Daniel Thacker uncovers the neglected brilliance of Juan Parra del Riego, the Peruvian poet who immortalised the great Isabelino Gradín in verse.

Futurism burned briefly but intensely in Europe. Founded by Filippo Marinetti, an Italian who worked out of Paris, the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 set out the movement’s desire to embrace modernity and leave the past in all its forms behind.

Marinetti envisioned his manifesto and nascent movement as a challenge to the existing social and poetic order. Futurism was modernity: it was speed; it was change. Hence Futurist verses that exalt the wonders of the motorcar, the motorbike and the athlete. All three were taken to represent humanity’s inexorable march towards the future.

If the flame of Futurism burned briefly but brightly in Europe, it barely managed a flicker in Latin America. There are good reasons for this. The scepticism of the great Argentine writer and cultivator of taste, Jorge Luis Borges, played its part, as did Marinetti’s eventual close links with nationalism and Fascism. Perhaps most important of all, in a continent reeling from the immediate effects of colonialism, there was little desire to continue importing European cultural trends.

Futurism faced inhospitable conditions in Latin America. It is perhaps no surprise then, that Juan Parra Del Riego’s Futurist masterpiece, Dynamic Polyrhythm to Gradín, a footballer went largely unnoticed when it was published. Its use of Futurist poetic conventions combined with an enduring intellectual distaste for football, have consigned it to a footnote in the history of Latin American verse.

Much like the movement that captured his imagination, Parra del Riego, a Peruvian born in Huancayo in 1894, but who moved in 1917 to Montevideo, shone briefly but brightly. He died in the Uruguayan capital in 1925, but not before he penned his poem about the footballer Isabelino Gradín in 1922.  

Huancayo, Peru, the birthplace of Juan Parra del Riego. Image by Andreas Lehner via Flickr [https://tinyurl.com/yb6ukrho]

A South American champion 400m sprinter and jointly the first black player to represent Uruguay, Gradin was one of the greatest players of his generation. He is best remembered for his two-goal performance in a 4-0 win against Chile in 1916, a game that has gone down in notoriety because the losers demanded the result be overturned due to Uruguay “fielding two Africans”.

Parra del Riego saw Gradín’s on-field, attacking ability as embodying the speed that Futurism so exalted. In the Dynamic Polyrhythm, we read of Gradín slaloming his way past seven men in a different game, the forward’s ability to beat players at pace immortalised in Parra del Riego’s verse. Gradín is the essence of Futurism.

In celebrating Gradín’s skill and grace, del Riego borrows and adapts many Futurist tropes: he continually references the crowd, a Futurist obsession, the hundreds of thousands of men and women who would flock to watch the successful Uruguay teams of the 1920s and 1930s. In the original Spanish, the poet’s crowd is referred to exclusively in the singular.

The celebration of his black subject also offers a stark challenge to normative ideas about race in the early twentieth century, particularly in Latin America. At one stage in the poem, Gradín’s goal causes jubilation and ecstasy for three, presumably white, women in the crowd. Gradín, a black man, is a symbol of future hope: his brilliance unites those in attendance.

Celebrating his black subject as embodying the future was,  in comparison to his Futurist contemporaries, an unusual and novel use of the movement’s conventions. Tied as Futurism became in Europe to nationalist ideas, del Riego’s acclaim of Gradín stands alone in the Futurist canon.

 Gradín, a black man, is a symbol of future hope: his brilliance unites those in attendance.

The irony of all this, of course, is that Futurism’s obsession with speed, modernity and the future was well and truly a relic of the past. As an imported European cultural trend, it met resistance among Latin American poets newly liberated from the colonial yoke.  Others validly pointed out that the beauty of the human form had long been exalted in poetry – even if in Parra del Riego’s case the subject matter, football, was new.

Yet there might be a case for celebrating Parra del Riego a little more than we currently do. His fascinating oeuvre remains largely forgotten along with Futurism, but the poet did get one thing right: in Latin America, football very much represented the future.


Dynamic Polyrhythm to Gradín, a footballer.

Translated by Daniel Thacker

Trembling and triumphant,

Like the pilot’s sudden scream,

Everything, at once, both clear and restive,

And I sing to you: “Oh, you wonderful player!”

Today you turned my heart into a beating drum.

Nimble,

Delicate,

Winged,

Electric,

Swift,

Subtle,

Sudden, deadly,

I watched you play on that Olympic afternoon.

My soul was dark and overburdened with secrets,

But when that emotive whistle sounded,

And I watched you run… Jump…

The cheering and the explosion of shirts

Following the outrageous juggling of the ball,

The oohs and the aahs,

At the sudden touch,

The blur of colours, your body passing on the horizon,

Another heart won over, another head split asunder,

Quicker every time,

You suddenly made my heart beat a thousand times faster.

And I saw you, Gradín,

Bronze made flesh,

In and out, a swashbuckling swordsman,

Past a goalkeeper-hunter,

A violent bird,

Who carries the ball with the wind,

And moves away, and comes back in

And cuts through with an electric flash.

An arrow, a snake, a bell, a flag!

Gradín, the blue-green bullet! Gradín, the world that disappears!

The billiard player of that sudden cannon,

Who causes agony and lines up in the distance,

And, as if a discus-thrower,

You beat one…

Two…

Three… Four…

Seven players…

Lifted by applause, the ball is like shrapnel,

Engulfed by a fit of colours,

And now you’re in front of goal,

With heart… With soul… With foot…

The shot explodes into the blue afternoon

Like a gunshot, carrying the ball into the net.

Pigeons! Pigeons!

Like pigeons the warm applause tumbles down onto you.

Gradín: the spinning top, the piston engine, the music, the scalpel, the corkscrew!

(I watched three women, their hips usually stone as altars, gyrating, overcome by emotion!)

Gradín: your lightning body

Today broke me into a thousand comets, sending them spiralling into space,

Blue speed in front of me,

Another medley of colours making my heart soar.

It’s incredible when you pick up the ball,

Everyone thinks you’re skating,

Drawing Greek lines with your dance,

Which keep turning with your vague steamers.

A leaping fish that – at the most violent point of the attack –

Leaps, arches, floats,

Nobody sees it for a second,

But like a submarine it emerges with the ball.

And it’s then that the stands sound like the sea,

Everyone chanting: Gradín! Gradín! Gradín!

And in the hoarse, black swell that threatens to overflow,

Hearts pound, arms fly,

Rockets until the last,

A luminous salute of hats,

Launched towards the moon,

To shout from there: Gradín! Gradín! Gradín!

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