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Poetry and Prejudice

This week on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talks with scholar and poet Martín Espada about the borders of racism facing the Latino community in America today, and how the news media sometimes perpetuates these issues:

"We talk about borders all the time. In fact, for Latinos, the true borders of our experience have always been the borders of racism. Having said that, I also believe that we don't necessarily see the situations in which solidarity happens. We don't see the situation where somebody reaches out to somebody to someone else. Does that make the news? Do we hear about that?"

Here is a poem by Martín Espada that speaks to the issues of race and borders entitled "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100." You can more of Espada's poems here.

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100

for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant,
who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.

Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

Photo: Robin Holland


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I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

Hispanics invisible?! What are you talking about? What kind of school did you go to where Hispanics were invisible? I grew up with Toby Gonzalez, Jeri Martinez, Felicia Garcia, Pat Chavez, Scott Cardona, Venica Silva... the list goes on and on! I grew up in Colorado and Wyoming, I spent 8 years in the Navy and I currently live in New Mexico. There are so many positive words I can think of to describe the Hispanic communities that I've lived in but INVISIBLE is not one of them! Unlike all my my successful Hispanic friends, Espada obviouly has a victim complex. Poor baby.

It has long been my sense that many adults (including teachers) fear young people so 'they' are seen as gangsters, hoodlums, juvenile delinquents--in a word, problems. What was so inspiring about the Martín Espada segment is that first, both he and the class teacher truly SAW each individual student. When a person is seen, and supported, for who s/he is, s/he can go on to move mountains. Or write poetry. And change the world.
Even several of the posters above see Hispanics as problems, as illegals, as Other. Remember, California used to be part of Mexico. It's easy to divide people into Us and Them, based on class, race, gender. But history makes life more complicated. e.g., remember that the direct cause of recent Mexican immigration is the Free Trade Agreement which the U.S. insisted on--and which destroyed Mexican jobs. There are, in fact, more than two sides to every story. If we can each learn, as Martín Espada has, to see each person as an individual with potential, our own lives will be enriched--and so will theirs.

Poetry is one of the arts of words. I was very interested in Martin Espada's work. I was sorry, however, at the kind of stereotyping of non-Hispanics in the same way that Hispanics are stereotyped. I have never been against our country having immigrants. But I am completely against illegal aliens regardless from where the come and think the recent immigration bill was correctly rejected by Congress. I resent being named a bigot, or racist, or against immigration. That is the categorical mistake that is often made by those who want to enter this country illegally and then be made citizens a gratis. If anyone wants to look at the materialism of America, then they should also look at the materialism of Mexico itself. Why do they not help their own people? Why do they encourage illegal immigration to the United States? The answer to those questions could be the material for poems as well.

First of all, Martin’s father was put in jail because he refused to sit in the back of the bus. Basically he broke the segregation laws. Second, I feel very happy and thankful for this segment. Any kind of media that tries to show the experience of immigrants in a non-derogative manner is always welcome. I am an illegal. Yes, I used the word illegal. It is the one used by all the people who call me a burden, animal and a monster. It is also the word used by illegals to describe themselves. You see, thieves are not always stealing and murderers are not always killing. An undocumented immigrant is always breaking the law, even when he/she is doing a good thing, like being a volunteer or donate blood. The crime eats the individual, dehumanizing him into a burden, an animal and a monster. I am a traitor too. Although the Mexican press loves to showcase the affinity that Mexico has for us, here and there some TV shows have described us as, drug dealers, ignorant, and free loaders.
What can I say to those who think I am inherently evil? Nothing I say will ever convince them that celebrating Thanksgiving with tamales is as good as celebrating Thanksgiving with a turkey. I spend many years in college and I met many people. We root for each other trying to hold on to the dream of a degree. My memories are filled with young men and women whose dreams got cut. Their raccoon ayes for overworking and over-studying and how much they wanted to do something with themselves. I also remember those with convertibles and expensive apartments who party all the time and had a job waiting for them in their parents’ businesses. College is unbearably hard for many and quite easy for some. One professor of Economics told us that public Universities become a subsidy for the upper middle class and the wealthy. To imply that low income individuals have to tear each other apart for a piece of the American dream is one of the cruelest things any person can say.
Of course, that is not how they say it. When an eloquent man in a nice suit say “illegals devalue the wages of American citizens” even I hate myself. How can I not believe an eloquent man in TV? Economist Borges estimated that immigrants reduced the wages of citizens at about 5%. Well, that sounds troublesome but the minimum wage has decreased more than 5% in the last decades. The economy grew exponentially, yet most Americans do not see the benefits of that growth. I still, remember the waitress from Nevada who earned minimum wage. She was featured in the show NOW and I remember that she was told that minimum wage is a step not the end of the road. Today they have better reason, illegals are making you poor. How can she not hate me when she hears that I am the reason she is barely making ends meet over and over again?
What else can I say. It is deeply troublesome for me even to write this letter. I fear to speak. Part of me thinks that I do not have the right to say anything at all. Part of me believes that I am a burden, an animal and a monster but if I do not write, how you will ever know me? Who I am? I am the trail of blood that got me to this place and this moment.

Hello, I was wondering if someone could clarify the event that inspired Martin's father to be involved in law. The judge apparently asked him how many days were left in his furlow, 8, and then gave him those 8 days in jail. At first I thought this was some sort of kindness, allowing him to report back to his military post without being "AWOL."
Apparently it was somehow the opposite. Was 8 days a completely innapropriate amount of time for the offense? Could someone elucidate as to what an appropriate sentance would have been, and what I am otherwise missing? Thank you, -J

I much enjoyed your interview with Mr. Espada. As it regards poetry for those in crisis, I can say from my own experience that "Leaves of Grass", pulled me out of a tailspin a few years ago. Whatever it was about the ephemeral connection I made with Whitman; an almost transcendental experience with the past, was what I needed - It was pure chance I picked up the book. Maybe.

Another interview I remember watching a few years ago was with Gary Snyder. When asked what he thought of the dearth of poetry in modern culture, his response was, "What lack of poetry? What do you think popular music is?"

He was right. It may not be of a refined variety, but it is the prose of the people.

I have been to Puerto Rico and Mexico. My Brother-in-law is in charge of the Salvation Army in Mexico.
Mexico has more than music. It has all of the strengths and weaknesses of human kind. The family is a vital element of the Latin culture and it is being undermined by the materialism that the U.S.A preaches. When people become more concerned about people's lives than things, we will have a basis for giving people's lives first priority. Poetry will be more than meaningless words in a survival of the fittest world. When will we realize that killing each other does not solve problems? It creates hell on earth.

"Peace Cannot Be Kept By Force - It Can Only Be Achieved By Understanding" -- Albert Einstein

Although the piece was very moving, I think it was taped with a rose-colored lens. As an ESL teacher in Houston, I often have to force my Hispanic students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. During the national protests in 2006, we had over 100 Hispanic students "riot" in the building. They tend to think that ESL teachers would be unemployed without them. Sometimes I would like to set them straight, but I'm well-acquainted with the issues facing their population. For some, poetry is the way out, but far too many get choose self-destructive means. I'd like for Mr. Espada to take a break from his private East Coast school and inspire a classroom of 32 Limited English Proficient teenagers while also getting them to pass the state test mandated by "No Child Left Behind". I would also like to see those masses of protesters who became visible for one day around the country to focus that energy on their home countries. I'm tired of hearing from their youth about how much they hate this country, while we continually alter our system to accomodate their burgeoning populations.

Thank you for your efforts in building The Republic of Poetry with this interview and spotlight on the teachers, students and families that are telling the truth of their lives. Martín Espada is a true inspiration.

As a young poet struggling to keep and hold my voice, listening to Espada and watching the impact he has on young people is beyond rejuvenating. It is a blood transfusion. The writing of poetry is necessarily and rightly a lonely business, but its positive effects once written are largely hidden from us, which can drain our solitude of its energy and purpose. Uncovering the connective tissue between us as human beings - that is what poetry does, and seeing it in action, especially among young people who are so easily disconnected from one another, is indescribably beautiful.

To the young girl featured on the segment, and all of her peers, who feel so intensely the pressure to make something of themselves in what they know is a cut-throat environment: there is never, no matter what anyone tries to tell you, only one road to being self-sufficient. Artists throughout the world, and throughout history, have cleared roads that are difficult to see - but they are there for you to travel. You have earned my deepest admiration and respect - you are braver even than you know. Nothing matters more than what you are finding in your art - yourselves. You are, every one of you, poetry.

all nations under the sea rising upward for poetic air...thank you for encouraging the lifelines simmering in our youth...coaxing the waves moving in on our lonely shores

On the MARTÍN ESPADA segment.

I would really like to see a story that shows the total picture of mass immigration and illegal immigration. This problem has a negative side to it that is never addressed.

Illegal immigration is a complicated issue and to ONLY SHOW A SYMPATHETIC
light on illegal immigration is just bad journalism.

James Lane

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I thank you as a "dried up poet" and as an American citizen. You always give me hope. My first task today is to find a book of Martin Espada's poetry. My second is to sit down and try to write! Bill Moyers has done more for poetry than anyone I know. ... all I can say is, "Thank you!"
-Ann Case

I am Puerto Rican/Native American (Taina/Cherokee) and African American. His poetry speaks my language in so many ways. Proud to be all, but racism is alive and well in the US. As a person of all those heritages I'm hoping to turn things around through the work my friends and I do through the media (radio) also. Strength to all the human family.

I am Puerto Rican/Native American (Taina/Cherokee) and African American. His poetry speaks my language in so many ways. Proud to be all, but racism is alive and well in the US. As a person of all those heritages I'm hoping to turn things around through the work my friends and I do through the media (radio) also. Strength to all the human family.

My Random comments and questions:

1)Why do the major News media discuss so blandly the war and confused discussions by the Congress and Senate as if we are discussing nothing more consequential than a little boy's Tin Soldiers falling over??

2)What happened to the Nader website,a few years ago that displayed a Online Sign-Up sheet for all of us who wanted Bush to be Impeached? I signed along with 3000 others, but nothing came of it.


(On the Diane Rheam show today in the discussion one of the Guests spoke of Bush as displaying the personality of a fanatic.)

3)And did any of you hear today the NPR SCIENCE FRIDAY Program with the interview of the author of his new book: "MISTAKES HAVE BEEN MADE BUT NOT BY ME"? The Topic of the book was discussed and is a often unconscious and automatic reaponse in the Human brain called "COGNITIVE DISIDANCE" and the author discussed different situations including "a President of anywhere who makes mistakes and continues to say 'We will stay the course'...."!

4)And how long can we continue Spiriling downward in our declining Sensativity as Role Models to our fellow Humans on Earh and our young people and children; by seeing a MD on the NOW show this evening who no longer seems to rember her commitment to 'DO NO HARM....AND PROTECT LIFE" and who seems to have less concern with the live being witin a human mother than a Animal has for it's dying newborn on PBS's Nature Show.
Signed:A concerned Medic Veteran of the Korean War Era.

WOW!! Soy un Mexicano gringo por destino y por desgracia. Dividido al momento de nacer, entre la sangre de un Hidalgo y la geografia de una frontera. Yeah! I'm a Georgetown grad "i mucho mas oscuro que eso". I was blown away with Martin Espadas interview. I hope I can plant the seed of discovering such a poet in my 2 sons. Oh to be a student in his classroom. Thank you Bill Moyer for opening the door.

I very much enjoyed your interview of Martin Espada. I had the privilege of taking a poetry workshop from him at the Centrum writer's conference in Port Townsend, Washington. He is a passionate advocate, as you see, for the role of the spoken word in our lives and the impact it can have. When he read his poetry one evening on the theatre stage at Centrum I saw something I had never seen: a loud, sustained, standing ovation at a poetry reading in the United States. There is hope for us all.

I was very inspired to see students my age getting so interested in poetry. I really wish my high school offered a program like that.
But we don't. In fact, the idea of being a poet sometimes seems to be impossible. I am discouraged because of the apparent necessity that students devote their time to "logical" careers that may pay more.
I can only hope that we will rescind these sort of ideas and encourage future generations to write what is in their hearts.
I would also like to show my admiration for Mr. Espada's poetry. He has a very expressive style that is a joy to hear and a thought-provoking read. The issues that he addresses in his poetry are made seen though his stories. He does not force you to see them; he presents them to you.

We will be initiating poetry slams into the library at our high school this fall in an effort to reconnect our students to their school, and to their voices. Thank you for showing me that we're on the right track! An inspiration!

Regarding Martin Espada-The silence on this segment-1.U.S. workers compete with immigrants for jobs. Wages and benefits of citizen workers depressed. 2.Mechanization of harvesting and its effect on jobs. 3. On the job injury disablement and inability to work. Whose burden? 4. Home country's responsibility to its citizens. 5.Causes of migration to U.S.(govt. subsidizing of its corporate farmers.) 6.Attempts to organize immigrants and pass friendly laws. 7. E-coli and absence and lack of clean toilets for farmworker harvesters.

I have been a Moyers' fan for years. This is the only one sided piece I've seen.

Please correct and keep up the good work.

Marvin Wagner, Indpls, IN

Really enjoyed your converstion with Mr. Espada. As an African American woman I was struck by the similarity between what is happening with Latinos in the military and what happened to African American men in Civil War, WWII, etc. Thanks for ALL of the poetry!

I can relate to Espada comment concerning the Hispanics being invisable. The African-American was invisable until August of 1963 when thousands marched. The hand of America's diverse ethic groups "reaching out to each other" is invisable because it occurs primarily in the work place. After work, we all retreat to our Socio/economically segregated enclaves.

Martin Espada was a wonderful guest on Moyers' Journal tonight. I am so glad that you have given me to opportunity to know him through his poetry and his book. His words have made me want to learn more about him. Thanks you so much.

Years ago I saw a Ray Charles interview. He had just returned from a very successful world tour. The host asked him to comment on the difference of the audiences in the many countries he had visited.

He answered that what struck him the most was that people all over the world are so very much alike.

I thought, 'Gee, he may be blind, but he sees a lot better than most of us'!

I have been to Puerto Rico and Mexico. My Brother-in-law is in charge of the Salvation Army in Mexico.
Mexico has more than music. It has all of the stengths and weaknesses of human kind. The family is a vital element of the latin culture and it is being undermined by the materialism that the U.S.A preaches. When people become more concerned about people's lives than things, we will have a basis for giving people's lives first priority. Poetry will be more than meaningless words in a survival of the fittest world. When will we realize that killing each other does not solve problems. It creates hell on earth.

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