Bill Moyers
July 20, 2007
Poet Martín Espada on Cultural Empowerment

BILL MOYERS: In a convergence of events revealing just how conflicted Americans are about immigrants, the debate in Congress over a new immigration bill ended the other day in stalemate. About the same time, these pictures from Iraq showed U.S. soldiers being sworn in as legal U.S. citizens. These young immigrant men and women are fighting and dying in our name, before we've recognized them as legal citizens. There on a foreign battlefield, they became Americans. My next guest knows all about this paradox of loving a country that isn't sure what it thinks about you. Martín Espada is a poet of Latino descent. And nothing gives him greater pleasure than helping the children of new immigrants find the poetry in their own experience.

MIYOSOTI CASTILLO: I want to write a poem!

JASON ACOSTA: I wanna write about how girls are complicated.

EMILE KELLER: I'll be grateful if you can just kiss my salted tears away.

BILL MOYERS: It's the last day of class for these ninth graders at Dream Yard Prep, a small public school in the south Bronx, and they're doing what they've been doing all year: writing, reading and performing poetry.

MIYOSOTI CASTILLO: But can you believe that not even the tears showed up that night

JASON ACOSTA: How girls' tongues are ripe guns shooting bullets through your chest. They're there for a second and then they left.

YAHYA: I'm not ready to die yet because my seeds were not sprouted and lost into this cruel, cruel world.

BILL MOYERS: These kids know they'll probably never make a living as poets, but they've learned that poetry gives them a voice. And the poet Martín Espada is here to help them find that voice.

MARTÍN ESPADA: It's times like this that I realize that what I do is worth doing. I wouldn't know that without people like you. I couldn't keep going without people like you.

BILL MOYERS: He's a kindred spirit: Martín Espada has more in common with these kids than a love of language. He’s from a Latino family, and grew up in a rough neighborhood in inner city New York. In his acclaimed collections of poetry, Espada has fashioned a vibrant picture of that life.

MARTÍN ESPADA: There were roaches between the bristles of my toothbrush.

BILL MOYERS: The kids in the class have been reading his work this year, and now get to hear them straight from the source.

MARTÍN ESPADA: An Indianapolis 500 of roaches.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain all that energy that fed you and those kids? There was something very powerful connecting you.

MARTÍN ESPADA: There is I think behind it all the hope that most young people have regardless of circumstance. That if they make themselves heard, somehow things will change. Somehow they will be empowered by this experience. It seems to be an extraordinary statement given the way poetry in this culture is so often mocked and marginalized. And designated as trivial or meaningless. But, the fact is I meet people all the time who tell me, "Poetry saved my life. Were it not for poetry, were it not for this poem, were it not for this poet, I would be somewhere else. I would have made other choices. I was in prison when I read your work. I was a dropout when I read your work. And I decided to become a poet myself. I decided to go back to school. I decided to get a job." There are very tangible outcomes as a result of feeling inspired. And we have no way of knowing this as poets when we put our words into the air. And paradoxically, even the most political poem is an act of faith. Because you have no way of quantifying its impact on the world. But the fact is we write these poems and put them into the environment, into the atmosphere and we have no idea where they're going to land. We have no idea who's going to breathe them in. We have no idea what affect it's gonna have on an individual life unless that person materializes and says, "Poetry saved my life."

[Back in the classroom]

ARACELIS GIRMAY: When I came here there were writers. And you worked so hard after class and in class...

BILL MOYERS: Aracelis Girmay is the kids' teacher. she's a poet herself, and counts Martín Espada as a mentor. she's created an award bearing Espada's name, to honor him and her students. He's here today to help present it to this years' winner, Haydil Henriquez.

HAYDIL HENRIQUEZ: (reading poetry in class) My name is Haydil Henriquez and today I'm going to step into papi's shoes.

...I remember when I was small under the peach sky with rivers flowing like oceans in a lonesome book to nowhere. I only had two jeans which were dragged through the smooth, desiccated café con leche warm dirt....

BILL MOYERS: Henriquez is fifteen. She says poetry has become a new language for her.

HAYDIL HENRIQUEZ: Poetry is great because it's a way of expressing yourself and putting your feelings out there. And like telling the world what you're feeling and trying to make a change because poets help spread the word and that's what poets are supposed to do.

BILL MOYERS: There's not much time for poetry in the Henriquez household. Haydil's parents both work long hours: mom's on the day shift at a restaurant; dad drives a taxi at night. And there's a lot of pressure on Haydil herself to stay focused and make it to college. Her dad says poetry's fine for now, but he wants her pursuing something more practical.

HAYDIL HENRIQUEZ: He'll be like "No, no, no, poetry's not gonna take you -- you're not gonna have a degree of poetry. It's not gonna give you a house. It's not gonna give you money. You'll probably sell one book and that's it. One book is not going to maintain you for the rest of your life."

BILL MOYERS: Haydil's favorite poem is one she wrote about her father. Seeing the world through his eyes. Its called "In Papi's Shoes."

HAYDIL HENRIQUEZ: (reading poetry in room) I just wish my God-gifts can grow tall so I can escape this tragedy I call life, clotted eyes have already seen two angels throw their lives away.

Hopefully Haydil doesn't screw up, she's the only one that can take us away from this misery that clogs the lungs helplessly into a fist of smoke. Push. That's what I'll do.

MARTÍN ESPADA: We're talking about a young Latina. A young Dominican from the inner city. There are millions of people in this country who have all kinds of prejudices and mistaken assumptions about such an individual. Among other things, they believe she doesn't belong here. Among other things, they believe she represents a threat both economic and cultural to the fabric of this society. There are all kinds of invisible pressures upon this person to prove them wrong. And I believe it's absolutely essential for somebody like that to write poetry. Because poetry humanizes.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

MARTÍN ESPADA: It makes the abstract concrete. It makes the general specific and particular. When I hear this young woman performing a poem in the voice of her father, someone who does not speak English, she humanizes him. She humanizes herself. We can never look at "the immigrant," quote unquote the same way if we're reading or hearing the poetry that humanizes the immigrant.

BILL MOYERS: These kids, though, a lot of them, as you say, are from somewhere else: the Dominican Republican, Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico. They've got a tough life ahead of them. They've got to get a job. They've got to make money. Some of them will, no doubt, send money back to their families wherever they came from. And here they are spending hours reading and writing poetry. Shouldn't they be doing something more practical?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, for me, poetry is practical. Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self-respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it -- poetry makes that practical contribution.

MARTÍN ESPADA: [in classroom] Poems, you know we sometimes think that poetry is something that happens to somebody else. That it happens on Mount Olympus, it happens to the gods. No. Poetry happens to you. Poetry is inside you, and it's all around you. Don't look for your heroes in the sky. Your heroes are right down here with you, alright? They're all around you.

MARTÍN ESPADA: They have to realize that their lives are the stuff of poetry. They have to be given license to write poetry about themselves and what they know before they'll do it. So, to that extent, poetry can be taught. Obviously, there's certain things that can't be taught. One of which is that sense of urgency. That sense of urgency. You have to have something to say.

BILL MOYERS: Espada's own sense of urgency can be traced right to his own family. His father, Frank Espada, came to this country from Puerto Rico. As a teenager, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Texas.

MARTÍN ESPADA: He was going to spend Christmas furlough with his parents in New York City. And when he got on the bus -- my father who is a dark skinned Puerto Rican -- sat at the front. And by the time they got to Biloxi, Mississippi on the coast, he was the only person on the bus. It was the middle of the night and they changed drivers. New driver came on the bus and saw my father sitting there in the front and immediately instructed him to go to the back of the bus. My father, being 19 years old having grown up in East Harlem, wasn't about to take that from anybody. And so he used a colorful expletive in response. The driver returned with two cops and my father was arrested. He appeared before the judge and he still, to this day, when he tells the story goes into the voice of the judge. And the judge said, and I quote, "Boy, how many days you got on that furlough?" And my father said, "I have seven days." And the judge said, "I hereby sentence you to seven days in the county jail." My father says that that was the best thing that ever happened to him because he decided then and there what to do with the rest of his life. At the age of 19, he figured out that he wanted to fight this sort of thing. And so when he got out of the military, that's exactly what he began to do. He got involved with the civil rights movement and later on became a political activist in many areas as a leader of the Puerto Rican community in New York.

BILL MOYERS: His father also became a photographer, documenting the growing Puerto Rican population in New York City, and around the country. All these photographs are his.

Young Martín started writing poetry at an early age. He and his family lived in the tough, racially mixed neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn. Espada went back recently to his old apartment building, and wrote this poem.

MARTÍN ESPADA: (reading poem) This is called "Return."

245 Whitman Avenue, East New York, Brooklyn. Forty years ago, I bled in this hallway. Half-light dimmed the brick like the angel of public housing. That night, I called and listened at every door: In 1966, there was a war on television.

Blood leaked on the floor like oil from the engine of me. Blood rushed through a crack in my scalp; blood foamed in both hands; blood ruined my shoes. The boy who fired the can off my head in the street pumped what blood he could into his fleeing legs. I banged on every door for help, spreading a plague of bloody fingerprints all the way home to Apartment 14F.

Forty years later, I stand in the hallway. The dim angel of public housing is too exhausted to welcome me. My hand presses against the door at Apartment 14F like an octopus stuck to aquarium glass; blood drums behind my ears. Listen to every door. There is a war on television.

BILL MOYERS: Espada wrote poetry as a young man, and then decided to go to law school.

MARTÍN ESPADA: When I graduated, I simply went to work in Boston's Latino community. And I worked in the field of bilingual education law, which was very unusual. And later on, housing law. I was a tenant lawyer.

BILL MOYERS: Tenant lawyer. Law as a political tool.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Poetry as a political tool?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely.


MARTÍN ESPADA: Both involve advocacy. Speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard. Not that they couldn't speak for themselves given the chance. They just don't get the chance. And to me, there's no contradiction between being an advocate as a lawyer and being an advocate as a poet. I mean, to me, it was all in the same spectrum.

BILL MOYERS: What's that old term? Poetic justice?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes. That’s obviously an expression that's been beaten into the ground. For me, all justice is poetic.


MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, first of all, because it is so beautiful. To see justice done, there's something about that I can't even put into words. And when you see it happen in a courtroom and, you know, there's someone there, again ordinarily silenced and suppressed by that system who has an opportunity to speak or to speak through you. And sometimes that person is vindicated and justice is done. To me, there's no feeling like that.

BILL MOYERS: Espada now teaches English at the University of Massachusetts. His latest book is this: The Republic of Poetry, shortlisted for the 2007 Pulitzer prize.

BILL MOYERS: The Republic of Poetry. But do you think that Americans politically have the imagination to see ourselves as a republic of poetry where, as you say, we work these distinctions out but they don't reach the level of, you know, of bigotry and prejudice and exclusion? Or is that utopian?

MARTÍN ESPADA: I would never wanna underestimate the racism in this society. 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? What -- how would our perspective on this crisis change if we saw and heard more of that kind of news? I mean, we have to deal with this paradox that there are 40 million Latinos in this country and yet we're invisible. If you remember when legislation was introduced into Congress that essentially would criminalize so called illegal immigrants, there were enormous demonstrations in the streets in New York, in LA, in Washington DC. And the common dominator of the response was shock. And shock was registered not just at the fact of the demonstrations, but at the dimensions of them. Where did they all come from? There are millions of people in the streets demonstrating. There was in New York and Washington and LA -- people expressed shock. And in the halls of Congress they went of talking about felony to talking about amnesty. "Did we say felony? Err, we meant amnesty." Now, the question is why is it that these 40 million people were invisible the day before those demonstrations? To me, all that shock that was registered, "look at all the Latinos!" sounded a little bit like Custer at Little Big Horn. You know --

BILL MOYERS: Where did those Indians go --

MARTÍN ESPADA: Look at all the Indians, you know? You know, that sense of shock and surprise was a perfect expression of this invisibility that we endure.

BILL MOYERS: You have in The Republic of Poetry some very powerful poems about war, prompting me to bring some recent news clippings that I have kept on this subject. Deaths among Latino soldiers in Iraq ranked the highest compared to other minority groups. One of the first US soldiers to die in Iraq, was an orphan Guatemalan who at the time of his death was not even an American citizen. And two out of every three Latinos now believe that US troops should be brought home from Iraq as soon as possible. What do those stories say to you?

MARTÍN ESPADA: What those stories say to me is that the war in Iraq is a Latino issue. In fact, that the war in Iraq is probably the single most important issue facing Latinos.

BILL MOYERS: How come?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Because of our position in society, Latinos are more likely to be exploited in a time of war, more likely to go to the front lines, more likely to become cannon fodder, more likely to be killed or wounded. Because of more limited economic alternatives, we're more likely to take that step and to join an army in a time of war. With the vague promise that somehow this will improve our conditions. We have to have a clearer sense of who the enemy really is, who's really causing the suffering. And those statistics demonstrate that this process, in fact, is happening. The Latinos understand that this war is doing damage to our community and they're responding.

BILL MOYERS: There's a poem in here, let's close on this one -- "Between the Rockets and the Songs, New Year's Eve 2003," which would have been about seven months after the invasion of Iraq. So read this and tell me about this.

MARTÍN ESPADA: [reading poem] "Between the Rockets and the Songs" New Year's Eve 2003.

The fireworks began at midnight, golden sparks and rockets hissing through the confusion of trees above our house. I would prove to my son, now twelve, that there was no war in the sky. Not here. so we walked down the road to find the place where the fireworks began. We swatted branches from our eyes, peering at a house where the golden blaze dissolved in smoke. There was silence, a world of ice, then voices rose up with the last of the sparks, singing, and when the song showered down on us through the leaves we leaned closer, like trees. Rockets and singing from the same house, said my son. We turned back down the road, at the end of the year, at the beginning of the year, somewhere between the rockets and the songs.

BILL MOYERS: What inspired that?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Again, this was an actual incident. It was New Year's Eve. There was this great noise outside. There was this brilliant light. My son became very nervous.

BILL MOYERS: How old was he?

MARTÍN ESPADA: At that time, he was 12 years old. He's now 15 and a half. And I knew that he was making these connections. He expressed this to me. He believed that we were being bombed. He believed that the war was happening on our street, the war he had been seeing on television, the war we had been protesting, the war we had all been talking about. And so I decided to show him that on one level, anyway, there was nothing to be afraid of.

And we took a walk until we found the source of the light and the source of the noise. And remarkably, it stopped and then the singing began. And to me, that moment felt like the choice that we're now all confronted with as a society. Are we gonna choose rockets? Or are we gonna choose songs? Are we gonna choose war? Or are we gonna choose peace? Are we gonna choose violence or are we gonna choose poetry? And we are at that crossroads, not only my generation, but my son's generation and the generation that we saw at that school in the Bronx, where those teachers are showing those kids, taking them by the hand and saying, "Here are the rockets and here are the songs. Choose the songs." That's why I was there.

BILL MOYERS: Martín Espada I've enjoyed this conversation very much.


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