Martin Espada

Michael Simeone: On "Bully"

Michael Simeone

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.”  In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists use to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very people’s Roosevelt sought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up the dominant narratives of the state.  He describes a statue of Roosevelt situated in the school auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez.  Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated war broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest.   Unable to reconcile the statue with some narrative of statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war not only voices a condemnation of the war but also contaminates the language and images of memorialization with the contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal.  

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber  or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses,  or a podium to clatter with speeches  glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating him in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at containment or submission.  The destruction that he unleashed against the brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish- singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.”  The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution. Roosevelt is surrounded

by all the faces  he ever shoved in eugenic spite  and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race,  hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors.”

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that the most aggressive, imperial nation on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually kicks the bully’s ass. That is, that a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses.  The installation of belletristic icons like Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of stormtrooping Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his portraiture.  As mongrels all, we spill over into each other.          

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.