Clemente Soto Vélez

Clemente Soto Vélez

Poet, essayist, journalist. He was one of the founders of the avant-garde literary movement called Atalayismo, which developed in the late 1920s in San Juan. He was also a member of the Nationalist Party. Because of his militant participation in the nationalist movement, he was sentenced to prison. After settling in New York in 1942, he became involved in various labor union and social movements in the city, where he was known for his defense of El Barrio and for supporting education, the letters, and young Puerto Rican artists.

Soto Vélez was born in the municipality of Lares on January 4, 1905. He completed his elementary education in his home town. He continued his education in Arecibo and completed his studies in San Juan, which he moved to in 1920. In 1928, he worked as editor in chief of El Tiempo, the publication of the Puerto Rican Republican Party led by José Celso Barbosa. After he published an editorial calling on the Association of Sugar Producers to pay taxes due to the public treasury, he was fired from his job.

By the late 1920s, Soto Vélez had become part of the cultural and literary life in the capital. He was part of a group of poets, which included Graciany Miranda Archilla, Alfredo Margenat and Fernando González Alberty, who met secretly and called themselves, at first, El hospital de los sensitivos. The “conciliábulos,” or secret society, as they called themselves, adopted unusual pseudonyms; Soto Vélez used “Archipámpano de Zintar,” “Zelve Zintar” or “Abel Irián,” which were examples of their idea of creating an anti-language.

By 1929, the group had adopted the name “Atalaya de los Dioses,” and, in addition to those mentioned above, they were joined by Luis Hernández Aquino, Angel Dionisio Trujillo (René Goldman), Pedro Carrasquillo, Samuel Lugo, Juan Calderón Escobar, José Joaquín Ribera Chebremont, Carmen Alicia Cadilla and Antonio Cruz y Nieves, among others. Most of the atalayistas mainly wrote avant-garde poetry, although they also wrote essays and short stories. The poetry promoted by the atalayistas sought to break with traditional literary methods in terms of form, imagery and rhythm. They were revolutionary in their political leanings and that led many of their followers to identify them with the ideas of Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party since 1930.

Soto Vélez’s atalayista poems were published in various Puerto Rican periodicals, such as Gráfico de Puerto Rico, La Linterna, Alma Latina, índice, El Diluvio, Puerto Rico Ilustrado and Armas. He founded the latter publication and was its editor until early 1936. Both he and the other atalayistas contributed to the literary criticism column called “Los puyadores de gazapos” that was published in El País. He also wrote atalayista prose in the press under the epigraph Proloquios; these works were compiled in a volume titled Escalios (1937), which he worked on while he was held prisoner in La Princesa jail, in Old San Juan, for his political activities.

During his atalayista era, he was also part of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which proposed armed struggle to achieve freedom. Because of his political activities, he was imprisoned for several months in 1934 and again in 1936, the year he was arrested for seditious conspiracy along with poet Juan Antonio Corretjer, party leader Pedro Albizu Campos, and five other nationalists. This time, he was temporarily jailed at La Princesa and from there he was transferred to Atlanta, Georgia. Three Puerto Rican poets praised Soto Vélez, along with the other imprisoned nationalists, in their poetry: Julia de Burgos with her poem “Responso a las ocho partidas,” Graciany with “Romance a los libertadores,” and Francisco Manrique Cabrera with “Canción que amarga vibra.”

In 1940, Clemente Soto Vélez returned to the island after being released on parole. For taking part in talks with his former fellow party members and for speaking openly about the political situation on the island, which violated the conditions of his parole, he was arrested again. He served the last two years of his sentence in prison in Lewisville, Pennsylvania.

Soto Vélez settled in New York when he got out of prison in 1942, as part of his conditions for release. In New York, he joined the American Labor Party along with his lawyer, Vito Marcantonio, the representative in Congress for the district that included Harlem and a defender of the civil rights of immigrants and Italian, Puerto Rican and black workers. With Marcantonio’s support, Soto Vélez organized Puerto Rican workers in various organizations, including a Puerto Rican wing of the American Labor Party, the Nationalist Party in New York, and La Junta in Manhattan, the Bronx and in Brooklyn.

In New York, he also worked with the Spanish Grocers Association. Later, in 1945, he founded the Puerto Rican Merchants Association, Inc., of which he was the director until the late 1960s. He also belonged to the Institute of Puerto Rico in New York and the Ibero-American Writers and Poets Circle, of which he was president for a time. During that time, he returned to his work as a journalist, contributing to various New York publications such as El Nacionalista and Pueblos Hispanos. In the 1950s, he founded and edited La Voz de Puerto Rico.

After nearly two decades in which he published no poetry, he published Abrazo interno (1954), a work consisting of seven poems in which he defends the universal rights of human beings; árboles (1955), divided into three poems – “Estos árboles,” “Esos árboles” and “Aquellos árboles” – that explores nature and its intimate relationship with human life; Caballo de palo (1959) published in the magazine Metáfora, which is a self-reflection on the poet himself and on the Puerto Rican man, and La tierra prometida (1979).

Clemente Soto Vélez died on April 15, 1993, in Puerto Rico. The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center, a non-profit organization that promotes cultural development among Puerto Ricans, Latinos and other groups in New York, was created the same year he died. Additionally, Soto Vélez’s documents were compiled and are available at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

References

Costa, Maritelma y Alvin Joaquín Figueroa. Kaligrafiando: Conversaciones con Clemente Soto Vélez. Río Piedras, P. R.: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1990. Recurso electrónico..

Rivera de álvarez, Josefina. Literatura puertorriqueña: su proceso en el tiempo. Madrid: Partenón, [1983]. Impreso.

Portal del Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños de Hunter College en Nueva York.

Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 16, 2014.

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