Latin Night at the Pawnshop

by Martin Espada

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The Poem

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Martín Espada’s “Latin Night at the Pawnshop” is a short lyric poem of nine lines divided into two stanzas. The first stanza consists of merely three lines, while the second stanza consists of six. Under the title, Espada indicates that the poem is of a particular time and place by stating “Chelsea, Massachusetts/ Christmas, 1987.” The poem was inspired by a specific event, a specific vision. Espada happened to be passing the “Liberty Loan/ pawnshop” in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on the Thursday before Christmas, and a flood of images rushed into his consciousness. It was his usual routine to walk from his law office to the district court in Chelsea. Thursdays at the district court are considered “eviction day.” On this particular day, Espada took the time to look in the pawnshop window and noticed the musical instruments inside. It would take months, however, before Espada was able to turn this mere glance into a moving poem.

The opening stanza introduces “The apparition of a salsa band.” This salsa band is “gleaming in the Liberty Loan/ pawnshop window.” Born to Puerto Rican immigrants himself, the poet is struck by the instruments that are in the window. There is a “Golden trumpet,” a “silver trombone,” “congas,” “maracas,” and a “tambourine.” These instruments made vibrant music in the past, but they are now relegated to a pawnshop in Massachusetts with “price tags dangling.” For the poet, the price tags conjure up the frightful and sad image of a “city morgue ticket/ on a dead man’s toe.” The poem ends with this image. The instruments have had the life taken out of them. A whole culture has been discarded and shown little or no respect.

“Latin Night at the Pawnshop” is only one of the gripping poems that Espada included in his collection Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands. Espada and Camilo Pérez-Bustillo also translated the poems of the collection into Spanish in order to make Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands a bilingual collection. In the author’s note, Espada expresses his hope that by translating the poems into Spanish he could “communicate with the peoples of Latin America” and also “bridge the gap between those Latinoswho speak Englishand thosewho speak predominantly Spanish.”

Recognized as one of the leading activist poets in the United States, Espada speaks forcefully through his poems concerning the inherent value of all Hispanic cultures and their rich histories. In “Latin Night at the Pawnshop,” he has taken the chance occasion of passing by a pawnshop during the Christmas season and universalized the all-too-painful fate of much of Latino expression in the vast Anglo world of North America.

Forms and Devices

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Throughout Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, Espada writes powerfully about how hardworking Latinos have toiled without much recognition for their efforts. He also writes movingly and boldly about how discrimination has forced millions of Latinos to live in poverty and to not fully realize their potentials. The opening image of a salsa band as an “apparition” gives “Latin Night at the Pawnshop” a dreamlike introduction. Knowing that the poem takes place during the Christmas season only adds to its mystical nature. While the traditional images of Christmas usually include carolers or Santa Claus spreading good cheer, Espada is struck by a salsa band having been relegated to a pawnshop.

To the poet, this band is “gleaming” in the window. For one reason or another, these beautiful instruments have been discarded. Someone may have been in desperate need of ready cash and, therefore, had to part with one or...

(This entire section contains 459 words.)

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more of these precious musical instruments. The trumpet may be “Golden” and the trombone may be “silver,” but it is of no matter at this point in time, at this particular Christmas season. There is no telling how long the instruments have had to languish in the pawnshop, but they were perhaps pawned so that a Latino family could have a holiday meal, pay the rent, or bail a loved one out of jail. While these speculations may seem wild or off-base to the reader, these are the typical issues that Espada raises in his poems, deals with as a lawyer, and struggles with as a Latino activist in contemporary North America.

In the first stanza of “Latin Night at the Pawnshop” the poet tells the reader what he thinks he sees in the “Liberty Loan” pawnshop. The stanza ends with a colon, and the second stanza presents the list of instruments included in this salsa band. The reader can imagine how loud they would be if given half a chance. In their present situation though, the instruments all have “price tags dangling” from them. It is a tragedy that these instruments must remain stuck inside a pawnshop. By introducing the simile of the price tags hanging “like the city morgue ticket/ on a dead man’s toe,” Espada makes this tragedy all the more gripping. This is an extremely jarring image: The instruments, the music, and the past are all dead. The instruments once were part of a vibrant salsa band that brought joy to those who played and heard them, but they are now no more than an apparition or ghost of that former band. Like so many body parts that once made up a living person, the trumpet, the trombone, and the other instruments are now merely dead reminders of what they once were.