Victoria Ocampo: the power behind “the power of words”

This week has been one of the busiest of my life. On top of starting my new classes for the quarter and working on getting an apartment, this was my first week as the new editor-in-chief for my college’s student-run newspaper.

It’s been amazing but all of my free time has been devoted to training new team members, responding to one email after the other, putting out fires over text message, scheduling interviews for news stories, conducting interviews myself, writing articles, preparing stories to pitch, planning meetings and, probably the most difficult, memorizing a whole new set of passwords to different accounts from the ones I had as a copy editor.

Needless to say, it’s been a lot.

But through it all, I’ve still felt exhilarated jumping from one thing to the next, building up momentum and, so far, avoiding burnout. I can’t help but draw inspiration from Victoria Ocampo who not only managed to run a literary magazine but also begin it, edit it, fund it and write for it. And all without email, FaceBook Messenger or texting.

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Born on April 7, 1890 in Buenos Aires to a wealthy Argentine family, Victoria grew up in a household that stifled women’s life choices and education. As a woman, she was ineligible for a formal institutional education but her Aunt Vitola argued that she, and her five younger sisters, should learn math, history, music, religion and literature. Victoria was taught in France and became most comfortable speaking French, although she eventually learned English and Spanish.

What she really wanted to do with her life was become an actress. However, her father, Manuel, thought that the only true life choice for a woman was to serve as a wife and mother. When she was 19, Victoria wrote in a letter that “life is stupid, the world unjust, destiny blind, ‘society’ idiotic, and nothing more.”

Attempting to appease her father enough to let her pursue acting, she married Bernardo de Estrada in 1912. However, she found a letter that her husband had written to her father that suggested Victoria would forget about acting once she was pregnant. As Victoria wrote during her honeymoon, she “married a traitor.”

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Unfortunately, the political and social climate of Argentina at the time was not one that would welcome a divorce so the couple stayed together, unhappily, for eight years. During this time, Victoria turned to writing as an outlet.

She wrote social criticisms in French and published them in reference newspapers. She also began to publish volumes of essays, books of nonfiction short stories and literary criticism. Meanwhile, she voraciously read the work of any author she deemed worthy of attention.

One such author was Virginia Woolf who Victoria saw as a friend and a mentor whose writing explored her same thoughts and inspirations. One of Victoria’s essays was called “Letter to Virginia Woolf” in which she discussed these traits and set an intention for her own work, hoping “to be able to write one day, more or less well, more or less poorly, but as a woman.”

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The only people in Argentine society deemed intelligent and therefore eligible to read and write in European languages were men and many dismissed Victoria by claiming she was attempting to write like one. They thought she should, instead, stick to writing, in Spanish, about the things women were meant to consume like the times’ equivalent to Good Housekeeping.

She wanted something more than that but such a thing didn’t exist in the heavily censored literary scene of Argentina. So she created it.

In 1931, she founded “Sur,” a literary magazine which featured the works of the era’s most brilliant and influential artists and writers like Pablo Picasso and Jorge Luis Borges. However, it went beyond just art and literature and discussed cultural and social issues as well.

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With its inclusion of “international” authors such as Camus, Eliot, Shaw, Faulkner and Cummings, many nationalist intellectuals found it too disturbing. Despite their criticism, the journal lasted for forty years, the majority of those with Victoria as its funder, publisher, editor and contributor. It quickly became Latin America’s foremost literary and cultural journal in the 20th century.

What it did was create a bridge culturally from South America to North America and to Europe by exposing Argentine and Latin American writers to foreign voices from the outside world and, in turn, giving them a voice outside of their own countries.

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Two years later, following “Sur’s” success, Victoria opened the “Sur” publishing house and published many works by the most prominent authors of Latin America at the time. She also published translations of their work into French or English and produced Spanish translations of books by Woolf, Kerouac, Jung and many more. She did the majority of the translation work herself.

Because literary translations were extremely rare at the time, especially in Latin America, many authors praise Victoria for their education in literature. She counted many of these authors among her friends and invited them over to her home in San Isidro for discussions about music and current events, much like Gertrude Stein was doing in Paris a couple years earlier. After her death, Victoria donated her San Isidro home to UNESCO, calling it Villa Ocampo, which is now open to the public, including a library with 12,000 books.

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In 1953, Victoria was taken by the Argentine police as a political prisoner for publicly criticizing President Juan Peròn. Aldous Huxley and Waldo Frank, both of whom had written in “Sur,” called for her release, joined shortly after by “The New York Times” and the prime minister of India.

Victoria received honorary degrees from Harvard and Columbia, was named as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was the first woman admitted to the Argentine Academy of Letters. Graham Greene and Jacques Lacan dedicated books to her. She was also the first woman in Argentina to get a driver’s license and she founded one of the oldest feminist movements, the Union de Mujeres. Throughout it all, she managed to finish a six-volume autobiography.

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She also had quite the controversial taste in music. Earlier in her life, she had championed Igor Stravinsky when many others found him too contemporary and distasteful. Later in her life, when she was 74, she went to one of the Beatles’ earlier gigs in London and bought a record and a John Lennon wig. When Jorge Luis Borges was over at Villa Ocampo during a salon, she demanded he wear the wig. When he refused, she said he would never amount to anything.

After she passed away from mouth cancer in 1979, Borges who wrote “In a country and in an era in which women were generic, she had the distinction of being an individual. She dedicated her fortune, which was considerable, to the education of her country and of her continent. Personally, I owe a great deal to Victoria, but as an Argentine, I owe her far more.”

I admire Victoria greatly not only because of all she was able to accomplish and achieve but because she recognized the power of writing and strove to ensure anybody could prosper from it.

This is the main lesson I’ve tried to take away from her this week. Yes, the administrative duties of running a newspaper can be stressful and time-consuming and one giant whirlwind of potential disaster, but the main purpose of it all is sharing stories and news to people who are interested, who enjoy them and who might need to hear them.

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