Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Martín Espada (ehs-PAH-dah) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by a Jewish mother and a Puerto Rican father. During the 1950’s his father, Frank Espada, became active in the Civil Rights movement. Born in Puerto Rico, Espada’s father also became one of the leaders of New York City’s...

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Martín Espada (ehs-PAH-dah) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by a Jewish mother and a Puerto Rican father. During the 1950’s his father, Frank Espada, became active in the Civil Rights movement. Born in Puerto Rico, Espada’s father also became one of the leaders of New York City’s Puerto Rican community. Frank Espada taught his son to recognize how difficult it has been for minorities to make a living in the United States. Martín Espada came to appreciate the need for people of color to fight against injustice and poverty. His father took his young son to political rallies. At fifteen, Espada began to write poetry. In interviews, he has stated that he became obsessed with writing and that he would rather work on a poem than even sleep.

As a young adult, he held many odd jobs to help make a living, working as groundskeeper for a minor league baseball park, bouncer in a bar, and bindery worker. Through his own hard work, he witnessed firsthand the many obstacles which people of color must try to overcome. Espada learned to be a “keen observer.” He received a B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1981 and earned a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in 1985. He went to work at a legal-aid office, Su Clinica Legal, located in the Boston area. His wife, Katherine, gave birth to a son in 1991. Since 1993, Espada has been an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

His first collection of poetry, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, was published in 1982. For his first collection, Espada included some of his father’s photographs. The title poem tells the story of his father coming to the United States. When Frank Espada was merely nine years old, he had to carry blocks of ice up flights of stairs in tenement buildings in his adopted country. As with other Latino immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life, Espada’s father had to endure injustices in order to make his way. Espada was influenced by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda wrote political poetry that spoke for the downtrodden. Espada wanted to write poems that challenged the reader as well as himself. For him, though, poetry was not to serve as propaganda; poetry should illuminate, engage, and educate.

Espada’s second collection, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction, speaks to relationship that exists between Puerto Rico and the United States, wherein the United States is viewed as a shark and Puerto Rico as its prey. In 1990, he published Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands. Not wishing to limit his audience to merely readers of English, Espada included a Spanish translation for each poem. The short lyric poem “Latin Night at the Pawnshop” details the fate of various musical instruments. These instruments have been abandoned and must face a tragic fate. Espada uses the “golden trumpet,” the “silver trombone,” and the “maracas” as stand-ins for Latin culture. Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands was awarded the Paterson Poetry Prize as well as the PEN/Revson Fellowship. His fifth collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, won the 1997 American Book Award for poetry. In a masterful fashion, Espada combines both the personal and the political in the poems of this collection. For all the injustices of the past, the poet expresses his hope that a better, more just, future is possible. He takes pleasure in “the bread of the imagination, the bread of the table, and the bread of justice.”

In Espada’s 1998 collection of essays, Zapata’s Disciple, he delineates “why poetry must matter,” saying it is possible for suffering to be transformed into something positive, something beautiful. His sixth collection, A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen, continues Espada’s quest to speak up for those who do not have a voice. He is unashamedly an “advocate for the cause of freedom.” The noted author Sandra Cisneros has stated that Espada must be considered “the Pablo Neruda of North American authors,” and that she would “select him as the Poet Laureate of the United States.” In 2003 his collection Alabanza was published. This collection brings together Espada’s “earliest out-of-print work to seventeen new poems.” The power of his poetry is clearly on display with Alabanza. As the acclaimed author Barbara Kingsolver has pointed out, a reader of Espada’s poetry cannot but “come away changed” by the experience.

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