Interview with Martín Espada

By Mark K. Anderson

What's your legal background?

I got my law degree from Northeastern University in 1985, but I had legal experience even prior to that. I did mental health law, welfare rights, civil rights. That was all before I went to law school. I got there in 1982, and Northeastern is structured in such a way that you continue to gain practical experience while in school, through a co-op program. I worked with migrant farm workers through the Migrant Legal Action Program. I was involved in tenant law through Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services. And I settled on bilingual education law through this organization META. Then after I left META, that's when I went into Su Clinica and focused on tenant law.

You write of legal language often being used "not to clarify but to control." That would be, from most people's perspective, the definition of all legal language. Look at President Clinton's recent testimony: the epitome of evasion.

More often that not, it works exactly that way. It is a classic language of power. It is about control, rather than communication. Yet, it doesn't have to be that way. I have always felt that there's a way of doing better legal writing too. Lawyers do an awful lot of writing. Virtually every case is about storytelling. It's about a narrative. And you tell your story in as compelling a way you can. At the same time, you use exactly the language you need to use to meet the legal requirements that are expected of you. So when I say "legalese," I refer to the language as it is most commonly employed, to our collective detriment. But it doesn't have to be that way.

What are the problems and issues raised when you bring in a second language--in this case, Spanish? How does that complicate matters both in regards to poetry as law and law as poetry?

It's complicating to bring in Spanish, because of the cultural assumptions we live with every day. Cultural assumption number one: English is the only language spoken in the universe. And where does this notion come from? Well, it's reinforced by popular culture. That's why I comment on Star Trek. Even the aliens speak English. I remember when I was a kid, watching Captain Kirk, flying to some planet where, theoretically, no one has ever been before. But they land after going three billion miles. There's some creature shaped like a rutabaga who waves at them and says, "Hello. How are you?"

Speaking in Shakespeare's English.

Even worse, in standard Midwestern wheatfield English. But the popular culture enforces this notion that English is the only language that matters. It's the only language that really counts. If you can't communicate in English, then you really must be the alien. And so right away, that creates a problem if as a writer, you introduce Spanish in some way into your text. I believe that Spanish language writers in this country are screwed. Even though there are more than 20 million people in this country who are Spanish speaking. This is one of the largest Spanish speaking countries in the world. But if you are a Spanish language writer, you're going to have a lot of trouble getting published, distributed, reviewed, and read. What I do, of course, is introduce Spanish into a poem that is otherwise in English. And there are occasions where, I have to admit, I enjoy it.

You call it, I believe, "code-switching."

Code switching is a term of art. It's not something I invented. It basically means going from one language to another for effect. Whether that effect is drama, humor, irony, emphasis, music, or whatever it might be. Sometimes I do that. Other times, let's say you've got a poem that essentially is humorous. You use Spanish for the punchline. I do that in the P'al carajo poem. This is a very short poem about Federal Court in Boston:

            "Does the prisoner understand his rights?"

            "¿Entiende usted sus derechos?"

            "¡P'al carajo!"


            This is exactly how it happened. There are volumes spoken when the translator says "Yes." As in, yes, he understands his rights. His rights are carajo. His rights are worth nothing here. He is worth nothing here. For me, that made sense because for most Latinos, the legal system is just a series of mistranslations anyway. So what's the best way to convey that? Well, the best way to convey that is through the use of bilingualism. It's the most appropriate poetic tool for the moment. But I'm not just trying to provoke.

            After all, if I have two languages, why shouldn't I use them both? I find it remarkable when people talk about mainstreaming or otherwise depriving students of the Spanish language for the sake of the English language. As if we should have to choose. Here I am, I'm holding two coins, one in each hand. I'm told, in effect, if one coin is removed from one of my hands, that makes me richer. That's nonsensical.

            Obviously, the poetry and the politics overlap. But in essence, there are so many advantages to being able to use Spanish within the framework of the English language poem, that it would be self-defeating not to. You consider all the possibilities, what you can get in terms of humor, irony, music, authenticity, and intimacy. All those factors play into it.

That raises the issue that you speak of in your essay "Multiculturalism in The Year of Columbus and Rodney King." You note that critics of multiculturalism make a "false dichotomy between diversity and quality." One friend of mine, a lecturer on Shakespeare, often rails at what he sees as the problems of multiculturalism today. I find it interesting that your descriptions of the misperceptions about multiculturalism almost sound like a précis of his case.

Of course it's a false dichotomy. Why should there be a contradiction between diversity and quality? That's nonsensical. At another point in the essay, speaking of Shakespeare, I allude to the notion of Shakespeare vs. Swahili. Or even worse, Shakespeare in Swahili.

            There is a paranoia that comes from essentially having undisputed power and then having that power challenged. I think that is what has happened to the defenders of mainstream culture and the mainstream curriculum. I am someone who can appreciate Shakespeare--I love Shakespeare. Yet, I also see the canon as something that has to be organic. It has to grow and change and expand. It has to include. The fact of the matter is, I don't think we should be held to the standard of Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare is a great writer. At the same time, when we're held to the standard of Shakespeare, is this a way of telling us we have to be as great as Shakespeare before we are read? What's going on there?

            When the defenders of the status quo talk about what they're defending, they talk about Shakespeare. But they don't talk about the host of writers who we probably shouldn't be reading or shouldn't be reading that much. All those mediocrities out there that we read for years and years because they had the right cultural and racial makeup.

There are a lot of names for it. I belong in this movement for multiculturalism. I'm a part of that. I also obviously come out of a vein of Puerto Rican literature. Latino literature. Political literature. Urban literature. There are a lot of names for it. We could be referred to as American Studies. We fall under that rubric. I don't think of these as labels, because I don't think of it as confining or defining. There are many different ways to describe what I do. But sometimes I hear people talk as if the literature of which I am a part has no place in any educational forum. And that's a way of saying that I have no place in any educational forum. Either as a teacher or a writer or a student. So I do take it rather personally.

In what ways do you encounter that?

Well, no one says that right to my face. I read the newspapers, and I read the interviews and I read what people say. And the bottom line is that it has to do with power. Who rules. Who controls. What color are the faces in the classroom. What color are the faces all around us.

In your poem "Liberating a Pillar of Tortillas," you deal directly with that issue — through the perspective of your nephew who worked at a Mexican restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts and wasn't allowed to wait tables because he wore dreadlocks.

That's the trick of metaphor. How do you find the moment that stands for a century? How do you find the face that stands for many faces? That's what I try to do. But the poem also speaks to a theme that surfaces from time to time in my collection of essays, which has to do with feeling caught between mainstream culture and counterculture. Feeling caught between right and left. I obviously associate myself with the left. I have done so for many years. At the same time, there's an ongoing debate with certain elements of the white left.

            For example, it has become fashionable to dismiss the whole idea of multiculturalism, among certain people in the white left who weren't that comfortable with it to begin with. Kind of glad to see it discredited. I have some issues with the white left about why it doesn't more actively support the independence movement in Puerto Rico. What the hell is going on there? This is a colony, for god's sake. Why isn't the white left demanding an end to colonialism going on in its name? A racist and embarrassing throwback to the 19th century and the days of gunboat diplomacy and the handlebar mustache. How come we're not uncomfortable with that? I have some difficulties with certain elements--I say certain elements--of the men's movement, who have expropriated Native American symbols and gleefully parade them, while Native Americans continue to suffer and die with some of the highest rates of poverty in this country.

            I do often feel like I am betwixt and between in a lot of ways. I'm not Marxist enough for the Marxists. I'm not poetic enough for the poets. By becoming a cultural hybrid, a racial hybrid, there's some solitude. Some isolation. That you participate in some circles but you don't belong to any particular one of them. You're marginalized in all of them.

In your work, as you write, "social class is the beat, not the triangle in the orchestra." Is that true, in your experience, of the writings of marginalized peoples in general? For, say, Latino poetry and prose?

Yes. The presence of class consciousness is much more apparent in the poetry of Latinos or African Americans or Native Americans than it is among most--I stress most--Anglo poets. And I've had an opportunity over the years to take a broad overview of contemporary poetry. I was on the panel for the NEA, for example, and read I don't know how many hundreds of manuscripts from people from novice poets to very established poets. Then I was also on the panel for Lila Wallace, reading not only poetry but novels and plays. My sense of it was that there is a distinctive vision based on race and class. I quote Tom Disch that class is the official dividing line of American poetry--and all the more so for being officially invisible. I think that's absolutely true. Where there is a class presence or consciousness in most Anglo poetry it's the consciousness of the upper middle class or the upper class.... In my work and in the work of other Latino poets, we're writing about class, but the people in our poems suffer from the class system rather than benefit from it.

            For the most part, most of the poets in this country are relatively apolitical, relatively unaware of class and its punishments. They're relatively content to float their way through an occasional nod to the people below them. But that's about it. I'm fully aware that there are Anglo poets who are also radicals. Whether they're performance poets or the last of the beats. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. I respect them. I also call on a tradition of North American political poetry which is very much alive and sometimes underestimated. There are many poets living today like Jack Hirschman or Kevin Bowen. These are Anglo poets and they're writing very political poetry. But they're in a very small minority. I think that the majority of Latino poets that I know write from time to time at least what we would call political poetry. The same is true of African American and Native American poetry.

            Why is that? I think the answer is fairly straightforward. Being, in my case, Puerto Rican is a political circumstance. By definition. I did not ask to fight in this battle. I was drafted. I think I would rather write silly poems about my favorite food. But there are much more compelling voices calling to me. Those voices are coming from all the places I've been, where being Puerto Rican is a political circumstance. It's funny too, because I would be defined as a political poet even if I went out of my way to elude that definition. If I looked out the window of the law office in Chelsea where I worked, and I simply made a list of everything I saw on that corner over the period of a single afternoon and then gave it a title, the average reader would look at it and say, "Oh. That's a political poem." I have just described my environment, and my environment is by definition politically charged. Because on the very face of that environment, you can see all forms of injustice.

            I didn't pull all this out of a hat. I've got ancestors all over the place. So even if today political poetry is still considered an anomaly, there's still a tradition. There's still a history. That's both Latin American on one side and North American on the other. I try to acknowledge those dual roots. So when I write about political poetry, I write about Neruda as an ancestor but also Whitman. And I could say the same about Carl Sandburg.

That's a great term--"repression of the idea"--because it seems it's almost a necessary ingredient to hindering any kind of struggle.

Yes. The fear usually expresses itself in economic terms. People are afraid that they're going to lose welfare benefits or food stamps. They're afraid they're going to lose a federal job or their social security. Or they're afraid they're going to lose the presence of the United States in general terms.

            Number one, this is classic colonial dependency expressing itself — and that can be and has been resolved in the past in other situations. Number two, and I think this is very important, it's a myth that the United States has elevated Puerto Rico above its neighbors economically. That Puerto Rico is better off for the U.S. presence in economic terms. Eleven Caribbean countries have a higher per capita income than Puerto Rico. So what that says is that we do not need the United States as an economic presence in Puerto Rico. We in Puerto Rico continue to be a captive market for U.S. goods at outrageously high prices. A captive economy in terms of the labor force. A captive nation in every way which is significant politically and economically. And that has to end. Making it a state won't absolve the problem. What it will trigger, in all likelihood, is another wave of repression, so that those who favor independence and organize to achieve that end will be seen as seditious and as secessionist as the Confederacy was in the middle of the 19th century. And they will be punished.

What is the state of the independence movement in Puerto Rico today?

The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló, has scheduled a plebiscite for the late fall. But Rosselló was hoping that Congress would approve this plebiscite and it would be a binding referendum, which Puerto Rico has never enjoyed in its history with the U.S. Puerto Rico has held two previous plebiscites on status, which were not binding on Congress. Congress could do whatever the hell it wanted with it. But in 1967, there was one plebiscite in which the Commonwealth party prevailed, and a couple years ago, there was another plebiscite held with the same result — although the margin of victory was much more narrow for the commonwealth forces. Now, mind you, these plebiscites were only permitted after the independence movement had been safely squashed like a bug. It's very cynical that Puerto Ricans were permitted to have a say about their status after 70 years of occupation and only after the political threat had been eliminated or largely reduced.

            Right now, the initiative for a vote on status has been stalled in Congress. It got through the House and stalled in the Senate. So what Rosselló decided to do — and he announced this on the centennial of the U.S. invasion, July 25 — was that he was going to hold a plebiscite anyway. So what we've got is the same old thing. Congress essentially ignoring Puerto Rico and refusing to deal with the ethical ordeal of colonialism. How do you resolve being a so-called representative democracy and then holding on to a territory and permitting it no representation? Puerto Rico has one non-voting resident commissioner in Congress. He goes around sniffing at the shoes and licking the heels of whoever he has to appeal to at any given moment. Puerto Ricans can be drafted to fight and die in U.S. wars but they can't vote for the president of the United States. Explain that.

What's the difference between "Puerto Rico libre" and "Puerto Rico gratis?"

Libre versus gratis: they can both be translated as "free." But what I'm trying to do by using that bilingual wordplay is to compel readers to think about the meaning of the word "free." In particular, as it refers to Puerto Rico--but also in general, as it refers to all of us. We have "free" in the sense of gratis, rather than free in the sense of libre. Too often it is gratis — too often it's about what is given away, which in the case of Puerto Rico is sovereignty, self-determination, and democracy. What we have to think more about how to achieve libre, whether it's in Puerto Rico or in our own personal lives or in the streets of this country.