Juana Borrero was a Cuban poet who began publishing in the 1890s. She was probably a few years older than she claimed to be. She lived in Havana and Key West, and visited New York City, where she met José Martí and participated in his literary salons. She studied painting with several famous Cuban painters, and was considered a child prodigy. Borrero published in the Cuban journals El Fígaro, Azul y Gris, and La Habana Elegante.
Her poems were collected and published in book form after her early death; her passionate epistolary exchange with Carlos Pío Uhrbach, published in the 1960s, became famous in the canon of love letters. Borrero was secretly engaged to Pío Urbach against her father’s wishes. Five books of hers in manuscript were accidentally destroyed when her family was exiled from Cuba. Her sisters were also writers; Dulce María Borrero became a well-known poet. Like Delmira Agustini, Borrero participated in the creation of a life-myth of herself as child-muse and vestal virgin. A talented painter, Borrero deeply admired the painter and diarist Marie Bashkirtsieff.
I first came across Borrero while reading about early or “pre” modernista Julián Casal, in relation to whom Borrero was given peripheral mention:
Fuera de los dos grandes iniciadores, Martí y Casal, el núcleo intelectual correspondiente a la primera de esas dos etapas se compone principalmente de los compañeros de Casal, más jovenes que él, que se reunían en casa de Borrero: las hermanas Borrero y los hermanos Uhrbach. (Henríquez Ureña 419)
Aside from the two great initiators, Martí and Casal, the intellectual nucleus corresponding at first to those two groups was composed principally of Casal’s companions, younger than him, who used to meet in the Borrero house: the Borrero sisters and the Uhrbach brothers.
Statements like these were typical. In volume 3 of The Literature of Spanish America, Angel Flores devotes over 600 pages to modernista poets and their work. Borrero is mentioned in Julián Casal’s biography as follows: “the doctor’s youngest daughter, Juanita, who was later recognized as a promising poetess, fell in love with him, unrequited” (108). Flores either does not know, or counts as insignificant, the poetry of Borrero’s circle of female friends.
It became clear through further reading that Borrero and her sister were not minor members of a circle dominated by Casal. Castillo, Matamoros, Pérez de Zambrana, and other women writers were part of their salons. Critics have frequently numbered Borrero and the other women of her literary circle among the modernistas, and in fact Borrero’s work was very well received by critics:
Poetisa modernista cubana. Dueña de una asombrosa madurez, tocó los temas eternos de la poesía con rara habilidad en la creación de sugerencias. (Gullón 209)
Modernist Cuban poetess. Mistress of a surprising maturity, she touched upon eternal themes of poetry with rare ability in the creation of subtle meanings.
Margaret Randall calls her and Casal Cuba’s greatest modernist poets, and says “Sonnets written by her at the age of twelve still rank among the best in the language” (17). The critic Chacón y Calvo, quoted by Sainz de Roblez, said of Borrero’s work:
Hay en esta poesía un gran sentido de intimidad, una aguda introspección de su momento lírico. . . . Es una poesía que empieza a sugerir.
There is in this poetry an overwhelming sense of intimacy, a pointed introspection of the lyrical moment. . . . It’s a poetry that works from hints, allusions. (Sainz de Roblez 179).
In “Apolo,” written in 1891 to the poet Julian de Casal, Borrero establishes the male figure as a statue, as object, and dissects his physical and aesthetic characteristics. The poem presents itself as one of frustrated desire and love and could be read as a personal love poem, or a presentation of a gender-reversed Pygmalion and Galatea myth. Yet it is also, and I suspect it is primarily, a commentary on art and poetry, for Apollo is the god of poets and song. The poem celebrates her creative energy, her desire, though her passionate entreaty is unable to spark a response from the haughty statue. Borrero situates herself as a woman poet in a gendered landscape of metaphysical and artistic creation. In fact, the poem could be read as a pointed critique of the male-dominated world of letters in which the female poet’s passion for her art is spurned. We can read “Apolo” as Borrero’s critique of Casal’s poetics–not as the expression of a frustrated teenage crush.
In “Las hijas de Ran,” Borrero establishes a female world of creativity, one that functions without male participation or a male gaze. Ran, “the Ravager,” unpredictable and malicious, is a giant from Norse mythology. She rules the sea and storms, collecting drowned sailors in her net. Her nine daughters, the ondines or undines, are the ocean’s waves. Borrero’s ondines define each other by collective interaction and play. The poem can be read as a description of Borrero’s literary circle, of herself, her sisters, the Xenes sisters Neves and María, Aurelia Castillo, Pérez de Zambrana, and other Cuban women poets, who were very aware of each others’ work and who frequently wrote and published poems to each other. The ondines live joyously “entre el cielo y el mar,” ‘between sky and sea’ on a margin, without rigid form or definition. They are in friendly competition and rivalry, spurring each other on, “de espumas coronadas,” crowned with sea-foam. Their sparkling sea-foam crowns, or worldly honors, are beautiful but temporary. The poem celebrates a dynamic aesthetic of feminine performativity for other women.