Thursday, June 05, 2014

Martín Espada's Tribute to Frank Espada

Poet Martín Espada at the Tribute to Frank Espada 
El Puente, Brooklyn, May 17, 2014
(Photo credit: Fernan Luna)

El hijo de Frank

By: Martín Espada

Marge Piercy writes: Attention is love.

My father paid attention. This was the man who took me to Puerto Rico for the first time, who showed me Utuado, the mountain town of his birth, where his grandfather was the mayor. This was the man who took me to my first ballgame. This was the man who gave me my first book of poems, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám—along with a Playboy calendar. 

And I paid attention to him. I listened to him speak at a rally for Agropino Bonillo, a man with two jobs and nine kids, murdered in the streets of East New York.  I carried his camera bag as he aimed that camera at the tenants of a building torched by the landlord on the Upper West Side. My father was an intense, imposing figure, who made me laugh by crossing me up with his curveball. He was a genuine tough guy who fell into my arms, sobbing, after reading a poem I wrote for him.  I miss him very much.

He was a born teacher, who taught me right from wrong, who taught me how to think. If I demonstrate a fraction of his courage, his integrity, his creativity, his compassion, then I may do justice to his name.

Speaking of that name: I used to be el hijo de Frank. For many years, everywhere I went, whenever I spoke my name, I heard: Ah, el hijo de Frank! Then, years later, one day, it finally happened. My father introduced himself and heard: Ah, el padre de Martín!

I am here today to declare that I am, and always will be, el hijo de Frank.

When I was seven years old, my father disappeared.  He was jailed with other protestors from Brooklyn CORE demonstrating at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Every day I would stare at his picture and cry. One day I was engaged in this ceremony when my father walked in the door.  I said: “I thought you were dead.”

At first he was amused; then he realized he would have to explain. He brought me to his headquarters at East New York Action on Blake Avenue, where I would sketch drawings of demonstrations on the blank side of flyers announcing those same demonstrations. I grew up with the spirit of resistance all around me. It was as natural as breathing.

I am almost fifty-seven years old—and the day I dreaded for fifty years is here. His great legacy, his Macchu Picchu, still stands, yet the builder is gone, like the builders of that Inca city, “the clay-colored hand…utterly changed into clay,” as Neruda put it. The words of Shakespeare also come to mind:  “We are such stuff
/As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.”

I keep hearing those words in my head, first mourning my father, and now mourning the man I considered my second father: Jack Agüeros.

How do we carry on the legacy of the generation now passing before our eyes?  We’ve heard about “The Greatest Generation,” mostly referring to white men who fought in World War II. For the Puerto Rican community, this was our Greatest Generation. They marched. They picketed. They organized rent strikes. They staged hunger strikes. They staged sit-ins. They went to jail. They went to jail again. They built schools and community centers. They took photographs, wrote poems and plays, painted and sang—but their activism was inseparable from their art.

This was my father’s advice to Los Seis del Sur, a group of Puerto Rican photographers documenting the South Bronx: “We need to raise some holy Hell, for we have landed at the bottom and stayed there.” For my father, raising hell was holy. His generation raised holy hell for us, for everyone in this room.  So please join me: Frank Espada: ¡Presente! Evelina Attonetty: ¡Presente! Jack Agüeros: ¡Presente!

Jack would write that my father “cried in the night when he couldn’t do more.”  What more could he do? The Puerto Rican Disapora Documentary Project.  Cornell Capa told my father: “Frank, no one wants to look at pictures of Puerto Ricans.”

Attention is love. My father paid attention. 

He gave our dehumanized community a human face. He saw the light in the landscape of those faces, and caught the light with his lens. Look at the pictures: those faces radiate dignity. He didn’t create the illusion of dignity; that dignity was there all along. He saw dignity in the faces of a mushroom worker, a fisherman, a gravedigger, an espiritista. He saw dignity in the faces of gang members and recovering heroin addicts. He saw dignity in the face of a man with two jobs and nine kids who would be butchered in the street. He saw dignity in the face of a man at a demonstration with a Puerto Rican flag.

Luis says: “Before the Young Lords, there was Frank Espada.”  Oh yes, the Puerto Rican community had a history before the Young Lords. We will have a history after the Young Lords.  We are the makers of that history. Like my father’s generation, we must be radical, even utopian.

Listen to Eduardo Galeano on utopianism: “She’s on the horizon…I go two steps closer, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.”

In 1949, Frank Espada was jailed in Biloxi, Mississippi for refusing to go to the back of the bus. Today, Jim Crow segregation is dead in the South, and a Black man is President of the United States. My father and his generation made the impossible possible, and we must do it again. Frank Espada has many sons and daughters in this room today. You are all los hijos de Frank.

He was a man who lived many lives. He died more than once—yet he always came back. He’s here right now.  

El Moriviví
            For Frank Espada (1930-2014)

The Spanish means: I died, I lived. In Puerto Rico, the leaves
of el moriviví close in the dark and open at first light.
The fronds curl at a finger’s touch and then unfurl again.
 My father, a mountain born of mountains, the tallest
Puerto Rican in New York, who scraped doorways,
who could crack the walls with the rumble of his voice,
kept a moriviví growing in his ribs. He would die, then live.

My father spoke in the tongue of el moriviví, teaching me
the parable of Joe Fleming, who screwed his lit cigarette
into the arms of the spics he caught, flapping like fish.
My father was a bony boy, the nerves in his back
crushed by the Aiello Coal and Ice Company, the load
he lifted up too many flights of stairs.  Three times
they would meet to brawl for a crowd after school.
The first time my father opened his eyes to gravel
and the shoes of his enemy. The second time he rose
and dug his arm up to the elbow in the monster’s belly,
so badly did he want to tear out the heart and eat it.
The third time Fleming did not show up, and the boys
with cigarettes burns clapped their spindly champion 
on the back, all the way down the street. Fleming would
become a cop, fired for breaking bones in too many faces.
He died smoking in bed, a sheet of flame up to his chin.

There was a moriviví sprouting in my father’s chest. He would die, 
then live.  He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus  in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week  of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck.
He would come to know the jailhouse again, among hundreds
of demonstrators ferried by police to Hart’s Island on the East River,
where the city of New York stacks the coffins of anonymous
and stillborn bodies. Here, Confederate prisoners once wept
for the Stars and Bars; now the prisoners sang Freedom Songs.
The jailers outlawed phone calls, so we were sure my father must be
a body like the bodies rolling waterlogged in the East River, till he came
back from the island of the dead,  black hair combed meticulously.
When the riots burned in Brooklyn night after night, my father
was a peacemaker on the corner with a megaphone.  A fiery
chunk of concrete fell from the sky and missed his head by inches. 
My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging bullets.
He spoke at a rally with Malcolm X, incantatory words
billowing through the bundled crowd, lifting hands and faces.
Teach, they cried. My father clicked a photograph of Malcolm
as he bent to hear a question, finger pressed against the chin.
Two months later the assassins stampeded the crowd
to shoot Malcolm, blood leaping from his chest as he fell.
My father would die too, but then he would live again,
after every riot, every rally, every arrest, every night in jail,
the change from his pockets landing hard on the dresser
at 4 AM every time I swore he was gone for good.

My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die,
then live. He drifted off at the wheel, drove into a guardrail,
shook his head and walked away without a web of scars
or fractures. He passed out from the heat in the subway,
toppled onto the tracks, and somehow missed the third rail.
He tied a white apron across his waist to open a grocery store,
pulled a revolver from the counter to startle the gangsters
demanding protection, then put up signs for a clearance sale
as soon as they backed out the door with their hands in the air.
When the family finally took a vacation in the mountains
of the Hudson Valley, a hotel with waiters in white jackets
and white paint peeling in the room, the roof exploded
in flame, as if the ghost of Joe Fleming and his cigarette
trailed us everywhere, and it was then that my  father
appeared in the smoke, like a general leading the charge
in battle, shouting commands at the volunteer fire company, 
steering the water from the hoses, since he was immune
to death by fire or water, as if he wore the crumbled leaves
of el moriviví in an amulet slung around his neck.

My brother called to say el moriviví was gone. My father tore
at the wires, the electrodes, the IV, saying that he wanted
to go home.  The hospital was a jailhouse in Mississippi.
The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded
the chambers of his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film,
the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father
was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives.

Moriviví: Mimosa Pudica or "bashful plant," native to the Caribbean. 
It folds inward when touched, unfolding after a short while.
[Watch the Moriviví]

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