How did a famous Mexican poet end up buried and forgotten in the Philadelphia suburbs?

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By Rosa Cartagena via The Inquirer

On a quiet morning in March, members of the Mexican Consulate of Philadelphia gathered under a green awning at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon to visit an unmarked grave. The grassy spot, sitting empty and mostly unrecognized for 71 years, is an easily overlooked foot-sized gap in between rows and rows of tombstones. Underneath lies a beloved artist, abandoned so far from his home.

“Bienvenidas y bienvenidos todos a esta celebración … para recordar a un gran diplomático, escritor, poeta de nuestro país que está enterrado en este cementerio Holy Cross,” Head Consul Carlos Obrador Garrido said to the small audience. “Welcome all to this celebration … to remember a great diplomat, writer, poet of our country.”

The group was paying respects to Gilberto Owen Estrada, a notable poet and diplomat from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and one of Mexico’s great 20th-century writers.

“In Mexico, there are huge cultural institutions with his name … and a literary award that gives a lot of money to writers,” said writer Carlos José Pérez Sámano, referring to the Premio Internacional de Poesía Gilberto Owen Estrada or the Gilberto Owen Estrada International Award for Poetry. “He is known in Mexico a lot, but in the U.S., he’s just completely anonymous.”

Now, thanks in part to Pérez Sámano, a poetry-loving artist determined to identify the gravesite, Owen Estrada may soon return home.

Carlos Obrador Garrido, head consul of Mexico in Philadelphia, speaks at a small ceremony earlier this month for Gilberto Owen Estrada, a famous and beloved Mexican poet who died in Philadelphia and is buried in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. Owen Estrada was born in 1904 to a Mexican mother and Irish father. As a child, he moved with his mother to Mexico City, where he attended elite schools, developing a love for literature and language.

At 19, Owen Estrada wowed Mexican President Álvaro Obregón Salido with a speech and got a job briefing the president on current events, according to Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, professor emerita of Latin American literature at Swarthmore College. Simultaneously, he joined a buzzy group of Mexican intellectuals called “los contemporaneos,” or, “the contemporaries,” which produced a literary magazine and poetry anthologies amid a tense post-revolutionary Mexico. Many of “los contemporaneos” became diplomats or joined the foreign service. Owen Estrada wrote his own verses and translated poetry by Emily Dickinson and Louis Zukofsky into Spanish. His notable works include the short novel La llama fría, or, The Cold Flame, and the poems “Libro de Ruth” (“Book of Ruth”) — examining the Bible story of Ruth and Boaz — and “Sindbad el varado” (“Sinbad the Stranded”), composed of diary entries from the sailor Sinbad of One Thousand and One Nights. 

He came to Philadelphia in 1947 to serve as the Mexican consul before dying of cirrhosis due to alcoholism five years later, when he was 48. His family was unable to arrange for his body to be returned to Sinaloa, so he was interred at Holy Cross in 1952. Though his family members always knew where Owen Estrada was buried, the site had fallen into neglect and disrepair. The gate at the main entrance to Holy Cross Cemetery.

Poet Carlos José Pérez Sámano moved to Philly in 2016, about 69 years after Owen Estrada. He was the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s first artist-in-residence, in 2021, and always eager to find the city’s connections to Mexican culture. One day, he picked up Valeria Luiselli’s Los ingrávidos (which translates to “the weightless ones” but the official English title is Faces in the Crowd), which imagines the ghost of Gilberto Owen Estrada haunting a young writer in New York. Aware that Owen Estrada was buried in Philadelphia, Pérez Sámano struggled to locate the unmarked grave. Eventually, he tried, a crowd-sourced database of burial locations, which pointed him to Holy Cross in Yeadon.

When Pérez Sámano finally stood in front of Owen Estrada’s resting place, he said, he couldn’t stop thinking about the poet’s musings on mortality. “He has this line that says, ‘Because of my death, you will know about my life,’” Pérez Sámano said. “Another line says he will follow the calls [of death] as if it were like an older brother to the grave. … Like, whoa, I’m like following the calls to his grave, as he did in his poetry.”

Pérez Sámano tweeted about discovering the gravesite in 2022, but it wasn’t until he tweeted again in January this year that news outlets in Spanish and English took notice. Pérez Sámano helped to kick-start conversations between the consulate, the government of Sinaloa, and Owen Estrada’s family about bringing him back to Mexico. Pérez Sámano wrote: “Listen, to all who like Gilberto Owen or to anyone who can connect me with his family? What happened is, I found his grave. ... It was abandoned (it doesn’t even have a tombstone) and I want to pay tribute to him. I already spoke with the consulate and they expressed interest.”

Returning home, with honor The poet’s family and Mexican authorities had discussed repatriation about 10 years ago, but the movement stalled. According to Garrido, Guillermo Owen, the poet’s elderly son, has consented to the current repatriation effort. It’s still in the early stages, though, and the process succeeds only with sustained family support and the willpower to navigate the bureaucracy — and cost — of exhuming Owen Estrada and arranging transport to Mexico before he can be re-interred.

Garrido feels hopeful that they can finally move forward, but the timeline is still uncertain.

Wreaths from the consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia and the state of Sinaloa were brought to the gravesite in early March. The Instituto Sinaloense de Cultura, which formed a committee dedicated to repatriating the lost-poet in January, plans to organize a festival celebrating Owen Estrada’s life and career once he returns to his birthplace more than 70 years after his death. There have been talks of building a monument. “I am very glad that Mexico wants to have him back. … I am immensely sorry for him,” said Camacho de Schmidt, who relates to the loneliness she imagines.

Owen Estrada felt as an immigrant in Philadelphia. “I feel in my heart his abandonment and how far he was from the people who he loved.” Though Owen Estrada may one day leave Philadelphia, his mark will remain. At the Mexican Consulate of Philadelphia in Center City, a tiny free library — called a “guacalibrero” — carries his name.

Full article can be found here.

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