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José María Vargas Vila was born on July 23, 1860, in Bogotá. He was the son of General José María Vargas Vila and Elvira Bonilla Matiz. As can be seen, Vargas Vila took his father's two last names and omitted the last name of his mother, which customarily comes after the father's name according to Spanish surname conventions. After he became a well-known writer, he signed with only his two last names, dropping the baptismal names that connected him to the Catholic tradition he found so unpleasant. His father, almost always absent, was a soldier for the cause of liberal radicalism and died in combat in the outskirts of the village of Funza when Vargas Vila was still a boy.

After the death of his father, the family moved to Bogotá, where Vargas Vila completed grade school and high school. With no money to pay for a university education, he enlisted as a soldier in the army of General Santos Acosta. In 1876, he participated in the campaign against clerical conservatives in the Cauca region. Beginning in 1878, he held various positions as a teacher, first in Ibagué, then in Guasca and in Anolaima. The year 1883 marks the prelude to the legend of Vargas Vila. At this time, he began his work as a teacher in the Liceo de la infancia, run by the Jesuit priest Tomás Escobar. This was the same school that renowned modernista poet José Asunción Silva attended. Vargas Vila seemed to follow the norms of Bogotá society marvelously, so much so that on June 5, 1884, a poem he wrote to celebrate the First Communion of the children in the school—entitled "Recuerdos de mi primera comunión" ("Memories of My First Communion") —appeared in the Papel periódico ilustrado.

The situation changed radically with his first prose publication, however. This appeared on August 30, 1884, on the first page of the newspaper La actualidad, edited by Juan de Dios Uribe. After being expelled from the school for reasons that remain unclear—with speculation ranging from political to economic reasons—Vargas Vila accused Father Escobar, in print, of corrupting and sexually abusing the students.

Bogotá was scandalized. Escobar's defense, led by Carlos Martínez Silva, called various witnesses from Vargas Vila's military period. Vargas Vila was charged with theft, transvestism, and sodomy in retaliation for his accusations against Escobar. Rather than face the powerful priest in court, he abandoned the city forever.

In 1885, civil war broke out. Members of the conservative La Regeneración movement, led by Rafael Núñez, fought against the Liberal Army, led by General Daniel Hernández. Vargas Vila first was a teacher in Villa de Leiva but later traded the chalkboard for weapons and acted as secretary for General Hernández. After the conservative victory, he fled and began the composition of the invective political texts compiled in Pretéritas, one of his most famous works.

Shortly thereafter he reappeared in Rubio, Venezuela, as the co-founder of La federación, a short-lived newspaper that harshly attacked the government of La Regeneración. In 1887, while living in San Cristóbal, Venezuela, he wrote his first novel, Aura, o las violetas (Aura, or the Violets), the only work included in the canon of books read in Colombia's schools today. However, Vargas Vila himself described it as "un libro inexperto de un romanticismo deplorable" ("an inexpert book of deplorable romanticism").[1]

From 1888 to 1892, Vargas Vila lived in Caracas, Venezuela, punishing with his pen the government of Carlos Holguín, who was backed by Rafael Núñez. From 1890 to 1891, he published two brief diaries, El eco andino (The Andean Echo) and El espectador (The Spectator). In 1892, he traveled for the first time to New York and wrote for the newspaper El progreso. In October of that same year, General Joaquín Crespo took control of Venezuela, and Vargas Vila was called back from the north to serve as his private secretary. This governmental employment lasted only until the end of 1893.

Contrary to the persistent criticisms of the writer, the esteem that such a seminal Latin American figure as José Martí had for Vargas Vila demonstrates the importance of the Colombian's words in the creation of a hemispheric literary and political identity. In a letter from March 14, 1894, the distinguished Cuban writes: "Yo le amo a usted la palabra rebelde y americana, como hoja de acero con puño hecho a cincel, con que cruza las espaldas sumisas o los labios mentirosos: yo le amo la hermandad con que se liga usted, en este siglo de construcción y de pelea, con los que compadecen y sirven al hombre." ("I love your rebellious and American word, like a steel blade with chiseled handle, which crosses submissive backs or lying lips: I love the brotherhood with which you associate yourself, in this century of construction and of fighting, with those who take pity on and serve man.")[2]

From 1894 to 1896, Vargas Vila was in New York, where he edited jointly with César Zumeta the journal Hispano América. He furthered his political invective in the book Los providenciales (The Providentials).

The year 1896 found him in Europe, with a rumor circulating that he had committed suicide in the company of a beautiful woman on board a boat traveling from Italy to Greece. In reality, the boat merely broke down in the waters off Sicily. The false news was enough to spark obituaries of praise and insults. Praise came from the Peruvian Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera, as well as from Rubén Darío, whom Vargas Vila had considered his enemy until then.

The aversion that Vargas Vila had for the great modernista poet can be traced back to 1893, when Darío, a Nicaraguan, accepted the position of consul of Colombia in Buenos Aires from Miguel Antonio Caro, that is, from Rafael Núñez. The hatred that Vargas Vila had for El Regenerador (Núñez) extended to the poet, whom he called "Poet-Courtesan." However, the course of the relationship changed following Darío's premature epitaph for Vargas Vila in La nación: "¡Amable enemigo mío! Como en la tumba de la "Aphrodita" de Pierre Louys, pondría en la tuya un conmemorativo y sonoro epigrama, en un griego de Nacianzo; y dejaría para tí y para tu bella desconocida—¡así tendría a Venus propicia!—¡rosas, rosas, muchas rosas!" ("Kind enemy of mine! Like on the tomb of the "Aphrodite" of Pierre Louys, I would put a commemorative and sonorous epigram on yours, in the Greek of Nazianzus; and I would leave for you and for your beautiful stranger—how favorable was Venus to you!—roses, roses, many roses!")

In 1898 Vargas Vila published Flor del fango (Mud Flower) in New York, and soon after, in March of 1899, in Paris, he came into contact with the Hispano-American intellectual community. He reconnected with César Zumeta. He met Enrique Gómez Carrillo, whom through the years he opposed profoundly and defined as "un caniche de cupletero, enviciado y amaestrado a las más viles delectaciones" ("a street singer's dog, corrupt and trained for the vilest delights").[3] He also came to know the poet Amado Nervo, for whom he had words ranging from light praise to condemnation, and the writer Rufino Blanco Fombona.

In June of that year he was named consul general and a confidential agent of Ecuador in Rome. His duty was to establish relations with the government of the king of Italy. There he published the dissident novel Ibis and the pamphlet Ante los bárbaros (Before the Barbarians), a strong critique of the Monroe Doctrine, which he had written during his time in New York.

In 1900 he briefly visited the Universal Exposition in Paris and he met with Rubén Darío, who later visited him in Rome. Once finished with his diplomatic work in Italy, Vargas Vila returned to France and stayed there until March of 1903, when he again returned to New York. There he published his recognized political journal, Némesis (Nemesis). But after Colombia ceded the Canal Zone to Panama, the brusqueness of his attacks against Colombia, Panama, and the United States resulted in pressures that forced him to leave the country.

The apparent literary triumph of Vargas Vila turned into a burden. After 1912, he wrote constantly to satisfy commitments with the publishing house Bouret in France and with Maucci in Spain. This situation allowed him to live comfortably, but obliged him to write incessantly, even on subjects about which he did not wish to write, including World War I.

In 1918, he moved back to Barcelona. The beauty of the city, the proximity to the sea, and the feeling that he had finally found a place to which he belonged allowed the writer to enjoy some years of serenity. His fame led to a contract with the well-known publishing house Ramón Sopena to publish his collected works, which numbered over forty volumes in their final version. The author resolved that the royalties from the contract with Sopena should be given to Ramón Palacio Viso, Vargas Vila's adopted son and sole heir. The diary that he wrote from the turn of the twentieth century to the end of his days, which he entitled Tagebücher, also belonged to Palacio Viso.

Vargas Vila's physical and mental health began to deteriorate in the early 1920s. He became more solitary, he distanced himself even more from literary circles, and his passion for travel faded. This behavior reinforced strange rumors that were circulating, such as that he had leprosy, fits of madness, or epilepsy. Even so, in 1924 he crossed the Atlantic to travel through South America. The trip included stops in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico and ended in Cuba. He stayed on the island for several months attending to his health problems and the progressing blindness of Palacio Viso. In Havana, he invested in different businesses to support himself, without success.

In December 1929 he was again in Barcelona, where he experienced more solitude, more isolation, more sickness of the body and of the soul. Vargas Vila died on May 23, 1933. Despite his express wish not to be buried in Colombia, it was there that he ended up. In 1981, a group of intellectuals transported his remains to his native city, over one hundred years after his birth.

Today his remains reside in a mausoleum maintained by the Masons, a society to which, perhaps, he did not belong. Monuments were promised in his memory. Laws were signed to this effect by the Colombian government. Thus far, no monuments have been built.

by Juan Carlos González Espitia, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


The complete version of this essay appeared in Pensamiento colombiano Siglo XX (Bogotá: Fundación Pensar, 2007), p. 311329.
[1]José María Vargas Vila, Aura o las violetas (Bogotá: Panamericano Editorial, 1999), p. 13.
[2]José Martí, Obras completas (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), vol.20, p. 448.
[3]José María Vargas Vila, Diario (De 1899 a 1932) (Barcelona: Ediciones Áltera, 2000), p. 174.