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Throughout his career, poet Martin Espada has been inspired by social and political issues, with emphasis on Hispanic causes. His work reflects the gritty reality of individual resistance and, in portraying this resistance, offers a glimmer of hope for the immigrant and working-class community. In depicting Puerto Ricans and Chicanos adjusting to life in the United States or South American Latinos standing up to their own repressive governments, Espada gives poetic voice to their ”otherness, their powerlessness, poverty, and alienation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Espada’s interest in social and political activism began at an early age in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Frank Espada, was a longtime leader in the Puerto Rican community and a vocal participant in the civil rights movement. For example, in 1964, Frank was one of eight hundred people arrested at the World’s Fair in New York for boycotting the Schaefer Beer Brewery because it did not hire African Americans or Puerto Ricans. After this incident, Martin believed his father was dead since no one had heard from him for five days. When father and son reunited, Frank began to take Martin to rallies and meetings, providing Martin with a hands-on political education. ”These were imprints on my imagination, ”Martiin recalls. Frank’s dedication to his principles and his similarity to a guerilla teacher in Emiliano Zapata’s army (Zapata was a revolutionary in the Mexican army) inspired the title of Martin’s book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998).
Poetry, History, and Politics
Espada began writing poetry at age sixteen. In an interview with Elizabeth Gunderson, Espada talks about how writing came from his search for identity:
I think for the period of three years that I was going to high school on Long Island I heard the word ‘spic’ more often than I heard my own name. There’s one of two ways that you can respond to that pressure. You can either run like crazy from the identity being attacked and say, ‘no, I’m not that, I’m not what you’re calling me,’ or you can confront the hostility directly by asserting your identity. I chose the second path. I did it with poetry.
Espada pursued his creative interest through to college at the University of Maryland, but he left after a year because he could not personally identify with the traditional poets he was required to study. However, through a friend, he discovered the voices of emerging Latin American poets whose work was inspired by their explosive culture and politics. He returned to his postsecondary education at the University of Wisconsin where he eventually received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a J. D. from Northeastern University. For many years, he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program.
An Award-winning Poet
In 1982, Espada published his first book of poetry, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, which included photographs taken by his father. But he only started considering himself a true poet when he received a $5,000 grant from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation while attending law school at Northeastern University in Boston. In 1986, he received a $20,000 fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. His second book, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction, published in 1987 by Bilingual Press and funded by the Hispanic Research Center of Arizona State University, brought him a bit more attention. But his third book, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, published in 1990, won the PEN/Revson award and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Critics praised the work in the Boston Globe and the New York Times Book Review. He also landed an interview on National Public Radio.
Teaching and Honors
In 1993, Espada joined the English department faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches creative writing workshops and courses in Latino poetry. He actively writes and has published several poetry collections over the last few years. Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996) garnered an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
Works in Literary Context
Linda Frost in the Minnesota Review once described Espada’s poetic approach: ”Espada uses his characters as excavated archetypes, cultural heroes who give names and faces to the members of this ignored community who have been ‘evicted’ from their original home of Puerto Rico . . . and their not-so-friendly new home in the United States.” As Frost suggests, Espada provides an alienated, exiled community with symbols, voices, and agency. Thematically and stylistically, Espada draws attention to the presence of peoples and cultures forgotten or ignored.
Politics generate much of the imagery throughout Espada’s work. In his poem “Tiburon,” he metaphorically links the American assimilation of Puerto Rico to a shark devouring a fisherman, while “From an Island You Cannot Name” tells the story of a Puerto Rican veteran enraged when identified as a Negroby hospital authorities. Even in City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), though Espada employs somewhat of a humorous tone, his imagery and narratives still contain a darker edge that cuts across larger issues. For example, the poem ”Skull Beneath the Skin” juxtaposes man goes with the image of piled skulls belonging to victims of El Salvadoran death squads. In an interview with Steven Ratiner, Espada said: ”[W]hat I am striving for is to tell the story as a journalist would, and that involves a multiple series of choices including choice of story, choice of sources, choice of images and language.”
The Voices of Hope and Resistance
Critic David Charlton wrote: ”Espada has proven himself a strong adversary for supporters of a status quo that thrives on keeping a class of people as victims.” The entwined themes of hope and resistance rise throughout Espada’s work, born from the experiences of his American working-class and immigrant subjects. For example, in the poem ”Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction,” a woman protests the squalor in which she must live by sending dead mice from her apartment to her landlord. In ”Jorge the Janitor Finally Quits,” the title character leaves his menial job after being unappreciated and scolded for his bad attitude. Unfortunately, resistance in Espada’s poems is rarely rewarded, even when it is shown as the right thing to do; the woman who sends dead mice to her landlord is evicted, and Jorge imagines that no one will even notice he has left his job.
Works in Critical Context
Espada been lauded throughout his career for poetically confronting issues important to the working class and the immigrant. But his work has been controversial: for instance, in Espada’s essay ”All Things Censored,” he recounts the story of how, after inviting him to write a poem, National Public Radio refused to air the work because it defended Mumia Abu-Jamal, the African American journalist on death row.
Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands
In the Partisan Review, Roger Gilbert described Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990) as ”continually informed by anger at social and economic injustices. This anger gives the book considerable moral urgency.” Also with admiration, Alan Gilbert of the Boston Review called ”the individuality of Espada’s voice . . . one to which any attentive reader can respond. These poems deserve an audience.” John Bradley also praised the collection in the Bloomsbury Review, as did Leslie Ulman in the Ken-yon Review: ”the poems in this collection tell their stories and flesh out their characters deftly, without shrillness or rhetoric, and vividly enough to invite the reader into a shared sense of loss.”
With Zapata’s Disciple (1998), Espada departs in genre but not theme, tapping into the familiar culture of machismo, the resistance against Latino immigrants and the Spanish language, and American colonialism. Rafael Campo in Progressive said Espada had courage in writing a collection of essays that ”take[s]on the life-and-death issues of American society at large.” Campo also suggested ”Espada builds his hopes for a better world: one informed by poetry’s ability to forge such empathic connections.” Rebecca Martin of the Library Journal described the work as ”passionate yet unsentimental prose.”
- Espada, Martin, and Steven Ratiner. ”Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets.” Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. Reprinted in Poetry Criticism. Vol. 74. Edited by Michelle Lee. Gale, 2006.
- Browning, Sarah. ”Give Politics a Human Face: An Interview with Lawyer-Poet-Professor Martin Espada.” Valley Advocate (November 18, 1993).
- Espada, Martin and Elizabeth Gunderson. ”Poets and Writers.” Poets & Writers 23:2 (March-April 1995). Reprinted in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol.74. Gale, 2006.
- Salgado, Cesar A. ”About Martin Espada.” Ploughshares 31.1 (Spring 2005).
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