6 Boricua women in bellas artes you should know

Top row from left: Chita Rivera (EvanAgostini/Invision/AP); Olga Albizu Rosaly (Galería de Arte de la Universidad del Sagrado Corazon, MHAA-UPR); Julia de Burgos. Bottom row from left: Sylvia Rexach (Archivo General de Puerto Rico); Ana Margarita Bassó Bruno (Archivo Universitario, Universidad de Puerto Rico); Myrna Báez (Vilma Liella).

By Crystal Harlan

March 25, 2024

From pioneering poets and sculptors to musical composers and Broadway performers, Puerto Rican women have enriched the cultural landscape with their contributions to the fine arts.

Puerto Rican women have played a vital role in shaping the narrative of fine arts, whether it be on canvas, stage, paper or a guitar. Many of them have faced the additional challenge of carving out a space for their work in the conservative, male-dominated society of Puerto Rico in the mid-20th century. Despite cultural impediments and personal hardships, Puerto Rican women have left an indelible mark on the world of fine arts. Here are just six of the countless Boricua women trailblazers in bellas artes:

Olga Albizu
(1924, Ponce – 2005, New York City)

Olga Albizu is considered the pioneer of abstract expressionism in Puerto Rican art. After studying painting at the University of Puerto Rico under Spanish painter Esteban Vicente, Albizu moved to New York in 1948 on a fellowship for post-graduate work at the Art Students League. During her time in the US, she studied under German painter Hans Hofmann, who had a marked influence on her style. She later attended the legendary Parisian art school Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. She also spent a year painting in Provence, France. Upon her return to New York in 1953, she became an accomplished abstract painter, with solo and group exhibits in New York, Washington, Louisville, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Germany. Later that decade, her work began to appear on record jackets for bossa nova albums produced by RCA and Verve Records, including a number of albums by Stan Getz

Myrna Báez
(1931, San Juan – 2018, San Juan)

Recognized as one of the most important visual artists in Puerto Rico, Myrna Báez has had her work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After studying science at the University of Puerto Rico, she moved to Madrid in 1951 to study medicine, but had a change of heart and chose to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. Upon her return to Puerto Rico in 1959, she joined the Graphic Workshop of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. She was a professor at the University of the Sacred Heart and at the League of Student Artists in San Juan, and a founding member of the Brotherhood of Graphic Artists of Puerto Rico. In 1997, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture honored her with the National Painting Prize, and in 2000, the University of the Sacred Heart awarded her an honorary doctorate. In addition to her numerous exhibitions on the mainland, in 2001 she presented a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. Báez was a skilled colorist known for her extensive technical experimentation in printmaking and painting.

Ana Margarita Bassó Bruno
(1934, San Juan – 2023, Ponce)

Ana Margarita Bassó Bruno is considered one of the best sculptors of Puerto Rico in the 20th century. Although she was born in Santurce, she spent much of her life in Ponce. She attended the University of Puerto Rico (Río Piedras campus), and while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago, she studied sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. She later continued her studies in Florence at the Accademia di Belle Arti and at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan. Upon returning to Puerto Rico, she worked as a professor of sculpture at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras and later at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ponce. The 14th Ponce Art Biennial was dedicated to her in 2014. Some of her works are on permanent exhibit at the University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, including a sculpture dedicated to baseball player Pancho Coímbre.

Sylvia Rexach
(1922, San Juan – 1961, San Juan)

Sylvia Rexach only lived to the age of 39, but during her short life she reinvented the bolero amid Puerto Rico’s male-dominated society of the mid-20th century. Born into a well-to-do family in Santurce, Rexach recorded her first song “Di Corazón” before finishing her junior year of high school.

Rexach worked in clubs and with musical-theater revues, both on the island and in New York City. She helped form a publishing organization, wrote advertising jingles, and scripts for radio and television comedy shows, all while composing her own music. About 50 of her songs have been published, and several, including “Y Entonces” and “Alma Adentro” have been performed by well-known singers, including Tito Rodríguez, La Lupe, Cheo Feliciano, and Linda Ronstadt. Two theaters were named for her in San Juan; the one inside Puerto Rico’s Centro de Bellas Artes is built roughly on the site of her family’s old house in Santurce.

Julia de Burgos
(1914, Carolina, Puerto Rico – 1953, New York City)

Throughout much of her short life, Julia de Burgos championed Puerto Rico’s nationalism and identity through her writings, exploring issues such as the island’s colonial past, the legacy of slavery, and American imperialism.

The poet was one of 13 children born to a low-income family and studied to be a teacher. She self-published her first poetry collection, “Poema en veinte surcos,” in 1938, at the age of 24. In 1940 she decided to move to New York City. By that time she had already written three collections of poetry, and had been married and divorced. Because of her divorce, she had a hard time fitting into Puerto Rico’s conservative culture. “I want to be universal,” she wrote in a letter to her sister, shortly after moving to New York. During the 1940s she became a contributor and editor of the Spanish-language socialist periodical Pueblos Hispanos, and she was active in the cultural, political, and social life of New York City’s Puerto Rican community.

The poet struggled with alcoholism and died at the age of 39. Since her death, she has been widely recognized as a pioneer of the Nuyorican poetry movement.

Her honors include awards from the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature and an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico. She is the namesake of many schools, parks, and cultural centers.

Chita Rivera
(Washington, DC, 1933 – New York City, 2024)

For nearly six decades, the dancer, singer, and actress captivated audiences in numerous stage performances, shining brightest as Anita in “West Side Story” and Velma Kelly in “Chicago.”

Chita Rivera was born in Washington DC to a Puerto Rican father and mother of Scottish, Irish, and African American descent. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York City and trained in classical ballet before joining the musical stage. She was beloved on Broadway, where she began performing in the early 1950s. In 2005, Newsweek called her “only the greatest musical-theater dancer ever.” In 1986, she was in a car accident that shattered her left leg, but she didn’t let that stop her. After a year of rehab, she was dancing again, and she performed on Broadway into her 80s.

Rivera won two Tony Awards and was nominated for eight others. In 2002, she became the first Hispanic American woman to receive Kennedy Center Honors, and in 2018 she received a special Tony for lifetime achievement. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.


RELATED: Celebrating Women’s History Month: 6 Trailblazing Puerto Rican women in STEM




  • Crystal Harlan

    Crystal is a bilingual editor and writer with over 20 years of experience in digital and print media. She is currently based in Florida, but has lived in small towns in the Midwest, Caracas, New York City, and Madrid, where she earned her MA in Spanish literature.


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