Introducing herself to readers under the pseudonym la Pelegrina (the pilgrim) and known affectionately by her friends as “Tula,” Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda was a woman of great talent, beloved in Cuba and Spain, as well as considered one of the most important Romantic writers of the 19th-century. She was born in Puerto Príncipe (Camagüey), Cuba the 23rd of March of 1841. She was schooled by her parents, mariner commander Don Manuel Gómez de Avellaneda native of Seville, and the Cuban-born Doña Francisca de Arteaga. Her father died when Gertrudis was very young and her mother remarried to a Spanish colonel and the family relocated to Spain in 1836. One of her most celebrated poems, the sonnet “Al Partir,” immortalizes her departure from Cuba.
Once in Spain, she rose to the height of the artistic scene, producing romantic novels, dramas, and lyrical poetry that were generously received. She became intimate friends with queen Isabel the second and was awarded the golden crown of laurel, the highest award presented by the Lyceum of Madrid. Upon a return to Cuba in 1859 she was once again crowned by the Tacón theater of Habana. During this stay, she wrote the Dolores, an autobiographical family drama led by Doña Beatriz de Avellaneda “no less arrogant and fierce” (15) than the protagonist of her earlier play Alfonso Munio had been. This earlier play was considered a “triumph in the arts” (xxx) and was praised by critics as having revived the greek tragedy.
About her novels it’s been said that they are undervalued despite their excellent artistic quality because they do not address philosophical or social concerns, a characteristic valued in modern literary criticism. Nevertheless, in Historia de la Literatura Cubana (History of Cuban Literature) Aurelio Mitjans considers that “her prose has a unique voice, a merit conceded to few writers.” (227)
Her lyric poetry was also highly venerated by the major writers of her time who, perhaps lacking female representation in the arts, referred to her genius as “virile.” (xxix) It came as a surprise to the judges of the literary contest established by the Lyceum of Madrid that the ‘man’ to whom they had awarded their highest prize was in fact the young Gertrudis. Odes like “Al mar,” “A el, ”and “A la cruz” are among some of her most celebrated poems.
She was only married a year to Don Pedro Sabater, to whom she dedicated the poems, “La pesca en el mar” and “Cántico de gratitud a Dios” before he fell ill and died in 1846. After his death she spent months in a convent grieving and wrote poetry of a stronger religious tone. She was remarried to commander Don Domingo Verdugo, but in 1863 she suffered the death of a loved companion yet again when Verdugo was fatally wounded defending his wife from defamation after the presentation of her play Baltasar.
A decade later she died in Madrid, but her legacy has made her immortal in Cuba, where a statue of her adorns the streets of Camagüey and where cuban poets like Carilda Oliver Labra benefit from her literary inheritance. Known in Cuba for her bold affront, in life and work, against sexist norms, Carilda wrote about La Avallenada’s tumultuous romance with Ignacio de Cepeda y Alcalde–an extramarital romance inspiring the poem A èl.
Though some deny the existence of a social critique in her oubre, many of Gertrudis’ novels (Dos mujeres, Sab) and plays (Alfonso Munio, Baltasar) depict, through the tragic death of their protagonists, the misery that ensues when love is impeded by inflexible social norms. In Sab, her message is especially powerful, taking to task the strong racial barriers set by 19th-Century Cuba’s plantation society through the tragic story of the young Sab and Carlota, lovers divided across the color line.