimension of originality, novelty, truth and talent in La gratitud humana.” (I have reproduced the typewritten appreciation that Carter sent me himself. I have not seen it published and the author died a few years ago.)

The German professor and flamboyant member of the Spanish Royal Academy, Valentín García Yebra, declared after reading La gratitud humana: “In terms of the formal, there are magnificent scenes with great flow and detail.” The Cuban author and professor at Queens College of the University of New York, Carlos Ripoll, said: “In the future, alongside the allegories, symbols and prophecies of La gratitud humana, we will discover a valuable example of the genre that can serve as a guide for the student of our literature.” From Georgetown University came the voice of Estelle lrizarri, in Nivel, Gaceta de Cultura (México, May 31, 1971): “Balseiro’s prose is terse and rich in lyrical projections. The novel consists of various sketches that relate in some way to the noble and generous composer whose inspiration is to create a work dedicated to the “Peace on Earth” of Juan XXIII.*****

Along with the novels and other books mentioned so far were others of poetry that were praised by authors of high quality poetry. On the radio in Montevideo, in 1954, Juana de lbarbourou greeted me at what she called my “lyrical zenith.” And in the same city, Uruguayan critic Gastón Figueira, addressed two of my works, and in passing judgment on La pureza cautiva, he opined: “Owner of the craft of words and the Word (as Gabriela Mistral called Balseiro after reading this book), Balseiro succeeds in not letting his craft show through, but rather a kind of architectural stylization that is more evident to us in romances and songs…”

It was perhaps because of commentaries such as these, which have accompanied my work, that the best of the Chilean critics, Hernán Díaz Arrieta, who recently died and whose literary pseudonym (Alone) is one of the most respected in contemporary letters in the Spanish Americas, would write: “Traveling, writing, observing and reading through countries and worlds, this international writer, of multiple spirits, has planted his ideas everywhere and gathered praise in a variety of languages…”

Since La copa de Anacreonte (Madrid, 1924), numerous poems of mine have appeared, honoring poets, patriots and Puerto Rican topics. In the book “Laurel eterno,” the death of José P.H. Hernández, written in the spring of 1922, and the “Sonnet to José de Diego” in the fall of the same year. In La pureza cautiva, “The Flamboyan,” “Landscape in Puerto Rico,” “Ay Coamo!” “To the Shore, the Shore of the Sea,” “Island of Hurricanes,” “In Memory of Eduardo Giorgetti and Rafael Balseiro Dávila.” When I arrived to the year 1957, the pain of nostalgia gave me Saudades de Puerto Rico (Aguilar, Madrid), begun with these words from St. Augustine: “He who does not suffer the trials of his exile is one who does not think of returning to his homeland.”

The longings of Saudades were prolonged by the successor of Unamuno in the University of Salamanca. I will quote some of the many things the professor Manuel García Blanco said:

….Balseiro’s work has grown without losing the three lines of before — as a poet, essayist and novelist, the anagram that one day will include so many men of his condition — which shows how firm and determined were his first steps and his early dedication to the craft…
In addition to this work, now collected in his books, are the many lectures Balseiro has presented in Europe and the Americas… And it was this work as a presenter that brought him to Salamanca in the fall of 1955, where we could enjoy the first fruits of “Three Moments of Spanish Poetry in the Americas.”

… The short days that he spent in Salamanca united — or better, reunited — our old epistolary friendship. And then I came to know Balseiro the man. I had imagined him in his books, because his, as Miguel de Unamuno would want, spoke like men…

In this book are the many voices of a unique nostalgia, that of the “memory of a land that cannot be erased,” which Balseiro attributes to all Puerto Ricans.

The “Profiles” are few, and in outlining them Balseiro does not use the locket technique… he has preferred to surprise them in a circumstance that enlivens their memories. In this animated and brief gallery, we rub elbows with José Celso Barbosa, Luis Muñoz Rivera or Virgilio Dávila and his son, with the modest and musical Toribio, the great guiro musician, which the poet calls on for a refrain “to reanimate the heart / with the slash of your beat.”

But the reader should not think, especially if he is Puerto Rican, that the names cited are the only profiles drawn in this book. Swarming in its pages are other figures that are now historic, such as Baldorioty de Castro, or the great educator Eugenio María de Hostos, or Juan Morel Campos. . .

 


**** Since Unamuno made this statement, more than 20 new editions of Abel Sánchez have been reprinted.

*****On La gratitud humana by María Teresa Babín, in Diario Las Américas (Miami, April 6, 1972) and Cesáreo Rosa Nieves, in El Día, the former daily in Ponce.

The famous man from Salamanca remembered well. But he forgot that in my “Romance del Río Grande de Loíza” I extolled — and this was in 1957 — the greatest female poet of a Puerto Rico close to us:

And I sing to you woman
In an accent sensual and serious
That pampers you like a child

And sings you to sleep like a lover.

Julia they called you, remember?
And more than 
Burgos, you know
That we should call you
Julia of the Río Grande.

And so I joined the person to the landscape, and the landscape to the one who knew how to sing, I said to the river:

That is to be born lucky
Waiting for you in the street:
Reflecting heavens without shadows,
To have a woman who loves you
To play with poses and kisses
Like a man without worries
And bring you images
Throbbing on your chest!

What I intentionally did with my books I have already mentioned, I could have done with the rest. But that would require time we do not have. I can say, in general, that of the books of verse, the most recent, El ala y el beso (Library of Puerto Rican Authors, San Juan, 1983) has been, perhaps, the best received. An example is a fragment of a letter written to me on October 10, 1983, from Madrid, by Gerardo Diego, one of the princes of the 1927 Generation:

I always remember you and your subsequent books. El ala y el beso, which is a short list of love poems, has just arrived… You and your Puerto Rico are never erased from my memory; the beauty of your island and the pleasantness of your constant poetic message once again reach my soul.

Your work always changes, and has reached a point of maturity that rests in the sonnets of your Sorpresita, that emerges in beauty from the Poema del Grande Amor. From one extreme to the other, sensual contours and religious blessings.

In one of the three short prologues of El ala y el beso, I gather and distill all the secrets of my poetic art:

I do not sing to Love:
I was born

Full of life.

Later
I went on to my verse.
I never said the word you do not know
Of the twin passion of my blood.

Love that is not lived, is not sung.
It is not the poem that speaks through me:

Life speaks.

But my life was not all spent in contemplation. There were hours of fruitful action. For example, when I returned to San Juan in 1924, after my first stay in Madrid, I proposed the idea of raising funds for a monument to Eugenio María de Hostos. It was in an open letter to Emilio del Toro Cuevas, then president of our Supreme Court, who received the idea enthusiastically. We began a campaign. And a few months later, we had more than $10,000. I was commissioned to select a sculpture on my return to Madrid and manage the funds that would be sent to me. In Spain, I saw all the works of art in the streets and parks. And I decided to get the great sculptor of Castile, Victorio Macho — already admired for his monuments to Galdós and to Santiago Ramón y Cajal — to create our project. Two years later, we installed the symbolic work of art in the park at the University of Puerto Rico. I came to participate in the presentation ceremony, after having been exposed to artists and writers in Madrid. Numerous positive articles about our patriot and Victorio Macho appeared in the press in Madrid. The activity in Río Piedras was one of justice and of mending, and I gave one of the speeches. And, mission completed, I returned to Madrid.

In 1960, at the Congress of the Academies of the Spanish Language in Bogotá, I presented my speech “Puerto Rico and the Spanish Language,” later included in the second volume of my Expresión de Hispanoamérica. In it, through comparative texts, I cited passages by Spanish writers who used words from English or from the United States. My paper was printed in the minutes of the Congress, in which I presided over one of the plenary sessions. And on October 17 of that year, the Colombian Academy awarded me the title of Corresponding Academic.

Four years later, I appeared at the Second International Congress of Hispanists, held in Nijmegen (Holland), and was asked to lead a session that included a Spanish specialist, a French professor from the Sorbonne and a professor from the United States, and to read, in another session, a paper that was almost immediately published in Cuadernos del idioma, of Buenos Aires, and added our Puerto Rico to a concert of world voices.

I had contact in my life with two other famous men, one intellectual — as in the case of Hostos — and semi-personal. In 1912, in New York, as a boy, I met and heard Luis Muñoz Rivera, closely related to my father’s family (Eduardo Giorgetti and the Balseiros). When Muñoz Rivera died, my parents, my siblings and I lived in Baltimore, and my father — Rafael Balseiro Dávila — regretted unceasingly that he was not in Puerto Rico, that he would not write the funeral march for the burial of the patriot.

Three years passed. One day, back on our island, while I was in my room, I heard a mysterious melody on the piano in the other room. From the nature of the sound, I knew it was my father playing. It was not like him to be home so early. What could it be? I went downstairs right away. “Son,” my father said when he saw us, “José de Diego has died in New York. When I learned about it, I came right away to write the funeral march with which we will bury him. I have even thought of the name: The Tears of a Star.” The body of the orator and poet would arrive by sea. It would take almost five days to arrive. Meanwhile, my father organized an orchestra that he paid for. And I began the essays. “Began,” I say, because I was the violinist in the symphonic group. (I had studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.) Along with the body of the immortal singer of “Laura,” lying in the old House of Representatives where he so brilliantly presided, we played for the first time the funeral march written by my father which, adapted by Manuel Tizol Márques for the Municipal Band, would be played in the procession the next day.

Among the many conferences in which I participated, I should single out the one of the Academies of the Spanish Language in Buenos Aires (November 30 to December 10, 1964). I was one of those chosen to speak about Andrés Bello of Venezuela in the homage that was held there. At the end of my speech, the novelist Ramón Díaz Sánchez asked me for a copy and published it in the Revista Nacional de Cultura of Caracas. That same day, the Sixth Papers Committee, presided over by Dámaso Alonso (successor to Menéndez Pidal in the leadership of the Spanish Royal Academy), approved Resolution XCIII by the Congress:

“Considered:
The unquestionable value of the work presented by Mr. José A. Balseiro of the Puerto Rican Academy.

Resolved:
To recommend publication of the work by Mr. Balseiro titled “Presence of Wagner and Near Absence of Debussy in the Works of Rubén Darío.”

And one more intervention. In the closing activity I read, as committee chairman for the Puerto Rican Academy, words of review, gratitude and farewell.

An editorial in the great daily newspaper La Nación, under the headline “The forge of the language – Man and poetry,” stated:

José A. Balseiro presided over the plenary session yesterday. This is one of the most respected critics of the Spanish Americas. His renown dates to the year in which the first volume of his trilogy, El Vigía, appeared … a fundamental work for understanding the literary currents of the time in the work of the most important figures of Spanish literature. Two others who presided and deserve the attention of an impartial observer are José A. Oría of Argentina and Dámaso Alonso of Spain. Three names, three latitudes and one single concept of the language and the literature. This is to discover the main elements that form the culture of the Spanish-speaking peoples…

I have not mentioned the lectures in Europe, in the United States and in Latin America (including Brazil). I remember that in 1937 I was invited to the University of Wisconsin (in Madison) to speak under the auspices of the Spanish, geography and art departments. But I had to speak in English, because it was for the general public. My topic was Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican danza. And because back then I did not have arthritis in my hands, I played some of our compositions in the genre on the piano. It was in Bascom Hall.

That evoked memories of one of my returns to Spain, when it pained me here to see works and authors worthy of a better fate who were forgotten. And I began a series of lectures in various cities and on the radio. Years later, in Spain, with the collaboration of the virtuoso Jesús María Sanromá, I took the danza from Santiago de Compostela to Seville and from Salamanca to Barcelona and the Mediterranean Coast. My brother Juan Ramón made an album of danzas by Morel Campos. It included my study of the Puerto Rican danza that would become one of the chapters of Expression of Spanish Americas. Editorial Gredos, of Madrid, printed the second edition of this title.

When I remember the range of what I aspired to accomplish, I recall the question posed by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig at the memorial for my dear friend, the brilliant Cuban storyteller, Alfonso Hernández-Catá, who died in a plane crash on the way from Río de Janeiro to San Pablo.

Who, in the end, better serves a nation than he who takes it beyond its borders, who connects and joins its literature with the literature of the world and, by elevating his own standing, elevates the standing of his homeland?

 

Ladies and gentlemen.

April 6, 1984
San Juan, P.R.

 

 

Author: José Agustín Balseiro
Published: April 28, 2015.

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