Camila Henríquez Ureña

Camila Henríquez Ureña (Salomé Camila Henríquez Ureña, 1894-1973). Essayist, literary critic; notable professor of Hispanic literature; cultural promoter; Cuban intellectual.

She was born on April 9, 1894 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Her parents were prominent intellectuals Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal, Doctor in Medicine, educator and outstanding politician, who became President of his country in 1916 and was overthrown by the American intervention; and Salomé Ureña de Henríquez, poetess and precursor of feminine education. Camila was the smallest sibling of Francisco Noel, Pedro and Max Henríquez Ureña. Pedro and Max were outstanding researchers, essayists, critics as well as professors of Hispanic American literature. Their uncle Federico Henríquez y Carvajal was a great friend of José Martí’s, who latter sent Federico his famous political testament on March 25, 1895. Her brother Pedro, ten years older than Camila, exerted a prominent influence in the intellectual formation of his sister.

On August 10, 1904, Camila arrived in Cuba when she was ten years old; she continued her elementary school studies in the Model School in Santiago de Cuba. The father personally saw to Camila’s instruction. According to her, he himself taught her the basics of French language, which she would later perfect.

She completed her Bachelor’s degree at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza (Junior High Institute); afterwards she entered the Univertsity of Havana, where she became Doctor in Pedagogy with her dissertation Hostos’ Pedagogic ideas; and Doctor in Philosophy and Letters in 1917, when she was only 22 years old. The title of her thesis, presente don February 7, 1917 and evaluated as outstanding, was Francisco de Rioja: su verdadera significación en la lírica española (Francisco de Rioja: his true significance in Spanish lyric poetry). Many years later, on December 21, 1970, she was bestowed on the title of Professor Emeritus of the University of Havana.

In 1916 she traveled to the United States to continue her studies, and in June 1920 she obtained a Masters of Arts at the University of Minnesota; and took upgrading courses at the University of Middlebury and at Vassar College. In 1921 returned to Cuba and went to live in Santiago de Cuba, where she taught in private schools. In 1932 she traveled to France and studied at La Sorbonne. Two years later obtained a Chair at the Normal School of Teachers of >Oriente, in Santiago de Cuba.

During the 30s Camila Henríquez Ureña was involved in the feminist struggle. In 1935 she collaborated with the Unión Nacional de Mujeres (Women’s National Union), and in 1936she was elected for the vice-presidency of that organization. Under her leadership the 3rd National Congress of Women was organized in Cuba which would take place on April, 1939. Among the sponsor activities of the Congress Camila offered her famous speech on Women and Culture at the Lyceum, of illuminated anticipation and disquieting validity. She also pronounced the opening words of the 1st National Feminine Congress on April 18, 1939 in Havana. Her combative feminist stance, based on the most general concepts and issues related with human species, were presented perspicaciously in her speech to the Congress. In it she describes that the characteristic of conscious woman of that time was “the universality of intention and respect for individuality,” and that Cuban feminism was “the demonstration of the degree of development that the conscience of freedom has achieved among us women.”

In 1936 she settled in Havana for six years. During that time she presided over the feminine society Lyceum, where she deployed an intense social and cultural work. In the Lyceum, on Calzada Street and 8th Street, women would gather; among them a good part of the artistic and intellectual vanguard who either lived or came to Cuba for some time. The objective of this society was to raise the spirit of women by participating in cultural, social and sports activities. A tri-monthly magazine was published, where cultural, social and welfare materials were published, as well as the talks and conferences presented in the Lyceum’s halls. One of the first directors of the magazine was Camila Henríquez Ureña.

She was also a hard-working collaborator of one of the richest adventures in the first half of the 20th century in Cuba: the Institución Hispanocubana de Cultura (IHC) (Hispanic-Cuban Institution of Culture), founded by Fernando Ortiz; among its quality intellectuals we could find Juan Marinello. During its two stages (1926-1932 and 1936-1947) and based mostly on the realization of lectures and talks, the IHC underwent a varied and unprejudiced intellectual work within the most progressive and advanced thinking of the epoch. Furthermore, these were complex times nationally as well as internationally. The motto of its emblem warns that we should go Plus Ultra, that is, beyond. This wide range Institution was an early foreseer of the threat of marginalizing women, of preventing them from achieving their full incorporation to culture. It incorporated from the very beginning an awareness of intellectual equality between men and women without paternalism or circumlocutions. María Zambrano, Mirta Aguirre, Gabriela Mistral and Camila Henríquez Ureña, among other outstanding intellectual women, gave talks and speeches on literary, political and social issues on the second stage of the IHC. On July 25, 1939, Camila offered her ideas on women in a speech on Feminism which brought interest, even praiseworthy comments from her brother Pedro. There she spoke of the need of social and sexual independence of women, as well as the need to break barriers and do away with prejudices about feminine issues.

In 1936 she compiled, together with Juan Ramón Jiménez and José María Chacón y Calvo the anthology La Poesía en Cuba en 1936 (Poetry in Cuba in 1936) of enormous transcendence in the history of this genre in Cuba.

In 1941 she was delegate to the Conference General Federation of University Women in the United States. From 1942 she spent most of her time in that country, where she obtained chairs in Vassar College, where she was Chairperson of Spanish Department; and offered courses in the University of Middlebury and Kentucky Center College.

She took a sabbatical year from 1946-47, and worked as editor in the prestigious Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE) Publishing House in Mexico. In 1958 she traveled in Spain, France and Italy; then came back to the United States and then retired.

Her intellectual and pedagogical value opened doors as a lecturer in universities and cultural institutions in the United States and Latin American countries such as Panamá, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.

After the triumph of the Revolution in Cuba she returned to the island to work in the newly created School of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana, as a professor of Literature in the Department of Hispanic Language and Literature, where she taught from 1962 to her death. She cooperated in this School to the training of young students who later became the staff of universities, directors of cultural institutions and organizations or renowned writers.

During 1960-1962 she was technical supervisor at the Ministry of education; member of the National Cuban Commission of UNESCO; and vice president of the Cuban Pen Club.

She published several literary articles in magazines Revista de Instrucción Pública, Ultra, Archipiélago, Revista Bimestre Cubana, Grafos, Isla, Revista Lyceum, Revista de la Biblioteca Nacional, Universidad de La Habana, Gaceta de Cuba, Casa de las Américas.

She also wrote the prologues to several Works related to universal literature; among them the prologue Introduction: Playwright Goethe to Faust (Havana: Instituto Cubano del Libro, 1973) is worth highlighting. In general terms, during her last eleven years in Cuba she participated in an exceptional way in the Cuban cultural and pedagogic movement.

She passed away in Dominican Republic while visiting her family, on September 12, 1973.