The ferocious acumen with which the award-winning poet Martín Espada attacks issues of social injustice in Zapata’s Disciple makes it no surprise that the book has been the subject of bans in both Arizona and Texas, targeted for its presence in the Mexican American Studies curriculum of Tucson’s schools and for its potential to incite a riot among Texas prison populations. This new edition of Zapata’s Disciple, which won the 1999 Independent Publisher Book Award for Essay / Creative Nonfiction, opens with an introduction in which the author chronicles this history of censorship and continues his lifelong fight for freedom of expression. A dozen of Espada’s poems, tender and wry as they are powerful, interweave with essays that address the denigration of the Spanish language by American cultural arbiters, castigate Nike for the exploitation of its workers, reflect upon National Public Radio’s censorship of Espada’s poem about Mumia Abu- Jamal, and more. Zapata’s Disciple is a potent assault on the continued marginalization of Latinos and other poor and working-class citizens in American society, and the collection breathes with a revolutionary zeal that is as relevant now as when it was first published.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
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About the Author
MARTÍN ESPADA, born in Brooklyn in 1957, has been called the Latino poet of his generation. He is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, as well as an editor, essayist, and translator. He is currently a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.
Read an Excerpt
By Martín Espada
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2016 Martín Espada
All rights reserved.
Zapata's Disciple and Perfect Brie
In December 1949, in Biloxi, Mississippi, my father was arrested for not going to the back of the bus. A dark-skinned Puerto Rican raised in New York, he did not accept the laws of Jim Crow. A judge sentenced him to a week in jail. This is what he learned: (1) he would be branded for the rest of his life by the brown pigment of his skin; and (2) he would fight. He would rather sit in jail than at the back of the bus.
My father's social class was defined by the opportunities denied him because of racism, and the opportunities he created for himself in spite of racism; the assignment of a servile status based on skin color, and his furious rejection of that status, for himself and others. His experiences — the frustrations and rages, the stubborn resistance, the dignity of his defiance — formed the environment in which I evolved, as son and poet, contributing to my awareness of class and its punishments.
What most damaged my father was the lack of a college education. Instead, there was a succession of jobs and places: mechanic in the air force, a training he was not permitted to use as a civilian in the segregated airline industry; a grocery store, which he abandoned after pulling a gun on thugs demanding protection money; semiprofessional baseball; a sanitation crew cleaning the Holland Tunnel in New York, where he fell off a truck and injured his back. There may have been music somewhere: a family legend tells of drums sold to pay the rent. Or writing: a typewriter, hocked many times, didn't come back one day. When I was born, in 1957, he was working for an electrical contractor, and by all accounts hating it.
Political activism was his salvation. He began by organizing in his own community, the East New York section of Brooklyn. He organized rent strikes, voter registration drives, sit-ins of welfare mothers, marches for safe streets and civil rights. He was a fierce stump speaker, who once shared a podium at a rally with Malcolm X. He went to jail again. He was that most dangerous of creatures, a working-class radical. James Graham, in The Enemies of the Poor, compared my father to a guerrilla-disciple of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary.
He rose through the political ranks in New York City, directing a series of community-based organizations and programs. At the height of his influence as a leader, he walked away from the wars. He had always been a photographer, and in the late 1970s a grant enabled him to create the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, a photo-documentary and oral history of the Puerto Rican migration across the United States.
I spent my childhood in working-class housing projects in East New York. The projects were not yet the stereotypical swamps breeding the malaria of crime and drugs, but projects nevertheless, dreary institutional housing, the urban reservation meant to confine the urban savage. The environment was full of paranoia and tinged with violence: a grocer murdered in a robbery, a friend beaten and stripped by a local gang. Yet, in this environment, I was raised with an ethos of resistance all around me. Some of my earliest drawings depict demonstrations, sketched on the back of flyers announcing those same demonstrations. I remember, from the age of nine, a march and candlelight vigil for a short-order cook kicked to death by junkies, a spontaneous outpouring of grief and compassion burned so deeply into my imagination that I wrote a poem about it over twenty years later: "The Moon Shatters on Alabama Avenue."
As my father moved from blue-collar to white-collar work, our social status changed. We left the projects. However, being Puerto Rican in effect canceled out whatever middle-class trappings we had acquired for ourselves. In a Long Island high school, surrounded by the children of white flight, I faced racial obscenities everywhere, spray painted on my locker and even scrawled in the icing on a cake. The brawls were inevitable: being kicked repeatedly in a classroom while the teacher looked away, or having my head slammed into a water fountain. Here, the gangs were called fraternities.
Not coincidentally, at this time I began to write poetry, as an attempt to explain myself to myself. This writing, however, was not for the consumption of teachers, or for school. I was a spectacularly marginal student. In fact, I was so seriously alienated that I once failed English. I failed Typing, too, but that was because I was tapping out poems instead of "the Quick Brown Fox," etc.
In the recession of the 1970s and early 1980s, I wandered in and out of school, from job to job. This is my résumé: janitor at Sears, bindery worker in a printing plant, gas station attendant, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, pizza cook, telephone solicitor, car washer for a factory showroom, bouncer in a bar, caretaker in a primate laboratory, night desk clerk in a transient hotel, worker on a cleaning crew for a minor league ballpark, radio journalist in Nicaragua, patient rights advocate in Wisconsin mental hospitals, and welfare rights paralegal, among other jobs. I was not in the business of collecting colorful anecdotes; when I took a job, I was always in need of a job. Recently, an interviewer asked why I chose to work as a bouncer. Because I thought it would look good when I came up for tenure, I said.
Working was better than not working. I sampled a wide variety of social service programs. I unraveled food vouchers like Roman scrolls in checkout lines. I marveled at the irony of Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence on my food stamps. I sold the ring on my finger. I stood in line for General Relief, and found myself next to a former client, recently released from a mental hospital. Who are you here for, he wanted to know. Me, I said. To borrow a phrase from Herbert Hill, I have been both a client and a constituent.
Like my father, I refused to accept my place in line. I obtained a law degree from the Northeastern University School of Law, and worked as an attorney for a number of years. I, too, channeled my energy into political activism. I practiced bilingual education law with META (Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, Inc.), and served as supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, outside Boston. Now I work as a professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, teaching creative writing and Latino poetry. Given my history, I ask myself: What next? Chimney sweep? Rodeo clown?
For some poets, social class is the triangle in the orchestra, a distant tinkling. For me, the matter of social class is the beat itself, an insistent percussion (mine is a Latin jazz orchestra). In writing about social class, I pay homage, bear witness, act as advocate, and tell secrets.
I pay homage, for example, when I write about my father's struggles. My poem "The Other Alamo" deals with his sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in San Antonio, Texas, for the privilege of being served a cheeseburger. I want to confront the complacency of those who take their privileges for granted with the news of this event. I also want to comfort those who have endured similar humiliations, hold a mirror to their faces, show them the pride there. Paying homage is about the acceptance of an inheritance, the refusal to forsake ancestors, community, class.
I bear witness when I write about my work experiences. For many years, I was a spy. Since laborers are invisible in many eyes, valued only for what their hands can do, people say and do things in front of them which reveal true motivations, unspoken bigotries. My boss at the factory showroom felt free to ask me why the spics at his air force base always cut the lunch line, because I wasn't really there for him. This invisibility has been a blessing for me. As a poet-spy, I not only saw and heard, but saw and heard differently from the people around me. As I pumped gas, no one was aware that I would write a poem about the intoxicated hearse driver who asked me directions. As I hosed down cages coated with monkey shit, no one could predict that I would write a poem called "Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer." The drunk I punched in the head as a bar bouncer, breaking my finger, certainly didn't anticipate I would write a poem about him. Neither did the judge in Chelsea District Court, where I argued as a lawyer, realize that I would someday write verse comparing his face to a fist.
I am an advocate when I write poems speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard, for one of the curses of segregation and subordination by class is the imposition of silence. The poems seek to release a voice caught in the collective throat. Here, I am influenced by a long Latin American tradition: Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, Clemente Soto Vélez, Claribel Alegría. Eduardo Galeano has written, "I write for those who cannot read me." These are the human beings who, in the words of Wolfgang Binder, "run the risk of leaving this earth unrecorded." If I know Mrs. Báez, a Dominican immigrant living in the burned-out wreckage of a building torched by her landlord, then I am obligated to record her painfully dignified ritual of serving coffee to strangers. If I know Jacobo Mena, a Guatemalan artist, a refugee from political persecution on the verge of being deported, who cleaned offices by night and painted stunning landscapes by day, I am compelled to write of his colors, his green and red. To know that a cockroach may become embedded in a child's ear is to accept responsibility for that knowledge, to communicate that knowledge for the sake of those who do not know, and those who do. How could I know what I know, and not tell what I know?
I tell secrets when I write about social class. The great secret is that class matters, very much, in this society dizzy with the illusion of classlessness. Writing about class is to write about power relationships as they really are, in their nakedness, and so to write about how this system actually works. And where better to learn about the emphasis on property over people than in court, with landlord-tenant cases? The poem "Tires Stacked in the Hallways of Civilization" documents an actual exchange in Chelsea District Court, where a landlord admitted that there were rodents infesting the building, but justified himself by proclaiming that he allowed the tenant to have a cat. I call this my cat poem.
In the words of critic Thomas Disch, "Class distinctions are the great dividing line in American poetry, all the more divisive for being, officially, invisible." Far too many poets maintain the myth of a society without any real class distinctions or conflict. They do so by assuming that everyone belongs to a certain elite, and writing accordingly, with an elitist diction full of elitist references for elite audiences, revealing their class biases in unintended, and, for me, unflattering ways. Once, while judging a national poetry competition, I came across a series of vacation poems (as distinct from travel poems), written by a poet who bragged that she went to Paris and "lunched on perfect Brie." The arrogance and snobbery of that statement simply dazzled me. I was reminded of lines from Neruda, speaking of a fellow poet who ate bread every day, but had never seen a baker.
Not everyone belongs to the elite, even in the world of poetry. The damned are not only subject, but also audience, and even poets themselves. Not every poetry reading occurs on a college campus, at a bookstore, or in a café. There are readings and workshops at community centers and prisons, for adult literacy / GED and ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, at nursing homes and reservations. Not every poet works, or has always worked, as an academic.
Some poets are poets of the kitchen. Their lives are fogged with sweat, loud with the noise of their labor. To be heard over the crashing of pots, these poets may shout, in a language understood by the other workers in the kitchen, to remind them of their humanity even in the midst of flames. As always with kitchen work, many of the poets are dark skinned or female; there may be no English, or a new English. The kitchen, for these poets, may literally be a city jail, a welfare office, a housing project, a factory, or a migrant labor camp. Even those not born of the kitchen, but somehow caught in its chaos, breathe the same heat, learn the same songs, and then testify. What they all have to say and how they say it reflect the turbulence of this existence, past and present. Their poetry has the capacity to create solidarity among those in the kitchen and empathy among those outside the kitchen.
There are so many poets, in the Latino community alone, who write from the kitchen with grace and power. Jack Agüeros of East Harlem gives us Sonnets from the Puerto Rican, demanding respect for his street subjects with the use of the sonnet form. Luis Rodríguez writes of "La Vida Loca," his gang days in Chicano East Los Angeles. Enid Santiago Welch records the ritual interrogations of welfare, and Lorna Dee Cervantes recalls growing up in "a woman-family" where she translated the same welfare notices. Frank Lima and Jimmy Santiago Baca sing of their resilient humanity as survivors of the prison experience. Gary Soto, Tino Villanueva, and Diana García evoke childhood in a migrant farmworker family. Demetria Martínez has documented the realities of two Salvadoran refugee women in her poem "Nativity" and was prosecuted for allegedly smuggling "aliens" (she was acquitted, despite the fact that the poem was introduced against her as evidence).
Then there are the poets no one has read: Jesús Rangel, a boy from Michoacán, México, I encountered in an Oregon high school workshop, who wrote of his farmworker experience, "There is no gold / But feathers / At Lynden Farms"; another boy, introduced to me as "Brandon" at a reading in a Boston juvenile detention center, who was so dedicated to his poetry that he would provoke brawls with the other inmates and be thrown into solitary confinement, where he could write in relative tranquility.
All of us write about class, not as abstraction, not with a capital C, but as a consequence of lived experience. As with any other poet, our poems are about family, friends, lovers, clients, community, self. The difference is that the people in these poems suffer from the class system rather than benefit by it.
All this is not to say that a poet who writes about these issues must necessarily forgo the concerns of language. There is no contradiction between writing about being poor, or working class, or Latino, and writing well. When we write about the collisions of class, we are writing about conflict, and we were always told in school that conflict is at the heart of good literature. Perhaps the vocabulary is more urgent than usual, but then again the house is on fire.
What do we want, finally, when we write from an awareness of class and its punishments? We want change, which, as Frederick Douglass pointed out, does not come without a demand. This is the poem as an act of political imagination, the poet not merely as prosecutor, but as visionary. For this purpose, a poem can be as useful as a hammer. I think of all the reversals I want to see, the reversals of a poem called "Imagine the Angels of Bread": squatters evicting landlords, refugees deporting judges, immigrants crossing the border to be greeted with trumpets and drums, the food stamps of adolescent mothers auctioned like gold doubloons. I think of my father, and the peace that has never been his. Here is my vision: the war is over, and Zapata's disciple is lunching on perfect Brie.
Excerpted from Zapata's Disciple by Martín Espada. Copyright © 2016 Martín Espada. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents
I. Zapata's Disciple
Zapata's Disciple and Perfect Brie
Postcard from the Empire of Queen Ixolib
Argue not Concerning God
The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son
Viva Puerto Rico Gratis? The Painful Patience of a Colony at the Close of the Twentieth Century
The New Bathroom Policy at English High School: Dispatches from the Language Wars
Multiculturalism in the Year of Columbus and Rodney King
III. Poetry like Bread
Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination
The Good Liar Meets His Executioners: The Evolution of a Poem
The Poetics of Commerce: The Nike Poetry Slam
All Things Censored: The Poem NPR Doesn't Want You to Hear