This week marks the birthday of the great Peruvian poet and revolutionary César Vallejo (16 March 1892 – 15 April 1938). Born the youngest of 11 children in a small village high in the Andes, César Vallejo grew up poor. He made his way to university but was forced to take time off from his studies to work in a sugar mill, where he saw and felt the exploitation of the workers who worked from dawn to dusk for a few cents and a handful of rice. This experience stayed with him for all of his short life. He began to publish poetry, earned a Masters degree, and started reading for the law. To support his studies he worked as a teacher, but lost his job because he refused to marry a woman with whom he had an affair. He returned to his hometown after his mother died and stumbled into a political feud. An aide to a local magistrate had been shot and a store burned down. Vallejo, who was taking notes on the shooting for the magistrate, was arrested when the political winds changed and spent 105 days in jail charged with being an “intellectual instigator.” Upon his release he fled to Lima, taught school, and published a book of poems titled Trilce that almost immediately gained him an international following. His teaching job eliminated again and fearing he might be sent back to jail, he emigrated to Paris in 1923.
In Paris he met artists such as Antonin Artaud, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau, began to read Marx, traveled on the first of four trips to the USSR, and with other expatriates, helped found the Peruvian Socialist Party. He met Georgette Philipart–with whom he is walking in the above photo. They fell in love, moved in together, and married a few years later. He continued to write — poetry, stories, plays, a novel, a book on Marxist theory– but his political activity and notoriety were seen as a threat by French authorities, who arrested him and told him to leave the country. He and Georgette fled to Spain where he got a job teaching and continued to write, but in 1936 Franco and the Fascists came to power. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Vallejo served as the Peruvian representative to the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture and traveled to the front. He and Georgette returned to Paris where, inspired by the horror and bravery he’d seen in Spain, he wrote produced two manuscripts of poetry in a few months during the fall of 1937. Racing back and forth across Europe, his imprisonments, living in poverty, and the malaria he contracted along the way took their toll, and on the morning of April 15, 1938, at almost the same time Fascist troops finally reached the Mediterranean and split the Loyalist troops, Vallejo, in a fever-induced delirium, yelled out “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” and died.