César Abraham Vallejo was born on March 16, 1892, in Santiago de Chuco, an isolated town in north central Perú. 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 sub prefect was shot and the general store burned to the ground. Vallejo, who was actually writing up the legal information about the shooting for the sub prefect, 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 the thirties.
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