“Love recognizes no boundaries. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences,
penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
She was born in 1887 to an upper-middle class family in Spain. Her name comes from the Greek “Life of Zeus.” It later became an Arabic name. After the Moorish invasion of Spain in 711, Christian and Muslim cultures merged in many ways. There are numerous “Spanish” names that have Arabic origin.
She was special from the beginning. Her family educated her well. Her maternal grandparents had lived in Puerto Rico. There were strong cultural connections to the United States. At age 13 she coaxed her cousin to start a club named “The Worker Bees.” Later on, her mother separated from her father; she was brought to New York. She went from a culture that required a husband’s permission for a woman to leave the country, or to work, or to go anywhere, to a place where these minor freedoms were taken for granted.
She blossomed. She studied at Columbia University, but never graduated. Once her parents reconciliated, she was taken back to Spain. She befriended American and British citizens, so that she had more freedom to move about. In 1913, a promising Spanish poet overheard her voice through a wall in a student residence. He made up his mind that this was the woman that he would marry.
They were introduced at a party by a Belgian acquaintance of Zenobia’s. Romance soon followed. Her parents were alarmed, because this young man had no visible means of support other than his poetry. She was encouraged to pursue a romantic relationship with an American lawyer. She turned him down. Once again, she was sent across the Atlantic. Early in 1916, he showed up in New York to ask for her hand in marriage. This time, there was nothing her family could do. They got married.
It would take half a page to name all of the places they visited together. They became partners in literature. Their documents show numerous instances where they edited each other’s work. He gained notoriety; eventually his fame went around the world, and his work was translated to numerous languages. She spent her time running various small ventures that guaranteed a living income when the sales of his poetry were slow.
In 1931 she was told that she had a tumor in her abdomen. She refused surgery. She underwent a course of radiation to shrink the tumor. In those days, it was not unusual for people with means to have their children get their tonsils radiated, to spare them the discomfort of a tonsillectomy. Twenty years later, these privileged people paid for their comfort with a cancer diagnosis. Zenobia chose the course that later would come to haunt her.
She moved on. She dedicated herself to translating some of the works of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali intellectual who easily ranks as one of the top ten minds of the twentieth century. She edited 22 books. Her husband suffered from recurrent bouts of depression. She was always there to encourage and adore him. At the same time that they had a “modern” marriage, she was also the best possible example of what a traditional wife was expected to do. She wrote to him:
“I want to be useful to you, to help you to be courageous, to not be a burden, and to push you upwards in every venture within reach of our souls.”
In 1936 Civil War broke out in Spain. She organized a group of society ladies who helped orphans and poor children to find food and shelter. Her close friend, Federico García Lorca, an enormously successful poet and playwright, was sought out and murdered by a fascist group. She knew that she had to leave the country: too many members of her inner circle were opposed to the military rebellion.
She found a way to go across the Pyrenees. Never again would they set foot in Spain, the land that they loved so much. Six days later they boarded a ship to start a truly nomadic life that began in Puerto Rico and encompassed much of Latin America.
They settled in Coral Gables, Florida, for a few years. She got a job offer from the University of Maryland, and happily accepted it. She worked teaching Spanish, and continued her translations, and cultivated a social circle.
He was miserable. He refused to learn English. The depressive spells were almost constant. She begged and cajoled him to continue with his work and to get his papers organized, to no avail. His doctor suggested that maybe he should move to a country where Spanish was spoken.
In the early 1950’s they moved to Puerto Rico.
This is where I come in. The University lionized him. He was recognized, cheered, and worshiped everywhere that he went. My father was a professor at the University, and being of Spanish origin, found something in common with this man whose work had millions of fans all over the world. He showed up at our house uninvited, as is the custom in our culture.
Sometimes she came along, but mostly he was alone. There were times when he got depressed and refused to eat. He had a special place in his heart for children, and he was taken by one of my older sisters. When he stopped eating Zenobia would call my house, and soon we were off to his apartment, my sister in the lead, to beg him to please take a bite. I clearly remember her: always seemingly in the background; careful not to take any of the attention that she felt that he deserved. A woman devoted to her life partner. I had no idea that this subservient lady was famous in her own right. That she had visited dozens of countries. That one of the leading painters in 20th century Spain had done her portrait, and that one of the leading sculptors had begged her to allow her to make a bust of her image. She was known as the mother of Spanish feminism. In my mind, she was the incarnation of love.
She became ill. Probably as a result of the previous radiation, she developed ovarian cancer. She went to the US to get operated on. She did not allow him to go with her: she worried about his mental health that much. She survived another four years. Once she understood that her time was near, this is what she wrote to him:
“We have remade each other, and our love has been better in old age than it ever has been. At this time, if you want to live for me, we will dedicate ourselves to organize your papers the best way that we can.”
She was close to death, and she wanted to spend her remaining time perpetuating his legacy.
In 1956 he received the Nobel Prize in literature. She died three days later. He did not go to accept the prize. He forbid the Spanish government to send someone in his behalf. Our University chancellor did the honors. He told my father that there was no reason for him to live or want to live. He died two years later.
Many critics refer to Zenobia as being in her husband’s shadow. Her archivists claim otherwise: she was the light that opened the way for him. In these days of turmoil and insecurity, I look up to her as an example of dedication to all that I hold sacred. May her light continue to shine.