Luz María "Luzma" Umpierre-Herrera (born in 1947, Santurce, Puerto Rico) is an American human rights advocate, New-Humanist educator, poet, and scholar. She currently resides in Florida. Umpierre-Herrera works on the topics of activism and social equality, the immigrant experience and bilingualism in the United States, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) issues. To date, she has published ten books of poetry, had her poems published in over 26 different anthologies, and has over 50 essays published in academic journals.
Luz María Umpierre was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1947, and grew up in a working-class neighborhood called "La veintiuna" (Stop 21) in a household with sixteen people. Her mother was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York City; for this reason, Umpierre was exposed to English and Spanish as a child. Her father was a government worker. Umpierre studied at the Sacred Heart Academy and at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, both in Puerto Rico, graduating from both with honors.
After several years of teaching at the Academia María Reina in San Juan, Umpierre felt that she was in “sexile.” The prejudice she experienced as an open lesbian in the island was one of the contributing factors to her moving to the mainland in 1974. As she followed her academic path, she was shocked to see that in the United States it wasn’t her just sexual orientation that was prejudiced against, but also her Puerto Rican origin and ethnicity. These experiences helped forge the core of her desire to be a mentor to underprivileged and exiled students, American-born like her and immigrant alike.
Education and Career
She earned her B.A., with Honors, in Spanish and Humanities from the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in 1970. In 1976, she received her M.A. in Spanish (Caribbean Literature) from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where we also completed her Ph.D. in Spanish (1978). She has also completed Post Doctoral Studies in the Fields of: Literary Theory at the University of Kansas (1981-1982), University Administration (Recruitment and Retention of Minorities) as a State of New Jersey/Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellow (1986), and Management and Policy at the New School for Social Research, Milano School-Syracuse Campus (1995-1996).
After receiving her Ph.D. in 1978, Umpierre went on to teach at several institutions. She was the first Puerto Rican to receive tenure at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Rutgers University, where she taught the very first graduate level course on Colonial Latin American Literature. She also created the first courses on Caribbean Literature and Culture at Rutgers University, as well as one of the first courses on Latinas in the U.S. to be taught in the country.
Her presence as an open lesbian Latina academic at Rutgers was met with a conservative backlash. She was banned in 1989 from teaching at the university for her inclusion of Gay and Lesbian texts in her literature classes and after she spoke at the March on Washington, DC of 1987. This setback only reinforced her activism regarding LGBT Studies, as she’s continued to be an activist for the inclusion of LGBT topics in academia.
Immediately following her resignation from Rutgers based on their violations of the ADA before it was enacted, she worked as Head and Professor of the then Department of Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies and Folklore at the Western Kentucky University (WKU). It was while working at WKU, that Umpierre received the “Woman of the Year” award, while she continued to work with the underprivileged and societal outcasts. She was also responsible for recruiting the first African-American student at WKU and was also responsible for the hiring of the first African-American and Latina faculty members as well. Her advocating of equality contributed to the reshaping of segregated curriculum and hiring practices.
In 1992, she became a faculty member at the State University of New York –Brockport (SUNY) and was a Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Again, she was met with academic backlash for her activism in LGBT rights. In 1992, she was accused by SUNY of “exposing students to homosexuality” for teaching literature from a Homocriticism view and was suspended for two years. She subsequently became homeless, yet continued her work as an advocate for equality in academia.
Umpierre eventually relocated to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she was an Associate Professor for Classic and Romance Languages and Literatures, along with Women Studies in 1998. She expanded the curriculum of this university as well, to include adding courses dealing with Latina Literature and Culture, Creative Writing, and Latin American Studies. She eventually left Bates College of her own choosing in 2002 to nurture her writing career and continue in promoting activist causes.
Umpierre has published six books of poetry and two chapbooks or "hojas poéticas". She has received critical attention, particularly from women, feminist and queer scholars. Her work has not received the same kind of attention in Puerto Rico, where she is not commonly included in leading anthologies or mentioned in literary histories due to hatred on the island toward all Diasporican writers and scholars.
Umpierre is a bilingual poet who writes in English and Spanish and sometimes mixes both languages in the same poem. Her work was published by tatiana de la tierra in de la tierra's bilingual magazine, Esto no tiene nombre, for Latina lesbians. She also supported de la tierra's other magazine, conmoción, which was a continuation and expansion of esto meant to be a platform for conversation about Latina lesbians through publishing work like Umpierre's. In her work, she establishes a conversation with many American, Latin American, and Puerto Rican women poets and writers such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Julia de Burgos, and Sandra María Esteves. Noted among these is the poetical exchange she carried for years with Nuyorican minor poet Sandra María Esteves; this exchange was lauded in Europe and the USA and was included in a special radio program of the MLA because of its uniqueness.
Umpierre started out her poetry career with the publication of Una puertorriqueña en Penna (1979), whose title can be translated as "A Puerto Rican woman in Pennsylvania" or "A Puerto Rican woman in pain." In this book, the author offers poems that comment on the discrimination that the Puerto Rican community faced in Philadelphia. The final poem in that collection: "Mascarada la vida," signals towards the lesbian themes which she would develop further in other collections. Umpierre also comments on the prejudice against Puerto Ricans in institutions of higher education, particularly in Spanish departments that judged Puerto Rican Spanish as deficient or incorrect. She also explores these topics in her second and third books, En el país de las maravillas (Kempis puertorriqueño) (1982) and . . . Y otras desgracias/And Other Misfortunes. . . (1985), which shows a marked turn towards more bilingualism and carries openly Lesbian poems. The same book was included as an Stonewall Era publication.
One of Umpierre's books is The Margarita Poems (1987), where she discusses her lesbianism and offers highly erotic poems about lesbian love. The book also discusses issues of feminist sisterhood, Puerto Rican independence, and immigrant experience. In the 1990s, she published her book For Christine (1995). In the 2000s, she published two chapbooks or "hojas poéticas": Pour toi/For Moira (2005) and Our Only Island—for Nemir (2009). A volume of her complete works edited by Carmen S. Rivera and Daniel Torres was published in 2011.
Umpierre has published two books of literary criticism focusing on Puerto Rican literature and numerous critical articles mostly on Caribbean literature and women authors. She is one of the few people who has written on Nemir Matos' poems. She is advances a "homocritical" theory of reading, which she labels as "Homocriticism," suggesting that homosexual readers can be more attuned to perceiving hidden queer meaning in a literary work. Her first article on this subject, appeared in Collages & Bricolages in 1993 under the title "On Critical Diversity" and dealt with the book Fragmentos a su imán by José Lezama Lima although it was written in the early 1980s and taught at Rutgers University in Graduate Seminars during that decade. She developed her ideas further on this topic in an article on Carmen Lugo Filippi's short story "Milagros, calle Mercurio" [Milagros, Mercury Street].
Awards, Nominations and Noted Posts
- Consultant for National Endowment for the Humanities from 1980 to 1985, and 1988.
- Executive Board Member for New Jersey Voters for Civil Liberties from 1985 to 1989.
- Consultant for the National Graduate Fellows Program, USA, Department of Education in 1986.
- Distinguished Lecturer and Guest Writer at Carleton College in 1987. Topic of lecture: Hispanic Women Writers in the USA.
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Coalition of Lesbian and Gay Organizations in New Jersey in 1990.
- Elected to the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association for Ethnic Studies and Special Interests from 1991 to 1993.
- Keynote Speaker, Bayard Rustin Breakfast, AIDS Massachusetts in 1991.
- Honored by New York Chapter of the National Writers Union in 1993
- Nominated for the Women's Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls, New York in 1994 and again in 2009.
- Chair, Feministas Unidas session at MLA convention on “Teaching Taboos in Hispanic Literature,” Washington, D.C. in December 1996.
- Keynote speaker, Ford Foundation Annual Fellows Convention, Washington, D.C. in 1997.
- Member of NEH Committee at Bates College from 1998 to 2000.
- Nominated for the Martin Duberman Fellowship at CUNY in 2000.
- Keynote Speaker at Ohio University (Athens) on “Sexuality in Literature and Film Conference,” in 2001.
- Elected to Governing Committee, Puerto Rican Literature and Culture Study Group, MLA in 1998 and promoted to Chair in 2002.
- Nominated for the Phyllis Franklin Humanities Award from the M.L.A. in 2002.
- Elected to the Division of Ethnic Studies of the Modern Language Association from 2000 to 2004 and the Delegate assembly from 2005 to 2007.
- Distinguished Woman Leader of Maine, 2008.
- Nominated for the 2010 inclusion to the Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
- Nominated for Pioneer Award From LAMBDA in 2013.
- Nominated for a South Korean International Award for Human Rights Activism, being the only Puerto Rican Lesbian having been nominated (decision expected in May, 2014)
List of Works
- Una puertorriqueña en Penna. [Puerto Rico]: Master Typesetting of P.R., 1979.
- En el país de las maravillas (Kempis puertorriqueño). Bloomington, Ind.: Third Woman Press, 1982.
- . . . Y otras desgracias/And Other Misfortunes. . . Bloomington, Ind.: Third Woman Press, 1985.
- The Margarita Poems. Bloomington, Ind.: Third Woman Press, 1987.
- For Christine: Poems and One Letter. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Professional Press, 1995.
- Pour toi/ For Moira. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Mariita Rivadulla and Associates, 2005.
- Our Only Island—for Nemir. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Mariita Rivadulla Professional Services, 2009.
- I'm Still Standing: Treinta años de poesía/Thirty Years of Poetry, eds. Carmen S. Rivera and Daniel Torres. Orlando, FL and Fredonia, NY: www.luzmaumpierre.com and SUNY-Fredonia, 2011.
- Ideología y novela en Puerto Rico: un estudio de la narrativa de Zeno, Laguerre y Soto. Madrid: Playor, 1983.
- Nuevas aproximaciones críticas a la literatura puertorriqueña contemporánea. Río Piedras: Editorial Cultural, 1983.