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Cesar Vallejo: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How much do you know about poet Cesar Vallejo? You may know that he's from Peru, but how did his early life growing up there influence his poetry? In this lesson, you will learn about the life and major contributions of Cesar Vallejo.

Growing Up in Peru

Cesar Vallejo was born on March 16, 1892 in the small town of Santiago de Chuco in northern Peru. Vallejo came from a very large family; he was the youngest of 11 kids. You can only imagine how crowded that household must have been! His parents had a similar mixed heritage; they were Spanish and Quechua, an Indian group found in South America. At the time, Peruvian natives were treated like second class citizens, or worse. Vallejo witnessed the abuse and mistreatment of the Quecha throughout his childhood and adult life. Many authors and poets will tell you that they write what they know -- and this held true for Vallejo.

Early Writing

From 1908 to 1913, Vallejo enrolled and dropped out of college several times because he struggled to afford his tuition. During that time, he worked on a sugar plantation and watched countless natives toil on the massive farm. Minimum wage today is over $7.00, but in the early 1900s in Peru, laborers worked for just a few cents and barely enough food to survive.

In 1913, Vallejo enrolled full-time at the University of Trujillo and graduated four years later with degrees in law and literature. Vallejo came from a large Catholic family and was encouraged to become a priest, but his life experiences led him to question his faith, and this would later come to play a part in his writing.

In 1918, Vallejo published his first book of poetry called Los heraldos negros, or 'The Black Messengers'. His poems were very typical of the time period and reflected the modernista movement that emphasized idyllic scenes and descriptions of beautiful landscapes. Vallejo, however, added his own personal flair to the modernista style and included some very graphic descriptions in his writing. Over the course of the collection, his writing evolved to include descriptions of his personal struggles and lack of faith in the Catholic religion.

Political Activism

Around this time, Vallejo was exposed to works from Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, who offered explanations about the turbulent world around him. As a result, Vallejo had an increased interest in his Quechua heritage and wanted to know more about his people and the way society treated them. In 1920, Vallejo went back to his small hometown of Santiago de Chuco and was involved with a small political uprising. Things escalated quickly, and one of the town's buildings was set on fire. Unfortunately for Vallejo, he was accused of starting the commotion and was kept in jail for several months.

Spending time in jail affected Vallejo emotionally. He became incredibly depressed and channeled that emotion into his writing. After he was released, he published his poetry collection Trilce that featured many poems written during his time in jail. Unlike his earlier Los heraldos negros, Trilce was much darker and moved away from more traditional poetic devices. Vallejo intentionally misspelled words and used neologisms, or words that he made up. He also used a literary device called line pause; he would break up sentences and phrases part way through to carry them onto the next line. The purpose was to create a sense of upset and disruption that reflected his personal struggle and the struggles of mankind.

Cesar Vallejo
Cesar Vallejo

Life Abroad

In 1923, Vallejo left Peru and found himself in Paris, France. He never returned back to his home country. While in Europe, he patched together a career tutoring, writing, and translating. He had the chance to visit the Soviet Union (now Russia) on two occasions and eventually became a member of the Communist Party. Although he did not return to Peru, he contributed articles to a communist publication in his country called Amautu. In 1930, Vallejo was kicked out of France for his political activism -- can you imagine getting kicked out of an entire country?

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