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Revered Poet Martín Espada Reflects on Struggles Past & Present in “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed”

StoryJanuary 22, 2016
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The acclaimed “people’s poet” and professor Martín Espada has been compared to Pablo Neruda and is widely known as the Latino poet of his generation. In his latest collection of poetry, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed,”—a title taken from a line by Walt Whitman—Espada begins with a tribute to the 1913 Paterson silk strike, when a group of mostly immigrant workers in New Jersey fought for improved working conditions and an eight-hour workday. He goes on to address struggles and injustices up to the present day, including the police killings of unarmed African Americans and the spate of U.S. mass shootings. Espada also pays tribute to his late father, the legendary photojournalist, teacher and activist Frank Espada. Espada joins us for a discussion and reading of his poetry.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with the acclaimed “people’s poet” and professor Martín Espada. Martín has been compared to Pablo Neruda and is widely known as the prime Latino poet of his generation. His latest collection of poetry has just been released. It’s called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, a title taken from a line by Walt Whitman. Espada begins his collection with a tribute to the 1913 Paterson silk strike, when a group of mostly immigrant workers in New Jersey fought for improved working conditions and an eight-hour day.

AMY GOODMAN: Espada goes on to address struggles and injustices up to the present day, including the police killings of unarmed African Americans and the spate of U.S. mass shootings. Martín Espada also pays tribute to his late father, the legendary photojournalist, teacher and activist Frank Espada. Born in Puerto Rico in 1930, he worked for decades documenting the Puerto Rican diaspora, as well as the civil rights movement in the United States. Frank Espada died in 2014.

Martín Espada joins us now. The acclaimed poet and professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst won the American Book Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His new collection of poetry is just out, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.

It’s great to have you with us, Martín.


AMY GOODMAN: You know, before we even talk, could you share a poem? Because that is you talking to the world.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Sure. This is indeed a poem about police violence against people of color. Your audience will recognize many of the cases to which I refer. It’s called “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way.”

Epigraph: Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
Walt Whitman

I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister’s heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,
hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the back seat of the squad car; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede barehanded into the bullets drilling his forehead.

I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking,
words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.

I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s Martín Espada reading to us “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way.” Martín, I wanted to ask you—so much or your poetry is dealing with the politics and the realities, the social conditions of our time—how you first decided that this was part of the mission of your poetry?

MARTÍN ESPADA: I grew up with it. I grew up in an activist household. I grew up in my father’s household. Resistance was as natural as breathing. I was surprised when I went into the world and discovered that not everybody was raised the way I was. So, when it turned to the writing of poetry, quite naturally it turned to poetry about social justice. That’s how I was raised.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned your father. Of course, I knew him for many years. I was inspired by him, as well. And can you talk about—he was arrested in 1949 in Biloxi, Mississippi, for refusing to sit in the back of a bus? I didn’t even know that, even though I had known Frank for many years.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, that happened. And he was always raising hell. That was his advice to everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a magnificent poem about your dad. Could you share that with us?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely. This is the poem I read at his memorial service, and it’s called “El Moriviví.” The meaning of that term will become apparent.

El Moriviví
In memoriam, Frank Espada (1930-2014)

The Spanish means: I died, I lived. In Puerto Rico, the leaves
of el moriviví close in the dark and open at first light.
The fronds curl at a finger’s touch and then unfurl again.
My father, a mountain born of mountains, the tallest
Puerto Rican in New York, who scraped doorways,
who could crack the walls with the rumble of his voice,
kept a moriviví growing in his ribs. He would die, then live.

My father spoke in the tongue of el moriviví, teaching me
the parable of Joe Fleming, who screwed his lit cigarette
into the arms of the spics he caught, flapping like fish.
My father was a bony boy, the nerves in his back
crushed by the Aiello Coal and Ice Company, the load
he lifted up too many flights of stairs. Three times
they would meet to brawl for a crowd after school.
The first time my father opened his eyes to gravel
and the shoes of his enemy. The second time he rose
and dug his arm up to the elbow in the monster’s belly,
so badly did he want to tear out the heart and eat it.
The third time Fleming did not show up, and the boys
with cigarettes burns clapped their spindly champion
on the back, all the way down the street. Fleming would
become a cop, fired for breaking bones in too many faces.
He died smoking in bed, a sheet of flame up to his chin.

There was a moriviví sprouting in my father’s chest. He would die,
then live. He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck.
He would come to know the jailhouse again, among hundreds
of demonstrators ferried by police to Hart Island on the East River,
where the city of New York stacks the coffins of anonymous
and stillborn bodies. Here, Confederate prisoners once wept
for the Stars and Bars; now the prisoners sang Freedom Songs.

The jailers outlawed phone calls, so we were sure my father must be
a body like the bodies rolling waterlogged in the East River, till he came
back from the island of the dead, black hair combed meticulously.
When the riots burned in Brooklyn night after night, my father
was a peacemaker on the corner with a megaphone. A fiery
chunk of concrete fell from the sky and missed his head by inches.
My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging bullets.
He spoke at a rally with Malcolm X, incantatory words
billowing through the bundled crowd, lifting hands and faces.
Teach, they cried. My father clicked a photograph of Malcolm
as he bent to hear a question, finger pressed against the chin.
Two months later the assassins stampeded the crowd
to shoot Malcolm, blood leaping from his chest as he fell.
My father would die too, but then he would live again,
after every riot, every rally, every arrest, every night in jail,
the change from his pockets landing hard on the dresser
at 4 AM every time I swore he was gone for good.

My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die,
then live. He drifted off at the wheel, drove into a guardrail,
shook his head and walked away without a web of scars
or fractures. He passed out from the heat in the subway,
toppled onto the tracks, and somehow missed the third rail.
He tied a white apron across his waist to open a grocery store,
pulled a revolver from the counter to startle the gangsters
demanding protection, then put up signs for a clearance sale
as soon as they backed out the door with their hands in the air.
When the family finally took a vacation in the mountains
of the Hudson Valley, a hotel with waiters in white jackets
and white paint peeling in the room, the roof exploded
in flame, as if the ghost of Joe Fleming and his cigarette
trailed us everywhere, and it was then that my father
appeared in the smoke, like a general leading the charge
in battle, shouting commands at the volunteer fire company,
steering the water from the hoses, since he was immune
to death by fire or water, as if he wore the crumbled leaves
of el moriviví in an amulet slung around his neck.

My brother called to say el moriviví was gone. My father tore
at the wires, the electrodes, the IV, saying that he wanted
to go home. The hospital was a jailhouse in Mississippi.
The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded
the chambers of his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film,
the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father
was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s Frank Espada, “El Moriviví.” For those who are not familiar with el moriviví in Puerto Rico, could you explain what it is?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah, in Latin, it’s the Mimosa pudica. It’s a pantropical weed. It shrinks from contact. And it also closes in the dark, and it opens in light. And so it became the ideal metaphor, for me, for the many lives, deaths and rebirths of Frank Espada, who has died and now he’s back.

AMY GOODMAN: Spoke at a Malcolm rally, Malcolm X.

MARTÍN ESPADA: He did. He spoke with Malcolm X through the end of 1964. And, of course, my father was also a documentary photographer. He founded something called the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project. And so he photographed Malcolm after the rally.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he also—he once gave me—his most famous photograph is that photograph of Malcolm that you mention in the poem. He once gave me a copy of it, which I still have on my wall.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, he photographed many activists. He photographed you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, yes, yes, me, many times, my sister, all the folks who were in the Lords. But he went across the United States, to Hawaii, to Puerto Rican communities all—that a lot of people didn’t know about—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —to capture the leaders and the struggles of those communities.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes. And within the art of photography, but also in every aspect of his life, my father was an activist. We often hear this phrase, “the greatest generation,” in reference to mostly white males who fought during World War II. Well, for the Puerto Rican community, my father’s generation was the greatest generation, whether we’re talking about Frank Espada, Jack Agüeros, Evelina Antonetty. The activism—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Antonio Pantojas.

MARTÍN ESPADA: The activists born in the ’30s who raised hell in the ’60s. And we should still be following their example, raising hell when we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you knew James Foley as a student, right? Who was beheaded by ISIS.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to the Sundance Film Festival. There will be a documentary about him. His family will be there. How did you know him, Martín?

MARTÍN ESPADA: He was a student of mine at the University of Massachusetts. He got an MFA in fiction there, and I was on his committee. But more importantly, I referred James Foley to a place called The Care Center in Holyoke. It’s an alternative education program for adolescent mothers, mostly Puerto Rican, who have dropped out of the school system there. Jim Foley taught English to Spanish speakers there. That’s who—that’s who Jim was. He was compassionate. He was always trying to do the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Martín Espada, the great, award-winning poet and writer, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written numerous books, including The Republic of Poetry, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His new collection is titled Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.

And that does it for our broadcast. We have two job openings: director of finance and operations and director of development. Go to

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