Martín Espada has committed himself to living a life that does not take the status quo as the way things have to be. As a lawyer, he fought the system to make life better for those who are less fortunate. In his poetry, Espada has continued to shed light on injustices, especially those done to the Latino immigrants who have come to the United States in search of a better life. Influenced by the activist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Espada is a political poet in the best sense of the term. He does not write easy slogans to make himself and his audience merely feel better. He understands the immense responsibility he has shouldered in writing poems that take on sensitive topics. Espada’s poetry challenges not only the audience but also the poet. He must rise above the temptation to compose mere propaganda. Coming from a Puerto Rican heritage, Espada was made well aware by the majority population at an early age not only how corrosive prejudice can be to the minority being brutalized but also how it sours an entire country.
The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero
For his first collection, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, Espada included photographs taken by his father. The title poem refers to his father’s journey to the United States. As a boy of nine, Frank Espada had to work as an ice boy. It was his job to carry large blocks of ice up the stairs of tenement buildings. Because of this heavy lifting, his back was permanently injured. The poem is a moving account of how much pressure Espada’s father experienced as he attempted to make it in a new and hostile environment.
Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction
Espada included Spanish translations of his poems in his second collection, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction. In 1994, Espada published an expanded edition, which included a select number of poems from The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero. The poems in his second collection deal with Puerto Rican immigrants and their struggles. In “Tiburon,” Espada uses the image of a shark consuming a fisherman to reflect on the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. The title poem shows the constant struggle of Puerto Ricans to be heard by people in the Anglo world around them. Espada opens the poem with images that give voice to the plight of immigrants coming from Puerto Rico:
At the bar two blocks away, 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.
Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands
In Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, Espada includes a Spanish translation of each poem. He writes eloquently about how what may seem personal is really also political. Individuals who go about their everyday lives working and trying to do right by their families are given a voice by a caring poet. In the short lyric poem “Latin Night at the Pawnshop,” Espada expresses his concern for an entire Latin culture through the experience of finding musical instruments relegated to a pawnshop. The poem opens with the image of an “apparition of a salsa band.” Instruments such as a “golden trumpet,” a “silver trombone,” a “tambourine,” and some “maracas” all have “price tags dangling.” Espada sees these price tags as comparable to a “city morgue ticket/ on a dead man’s toe.” The strength of this collection can be found in how Espada can take seemingly inconsequential incidents and show them to be representative of a larger offense or crime that has been done to a culture that has vibrancy and exists under the nose of the Anglo-American world.
Imagine the Angels of Bread
In his fifth poetry collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, Espada celebrates what has been called “the bread of the imagination, the bread of the table, and the bread of justice.” The political and the personal are brilliantly wedded in a number of autobiographical...
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