The word “alabanza” can be translated into English as “praise,” and the idea of praise runs through much of Martín Espada’s poetry. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Espada learned at an early age that it was difficult, if not impossible, for many Hispanic immigrants to make a living. His father, Frank Espada, was active in the American Civil Rights movement during the 1950’s. The elder Espada was born in Puerto Rico, and after settling in New York City he became a leading activist in the Puerto Rican community. The young Espada learned from his father that minorities needed to work twice as hard as others in order to have a chance to succeed in the United States. As a teenager, Martín started expressing himself through poetry. Writing became an obsession for him, and it consumed almost all his time.
After earning a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in 1985, Espada worked in Chelsea, Massachusetts, as a tenant lawyer. He wanted to make a difference and did his best to assist those who had been victimized by the American legal bureaucracy. Espada was determined to write poetry that put a spotlight on how the less fortunate in the United States have attempted to succeed against all odds. Since 1993, Espada has been an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Espada believes that a poet can wear many hats. According to him, the poet can be a journalist, a teacher, a sociologist, and a historian. As a historian, Espada writes poetry that “challenges the official history.” He finds heroes in those who have been forgotten. In a 2002 interview, he quoted the nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman as having said, “The duty of the poet is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” This sentiment fits perfectly with Espada’s approach to his own role as a poet.
Alabanza is divided into seven parts. The first six parts include selections from Espada’s six previous poetry collections. The seventh part contains seventeen new poems. Espada’s first collection, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, was published in 1982. Six poems were chosen for Alabanza and represent some of Espada’s earliest published poetry. In “Jim’s Blind Blues,” the poet describes the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is a heroin addict. The poem opens with the line, “There are some things/ doctors can’t fix,/ his brother said./ Heroin and diabetes.” Unfortunately, it was impossible for one brother to save the other, who was consumed by his addiction to heroin.
Espada’s second collection, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction, was published in 1987 and is represented in Alabanza by twelve poems. The title poem of his second volume presents everyday challenges faced by Puerto Rican immigrants to New York. The first stanza vividly invokes the swirl of life, with the lines “immigrants with Spanish mouths/ hear trumpets/ from the islands of their eviction./ The music swarms into the barrio/ of a refugee’s imagination,/ along with predatory squad cars/ and bullying handcuffs.” The balance that Espada understands is necessary in his poetry allows for the wedding of art and message. Without his art as a poet, the message would come across as self-indulgent rhetoric. In an interview, Espada said he wants his work to be “based on the image,” because “the image will show and that should be enough.” He believes in the old adage that a writer should strive to show and not merely tell.
In 1990 Espada published Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, his third volume of poetry. This collection was heralded as his most forceful to date. In addition to the Paterson Poetry Prize, the book was awarded the PEN/Revson Fellowship, and the judges’ citation for this award stated, “The greatness of Espada’s art, like all great arts, is that it gives dignity to the insulted and the injured of the earth.” There are seventeen poems from this collection included in Alabanza. In the foreword toRebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, and black activist, said that Espada’s poetry “does not necessitate fantasy as its voice, it illuminates reality.”
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