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Poet Martín Espada on “Floaters,” the Dehumanization of Refugees, Puerto Rico & His Father

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Acclaimed poet Martín Espada recently won the National Book Award for Poetry for his anthology “Floaters.” He became just the third Latinx poet to win the award. “Floaters” is titled after the photo of the Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande in June 2019 trying to cross into the United States, one that sparked outrage at the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border. Espada discusses U.S. immigration policy and reads the poem “Letter to My Father: October 2017,” which looks back at his father’s native Puerto Rico.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue our year-end conversations, we turn now to the poet Martín Espada. He recently won the National Book Award for his collection of poetry, Floaters. The book honors asylum seekers who have drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into Texas. Martín Espada became just the third Latinx poet to win the National Book Award.

Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I recently interviewed Martín from his home in Shelburne Falls. He talked about the title of his book, Floaters.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, much of the book focuses on the theme of migrants and migration. And that ranges from the migrants crossing the southern border to the migrants who made their way to Puerto Rico — from Puerto Rico, rather, to the United States. And so, that encompasses not only Óscar and Valeria, who were the Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande in June 2019 and then were the subjects of that photograph we all remember that went viral, it also encompasses people like my father, Francisco Luis Espada, Frank Espada, who came to this country in a boat. And he, too, was a migrant. So that makes me the son of a migrant. And so, much of the book focuses on that sort of struggle, that sort of survival or loss of life, and ultimately some form of transcendence for that community and the descendants of those who cross over.

“Floaters,” by the way, refers most literally to a term used by certain members of the Border Patrol to describe those who drown crossing over. So, where I got it was after Óscar and Valeria drowned and that photograph went viral, there was a post in the “I’m 10-15” Border Patrol Facebook group alleging that this photograph was a fake. And that’s where I saw the use of the word “floaters” for the first time. And then there was a border activist of my acquaintance who confirmed that this was a term commonly in use. Obviously, you know, this kind of oppressive force that’s brought to bear on the border has its own vocabulary. And so, “floaters” is a part of that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you mentioned your father, Frank Espada, himself a renowned photographer, activist and chronicler of the Puerto Rican migration. He was a big influence on your life, big influence on my life. I met him 60 years ago, and he was a mentor to me. Could you talk about his influence on you, and also, if you can, maybe read one of the poems in the book where he figures?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely. My father, Frank Espada, was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico, in 1930, died in Pacifica, California, in 2014. He was a community organizer. He was a leader, some people would say the leader of the Puerto Rican community in New York City in the 1960s and early ’70s. That was a community of almost 1 million people.

He was also the creator of something called the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, a photodocumentary of the Puerto Rican migration, because he was a great documentary photographer. His work is now included in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress. He also published a book by that name, Puerto Rican Diaspora.

And so, his photographs hung on the walls of our apartment in the Linden projects of East New York, Brooklyn, from earliest memory, which means they’re also hung on the walls of my imagination. And I was able to see, from earliest memory and earliest imagination from my youth, the nexus between art and activism, the nexus between craft and commitment. To me, it was all one. I thought everybody did it this way. And so, my father, although he was a photographer, had a great influence on me as a poet and as a poet of political commitment, a poet of the political imagination.

Well, all this came back for me when Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico four years ago. We just marked the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Maria. And my father, of course, was already gone. And yet I couldn’t help thinking about him. Why? Because suddenly I saw his hometown of Utuado everywhere. I saw it on television. I saw it online. I saw it on social media. I saw it in the articles coming from major publications like The Washington Post. In fact, Jon Lee Anderson, in the pages of The New Yorker, said that Utuado had become, quote, “a byword for the island’s devastation.” And here I was in western Massachusetts watching helplessly.

And so I began talking to my father. Now, it’s not unusual for people to talk to the dead, especially if it so happens you have their corporeal remains in your possession, as I do. I have his ashes in a box on my bookshelf wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag, which is the way he would have wanted it. And so I began talking to the box. And it was strange, because I was talking to the box as if my father could hear me, but he did not know what was happening in his beloved Utuado, his beloved Puerto Rico, where ultimately 4,000 people would die, not only due to the hurricane, but, of course, due to the profound negligence of Donald Trump. And so, in the poem I wrote for him, I tell him what’s happening, but then I call on him to rise again. The poem I ultimately wrote, which is the last in this book Floaters, is called “Letter to My Father: October 2017.”

You once said: My reward for this life will be a thousand pounds of dirt shoveled in my face. You were wrong. You are seven pounds of ashes in a box, a Puerto Rican flag wrapped around you, next to a red brick from the house in Utuado where you were born, all crammed together on my bookshelf. You taught me there is no God, no life after this life, so I know you are not watching meet type this letter over my shoulder.

When I was a boy, you were God. I watched from the seventh floor of the projects as you walked down into the street to stop a public execution. A big man caught a small man stealing his car, and everyone in Brooklyn heard the car alarm wail of the condemned: He’s killing me. At a word from you, the executioner’s hand slipped from the hair of the thief. The kid was high, was all you said when you came back to us.

When I was a boy, and you were God, we flew to Puerto Rico. You said: My grandfather was the mayor of Utuado. His name was Buenaventura. That means good fortune. I believed in your grandfather’s name. I heard the tree frogs chanting to each other all night. I saw banana leaf and elephant palm sprouting from the mountain’s belly. I gnawed a mango’s pit, and the sweet yellow hair stuck between my teeth. I said to you: You came from another planet. How did you do it? You said: Every morning, just before I woke up, I saw the mountains.

Every morning, I see the mountains. In Utuado, three sisters, all in their seventies, all bedridden, all Pentecostales who only left the house for church, lay sleeping on mattresses spread across the floor when the hurricane gutted the mountain the way a butcher slices open a dangled pig, and a rolling wall of mud buried them, leaving the fourth sister to stagger into the street, screaming like an unheeded prophet about the end of the world. In Utuado, a man who cultivated a garden of aguacate and carambola, feeding the avocado and star fruit to his nieces from New York, saw the trees in his garden beheaded all at once like the soldiers of a beaten army, and so hanged himself. In Utuado, a welder and a handyman rigged a pulley with a shopping cart to ferry rice and beans across the river where the bridge collapsed, witnessed the cart swaying above so many hands, then raised a sign that told the helicopters: Campamento los Olvidados: Camp of the Forgotten.

Los olvidados wait seven hours in line for a government meal of Skittles and Vienna sausage, or a tarp to cover the bones of a house with no roof, as the fungus grows on their skin from sleeping on mattresses drenched with the spit of the hurricane. They drink the brown water, waiting for microscopic monsters in their bellies to visit plagues upon them. A nurse says: These people are going to have an epidemic. These people are going to die. The president flips rolls of paper towels to a crowd at a church in Guaynabo, Zeus lobbing thunderbolts on the locked ward of his delusions. Down the block, cousin Ricardo, Bernice’s boy, says that somebody stole his can of diesel. I heard somebody ask you once what Puerto Rico needed to be free. And you said: Tres pulgadas de sangre en la calle: Three inches of blood in the street. Now, three inches of mud flow through the streets of Utuado, and troops patrol the town, as if guarding the vein of copper in the ground, as if a shovel digging graves in the backyard might strike the ore below, as if la brigada swinging machetes to clear the road might remember the last uprising.

I know you are not God. I have the proof: seven pounds of ashes in a box on my bookshelf. Gods do not die, and yet I want you to be God again. Stride from the crowd to seize the president’s arm before another roll of paper towels sails away. Thunder Spanish obscenities in his face. Banish him to a roofless rainstorm in Utuado, so he unravels, one soaked sheet after another, till there is nothing left but his cardboard heart.

I promised myself I would stop talking to you, white box of grey grit. You were deaf even before you died. Hear my promise now: I will take you to the mountains, where houses lost like ships at sea rise blue and yellow from the mud. I will open my hands. I will scatter your ashes in Utuado.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Martín Espada reading his poem, “Letter to My Father,” the last of the poems in his National Book Award-winning anthology called Floaters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Martín, I wanted to ask you — you’ve appeared on Democracy Now! numerous times over the last 25 years. What has this show meant to you as a poet, academic and activist?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Democracy Now! was a place where I could get the truth. Democracy Now! was always different. Democracy Now! was not network television. It was not cable television. It was not center to right. It was not mildly liberal. It was a place where I could get the truth, the real story, where I could count on the voices I wanted to hear broadcast, of course, over both television and radio. I can remember many times driving down the road somewhere, going to my next gig, because poets are that way. We’re like jazz musicians in that sense. I’d put on the radio, and there was your voice, Amy, or your voice, Juan. And it felt like home. Not to mention all the times that I was able to appear on this program and speak my own truth — not something to be taken for granted at all if you happen to be a left-wing Puerto Rican poet. Kind of a narrow window there. So, it’s meant all that and more. And I want to — I want to acknowledge that on this 25th anniversary, to keep telling truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Martín Espada. He recently the National Book Award for his book of poetry, Floaters.

When we come back, the great writer Arundhati Roy joins us from India.


AMY GOODMAN: Lila Downs performing Manu Chao’s “Clandestino” for Democracy Now!’s 25th anniversary celebration.

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