“Espada writes in the tradition of socially engaged poets that stretches from Sappho and the ancient Greeks to the modern giants like Yeats and Lorca and Neruda . . . It is not the Self that draws Espada to write poetry, but rather the transcendence of self. He serves something larger, something uniquely noble in poetry.” –Poet and activist Sam Hamill
Martín Espada, deemed “the Latino poet of his generation” and “the Pablo Neruda of North American authors,” was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. The son of a political activist and community leader, Espada was from his earliest days steeped in a blend of Puerto Rican and urban American cultures, the distinctive wellspring of his poetic voice.
Espada held a variety of jobs (including gas station attendant, bouncer, and primate lab assistant) before earning his J.D. from Northeastern University in Boston. He then worked as a tenant lawyer, representing poor and underprivileged members of the Latin American community—a role that shaped him as an advocate for justice, “speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard.”
A disciple of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda, Espada unites an outspoken style with a steadfast allegiance to his background and people, creating a powerful, passionate brand of verse. His most recent collection of poems, Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas (2008), was hailed as “a superb poetic testimony to the unfortunate endurance of the colonizing mentality and the inevitable resistance it engenders.” A judicious chronicler of the world around him, “[Espada’s] work captures the depth of human experience as shaped by the political inevitabilities of both America and Latin America.”
In 2004 Espada traveled to Chile to participate in the Pablo Neruda Centenary commemoration, an experience he later called “a revelation.” Having “never imagined that a nation could celebrate a poet, or poetry in general, with such fervor,” the inspiration he drew from his travels became a driving force for his renowned collection, The Republic of Poetry (2006), which garnered him the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Espada has composed ten books of poetry, including Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990); Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), winner of an American Book Award; A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen (2000); and Alabanza: New and Selected Poems (2003). He has also published a collection of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998); edited two anthologies, Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination (2000) and El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry (1997); and released an audiobook of poetry called Now the Dead will Dance the Mambo (2004). He has received the Charity Randall Citation, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among numerous other honors and distinctions.
Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The Spider and the Angel
Day camp in the summer of 1968:
The counselors steered us to the roof
of a school building in Brooklyn,
slapped down soggy mattresses
and told us to wrestle.
A boy from Puerto Rico,
crazy as a spider in the bathroom sink,
heard my crippled Spanish
and decided I was not the Puerto Rican
that I claimed to be. With his thumbs
he tried to pop my eyeballs from their sockets.
The counselors smoked and nodded.
The next day they matched me with Angel.
I swung my elbow back into his mouth
and he bled like a martyr.
If he could have flown home to the island
by leaping from that rooftop,
he would have spread his arms and jumped.
The spider-boy realized then
that I was Puerto Rican after all.
He stayed close to me that summer,
promising to jab his thumbs into the eyes
of anyone who disrespected me.
I never did aim my finger at the enemy
who should be blinded next.
I was satisfied. We were Puerto Ricans,
wrestling for the approval of our keepers,
inches from rolling off the roof.
Advice to Young Poets
to be a unicorn
by sticking a plunger on your head.
Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas (2008 )
The Republic of Poetry (2006), recipient of the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), winner of an American Book Award
Bill Moyers interviews Espada for PBS on the subject of young, nonnative American writers