René Marqués was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico (on the north coast of the island) on October 4, 1919. Both sides of his family were from small, agricultural societies and Marqués grew up with a strong love of the land a theme which appears frequently in his writings. “The Oxcart” itself pleads for a return to the “land which gives life”
as opposed to the false values of a mechanized society which can only degrade and destroy an individual and rob him/her of dignity. Thus he joins his fellow Latin American contemporary writers by reflecting the “Beatus Ille” theme, as, for example, in Alejo Carpentier’s
The Lost Steps
Marqués spent his early years in the home of his maternal grandparents where a relative, his aunt, Do–a Padrina Padilla de Sanz, fostered in René another supreme value—love of liberty. She was a poetess, writer, and pianist, and most importantly, an ardent defender of Puerto Rico’s independence and of women’s rights, producing many articles on political and feminist issues. Marqués studied agromony at the College of Agriculture in Mayaguez, earning a degree in 1942 and worked for 2 years in the Department of Agriculture. He became increasingly interested in literature, a career which he pursued in Spain, where in 1946 he studied classical and contemporary Spanish theatre at the University of Madrid.
His year in Madrid produced his “Chronicles from Spain” and his first two dramas, “Man and His Dreams” in 1946 and “The Sun and the MacDonalds” the following year. He returned to Puerto Rico where he founded “Pro Arte de Arecibo”and wrote literary criticism and reviews for the journal “Asomante” and for “El Diario de Puerto Rico”. Marqués was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1949 to study playwriting at Columbia University, where he observed first hand the consequences of the Puerto Rican migration to New York City. He then returned to Puerto Rico, where he plunged into a period of intense literary involvement. His output of dramas, short stories, and novels at this stage was prolific and it was during this time that he wrote “The Oxcart” in 1951, having lived for 3 months with the family upon which he based the play.
His works were staged in Puerto Rico, New York City, Chicago and Madrid. In 1957, “The Oxcart” became the first modern Puerto Rican play to be presented in Europe when it was produced by a Spanish theatre company at the Mar’a Guerrero National Theatre Company in Madrid. In May, 1961, it was seen as part of the fourth annual Puerto Rican Theatre Festival at the Tapia Theatre in San Juan and was successfully revived at that theatre in 1967.
“The Oxcart” received its New York exposure at the Greenwich Mews Theatre where it opened on December 19, 1966 and became the fifth longest running play of those which opened off-Broadway during that season. In August, 1967, under the auspices of Mayor John Lindsay’s Summer Task Force, “The Oxcart” was revived by the newly created Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre. Free outdoor performances were given at various parks and playgrounds throughout New York City. His work received recognition in his receipt of four Ateneo prizes for achievement in the genres of short story, drama, novel, and essay the only Puerto Rican author to win simultaneously four first prizes.