César Vallejo’s work is as brief and intense as his life was. Like Byron and Rimbaud, he has acquired a mystique as one of poetry’s romantic martyrs. On April 15, 1938, Good Friday, practically destitute and a mere 46, Vallejo died in Paris, the obligatory place for such a sacrifice by a Latin American, after years of poverty, despair, family and amorous disasters, and wearying political activism. While very different from one another, Vallejo, a Peruvian; Pablo Neruda, a Chilean; Rafael Alberti, a Spaniard; and Nicolás Guillén, a Cuban, were the pre-eminent Spanish-language political poets of the twentieth century. All honed their ideas and craft on the grinding stone of the Spanish Civil War. Vallejo, the most committed of them all, did not live to see its bitter end.
He was born in Santiago de Chuco, a small town in the Andes of northern Peru, in 1892. Both of his grandfathers were Spanish priests; both of his grandmothers, their native concubines. Vallejo would always profess pained pride in his Indian background, and not a few Quechua echoes reverberate in his poems. He went through secondary education in the provinces and twice started university studies only to drop out for lack of funds. Eventually he finished a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and letters in 1915 at Trujillo, with a thesis on Spanish Romantic poetry. Three years later Vallejo published his first collection of verse, Los heraldos negros (The black heralds), which brought him some attention and helped him pick up jobs teaching and writing for newspapers. In Lima Vallejo joined the artistic and intellectual avant-garde, which became politically radicalized as conditions in Peru deteriorated.
There is an extraordinary depth to Peruvian culture as well as a profound sense of pathos, qualities that Vallejo embodied and of which he practically became the emblem. Like Mexico, Peru was an ostentatious viceroyalty in the colonial age, with Lima, the City of Kings, its crown jewel. The presence of advanced Andean cultures, particularly that of the Incas, prodded the Spaniards, who conquered the country in 1533, to invest heavily in boastful displays of their power and to implant Catholicism deeply into native consciousness. Precious metals, especially silver, subsidized all this grandeur and also helped the Spanish monarchy back home to stay financially afloat.
A local oligarchy soon replaced the Spanish one after independence in 1824, but the region remained starkly stratified along racial lines. Indigenous Peruvians, Vallejo’s maternal ancestors, were literally at the bottom of this hierarchy, working in extremely harsh conditions in the depths of the mines. Peru’s elite families ruled the country through a series of strongmen, buoyed by the transitory bonanza provided by guano and nitrates, which helped to perpetuate class warfare. The financial windfall stopped, however, after Chile humiliated Peru in the War of the Pacific (1879-83), occupying Lima and lopping off some territories. By the beginning of the twentieth century, when Vallejo was coming of age, Peru appeared ripe for political upheaval. Its population was more than half Indian, and the rest, of mixed blood, was topped off by a small percentage of whites of Spanish and European origin. The unevenly modernized economy was unstable. A parallel situation led Mexico to revolution in 1910, but Peru could not yet break free of its entrenched authoritarian past.