Every year the Poetry Foundation awards the Ruth Lilly Prize to a U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant recognition. For the first time in its 33-year history, the award has been given to a Latino: Brooklyn-born and raised poet Martín Espada.
Throughout his career, Espada has been dedicated to social justice. He is the author of the poem “Letter to My Father,” where he writes about a conversation he had with his father, who was also and activist, and about Puerto Rico, which is a common theme in his poetry. In a statement from the Poetry Foundation, the organization states “Whether narrating the struggles of immigrants as they adjust to life in the United States, or chronicling the battles that Latin Americans have waged against their own repressive governments, Espada has given voice to otherness, powerlessness, and poverty into poetry that is at once moving and vivid.”
During a phone interview with Latino USA, Espada talks about his work, his activism, his beloved Puerto Rico, and what it means to him to receive this honor.
In one of your latest poems, “Letter to My Father,” you recall a conversation between your father and someone else. When they asked your father what Puerto Rico needed to be free, he responded “tres pulgadas de sangre en la calle,” three inches of blood in the street. What does that mean to you now in light of the protests which erupted in violence in San Juan last week?
Well this begins with our history, the history of Puerto Rico. This begins with a history of resistance that goes back even before the occupation by the United States.
When I refer to my father’s response to that question in the poem, when he says “tres pulgadas de sangre en la calle” (“three inches of blood in the street”). On one level it’s an expression of supreme frustration that this is the oldest colony in the world. For centuries under Spain and now more than a century under the United States. So it’s just that, to begin with an expression of utter frustration. What else can we possibly do?
But it’s also based on a historically specific memory of his. In 1950, there was a nationalist uprising in Puerto Rico. It was based in Jayuya but it also happened in Utuado. And U.S. warplanes bombed the town of Utuado. The authorities marched nationalist prisoners to the Utuado police station and shot five of them dead. This came to be known as La Masacre de Utuado. This is something that of course most people are unaware of. It’s been deliberately erased.
Do you think there is a parallel between last week’s events and the uprisings of the 1950s and 1970s, both in Puerto Rico and with activist diaspora communities and groups in cities like Chicago and New York?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. There’s no question about that. I mean, what we are seeing in reports from Puerto Rico are the tension between the rulers and the ruled. We’re seeing the dynamic between aggression and resistance. We’re seeing repression and then more resistance.
And there’s no question in my mind that this resistance is not going anywhere. Because in fact, it never did. It’s always been there. You know, sometimes Puerto Ricans have been stereotyped as docile, as passive, as somehow not interested in changing their fate and therefore deserving of it. And I think nothing can be further from the truth. So we see we see that resistance, and actually what we also see is media response to that resistance. It’s been there all along.
And you know there are so many different ways we express solidarity with what’s happening on the island. Some of it is in the streets but also some of it is a matter of people in our communities in New York and Chicago, and other places like Hartford and Holyoke—huge Puerto Rican populations rolling up their sleeves engaged in acts of solidarity because FEMA and the Trump administration utterly failed. And that failure is rooted in the same racism that has kept Puerto Ricans in their place for so long.
But you know, consider for a moment, we look at Trump from so many different angles. Let’s look at it from another angle and let’s look at him now as a New Yorker.
He was born in 1946. New Yorkers of his generation grew up with the stereotypes of Puerto Ricans that were absolutely endemic to New York in the 25 years of migration following the Second World War. Now a decade separates Trump and me. I was born in 1957. I grew up with the same stereotype, at the same time, in the same city [Espada was raised in Brooklyn]. The difference being that Trump internalized those racist caricatures. And I saw those caricatures reputed everywhere especially in my household. So flash forward when Trump tweeted that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them, I knew exactly what he meant. He was invoking that tired old message of Puerto Ricans are all on welfare. Well, that’s what he is doing.
In a recent interview, you recall how your family’s hometown of Utuado “became a byword of the island’s devastation” in the media in the wake of Hurricane María. How do you feel about that?
I found it remarkable, first of all, that the media had discovered Utuado. Before this happened, no one in this country had ever heard of Utuado. You know, I would have to explain my own historical connection to it, the fact that my father was born in Utuado, the fact that my grandmother was born while the fact my great grandfather was the mayor. That it’s, you know, the cradle of our family in so many ways. The media had discovered it, it was startling to put on the television or to read the news online and see that there were all these images coming from there. And it was just startling and heartbreaking. It was startling and heartbreaking through all these articles coming from there. And to feel as if there was absolutely nothing tangible you could do in the moment.
I also found it rather remarkable that journalists make their way to Utuado and other places in the mountains when FEMA claimed they couldn’t do it. But you know for some reason there are you know journalists up there and they were even there even medical delegations that made their way into the mountains, when FEMA was claiming they couldn’t do it. And this is the same FEMA asking everyone to register for help online right in the middle of the biggest blackout in United States history. If you count Puerto Rico, of course.
There was one irony after another. And there was a way in which, I did what I do. I wrote a poem. But the genesis of that poem was this extraordinary feeling of being overwhelmed of heartbreak and despair.
And ultimately I realized what I was writing was an open letter. You know, it’s not just for my father—clearly it’s for anyone who will read it.
Are you writing more poems about Puerto Rico?
When I say I’m writing, it means something’s happening in my head, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve put it on paper or put it on the computer screen yet, but there are things happening in my head for sure. You know, some of it depends on how I visualize it. A poet is like a bird feathering a nest in that way. You know, it’s more difficult to write about other things. How do you write a poem about the Fiscal Control Board? How do you write a poem about PROMESA?
That’s more of a challenge because, first of all, I’m not good with numbers. But also how do you make such a huge abstraction concrete? Well, you have to tell stories. You have to tell stories and there are stories that need to be told. And in the meantime, the suffering continues unabated.
You also mentioned you haven’t visited Puerto Rico since the hurricane. Are you planning on going back to the island?
It’s not that far-fetched that I’m going back to the island at some point. I made a promise to my father that I would scatter his ashes in Utuado, leaving aside the logistical difficulties of scattering anybody’s ashes anywhere because you need a license for that sort of thing. That is my ultimate plan. I would also like to figure out a way to do the most good. And the reality is I’m now looking at the Ruth Lilly Prize to figure out how to give some money to organizations on the island who are doing good work.
Earlier, you said that when you say you’re writing, it means you have “something happening” in your head. Well, is there something happening in your head right now?
Well, there are a couple of things going on. It’s like bumper cars in there. You know, it’s pandemonium. It’s as if, you know, somebody yelled fire in a crowded theater. The mind goes in all kinds of directions when provoked. For example, I’m working on a new manuscript of which the poem “Letter to My Father” would be one part. There is another poem that I’ve written which is focused more on Trump himself. He of course makes an appearance in “Letter to My Father” tossing paper towels. But then there’s another poem I’ve written which is an ornate title is called “Not for Him the Fiery Lake of the False Prophet.” That’s a poem about the first hate crime under Donald Trump.
And so there has to be a record that transcends the immediate media reports of the time. That was three years ago and almost everyone has forgotten. Of course the victim, Guillermo Rodríguez, has not forgotten. And Guillermo Rodríguez does not have the opportunities that I have to speak, to write, to be heard. He doesn’t have a platform that I have. And so I feel as an advocate, I have a responsibility to speak for someone like Guillermo Rodríguez, lest we forget.
Then, finally, what does receiving the Ruth Lilly Prize and having this platform mean to you as someone who is, as you say, an advocate?
I do continue to think of myself as an advocate and so that means speaking out on behalf of those who do not have the opportunity to be heard like Guillermo Rodríguez. But it’s also a moment of reflection in a sense. I think about my father, as an artist and activist, who really did not receive his due during his lifetime, who struggled right up to the end. Posthumously, his work has been placed in a variety of prestigious institutions ranging from the Smithsonian to the Library of Congress. But he never really received his due during his lifetime.
I think of my second father, the Puerto Rican poet Jack Agüeros, who was also a community organizer, as well as being a writer, and who was the director of the Museo del Barrio. I think about him, and how he never got his.
I think about the Clemente Soto Vélez, who spent six years in prison for seditious conspiracy between 1936 and 1942, and who mentored me. So he settled in New York during the Second World War and he mentored countless writers and artists and activists myself included. I co-translated into English a book of selected poems with Camilo Pérez Bustillo called La sangre que sigue cantando (The Blood That Keeps Singing). When he died, he was buried up in Lares, which is where he was born, in an unmarked grave.
So I think of him. I think that someone who was a mentor, a father figure, who was buried in an unmarked grave because he was on the wrong side of a struggle against colonialism that’s still going on.
I think about the fact that I’m standing on his shoulders, and my father’s shoulders, and Jack’s shoulders. I think about the unmarked graves and I think about the box of ashes on my bookshelf and how it is that my work has only begun.