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On 109th Anniversary of U.S. Invasion of Puerto Rico, Acclaimed Photojournalist Frank Espada and Poet Martin Espada Reflect on Ongoing Struggle for National Rights

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On the 109th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, debate continues over Puerto Rico’s political independence and U.S. military and corporate presence on the island. Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917, but residents of the island cannot vote for president and lack voting representation in the U.S. Congress. We speak with two prominent Puerto Rican voices. Photojournalist and activist Frank Espada has worked for decades documenting the Puerto Rican diaspora, as well as the civil rights movement in the United States. Martín Espada is Frank’s son and an acclaimed poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the 109th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico. On July 25, 1898, following 400 years of Spanish rule, U.S. troops invaded the island. At the end of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico and other territories to the United States.

Over a century later, Puerto Rico is still a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917, but residents of the island cannot vote for president and lack voting representation in the U.S. Congress. Debate continues over Puerto Rico’s political independence and U.S. military and corporate presence on the island.

Puerto Ricans currently make up about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population. And after several waves of migration over the past two centuries, the continental population is now larger than the population on the island itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’ll speak with two prominent Puerto Ricans. Photojournalist and activist Frank Espada has worked for decades documenting the Puerto Rican diaspora, as well as the civil rights movement in the United States. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1930, has lived in the United States since he was nine. He joins us on the phone from California.

Martin Espada is Frank’s son, an acclaimed poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Martin has been compared to Pablo Neruda and is called the Latino poet of his generation. He’s won the American Book Award, among others. He joins us from Chicopee, Massachusetts. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


FRANK ESPADA: Thank you, Amy. Very happy to be with you and with Juan. It’s Frank.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Frank, welcome, and we’d like to begin with you. You are one of the early migrants, although obviously Puerto Ricans were in the United States from the late 19th century. But your family came not with the big wave after World War II. Talk a little bit about your experience in New York City and your family’s coming here.

FRANK ESPADA: Well, for one thing, it was a terrific change for us. We landed in the middle of a working-class Irish neighborhood, and I immediately began the process of trying to assimilate into that particular society. To say the least, it was very difficult, and I quickly learned what racism was about, although I must say that lifelong friends came from that experience.

Mostly what I recall is the problems that my father had finding a job in those days. There were still “No Puerto Ricans Wanted” signs and etc. So eventually he had to return to the island. We stayed behind.

And a long history followed that, having to do with learning all about the culture and learning that I shouldn’t be speaking Spanish outside and essentially trying to — everything pointed to assimilation and becoming American. Luckily, that never happened to me, I don’t think.

So, essentially, those are the early memories I have. Many of them are very painful. Others are quite interesting and things that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. For example, our — married 55 years — our best man was an Irishman, etc. So we have a mixture of things, but nevertheless, I never forgot who I was. I never expected to become a Puerto Rican American. And I managed somehow to avoid the road that many people, many Puerto Ricans and others, take. That is, that they junk the cultural baggage in order to become part of the mainstream.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, early on, you latched onto photography, I remember. I have a photo that you gave me many years ago of a photo of Malcolm X that you took in 1965, I think it was, during the school boycotts in those days.

FRANK ESPADA: It was ’64.

JUAN GONZALEZ: '64, that's right. Can you talk to us about —

FRANK ESPADA: I only mention that, because he was assassinated the following year.


FRANK ESPADA: Not long after that. Yes, that was part of the school boycott demonstrations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you became involved with the Puerto Rican Pioneros that became involved in the civil rights movement. Could you talk about those folks that you fell in with then at that time?

FRANK ESPADA: Well, you know, for the most part, I was pretty much of a lone wolf, only because of the fact that I was dealing with day-to-day things. And most of the very early days of my involvement had to do with, as I said, education and other things in East New York, East New York section of Brooklyn, which was one of the worst slums and ghettos in the city. I met and worked with several people that can be considered to be Pioneros, but for the most part decent people who were never recognized, who never achieved any kind of recognition factor, as I call it, so, essentially — which is the reason really why I always felt that the closer you are to the community, the better — I always operated on that assumption — and that the upper echelons of our leadership, I felt at that time, were not really doing enough. So it was really a grassroots situation, and we were one of the first to develop the welfare rights movement. And as a matter of fact, it really started in that community with that small organization that we had there. That was the very early ’60s. But anyway, for the most part, I stuck with the people who were doing it at the community level and tried to stay away from the more organized groups.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Martin Espada, Frank, your son, Puerto Rican activist, lawyer, poet, now professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has published 13 books as a poet, editor and translator. His eighth book, The Republic of Poetry, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won the American Book Award. Martin, can you go back in time for us and talk about what happened to Puerto Rico? Talk about this day, July 25, 1898.

MARTIN ESPADA: Well, the best way I can talk about what happened on this day, July 25, 1898, is to begin with two stanzas of a poem that I wrote called “Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks.” And I’m going to read this poem, because it introduces you to two characters who are, to me, key to understanding what happened that day, two people who were part of the invading force. I’m referring to General Nelson A. Miles, who led the invasion, and I’m referring to a poet by the name of Carl Sandburg, who was actually part of it at the age of 20. So I’ll read just these two stanzas, and then I’ll try to give a sense of what is being said here historically. The poem, again, is called “Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks.”

In 1898, with the infantry from Illinois,
the boy who would become the poet Sandburg
rowed his captain’s Saint Bernard ashore
at Guánica, and watched as the captain
lobbed cubes of steak at the canine snout.
The troops speared mangos with bayonets
like many suns thudding with shredded yellow flesh
to earth. General Miles, who chained Geronimo
for the photograph in sepia of the last renegade,
promised Puerto Rico the blessings of enlightened civilization.
Private Sandburg marched, peeking at a book
nested in his palm for the words of Shakespeare.

Dazed in blue wool and sunstroke, they stumbled up the mountain
to Utuado, learned the war was over, and stumbled away.
Sandburg never met Great-great-grand-uncle Don Luis,
who wore a linen suit that would not wrinkle,
read with baritone clarity scenes from Hamlet
house to house for meals of rice and beans,
_the Danish prince and his soliloquy — ser o no ser — _
saluted by rum, the ghost of Hamlet’s father wandering
through the ceremonial ball courts of the Taíno.

Now, what’s going on there is that General Miles, who led the invasion of Guánica in July of 1898, showed up and made the same promise that essentially was made to the people who were conquered during the Indian Wars, so-called, which General Miles was also deeply involved in. And this is the same promise that has been made to the people of Puerto Rico ever since the invasion: the blessings of enlightened civilization, where they were referring to politics, economics, culture, what have you. This is a promise that has not been kept.

The poem also refers to Carl Sandburg, who shows up — and this is, in fact, part of the historical record — a very young man, carrying with him a volume of Shakespeare to comfort himself, but also bringing “civilization,” in quotes, to Puerto Rico, where, as the poem makes clear, civilization was already very much in place on the island of Puerto Rico. And that is reflected in the references to an ancestor of ours, Don Luis, but could be reflected in many other ways, too, and, again, to the present date.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Martin Espada, poet and professor, and his father Frank Espada. Martin Espada, joining us from Massachusetts; Frank Espada joining us from California. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll come back to them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Martin and Frank Espada, father and son — photographer, photojournalist, community activist, Frank Espada; and poet and professor, Martin Espada, his son, at the University of Massachusetts, among his books, The Republic of Poetry.

Martin, you talked about the U.S. invading Puerto Rico on this day, July 25th in 1898. Now take it forward. It’s also the 55th anniversary of Puerto Rico becoming a commonwealth. But talk about what has happened to Puerto Rico.

MARTIN ESPADA: Fundamentally, the status of Puerto Rico has not changed. It remains a colony of the United States, that is to say, one nation controlled, even owned, you might say, by another. “Commonwealth,” to me, is a contradiction in terms. This is not commonwealth in the sense of the British Commonwealth. This is a different kind of concept. Whereas Puerto Rico does have some local control, the bottom line is that all fundamentally significant decisions about the island, political and economic, are made here in the United States. The people who live on the island of Puerto Rico cannot vote for president. They do not have any voting representation in Congress. And yet, they can be drafted and sent off to fight in any war that this country chooses to fight. And so, we have a colonial dilemma. And it’s, in many ways for me, a throwback to the days of gunboat diplomacy and the handlebar mustache — a throwback, if you will, to 1898.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, 109 years later, the status situation has still not been resolved. And now we now have about half the Puerto Rican population living in the United States.

Frank Espada, you’ve spent decades now photographing and chronicling the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, and in your collection of photographs that you published last year, there’s some stunning photographs. I was especially intrigued — I know we’ve discussed this over many years — the photographs of the Puerto Rican community in Hawaii. I wonder if you would talk about that a little bit, about Blase Souza and this community that no one is aware of, which was actually the first Puerto Rican community outside the island itself.

FRANK ESPADA: Well, it really reminded me of the Lost Tribes. What happened simply was that after the war, Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico experienced one of the worst hurricanes in its history, San Ciriaco, in 1899, which destroyed the island pretty much. Hunger and disease ensued. At the same time, there was a strike in Hawaii: the Japanese workers in the sugarcane plantations. The [Hawaiian] Sugar [Planters] Association sent recruiters to Puerto Rico, and they managed to recruit over 5,000 people to go work in the sugarcane fields. They shipped them out in what they called “extraditions.” Five thousand, altogether, went to Hawaii. And essentially it was like going to the moon, because of the, obviously, of the — communication was faulty. There were a lot of people who were not literate that couldn’t write back. And although they were promised a return trip to the island if they didn’t like it, all those promises were by the wayside. That’s how we managed to land in Hawaii. And as I said, it became — they lost contact, etc.

And thanks to Blase Souza, who was born in Hawaii of Puerto Rican parents of the first wave, well, she became the chronicler of the Puerto Rican experience in Hawaii, which I found the most exotic and interesting of all, because here were people who could hardly speak Spanish, but who still held to what I call “cultural vestiges,” like some food and some of the music, and so on. So, and they’re very proud to be Puerto Ricans. However, the only, what I call “hyphenated Puerto Ricans,” they call themselves “Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans,” where you wouldn’t find anyone else calling us “Puerto Rican-Americans” or any such thing. So, essentially, that’s the story.

And when — I happened to have been there at a very propitious time and made the connections as the organizer that I was, and through them, through those connections, we managed to connect up that community with Puerto Rico, and after which there were a lot of contact and a lot of excitement, and so on. And there are still groups of people who go to Puerto Rico from Hawaii for the first time. Every year they have large groups that go. And they’ve established some means of communication, and so on. There are a lot of sad stories attached to that, which are too lengthy to get into here, but essentially the Puerto Ricans in Hawaii were again marginalized. And it wasn’t until several generations later that they’ve been able to make some headway, and they are now essentially a very well-established community there.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Espada, did you serve in the military?

FRANK ESPADA: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Did you serve in the U.S. military?

FRANK ESPADA: Yes, I was in the Air Force.

AMY GOODMAN: When were you there, and why did you join?

FRANK ESPADA: A number of reasons. A lot of pressure. I was at school, and my parents were going through a divorce. We were always scratching. I just got fed up with the whole thing and joined the Air Force, which was one of the worst things I ever did. So —


FRANK ESPADA: Mostly it was a decision that I made as a kid just simply to get away from what I considered to be a bad situation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Martin, you are a renowned poet. But many folks who know of your work don’t know much about your family or your father’s amazing work, as well. Can you talk a little bit about his influence on your life?

MARTIN ESPADA: Absolutely. And again, I think the best way to do that is by reading a poem. In some ways, the influence should be obvious if you know my father’s work as a photographer. His work, of course, is grounded in the visual image. These images hung on the walls in our apartment in Brooklyn and later on hung on the walls of my imagination wherever I went. And so, this affected me as a poet, certainly, because my work is grounded in the image. And, of course, in poetry, when we say “image,” we’re referring to all five senses. But my work is particularly visual, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence at all.

I was also influenced by my father’s youth of his photography. He is an advocate. He is, in effect, speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard, or seen, when we talk about photography. And, above all, I was raised in a household with the ethos of resistance, where I saw this reflected all around me.

And I want to read a poem about an incident that happened when I was seven years old, which was a kind of epiphany for me, when I first realized exactly what was going on with my father’s activism and made some decisions myself about what I wanted to do. This is a poem called “The Sign in my Father’s Hands.” For Frank Espada.

The beer company did not hire blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion,
New York World’s Fair, amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished night sticks and handcuffs to protect the beer.
And my father disappeared.

In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was.
Dead was a cat overrun with parasites
and dumped in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed,
the slow boy who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph like a mirror, my darker face.
Days later, he appeared in the doorway,
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead.
Though I would come to learn that sometimes Puerto Ricans die in jail
with bruises no one can explain, swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn, too, that boycott is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line on the blank side of a leaflet.
That day, my father returned from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands for a sign of the miracle.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Espada, reading his poetry, poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts, speaking to us from Massachusetts. And Frank Espada, his father, speaking to us on the phone from his home in San Francisco, near San Francisco. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Frank, I’d like to take the liberty to bring some lighter side to this discussion. Another poem that Martin wrote, and I’d like to get your reaction to, which, now that he’s a professor and an accomplished poet — in one of his earlier books, he wrote, “Why I Went to College”: “If you don’t, my father said, you better learn to eat soup through a straw, 'cause I'm going to break your jaw.” Any reaction, Frank? And also, your thoughts about your son’s career?

FRANK ESPADA: Well, you know, there was never any question — and frankly, in my mind, about the fact that this kid was going to do something. He was going to do something very special. And I remember one of his teachers, when he was very young, coming to the house on a motorcycle to warn us about the fact that this guy was going to be something else. He was so excited about him. We were always very proud of him. There’s no question of that. You know, his talent was so obvious and so early that there was never any question about — the only question was, of course, that there was no money to send him to college. But, you know, he took care of that, because he — I don’t think he ever paid anything for all the education he got. It was always scholarships, and so on, all the way through law school, as a matter of fact. So, yeah.

But that was something which we used to kid about, that you had to get an education. You know, that was something, essentially, that was drummed into my head by my father. Of course, I rebelled against that also, although I was fortunate enough to be accepted at City College of New York. And I left there.

But anyway, getting back to the issue, is that we had that kind of thing going, essentially, that he managed to overcome the lack of understanding from his teachers and the educational system — he overcame all that — and survived and thrived and did whatever the hell he wanted. So that’s the important thing about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Espada, can you talk about the whole immigration debate today? I mean, a lot of people in the United States don’t probably understand that Puerto Ricans are Americans, are U.S. citizens. But still, can you talk about, from your perspective, as a Puerto Rican, as an American, how you see this whole debate and what you think has to be done?

MARTIN ESPADA: Well, first of all, I would say that even Puerto Ricans are impacted by the immigration debate. We are U.S. citizens, whether we live here in the United States or live on the island of Puerto Rico. And so, in that respect, we are not impacted in the same way as, say, someone crossing the border from Mexico.

And yet, what the immigration debate is all about, as far as I’m concerned, is essentially scapegoating. I don’t think the timing of this immigration debate is a coincidence. As the war becomes increasingly unpopular across the board, politically, the Republican Party, in particular, has seized on the immigration issue. This means not only scapegoating immigrants, but scapegoating the Latino community, which includes Puerto Ricans. And so, I feel very much a part of that debate and the consequences of that debate.

I also worked for a number of years in Boston with an immigrant community as a tenant lawyer, and so I have been able to see exactly what the mainstream media tends to exclude: the humanity of the immigrant.

And again, I have been answering questions by reading poems. I think it’s very important for me to respond to this question with a poem. In fact, we have been discussing, in various venues, my father and I, this concept of invisibility, the invisibility of the Latino community, 40 million strong, and yet invisible at the same time.

It’s very important to understand what I mean by the word “invisibility.” Some people are thrown off by that, say, “What do you mean? There’s a Taco Bell at the end of the street,” or “I grew up with a guy named Julio,” or “There’s a guy named Jose who works in my office. You’re not invisible.” And yet, we are, in terms of being seriously underrepresented in government, in media, in business, in the arts. And no one is more invisible than the immigrant.

This is a poem I wrote in the voice of a janitor. He has a problem. I call it “the dilemma of the thinking janitor.” What happens if you have hands, and those hands are all you’re seen for? What happens if you have a mind, but no one ever acknowledges or recognizes that mind? All they care about is what your hands can do. Jorge the church janitor finally quits.

[“Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits”]

No one asks
where I am from,
I must be
from the country of janitors,
I have always mopped this floor.
Honduras, you are a squatter’s camp
outside the city
of their understanding.

No one can speak
my name,
I host the fiesta
of the bathroom
stirring the toilet
like a punchbowl.
The Spanish music of my name
is lost
when the guests complain
about toilet paper.

What they say
must be true:
I am smart,
but I have a bad attitude.

No one knows
that I quit tonight,
maybe the mop
will push on without me,
sniffing along the floor
like a crazy squid
with stringy gray tentacles.
They will call it Jorge.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Espada. Joining us also, his father Frank Espada. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Frank, I’d like to ask you about, again, the diaspora. You have been to practically every major Puerto Rican community in the United States, and you have chronicled the developments of those communities in your photographs. What have you found or concluded in terms of how Puerto Ricans manage to maintain their identity, their sense of community, scattered about, whether it’s in Massachusetts, in Florida, in Hawaii, in Alaska, in San Francisco? Where you are, Haywood, California, has always had a large Puerto Rican community there, in northern California. What has held those communities together?

FRANK ESPADA: Well, you know, it’s a question of survival. There’s a running joke that says that you put two Puerto Ricans in a phone booth, and they’ll come out with three organizations. Organizing, I think, is part of our survival kit. And this is what brings — what holds people, to some extent, together, because they’re able to at least make some effort in terms of representation, which, as Martin mentioned, is very poor throughout. I’ve seen improvement along those lines, but it’s slow and short.

You know, I started this project in 1979. So I’ve been able — I was able to closely look at a number of 34 communities at that time. And most of them were in the very early stages of political development. I don’t think there were too many that actually had any representation. Well, that’s changed to some extent.

But for the most part, the problem is that we have an ongoing migration problem, if I can put it that way. It’s a steady, constant flow of people coming into the States, to the mainland, simply because of the fact that they can’t make it in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has a broken economy, as you know.

So I just recently had my own family, where one of my nieces with the [inaudible] family just picked up and landed in Florida. Within two weeks, everyone was employed. So that’s the main reason, is the pull of the necessity to survive.

Now, getting back to the issue of the local communities, you know, what I have found, what I found and I still find whenever I have contact with them is that very little really has changed, other than that, that essentially that we are still very much, as a famous historian said, a despised minority. We have another friend who maintains that the mainstream has a filter that filters out certain kinds of people, usually people of darker skin color, etc.

But for the most part, there have been, as you know, Juan, a number of people who have penetrated, if can I put it that way, and who frankly forget where they came from or who they really are. You know, there was a danger at one point that that almost happened to me. And I was fortunate that I recognized that and got the hell away from all that stuff, and I was able to resume what I was doing.

And, by the way, I wanted also to mention the Young Lords and the incredible effect that this group of young people had in our community in New York City. But, you know, I think that part of the effect of that or the cause of that was the fact that the young generation realized that nothing much was going on and that the leadership was failing. And I think it still is, for the most part. And they took matters into their own hands, and I commended that move and people like Juan Gonzalez and many others that have managed to get into positions where they can become advocates, as well. So I really have to congratulate you, Juan, for all your efforts and all of the people that put their lives on the line in terms of equality.

And, you know, the fact of the matter is that this is a continuing struggle, and I’m not sure that it’s going to end any day soon. And my conclusion, as you know from my book, was essentially that the worst thing that ever happened to us was the Spanish-American War, the worst thing that has happened to us, essentially. And I still maintain that. I just don’t see how we are going to come to a point where all the marginalization and the institutional racism that we always have to combat is going to end. So I’m very pessimistic about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Espada, I want to thank you very much for being with us and end with Juan on this 109th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico. I would guess people listening, watching right now, a number don’t even know what Frank was referring to when he said Young Lords. Juan, you, one of the founders of the Young Lords. Maybe briefly say what that was, but your reflections on this day?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, that’s stuff for another show maybe. But the Young Lords were, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a revolutionary nationalist organization, actually developed out of a street gang in Chicago and into a major political force in the early 1970s throughout the Puerto Rican communities of the United States. And I was honored to have been a part of the group that put it together and helped to organize it. And I think that was back when I met Frank for the first time, 40 years ago, practically, Frank. And many of the people have since risen, obviously, in positions of leadership around the country.

Frank, I think one of the people, in fact, in Westchester, Pennsylvania, when you were chronicling the mushroom workers, a young lawyer by the name of Juan Sanchez back then is now a federal judge, I think, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. So times have changed.

FRANK ESPADA: I remember him. Sure, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you all for being with us. Martin and his father Frank Espada joining us from Massachusetts and from San Francisco. Frank Espada’s book of photographs, The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People, and Juan’s book on this subject, Harvest of Empire: The History of Latinos in America.

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