Born on March 16, 1892, César Abraham Vallejo grew up in Santiago de Chuco, an isolated town in north central Peru. Vallejo's grandmothers were Chimu Indians and both of his grandfathers, by a strange coincidence, were Spanish Catholic priests. He was the youngest of eleven children and grew up in a home saturated with religious devotion.
Vallejo entered the School of Philosophy and Letters at Trujillo University in 1910, but had to drop out for lack of money. Between 1908 and 1913, he started and stopped his college education several times, working in the meantime as a tutor and in the accounts department on a large sugar estate. At the sugar estate, Vallejo saw thousands of workers arrive in the courtyard at dawn to work in the fields until nightfall for a few cents a day and a fistful of rice. Seeing this devastated Vallejo and later inspired both his poetry and his politics.
In 1913, Vallejo enrolled again at Trujillo University and studied literature and law, and read voraciously about determinism, mythology, and evolution. After receiving a Master's Degree in Spanish literature in 1915, Vallejo continued to study law until 1917. However, his life in Trujillo had become complicated by a tortured love affair and he moved to Lima.
Vallejo found work as the principal of a prestigious school. At night he visited opium dens in Chinatown and hung out in the Bohemian cafe where he met the important literary figures of the time, including Manual Gonzalez Prada, one of Peru's leading leftists. When Vallejo's Los heraldos negros was published, in 1919, it was received enthusiastically. Vallejo then began to push his talent in a new direction.
Vallejo lost his teaching post for refusing to marry a woman with whom he was having an affair. In 1920, after his mother's death and the loss of a second teaching job, Vallejo visited his home. During a feud that broke out before his arrival in Santiago de Chuco, an aide to the subprefect was shot and the general store burned to the ground. Vallejo, who was actually writing up the legal information about the shooting for the subprefect, was blamed as an "intellectual instigator." In spite of protest telegrams from intellectuals and newspaper editors, he was imprisoned for 105 days. When released on parole, he left for Lima, embittered by the affair.
In 1922, Vallejo published Trilce, a book written while in hiding before his arrest. Trilce, which placed Latin American poetry in the center of Western cultural tradition, appeared to come out of nowhere. Vallejo continued to teach while in Lima, but in the spring of 1923 his position was eliminated. Fearing that he could still be forced to go back to jail, he accepted the invitation of his friend Julio Gálvez to go to Paris. Vallejo left Peru for good in June 1923.
Vallejo and Gálvez nearly starved in Paris. It wasn't until 1925 that Vallejo found his first stable job in a newly opened press agency and began to receive a monthly grant from the Spanish government to continue his law studies at the University of Madrid. Since he was not required to stay on campus Vallejo remained in Paris, where he continued to receive the money for two years. The grant, plus the income from articles, enabled Vallejo to move into the Hotel Richelieu in 1926 and frequent exhibitions, concerts, and cafe He met Antonin Artaud, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. The somber, straightforward works he wrote during this period form a bridge between Trilce and the densely compassionate and bitter poetry he would write in the 1930s.
In 1927, he received news from home that the tribunal in charge of his old case had given orders to arrest him, which confirmed his intuition to leave Peru. He left his post at the press agency and refused further grant payments. His economic situation worsened. By 1928, he had begun to read Marxist literature and appeared to be an actively committed Communist. In September of 1928, Vallejo made the first of three trips to Russia; he returned to form the Peruvian Socialist party with other expatriates.
In January 1929, Vallejo and Georgette Philipart, whom he met soon after his arrival in Paris, moved in together. Vallejo's Marxist studies continued, and he decided no longer to publish poetry, devoting himself instead to writing a book of Marxist theory. In 1930, Vallejo wrote his first drama. He continued to write scripts in the years to come, leaving nearly 600 pages of unpublished material at his death.
Vallejo was arrested by the police in a Paris railroad station in December and ordered to leave France within three days. He returned to Madrid where, in 1931, he wrote his only novel, El tungsteno. When the Monarchy fell and the Republic was proclaimed, Vallejo officially joined the Spanish Communist party and, once Rusia en 1931 was published, was even temporarily famous. Despite his success, however, he could not find a publisher for his new material.
In January 1932, Georgette Philipart returned to Paris to find their apartment sacked by the police. Meanwhile, Vallejo was desperately trying to establish publishing connections in Madrid. Finally obtaining a resident permit in February 1933, Vallejo left for Paris with nothing but the clothes on his back. The conditions of the permit forbade him to engage in any political activity whatsoever; the years between 1933 and 1936 were the least documented in Vallejo's adult life and may well have been his darkest.
Vallejo and Philipart married in 1934, and their financial situation took a turn for the worse. Finally, in 1936, Vallejo found a teaching position, and the Fascist uprising in Spain in July of that year inspired him to a spectacular display of sustained creativity. Absorbed by the Loyalist anti-Fascist cause, Vallejo began to build a "popular poetry," incorporating war reportage, while at the same time becoming more hermetic than ever before.
In July 1937 he left again for Spain, which was deep in civil war, and took part in the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. Among the 200 writers attending, Vallejo was elected the Peruvian representative. While in Spain, Vallejo visited the front briefly and saw the horror with his own eyes. Back in Paris he wrote a fifteen-scene tragedy, La piedra cansada, and then in one sustained push, from early September to early December, fifty-two of the fifty-four poems that make up Sermón de la barbarie, along with the fifteen poems of España, aparte de mí este cálize.
In early March 1938, the years of strain and deprivation, compounded by heartbreak over Spain, as well as exhaustion from the pace of the previous year, finally took their toll. Vallejo contracted a lingering fever, and by late March he could not get out of bed. Despite medical attention, his condition worsened. No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, "I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!" and he died. It was Good Friday. The clinic records state that he died of an "acute intestinal infection." His body was buried at Montrouge, the "Communist" cemetery in southern Paris. In the 1960s, Georgette, who was living in Lima, had his remains moved to Montparnasse, where they now reside.