A son’s poetic tribute to his father’s fight for civil rights

February 22, 2016 at 7:51 PM EDT
Frank Espada was a man of many vocations: artist, photographer, community organizer, civil rights activist and father. As a Puerto Rican immigrant in 1960s America, he saw and documented first hand the social turbulence of the era. Though he died in 2014, his legacy lives on through his son, poet Martin Espada, whose latest collection celebrates his father’s life and works. Jeffrey Brown reports.

GWEN IFILL: Next: A poet honors his father, and both honor their Puerto Rican heritage.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: A community organizer in a burned-out building, a young girl taking a ballet lesson, photographs of Puerto Rican life in New York and around the country. They were taken by a man named Frank Espada, who died in 2014 at age 83.

MARTIN ESPADA, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed”: He lived many lives. And he evolved from someone who was working in the streets of East New York, where I grew up, to someone who was documenting the condition of an entire people.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s it like seeing your father’s work in the Smithsonian?


JEFFREY BROWN: Martin Espada, Frank’s son, is an award-winning poet, a former tenant lawyer, and longtime professor at the University of Massachusetts.

His new volume, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed” — the title comes from a line by Walt Whitman — is filled with poems that remember and celebrate his father.

MARTIN ESPADA: “I am the archaeologist. I sift the shards of you, cufflinks, passports photos, a button from the March on Washington with a black hand shaking a white hand, letters in Spanish, your birth certificate from a town high in the mountains.”

The poetry about my father is both elegiac and documentary. Poets often in these situations perform the function of preachers, right? People expect you to say something meaningful in this age where language has become divorced from meaning and we live in a time of hyper-euphemism.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re a storyteller. You have got this public role as a poet, but most of all, at that moment, you’re a son.

MARTIN ESPADA: Yes, first and foremost, and I was feeling that as a son.

And it’s an undercurrent of loss, of grief, and grappling with grief, and trying to see the ways in which poetry might be able to heal grief, if not for me, then for somebody else.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his poems, Martin refers back to old home movies that show his father, a man who’d come to New York from Puerto Rico as a boy in 1939, and was an athlete who played semi-pro baseball.

While serving in the Air Force in 1949, he was jailed for a week in Mississippi for not giving up going to the back of the bus.

MARTIN ESPADA: He said it was the best week of his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: The best week?

MARTIN ESPADA: The best week of his life, because he figured out what to do with the rest of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frank Espada would become a community organizer. He founded East New York Action in the early 1960s, and worked in the civil rights movement.

MARTIN ESPADA: There’s little attention paid, up to this point, to what we might call the Latino civil rights movement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Above all, says Martin, who sometimes worked with his father, he was an artist who documented what he saw. Frank Espada published a book in 2006 titled “The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People,” and his photographic work has been collected by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Martin and I met recently.

MARTIN ESPADA: I remember this one. This is a photograph that was taken in Hartford. At first glance, this appears to be a photograph of three kids on the street. And, indeed, it is that.

But if you look more closely to the right, you will see a notice for a foreclosure sale on those premises. And that is very much a part of what my father is saying in that photograph.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a poem titled “Mad Love,” Martin Espada refers to specific photographs, as a way of addressing what his father will no longer see.

MARTIN ESPADA: “Not the poet in a beret grinning at the vision of shoes for all the shoeless people on the earth, not the dancer hearing the piano tell her to spin and spin again, not the grave digger and his machete, the bandanna that keeps the dust of the dead from coating his tongue, not the union organizer, spirits floating in the smoke of his victory cigar, not the addict in rehab gazing at herself like a fortuneteller gazing at the cards, not the face half-hidden by the star in the Puerto Rican flag, the darkness of his dissident’s eye.

“Now that my father cannot speak, they wait their turn to testify in his defense, witnesses to the mad love that drove him to it.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You say in last lines here, “Now that my father cannot speak.”


JEFFREY BROWN: You feel a responsibility to speak?

MARTIN ESPADA: Absolutely.

My father is gone. He can never utter another word. He can never snap another photograph. That’s over. And so now comes my turn. Now I must speak for him. And now those faces, the faces he documented, also speak for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

GWEN IFILL: You can find Martin Espada’s full reading of “Mad Love” on our Poetry page. That’s on our Web site,