Poet Martín Espada chronicles father’s fight for Puerto Rican rights

Video produced by Anne Azzi Davenport.

Martín Espada, an award-winning poet and former tenant lawyer, grew up watching his father fight for human rights in New York City.

Espada’s new collection, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed,” is largely an ode to this history. Its title references a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” itself a celebration of New York City’s working class.

His father Frank Espada, a well-recognized community organizer, founded the organization East New York Action in the early 1960s and worked with the civil rights movement. He documented his experiences as a community organizer in photos, some of which are now stored at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Espada recently met up there with the NewsHour’s chief arts and culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

Espada said his father “evolved from someone who was working in the streets of East New York, where I grew up, battling for basic human rights, to someone who was documenting the condition of an entire people, a condition that had been largely neglected up to that point in terms of photography and other media as well.”

In photography, his father was “attempting to humanize the dehumanized — to give the abstract Puerto Rican people concrete presence, a human face, eyes, nose, mouth,” he said. “To see dignity in those faces where others did not see dignity, to recognize that our struggle as a community was and continues to be a struggle between dignity and indignity, between humanity and dehumanization. That’s what you can do if you’re a photographer or a poet.”

His poem “Mad Love” is a tribute to specific photographs and addresses what his father — who died two years ago — will no longer see.

You can see Espada read his work above or read it below.

Mad Love

No one wants to look at pictures of Puerto Ricans, Frank. – Cornell Capa

My brother said: They harvested his corneas. I imagined
the tweezers lifting the corneas from my father’s eyes,
delicate as the wings of butterflies mounted under glass.
I imagined the transplant, stitches finer than hair,
eyes fluttering awake to the brilliance of an open window.

This is not a horror movie. This not Peter Lorre in Mad Love,
the insane and jealous surgeon grafting the hands of a killer
onto the forearms of a concert pianist, who fumbles with the keys
of the piano, flings knives with lethal aim, Moonlight Sonata
swept away by lust for homicide, his wife shrieking.

The blind will see like the captain of the slave ship who turned the ship
around, voices in the room will praise the Lord for the miracle, yet
the eyes drinking light through my father’s eyes will not see the faces
in the lens of his camera, faces of the faceless waking in the darkroom:

not the tomato picker with a picket sign on his shoulder that says
Reagan Steals from the Poor and Gives to the Rich; not the fry cook
in his fedora, staring at air as if he knew he would be stomped
to death on the stoop for an empty wallet; 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 gravedigger 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 fortune-teller 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.

Called by Sandra Cisneros “the Pablo Neruda of North American poets, “ Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published almost twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new collection of poems from Norton is called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), Alabanza (2003), A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000), Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993) and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990). ​His many honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, an American Book Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.