Cover image for Peruvian Rebel: The World of Magda Portal, with a Selection of Her Poems By Kathleen Weaver

Peruvian Rebel

The World of Magda Portal, with a Selection of Her Poems

Kathleen Weaver

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$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03550-5

328 pages
6" × 9"
26 b&w illustrations/1 map
2009

Peruvian Rebel

The World of Magda Portal, with a Selection of Her Poems

Kathleen Weaver

“Kathleen Weaver’s biography of Magda Portal brings to life a woman too long lost from our histories—an extraordinary fighter for women’s rights and social justice in Peru, as well as a gifted poet. She is one of the key figures in the twentieth-century struggles of oppressed people in Latin America, and her life story should inspire as well as educate readers of this fine biography.”

 

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As the Left reawakens in Latin America following widespread disillusionment with neoliberal efforts to apply “shock therapy” to local economies, this story of the exemplary life of a major Peruvian activist and literary figure of an earlier era is particularly timely. Magda Portal (1900–1989) played a historic role in the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), which began as a Marxist-inspired but non-Communist radical movement with cells based in both Europe and Latin America in the 1920s before it became a full-fledged political party in Peru in 1931. Often in exile abroad, in prison, or in hiding in Peru to escape arrest, Portal was the leading female organizer for the Apristas until her break with the increasingly Right-leaning party after World War II. As APRA’s national secretary for women’s affairs, Portal worked tirelessly for women’s rights within the framework of a broader fight for social justice. A close colleague of revolutionary leaders José Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, she sided with the latter in the schism that erupted between the two in 1928, but ended up denouncing Haya de la Torre in 1950, accusing him of compromised relationships with the powers of neocolonial capitalism.

Already an acclaimed poet by the age of twenty-three, Portal struggled throughout her life to balance her artistic with her political ambitions, at times abandoning her literary pursuits. This conflict is itself a fascinating part of this biography of a woman now regarded as one of the pioneer feminists of Latin America. A substantial selection of Portal’s poetry is offered, with accompanying translations.

“Kathleen Weaver’s biography of Magda Portal brings to life a woman too long lost from our histories—an extraordinary fighter for women’s rights and social justice in Peru, as well as a gifted poet. She is one of the key figures in the twentieth-century struggles of oppressed people in Latin America, and her life story should inspire as well as educate readers of this fine biography.”
“In this exceptional book on Magda Portal, Weaver creates a rich tapestry of some of the most important Latin American intellectual and political activists from the first half of the twentieth century. In Portal’s collaboration with such outstanding personalities as Vallejo, Haya de la Torre, Mariátegui, Vasconcelos, Rivera, or Modotti, the reader can recognize the contributions of this foundational figure—a true example of political activism and commitment in the avant-garde—to the cultural and political processes of APRA and more generally of the Latin American Left.”
“Drawing on extensive sources in the Benson Collection at the University of Texas, Kathleen Weaver draws a deft portrait of the Peruvian poet and political activist as a leader of the populist Aprista Party. The author casts Portal as an early Peruvian and Latin American feminist and highlights her struggle with the male-dominated APRA leadership to expand women’s rights both within and outside the party. A worthy addition to mid-twentieth-century Peruviana.”
“Weaver’s translation of Portal’s poems is superb, and the rich historical and contextual material gives the reader a vivid picture of APRA’s goal of creating a new Peru that would bring the displaced and exploited indigenous peoples into full citizenship. Present, too, is the dream of creating a bonded Latin America. The book is a ground-level view of the hard choices Portal made in difficult circumstances, and it provides a glowing tapestry against which to read her brilliant poetry. The photos are contemporary, adding to the historical verity of the book. This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of the struggles of peoples in any part of the world, of the Americas, and of the ways in which poetry is generated and expressed. It is a profound reading experience.”
“This is a highly recommended biography of Magda Portal for audiences in the United States, Latin America, and Peru. Weaver’s work pieces together diverse materials to provide a great picture of Portal’s life course. This book brings to the fore a great political and feminist leader previously overlooked in Peruvian history.”

Kathleen Weaver has translated four books from Spanish, including Omar Cabezas’s Fire from the Mountain, with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes (1985), and Julio Cortázar’s Nicaraguan Sketches, with her own introduction (1989). She also co-edited The Other Voice: Twentieth-Century Women’s Poetry in Translation (1976) and The Penguin Book of Women Poets (1978).

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Beginnings (1900–1919)

2. Entering the Vanguard (1920–1927)

3. First Exile (1927–1930)

4. In the APRA: The “Heroic Years” (1931–1944)

5. A Dream Disintegrates (1945–1957)

6. Later Years (1958–1989)

Selected Poems

Afterword

Notes

Selected References

Index

1

Beginnings (1900–1919)

The sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

As a young man, Pedro Pablo Portal Ortega traveled from Peru’s Pacific coast across the Andean cordillera to seek work harvesting rubber in the Amazonian jungle basin, a highly dangerous occupation. Rubber workers often died in the jungle—of tropical diseases, snakebite, exhaustion—but Pedro Portal survived, eventually returning to the coast with amazing stories to tell his future children and plans to launch a construction business in the Lima area.

Nearly forty years old in 1895 and eager to start a family, he married Rosa Amelia Moreno del Risco, then sixteen. A devout Catholic whose convent schooling was just finished, she “preferred to marry rather than go on living in her stepfather’s house.” Her own father, Alejandro Moreno, died as a soldier in the War of the Pacific (1879–84), the bloody conflict between Peru and Chile that ended in defeat and devastation for Peru. Snatched from her cradle by marauding Chilean soldiers—so the family story goes—the infant Rosa Amelia was hastily retrieved by a watchful servant. Her family was comfortably, if not affluently, middle class. Rosa Amelia’s mother, Juana de Risco Cáceres, had Spanish aristocratic antecedents, in Seville. An ancestor on her mother’s side was a signatory to Peru’s Declaration of Independence.

Pedro Portal settled his young family in Barranco, a wind-scoured resort town situated on a magnificent bluff overlooking the Pacific. The bracing salt air and vast ocean vistas attracted many of the wealthier residents of nearby Lima, who made the journey to the seaside in horse and buggy, leaving behind the fetid air of the increasingly crowded and unsanitary capital city. On May 27, 1900, Julia Portal (christened María Magdalena, later shortened to Magda), second among four children of the Moreno-Portal union, was born on a tranquil block of adjoining single-story dwellings, possibly at number 122 or 124 Calle Colón, a brief walk from the ocean and a stone’s throw from a gracefully spired local church, the Iglesia de San Francisco.

One of Magda’s earliest and most vivid memories was of seeing the ocean. Carried in her mother’s arms down to the shoreline and placed on the rocks, the small child was “astounded, completely dazzled by the marvel of the sea.” The sea would become the cardinal metaphor in her poetry, a recurrent image of her own inveterate restlessness.

When his second daughter was nearly three, Pedro Portal, wanting to be nearer his construction sites, moved his family from seaside Barranco to nearby Callao, Peru’s main port city, recently connected to landlocked Lima by rail. Through Callao moved a steady stream of agricultural and mining commodities to be shipped abroad. Portal’s construction business flourished, profiting from the building boom then transforming the greater Lima-Callao area, whose population at the time was some two hundred thousand. A century later Lima and the outlying towns, including Barranco, would form a single urban complex with upward of 7 million inhabitants.

In Callao the Portal family settled into a huge, rambling house on the far edge of town, again near the ocean. Previously the house was a seminary and prior to that a barracks for the Chilean soldiers who occupied the port city in the aftermath of Peru’s humiliating rout in the War of the Pacific. Her father, Magda surmised, “was no doubt attracted by the large meadow, the interior patios, and the orchard, as well as by the house’s many rooms. He most certainly envisioned a larger family.” There were three children by the time of this move, María Amelia, María Magdalena Julia, and Felix Alfonso; Juana de Dios would soon be born. Replete with legends and stories of local ghosts, the sprawling house with its many corridors was seen by many in the neighborhood as a place of mystery, especially at night. Phantoms loomed in the febrile imaginations of the children, who loved being frightened. Magda and her elder sister heard whispers and strange noises. They once experienced a vivid apparition of their father in shirtsleeves drawing water from the garden pump, though they soon learned from their mother—with an eerie thrill—that their father was still at work, not yet having returned home to enjoy lunch with his family.

By the time Magda was three, both she and her sister knew how to read, having been taught by their mother. A beautiful, dignified woman, Rosa Amelia greatly valued education and would take considerable pains to send all her children to school, which in Peru in those days meant Catholic school at private expense. In the peaceable routine of these years, in the morning while their mother did household chores, Magda and her sister Amelia dragged their miniature chairs to a nearby patio where young women in the neighborhood were operating a sort of preschool. Here the small girl memorized nursery rhymes and verses extolling the lives of the saints, happily reciting these to any audience she could find. On long afternoons, as her mother looked on, arms crossed, smiling indulgently, the fanciful child often walked the perimeter of the large interior patio, always with something to read tucked under her arm. She enjoyed these simple childhood pleasures, secure in the midst of a stable, prospering family. Although Rosa Moreno did not marry for love, as she later confided to her daughters, she found her taciturn husband to be a good man, hardworking, honest, and devoted to his family.

Pedro Portal regretted his own lack of a university education and hoped to provide better for his children, including the girls. He once laughingly remarked, referring to his contentious second daughter, “I’m going to have to send her to law school because she’s always arguing with me, always disputing some point.” He said to his wife, holding his daughter’s upturned face in his hand, “This child will do something in life. You’ll live to see it but I won’t.”

Magda had no doubt she was her father’s favorite. Her principal memory of Barranco, besides her dazzling impression of the sea, was of precious time spent with her busy father. She recalled that he didn’t mind her interruptions but gladly admitted her into the sanctum of his office. “‘Papa, it’s me, Julita,’ I used to say, knocking softly on his door. That was the password. My father liked to call me Julita, and he would let me in and sit me on his desk and we would chat. He never allowed this with the other children, not even with my older sister.”

This idyll abruptly ceased when one day Pedro Portal, sitting on a damp marble slab at one of his construction sites, experienced a sudden chill and went home feverish. Within the week he would succumb to a virulent strain of bronchial pneumonia. Magda retained a vivid memory of seeing her father’s lifeless body.

This was my first experience of death, although I didn’t grasp its significance. As the adults kept watch over my father, forbidding any child to come near, I waited my chance and slipped in when the others were somewhere else. I turned five in May, and my father died in July. I approached the bed and just stood there quietly. He was very still. Then I noticed that his feet were rigid. . . . I wasn’t afraid but inside me something strange and extraordinary was happening. I don’t know how long I stood there but finally I left, not wanting to be there when the others came back into the room.

Perhaps fortunately at this time, the Portal family owned a dog, León. The faithful pet followed their father’s funeral procession to the cemetery then took off running as the coffin was being lowered into the ground. Eight days later the children found his limp body in the orchard weeds. With gentle solicitude they nursed him back to health, the beloved pet’s condition distracting them from the harsh reality of their father’s death. “I have to confess,” Magda later reflected, “that our grief for our father was much less than the pain we felt when León disappeared.”

She often withdrew, taking refuge in the orchard behind their house, spending hours alone. She did not, however, ignore the needs of her siblings when their mother had to be away meeting with lawyers and judges, attempting to sort out the tangled estate of mortgaged properties. According to Juana de Portal, Magda’s sister and the last Portal child, Magda became responsible out of necessity, because the eldest girl, Amelia, lacked the temperament to take charge when their mother was not at home. It was Magda who put order in the household, taking care of the younger children like a grown-up. Magda’s own childhood, Juana believed, effectively ended the day their father died.

While awaiting their mother’s return, Magda recalled, the children would huddle together in the front doorway, singing melancholy songs while the dog lay nearby. “How many times on those lonely days when my mother traveled to Lima to see judges . . . did León wait with us, silent, attentive to the least noise, on those long afternoons when the only sound was the distant murmur of the sea.”

The sudden death of Pedro Portal left his family in financial trouble. It was up to Rosa Amelia, just twenty-six and with four small children, the youngest only three months old, to salvage whatever assets she could. To raise urgently needed cash, she sold valuables and household items. Their main asset being the great house, she decided to rent it out, moving with the children into smaller accommodations. Unfortunately, the man to whom she rented the house did not pay his rent, even though he sublet apartments in the large building, thereby collecting rent himself from several families. He insisted he needed the money to make critical repairs to the property. Frustrated and bewildered, the young widow took her children and moved back into an empty wing in the house. Her tenant then insisted that she pay rent to him. Which she indignantly refused to do. At this point her tenant took her to court, charging her with trespassing. A judge responded with a patently unfair ruling: the family was evicted by court order from their own property. One day when Rosa Moreno was not at home, police authorities entered the house and put the children and household furnishings into the street. Magda recalled the scene.

I was seven, my brother four, and the youngest, my father’s last daughter, was two and a half. My eldest sister, ten, wasn’t with us at the time. The officials put a huge padlock on the door and we just stood there sobbing in the street. Everybody in the neighborhood knew the house was ours. “This is impossible,” they said. “How can it be that these children can be evicted from their own house?” When the officials turned to go, I picked up a stone and threw it as hard as I could. Screaming and sobbing I picked up a huge rock and battered the padlock until it broke. Then I opened the door and with the neighbors’ help started dragging the furniture back into the house. Nobody tried to stop us. The police and the officials just stood there and watched. But what a scene when my mother finally got back home!

This episode infuriated the young girl, as if a buried anger associated with the loss of her father was now erupting into consciousness, confounded with the present outrage. Her indignation at being put in the street, at seeing the shock and distress of her siblings, at experiencing the family’s helplessness in the face of official power—all that, she believed, predisposed her from that day on to identify with society’s ill-treated, unprotected, and unjustly dispossessed. The early loss of her father may also have predisposed her to attach herself to powerful men, to whom she could look as mentors in the battle for social reform.

Eventually the various properties her father was acquiring were auctioned to pay debts. The family moved from the port of Callao to adjacent Lima, where they lived in a series of cramped rental apartments. Her mother, “inept at earning money” yet needing to support herself and four children, solicited sewing from friends and found work stitching uniforms for the Peruvian army.

Magda would later decry what she saw as the propensity of those born into the middle class to be deeply ashamed if they became poor, trying to hide their penury while persisting in the belief that at any moment some miracle would occur to restore them to their former position. In their own case, the hoped-for miracle came in the form of a second husband for Rosa Moreno—Juan Crisóstomo Pareja, whose stable job paid a good salary. Financial cares were allayed, and in rapid succession the young mother would give birth to five additional children. Magda could now enjoy a fairly carefree girlhood. “I was very vain,” she confided in a late interview given to La Tortuga magazine. “My mother used to say that we should install mirrors everywhere so I could look at myself from every possible angle.” She also recalled liking to stay up late and look at the moon: “This worried my mother, who was afraid I’d be exhausted the next day in school.”

By early adolescence Magda was writing prolifically, churning out stories, poems, even a sentimental novel (in the course of which her heroine became pregnant from having kissed her boyfriend). When she read this innocent passage to her adult relatives they burst out laughing. “In the too-austere atmosphere of our household,” she disclosed to La Tortuga, “sex was never mentioned.”

Members of her extended family may have been amused by her naive prose but they were not impressed by her incessant writing and studying and were frankly irritated by her tendency to point out errors in her elders’ speech. Some of Magda’s relatives—aunts, uncles—referred to her sarcastically among themselves as “la princesa” (the princess) or “la letrada” (Miss Erudition). Rosa Moreno, however, encouraged her daughter’s literary experiments. She scolded Magda for destroying her manuscripts, a typical occurrence as the neophyte author’s critical sense often told her the writing was worthless.

Magda also suspected that her relatives were reading her manuscripts when she was out of the house. “I always felt harassed,” she later confessed, “intruded upon, persecuted by the curiosity of those around me.” This sense that her writings were being violated produced in her a kind of disgust. “An almost physical need to write,” she also recalled, coincided “oddly” with her tendency to destroy her work. “It seemed to me that my writing was so naked, so vulnerable, so newly born, even embryonic, that if someone should come across it, it wouldn’t have the strength to remain alive. Any violation would require its death. But at the same time its destruction, my self-destruction, was a painful thing, like something I didn’t do of my own accord, like something forced upon me. Like a suicide.”

Being protective of her writing did not, however, deter her, when she was older, from submitting it for publication. She wanted to see her work in print. She once noted that what set her apart from many women writers was her willingness to put forward her efforts. This tension between wanting to reveal and at the same time wanting to destroy her writing may never have been fully resolved.

Even as her adolescent writing continued, she embarked upon a course of practical studies. For four years she took courses in typing, dictation, bookkeeping, and related subjects at the Colegio para Señoritas Decentes (Academy for Respectable Young Ladies). By the age of twelve she was exasperated with being schooled by nuns and yearned to acquire the marketable skills that would enable her to become self-supporting and to help her mother. “I was never frivolous,” she said. “My most urgent desire was to prepare myself to become independent.”

Only recently established in Lima, the Colegio para Señoritas Decentes had as its mission the imparting of secretarial skills to young women (whites only, no Indians or mestizas) who were eager to find employment in the newly opened commercial offices in the bustling capital city, then in the throes of economic expansion.

At age sixteen, having completed her program, Magda was ready to seek work. Her mother accompanied her to job interviews. When one of her very first employers took the inexperienced wage earner out of the office for an afternoon drive to the sea, her mother forbade her to return to that job. Eventually she found a position in the lithography studio of a courtly German immigrant. There she worked for two years, pleased that her mother no longer needed to purchase her clothing or provide her with spending money. She felt herself on a new plateau. “I adjusted to this new way of life, repellent in some aspects yet providing the satisfaction that comes of knowing oneself to be useful.”

At the time when Magda first began earning wages, it was widely thought improper for women to work outside their homes—women, that is, of Peru’s tiny middle and upper classes. Published in 1918, a novel by Angélica Palma explored the shame felt by its protagonist, a young lady of social standing, when financial need compelled her to go to work. But social mores were undergoing intense pressure to adapt to changing conditions. By the early 1920s Peruvian women, at least some of them, were taking liberties never before dared. They exposed their bodies in short-sleeved flapper-style dresses or in form-fitting bathing suits; they drove about town in sputtering motorcars; they wore cosmetics, smoked cigarettes; they even opened their own shops. Not only were “respectable” women beginning to earn their own livelihoods, they were very much in demand to serve as secretaries, receptionists, bank tellers, and telephone switchboard operators in Lima’s rapidly modernizing commercial economy.

Throughout her life Magda worked for pay, most typically as a journalist or in some aspect of publishing, though it’s not always clear how she managed to stay afloat. Her income, often precarious and frequently interrupted, allowed her to provide her mother with a small sum each month—“the blessed remittance from Magda”—that her youngest sister recalled as often arriving from outside the country.

On August 24, 1917, when Magda was seventeen, her mother’s second husband unexpectedly died, leaving neither life insurance nor personal savings. Three months pregnant with her ninth and last child, Magda’s mother, again impoverished, began taking in sewing, and the tiny salaries of Magda and her elder sister, Amelia, became the principal support of the large household.

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