Born in Brooklyn, New York, Martín Espada is of Puerto Rican ancestry. Before his English professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Espada worked as a salesman, a clerk, a bouncer, and a tenant lawyer. He is the author of several poetry collections, includingThe Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero (1982), Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction (1987), Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990),City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), and Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996). Espada is also the author of an acclaimed collection of essays: Zapata’s Disciple (1998). Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands won both the PEN/Revson Fellowship and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Imagine the Angels of Bread won an American Book Award for poetry. Whether as attorney, poet, or English professor, he again and again proves vocal about Latino social issues and injustices wherever they may appear. Through his poetry, Espada exposes the dark side of the immigrant experience in the United States. He details the plight of those who must adjust to a new world—an Anglo-American world. Having to overcome bigotry, poverty, and violence, the characters that populate his poems show great courage in their attempts to persevere against the brutality done to them. In addition to speaking up for an entire minority community, Espada also touches on the more personal tragedies that can beat down an individual in his or her daily life. While there are pitfalls for the poet who takes it upon himself to bear witness to injustice in his poetry, for Espada there is no other choice but to give names to the victims of the United States. As a poet, he does not fall into the trap of being bombastic and self-righteous to the detriment of his art. He wants both justice and art to inhabit his poems. The real tragedy, as Espada sees it, would be for him to remain silent—to not tell the truth as completely as he can.
In A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen, Espada continues to speak with urgency concerning the lives of those who are less fortunate. The collection is divided into three sections: “A Tarantula in the Bananas,” “A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen,” and “A Library of Lions.” The collection is dedicated to Abe Osheroff, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. Never one to shy away from sensitive political issues, the poet clearly views life itself as a political statement. As Espada witnesses too frequently, the working-class individual, the minority person, or the recent immigrant always seems to be shortchanged or worse. Having felt the cold hand of Anglo-American contempt himself, Espada resolved never to be less than an advocate for the cause of freedom and human dignity.
The first section includes ten poems that speak to the plight of Puerto Ricans and focus especially on the Espada family. The opening poem, “My Name Is Espada,” boldly states that the name Espada is “the word for sword in Spain.” In the fourth stanza, the reference becomes personal:
Espada: sword in Puerto Rico, family name of bricklayers
who swore their towels fell as leaves from iron trees;
teachers who wrote poems in galloping calligraphy;
saintcarvers who whittled a slave’s gaze and a conqueror’s beard;
shoemaker spitting tuberculosis, madwoman
dangling a lantern to listen for a cough;
gambler in a straw hat inhabited by mathematical angels;
preacher who first heard the savior’s voice
bleeding through the plaster of the jailhouse;
dreadlocked sculptor stunned by visions of birds,
sprouting wings from his forehead, earthen wings in the fire.
The poem details the history of a name, the poet’s name, a name that has survived for decades against all odds. In times of doubt or in times when it looks like the whole world is standing on the neck of the neglected—a Latino, an Espada—it is incumbent on the poet and other family members of conscience to find strength, resolve, and a weapon of justice in the family name, the name Espada.
The poet proves passionate about the unique position that Puerto Ricans find themselves in an Anglo-American world. From his perspective, Puerto Ricans are “the Palestinians of Latin America.” The migrant story always remains fresh for Espada, whether it is his own family’s story or that of the many millions of other Puerto Ricans, Latinos, or faceless immigrants. In the second poem of the collection, “Preciosa Like a Last Cup of Coffee,” Espada pays tribute to his grandmother Luisa Roig. The Spanish word preciosa can mean beautiful, precious, or valuable. There is real value and beauty in a person’s life, in that person’s memories, and in what gives comfort to that person when he or she is dying. In “For Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks,” the poet lashes out at the...
(The entire section is 2070 words.)