Arts & Humanities Faculty Research in the time of COVID-19

May 1, 2020
Julia de Burgos

Mercy Romero, Associate Professor, American Literature & American Studies from our Hutchins School of Liberal Studies shares how the pandemic has influenced her current work.

Last week I saw the aerial drone footage of the East River’s Hart’s Island on the nightly news. The mass graves were being dug by laborers, a temporary respite for prisoner labor, those people incarcerated (and isolated) at another NYC island, Rikers. The Hart Island graves will accommodate the anonymous or unclaimed dead.

Before Covid-19 hit this country I was beginning to more deeply study the life and writing of the 20th century Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos and her English language poems and Spanish language letters and diaries. I had begun researching Goldwater Memorial Hospital on NY’s Roosevelt Island (then called Welfare Island), where in 1953 De Burgos was a patient and where she composed her English language poems. The story of Julia de Burgos’s July 1953 East Harlem street death, her anonymous burial in a potter’s field on Hart’s Island, and her exhumation and repatriation to Puerto Rico, are central to the making of the Puerto Rican poetic figure, part of how we remember her. Seeing the drone images last week, of the burial plots on Hart’s Island and knowing that this is where the poet Julia de Burgos was first buried too left me with feelings of both wonder and sadness. It was other Puerto Ricans who claimed her, in some sense named her again, by demanding her exhumation and repatriation. Puerto Rican literary history here emerges at a claim – on the artist, on her body, on her biography. I wonder about all the folks being buried today on Hart’s Island, people who perished (alone) fighting this virus, and whose deaths were deemed anonymous or unclaimed and who will rest as part of a mass. What does it mean that part of our Puerto Rican literary history flows through all these little East River islands – these particular hospitals, prisons, and burial grounds?

During its time, Goldwater Memorial Hospital used designed to help rehabilitate the chronically ill at this island site. The very often and very ill were brought back into the values of good health at a rehabilitative architectural build. Sun exposure was planned and understood as curative and productive of good feeling – this was reflected in the design and placement of wings, hallways, beds, windows, and balconies. Yet Goldwater Memorial Hospital was also a chronic diseases research facility: “during World War II conscientious objectors “volunteered” to be used as guinea pigs for secret experiments on malaria and extreme cold.” Historically, US strategic control and punishment for Puerto Rican insurgence and freedom movements, was also secret experiments – from the radiation torture punishment inflicted on nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, Julia de Burgos’ contemporary and comrade, to the US sterilization campaigns in Puerto Rico, which by 1982 claimed the reproductive freedoms of 75 percent of the women of childbearing age across the island. My grandmother too. In a letter to her sister, Julia de Burgos admits the costs of her own subjection to experimental medical treatment on Welfare Island. During her illness with lobular pneumonia and institutionalization at Welfare Island, De Burgos would focus her attention to the site of care as confinement – she would do this in her letters to her sister and in her poetry, each form of writing echoing the critique she shaped as both a poet and a journalist. Her participation in human trials would instantiate wellness, and the experimentation that would reshape the very biology of Puerto Ricans for decades to come, and the loss of freedoms – what she described in an English language poem as the freedom to move, to laugh, to feel herself.

In 6 months, I hope to begin another phase of this research. I will have heard back about an external funding application for a short term library grant at the New York Public Library, to study the Schomburg’s Alberta Hunter Papers (1919-1986), which contain personal and professional documents, letters, notebooks, and examinations related to African American blues singer Alberta Hunter’s career as a practical nurse. Alberta Hunter’s long term presence at Goldwater Memorial Hospital as a scrub nurse will form a significant bridge in my understanding and imagination of Julia De Burgos’ time at Goldwater Memorial Hospital as a patient. I don’t know if I’ll get the funding this time around, and if I do - will we be able to travel, and will the libraries be open? If it is a no, that is fine with me. I’ll rework my application and apply again the next time. These projects, these questions are seeing me through the news. Helping me to consider more deeply our histories and forms of art and survival. Poetry and music have always seen me through. I feel intimately connected to life and these research projects this way.