Francisco Matos Paoli
Fatherland, what a happy sun between the trees.
Drunk of burning kingbirds,
XXXXXfrom hill to hill is the wake
XXXXXof those who gave themselves to the
XXXXXkindled honor of spring.
(from Antologia Minuto)
I went to interview Francisco Matos Paoli at the suggestion of Lolita Lebrón, since he was writing the forward to her latest book of poems. I knew only that he was a poet so widely recognized as to be selected as one of fifty to attend the World Congress of Poets in Athens, Greece. But was he an independentista? I should never have questioned that. Matos Paoli assured me that all the poets of Puerto Rico favored independence. Inversely, I was finding out that many of the outstanding independentistas were also poets.
Francisco Matos Paoli and his wife received me warmly and with a humility unexpected from one who has received extensive honors, has been named a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, and had, by invitation, attended previously the World Congress of Poets held in Madrid.
Matos Paoli was born in Lares, a town known for its annually celebrated "Grito de Lares," Puerto Rico's rebellion against Spanish colonialism. He was one of nine children. The death of his mother, when he was only fifteen, compelled him to write his first collection of poems. He has written of his mother that she inspired him and taught him the "mystery of Providence."
Part of his youth was spent on a farm, where he could commune with nature, an essential part of much of his poetry. In high school he became deeply absorbed in the classics. It was then that he met Pedro Albizu Campos and became inspired to join the struggle for independence. He looked upon Don Pedro as the "foundation of his country," and as a Puerto Rican Christ.
He then joined the Nationalist Party, which he described as "based on reconquest of sovereignty by means of heroic testimony" and the "mystic of liberty." In time he became secretary general of the Nationalist Party, and still considers himself a Nationalist, though embracing spiritualism and a nonviolent approach to independence rather than revolution. His schooling, after graduating from high school as a top student, included commercial studies at Polytechnical School, UPR, with a major in Spanish. He then spent a year at the Sorbonne, Paris, for the study of comparative literature.
His marriage with Isabel Freire Meléndez was the culmination of a college friendship, as they worked together in the patriotic struggle. In 1943 he began a professorship at UPR teaching literature in the Humanities Department.
Intermingling political activity with an astonishing productivity in poetry, he participated with the students of UPR in actions for independence and gave patriotic speeches.
In an interview with Manuel de la Pueblo he stated, "I believe fundamentally that the function of poetry should be removed to the realm of a perfect justice between human beings. I believe in an aesthetic ethic. I am not a purist. I do not betray myself in an aesthetic vacuum without being linked to the reality of my country."
In 1950 he was arrested in the wake of the Nationalist uprising. He was then serving as secretary of the Nationalist Party. His home was searched in the expectation of finding guns or explosives. They found only a Puerto Rican flag. His imprisonment was on the basis of his having made four patriotic speeches previous to the uprising at Cabo Rojo, Santurce, Guánico and Lares. He was sentenced to twenty years, later reduced to ten. Other members of the Nationalist Party were put in prison with him, due to determined efforts to destroy the Party. In time, he shared the cell with Albizu Campos. He tended him nights during his suffering from ulcerations on his legs and body caused by radiation.
The time spent in prison was productive. He edited a newspaper with news of political prisoners, poems, patriotic songs and drawings. His book written there, The Light of Heroes, revealed his awareness of the reality of the Puerto Rican struggle for freedom.
Due to the pressures of confinement, he suffered a severe mental collapse and ended his imprisonment in a mental hospital. The period of "madness" was one of introspection and deeper awareness. It threw him into a world of spiritual mysticism and profound Christian faith. He had already been involved in spiritualism, having founded a spiritualist center, Luz Y Progreso. He experienced a sharpening of his intellect and creativity.
He left the hospital able to continue a vast production of poetry and to serve as lecturer and resident poet of UPR. When the UPR Department of Hispanic Studies at Mayagüez named him as candidate for the Nobel Prize, the response was unanimous that he best represented not only the Puerto Rican identity but that of the Spanish Antilles and Latin America.
He continued in his political activity in support of independence and gave support to Puerto Rican political prisoners. He considers six of his books of poetry to be primarily patriotic, and critics credit him with the formation of a national patriotic conscience.
As I left, Doña Isabela Freire de Matos opened a cupboard to proudly show me the forty-nine books of poetry he had published and seventy-five volumes as yet unpublished. She is, herself, a poet, and author of teaching materials for children.
I was presented with three books. In one of them, Matos Paoli inscribed: "In the holy fire of Independence of Puerto Rico." And in another: "To Jean Zwickel with all my regards. I appreciate her to be a pacifist."