[(essay date spring 2005) In the following essay, Salgado offers a brief overview of Espada's career as a poet.]
When Martín Espada turned twenty, a family friend gave him a copy of the anthology Latin American Revolutionary Poetry. Along with the gift, the friend ventured some words of prophecy: "Tú también serás poeta," he told Espada--"You will also become a poet." The book had been edited by Roberto Márquez, a Nuyorican (New York-born Puerto Rican) professor of working-class roots. It collected translations of political poems by Latin American authors whose radicalism had been newly galvanized in the wake of Pinochet's U.S.-supported coup of Allende's socialist government in Chile.
Espada had previously toyed with the idea of becoming a writer when he'd attended the University of Maryland for one year. He dropped out after one professor reprimanded him for admiring Allen Ginsberg and another chided his work as "too hostile." Even so, the poems in Márquez's book had a deep, transforming impact on Espada. They revealed a rich literary heritage, one from which he did not, for once, feel excluded. "I was thunderstruck," he recalls. "I was no longer a poetic amnesiac. All of a sudden I found a tradition to identify with, I found a place where I could sit ... You think you are standing on the street all by yourself with a picket sign and then you hear a noise and you turn around and you see a demonstration four blocks long." The image of the picket line as a sudden, uplifting apparition reflects some key values in Espada's poetry: building communal solidarity as a way to confront social alienation and exploitation, maintaining an unwavering political commitment against great odds, and perceiving designios (prophetic signs) in everyday circumstances.
Raised in the blighted East New York section of Brooklyn as the son of a Puerto Rican community organizer, Martín Espada began participating in political demonstrations at a young age; they were the subjects of his earliest childhood drawings. Upon discovering the deep social concerns in the writings of Pablo Neruda, Nicolás Guillén, Ernesto Cardenal, Pedro Pietri, and others featured in Márquez's book, Espada saw the picket line he had drawn as a child morph suddenly into an international chorus of activist poets from a never-dying Hispanic tradition. Nurtured by this legacy, Espada went back to college in Madison, Wisconsin. He eked out money for tuition and rent by working in a bar, a ballpark, a gas station, a primate lab, and a transient hotel. He majored in History, focusing on Latin America, and traveled to Nicaragua to witness the Sandinista Revolution up close. Then he got a law degree at Northeastern University in Boston and represented Spanish-speaking immigrants as a tenant lawyer in Chelsea, Massachusetts, until 1993. He wrote poetry throughout these years: "I started writing again and never looked back."
Before leaving Madison for Boston, Espada...