Born on March 16, 1892, César Abraham Vallejo grew up in Santiago de
Chuco, an isolated town in north central Peru. Vallejo's grandmothers
were Chimu Indians and both of his grandfathers, by a strange coincidence, were
Spanish Catholic priests. He was the youngest of eleven children and grew up in
a home saturated with religious devotion.
Vallejo entered the School of Philosophy and Letters at Trujillo University in 1910, but had to drop out for
lack of money. Between 1908 and 1913, he started and stopped his college
education several times, working in the meantime as a tutor and in the accounts
department on a large sugar estate. At the sugar estate, Vallejo saw thousands
of workers arrive in the courtyard at dawn to work in the fields until
nightfall for a few cents a day and a fistful of rice. Seeing this devastated
Vallejo and later inspired both his poetry and his politics.
In 1913, Vallejo enrolled again at Trujillo University and studied literature
and law, and read voraciously about determinism, mythology, and evolution.
After receiving a Master's Degree in Spanish literature in 1915, Vallejo
continued to study law until 1917. However, his life in Trujillo had become
complicated by a tortured love affair and he moved to Lima.
Vallejo found work
as the principal of a prestigious school. At night he visited opium dens in
Chinatown and hung out in the Bohemian cafe where he met the important
literary figures of the time, including Manual Gonzalez Prada, one of Peru's
leading leftists. When Vallejo's Los heraldos negros was published, in
1919, it was received enthusiastically. Vallejo then began to push his talent
in a new direction.
Vallejo lost his teaching post for refusing to marry a woman with whom he
was having an affair. In 1920, after his mother's death and the loss of a
second teaching job, Vallejo visited his home. During a feud that broke out
before his arrival in Santiago de Chuco, an aide to the subprefect was shot and
the general store burned to the ground. Vallejo, who was actually writing up
the legal information about the shooting for the subprefect, was blamed as an
"intellectual instigator." In spite of protest telegrams from
intellectuals and newspaper editors, he was imprisoned for 105 days. When
released on parole, he left for Lima, embittered by the affair.
In 1922, Vallejo published Trilce, a book written while in hiding
before his arrest. Trilce, which placed Latin American poetry in the
center of Western cultural tradition, appeared to come out of nowhere. Vallejo
continued to teach while in Lima, but in the spring of 1923 his position was
eliminated. Fearing that he could still be forced to go back to jail, he
accepted the invitation of his friend Julio Gálvez to go to Paris.
Vallejo left Peru for good in June 1923.
Vallejo and Gálvez nearly starved in Paris. It wasn't until 1925 that
Vallejo found his first stable job in a newly opened press agency and began to
receive a monthly grant from the Spanish government to continue his law studies
at the University of Madrid. Since he was not required to stay on campus
Vallejo remained in Paris, where he continued to receive the money for two
years. The grant, plus the income from articles, enabled Vallejo to move into
the Hotel Richelieu in 1926 and frequent exhibitions, concerts, and
cafe He met Antonin Artaud, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. The
somber, straightforward works he wrote during this period form a bridge between
Trilce and the densely compassionate and bitter poetry he would write in
In 1927, he received news from home that the tribunal in charge of his old
case had given orders to arrest him, which confirmed his intuition to leave
Peru. He left his post at the press agency and refused further grant payments.
His economic situation worsened. By 1928, he had begun to read Marxist
literature and appeared to be an actively committed Communist. In September of
1928, Vallejo made the first of three trips to Russia; he returned to form the
Peruvian Socialist party with other expatriates.
In January 1929, Vallejo and Georgette Philipart, whom he met soon after his
arrival in Paris, moved in together. Vallejo's Marxist studies continued, and
he decided no longer to publish poetry, devoting himself instead to writing a
book of Marxist theory. In 1930, Vallejo wrote his first drama. He continued to
write scripts in the years to come, leaving nearly 600 pages of unpublished
material at his death.
Vallejo was arrested by the police in a Paris railroad
station in December and ordered to leave France within three days. He returned
to Madrid where, in 1931, he wrote his only novel, El tungsteno. When
the Monarchy fell and the Republic was proclaimed, Vallejo officially joined
the Spanish Communist party and, once Rusia en 1931 was published, was
even temporarily famous. Despite his success, however, he could not find a
publisher for his new material.
In January 1932, Georgette Philipart returned to Paris to find their
apartment sacked by the police. Meanwhile, Vallejo was desperately trying to
establish publishing connections in Madrid. Finally obtaining a resident permit
in February 1933, Vallejo left for Paris with nothing but the clothes on his
back. The conditions of the permit forbade him to engage in any political
activity whatsoever; the years between 1933 and 1936 were the least documented
in Vallejo's adult life and may well have been his darkest.
Vallejo and Philipart married in 1934, and their financial situation took a
turn for the worse. Finally, in 1936, Vallejo found a teaching position, and
the Fascist uprising in Spain in July of that year inspired him to a
spectacular display of sustained creativity. Absorbed by the Loyalist
anti-Fascist cause, Vallejo began to build a "popular poetry,"
incorporating war reportage, while at the same time becoming more hermetic than
In July 1937 he left again for Spain, which was deep in civil war,
and took part in the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense
of Culture. Among the 200 writers attending, Vallejo was elected the Peruvian
representative. While in Spain, Vallejo visited the front briefly and saw the
horror with his own eyes. Back in Paris he wrote a fifteen-scene tragedy, La
piedra cansada, and then in one sustained push, from early September to
early December, fifty-two of the fifty-four poems that make up Sermón de la barbarie, along with the fifteen poems of España, aparte de mí este cálize.
In early March 1938, the years of strain and deprivation, compounded by
heartbreak over Spain, as well as exhaustion from the pace of the previous
year, finally took their toll. Vallejo contracted a lingering fever, and by
late March he could not get out of bed. Despite medical attention, his
condition worsened. No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even
enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the
Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in
two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, "I am
going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!" and he died. It was Good Friday.
The clinic records state that he died of an "acute intestinal
infection." His body was buried at Montrouge, the "Communist"
cemetery in southern Paris. In the 1960s, Georgette, who was living in Lima,
had his remains moved to Montparnasse, where they now reside.
A Selected Bibliography
Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds) (1918)
Nómina de huesos (Payroll of Bones) (1936)
España, aparte de mí este cálize (Spain, Take This Cup from Me) (1939)
Sermón de la barbarie (Sermon on Barbarism) (1939)
Poemas humanos (Human Poems) (1939)
Antologia de Cesar Vallejo (1942)
Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry (1978)
Selected Poems of Cesar Vallejo (1981)
The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition (2007)
Rusia en 1931 (1932)
El romanticismo en la poesia castellana (1954)
Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (1959)
Rusia ante el segundo plan quinquenal (1965)
Literatura y arte (1966)
Desde Europa (1987)
La piedra cansada (1927)
Teatro completo (1979)
Escalas melografiadas, Talleres Tipografia de la Penitenciaria (1923)
Fabla salvaje (1923)
El tungsteno (1931)
Novelas: Tungsteno, Fabla salvaje, Escalas melografiadas, Hora del Hombre (1948)