[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Fink discusses Espada's treatment of the injustices endured by Puerto Ricans living on the mainland.]
Ever since Puerto Ricans began to come from their native island to settle in cities like New York and Boston in the 1950s, they have been barraged by a distorted visibility. In Latinos: A Biography of the People (1992), Earl Shorris argues that various highly influential cultural texts, including Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's 1961 musical West Side Story and Oscar Lewis's "anthropological" study La Vida--promulgated a relentlessly negative, broadly accepted stereotype of Puerto Ricans in New York (and elsewhere on the U.S. mainland). In Lewis's "book of explicit sexual detail ... and ubiquitous amorality," published in 1966, "the Puerto Rican men were lazy, stupid louts who lived off women or welfare, beat their wives and girlfriends, and then left them penniless and pregnant," while the "women were whores without exception" (78). Puerto Ricans were considered devoid of any "sense of a human soul," and, according to Shorris, "the intellectual world" of New York "adored" this "racist's dream ..." Ilan Stavans in The Hispanic Condition (1995) reports that "American researchers and social analysts" and even some "Boriquens in the island and abroad" portrayed the transplanted Puerto Ricans "as lacking character and self-esteem, domesticated, harmless, submissive, gentle to the point of naivete, out of touch with themselves--'human trash' as far as the rest of the United States is concerned" (45, 44).
In the seventies, proponents of Puerto Rican studies, especially at the City University of New York, and Puerto Rican cultural groups began to develop counter-representations that challenged this avalanche of false visibility. In his article, "Documentaries and Declamadores: Puerto Rican Poetry in the United States," Martín Espada credits the "Nuyorican" poets, who had consolidated "by the early seventies" into a "literary movement" for "a bilingual/bicultural audience" (258), not only with strong protest against the oppressive treatment of Puerto Ricans on the mainland, but with lucid articulations of such a salubrious countervisibility. Citing the work of such poets as Pedro Pietri, Víctor Hernández Cruz, the two editors of the anthology Nuyorican Poetry (1975), Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero, Sandra María Esteves, and Luz María Umpierre, Espada declares that "the Puerto Rican cultural character is seen as essentially good; this perspective clearly acts as a reinforcement of the Puerto Rican identity, threatened on the mainland by Anglo stereotyping in the media, schools, the workplace, and elsewhere, as well as the dilution or loss of Spanish and other cultural characteristics" (261).
Martín Espada, born in 1957, is a Puerto Rican poet who has consistently pursued the social aims of the Nuyorican Poets while writing almost exclusively in English. The winner of two fellowships from the NEA, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and other honors, Espada has authored five books of poetry, including The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero (1982), Trumpets from the Islands of their Eviction (1987), Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands (1990), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), and Imagine The...