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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.
Next: A poet honors his father, and both honor their Puerto Rican heritage.
Jeffrey Brown has the story.
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.
What's it like seeing your father's work in the Smithsonian?
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
He said it was the best week of his life.
The best week?
The best week of his life, because he figured out what to do with the rest of it.
Frank Espada would become a community organizer. He founded East New York Action in the early 1960s, and worked in the civil rights movement.
There's little attention paid, up to this point, to what we might call the Latino civil rights movement.
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.
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.
In a poem titled "Mad Love," Martin Espada refers to specific photographs, as a way of addressing what his father will no longer see.
"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."
You say in last lines here, "Now that my father cannot speak."
You feel a responsibility to speak?
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.
From the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."
You can find Martin Espada's full reading of "Mad Love" on our Poetry page. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.
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