Peruvian Poet Blanca Varela, The Intellectuals and Expats of The Paris Left Bank Cafes


Blanca Varela in Paris 1940

Editing an anthology of Latin American poets of the twentieth century for Dan Veach at The Atlanta Review, I found this remarkable photograph of Peruvian poet Blanca Varela many years ago. This enchanting photograph is of Varela in her late 20s, perhaps during a period when she traveled to Paris with her new husband, abstract and conceptual artist Fernando de Szyszlo Valdelomar. In Paris she met artists and intellectuals, such as André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Michaux, Alberto Giacometti and Fernand Léger. In the early twentieth century, the bookstores and cafes of the Left Bank along the Seine River were a magnet that drew many Latin American artists and writers. The extraordinary Polish painter Tamara de Lempika, visiting Moscow with her new husband, fled to Paris as The Bolshevik Revolution erupted in Russia. Mexican poet Octavio Paz, a future Nobel Prize recipient for Literature, also met Varela in Paris. Paz talking about his encounters with intellectuals in the cafés of the Latin Quarter at Café de Flore on the Seine River said of her: “At that time we all used to sing. And among those songs you could hear a lonesome song of one Peruvian girl: Blanca Varela. The most secret, timid and natural of them all.”

Additional Information

Varela’s mother was Serafina Quinteras a writer, poet, singer, journalist, and composer. Blanca studied Humanities and Education at the National University of San Marcos. After her time in Paris, Varela lived in Florence, Italy and Washington, D.C. In 1962 she returned to Lima, Peru and then traveled mainly to the U.S, Spain, and France. She was awarded the Octavio Poetry Prize (Mexico City) , The International Federico García Lorca Prize (Granada, Spain), and Queen Sophia’s Prize for Iberoamerican Poetry (Madrid, Spain). Her books have been translated into English, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Czech. She passed away in 2009 in her native Peru.

Steven Ford Brown