The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango

John Marsh: On "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango"

As I write about Martin Espada in April and May of 2001, the island of Puerto Rico, which often figures in many of his poems, is suddenly in the news again. The New York Times, among other media, is giving national coverage to the protests against the United States Navy for its continued use of the island of Vieques as a bombing range and a place to stage its simulated war games. "Small Island Becomes Big Rallying Cry," Andrew Jacobs reports in the April 29, 2001 The New York Times. And I wouldn't bother to point out the political blind spots in Jacobs' article if "Small Island Becomes Big Rallying Cry" didn't confirm much of what Martin Espada has claimed about U.S. imperialism towards Puerto Rico (and other Latin American countries), specifically the racism and erasure of history that makes such imperialism possible.

The article begins by quoting a protester ("This is the Vietnam of my generation. We want to stop the mayhem. We want to make a difference.") and Farrique Pesquera, an independence advocate ("People have no self-esteem here.... They have been brain-washed to think that they can't survive without America, that all our air comes from the north. Struggles like this one will change that.") But from this relatively high water mark of journalism, the rest of the article is reduced to how the bombings may or may not have affected tourism. "But most of the tourists who take the 20-minute flight from San Juan," the article cheerily ends, say large-scale development [what might happen if the Navy left] would also be a tragedy. Paul Smith, 37, an audio technician from New York, said he found the Navy's presence here insulting but admitted that he liked the unintended result. "We wanted to find a place that wasn't superdeveloped, where there isn't a casino and where music isn't piped into the street.... I'm sure it must be awful to live with all that bombing, but I have to admit that if it weren't for the U.S. military, this place would have been ruined long ago."

At least the Times and Paul Smith acknowledge that the bombings and the recent death caused by them are "tragic"; that they share this status with an imagined (over) development that would ruin Puerto Rico's Edenic otherness is less encouraging. (Vieques--and by extension, Puerto Rico--would be "ruined" if the U.S. military allowed "tragic" superdeveloped casinos and piped-in music. The suggestion is that the U.S. military is keeping such ruination and tragedy at bay--not perpetrating ruination and tragedy. Keeping the world safe from tackiness, as it were.) Such willed political naivete is indeed laughable, but unfortunately all too common: Puerto Rico exists, and since its colonization in 1898, has existed, as an instrument of American interests, whether for simulated war games, a firewall against other Latin American countries, or as a more or less tacky tourist getaway. Mention is made in the article of "the real problem"--"poor roads, an overburdened sewer system, poor schools and an unemployment rate near 50 percent"--but no mention is made of the source of those problems. Especially occluded from the article is the one hundred year history of U.S. Puerto Rico relations, which includes bloody repression of Independence movements that sought to correct such inequality and privation.

In an interview with Steven Ratiner, Espada explains

I begin my book with a series of historical poems concerning the island of Puerto Rico for two basic reasons. First, the need. My sense of the educational system of this country--having been through it myself and also having taught in that system--is that it has in general no sense of history beyond `souvenir history,' the kind of history that is commemorated every Fourth of July. A very superficial understanding of history. And that furthermore, there is no sense of the history of Puerto Rico whatsoever, which is not a coincidence. Any time a country is a colony of another . . . you can expect that the history of that people will be conveniently forgotten at best, and suppressed at worst.

My inclination is to argue that Andrew Jacobs and the New York Times fall somewhere in-between conveniently forgetting and actively suppressing Puerto Rican history. American reporters, as "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango" demonstrates, are notoriously at a loss for any deep understanding of the politics and history of Latin American countries. And although the occasion for the poem is El Salvador and not Puerto Rico, I would nevertheless like to read "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango" from the perspective of the erasure of history and requirements of imperialism evident in Jacobs' article and theorized by Espada above.

The poem begins with a woman, "with the tranquillity of shock," describing "the Army massacre" to a group of reporters. The massacre goes unnamed, though it could refer to the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town of El Mozote in 1981 by a battalion of soldiers trained and funded by the U.S. Army, and the woman achieves a level of tranquillity, partly because such massacres were (are) all-too common. "The historic role of the United States in El Salvador," Howard Zinn writes, "was to make sure governments were in power there that would support U.S. business interests." Part of that historic role involved training, funding, and propping up undemocratically elected governments that committed frequent human rights abuses against their citizens in efforts to consolidate power.

The description of the massacre in Espada's poem, though, belies the lack of material evidence--"there were no peasant corpses,/ no white crosses..."--and reporters fill their notebooks with rows of words but mutter skeptically "that slaughter/ Is only superstition/ In a land of new treaties and ballot boxes." The reporters reluctantly record the history, but a history that (for them) has no meaning beyond myth and superstition. Further, they've come to believe their own lies: that new treaties and ballot boxes, metonymies for new (U.S. supported) government regimes, have ushered in a new age of democratic elections and reforms that make obsolete the violent past. Except that the "new treaties and ballot boxes" simply continued, at least in El Salvador, political corruption and violent repression. Reporters, and by extension the American readers of their reports, are unwilling or unable to make sense of history and its relation to the present (abuses)--a point the second stanza of Espada's poem dramatizes:

Everyone gathered mangoes Before leaving. An American reporter, Arms crowded with fruit, could not see What he kicked jutting from the ground. He glanced down and found his sneaker Pressing against the forehead Of a human yellow skull, yellow Like the flesh of a mango.

The American's arm crowded with fruit suggests the process of exploitation by American businesses, which had to rely on government repression to insure their presence. Further, the American reporter, in this process, unknowingly kicks up the past, a skull from a peasant's corpse, the skull whose absence disappoints everyone in the first stanza. The stanza makes an explicit connection between economic imperialism and government massacre--and finally a connection to the inability of American reporters to grasp that connection, thus making shoddy and obeisant journalism complicit in both economic imperialism and government massacre. That is a theme continued in the final section:

He wondered how many skulls Are crated with the mangoes For sale at market, how many Grow yellow flesh and green skin In the wooden boxes exported To the States. This would explain, He said to me, Why so many bodies Are found without heads In El Salvador.

The reporter attempts to make a joke out of the connection between decapitated bodies and the exporting of fruit to the United States--indeed, he can imagine no other historical or political explanation for decapitated bodies in El Salvador. The irony, though, is that his joke is precisely the relation between foreign exploitation, American consumption, and political violence. "The Skull Beneath the Mango," to borrow from Marx, resists reifying the commodity, instead showing the relations between individuals--repression and slaughter--that mask themselves as innocent products, mangoes. The reporter, who has all the pieces, literally stumbles over history and the material evidence (skulls beneath mangoes) that would allow him to make the connections. Espada's poem, then, does the historical and critical work that the American reporter is unwilling or incapable of doing--an unwillingness and incapacity that does not (witness "Small Island Becomes Bug Rallying Cry") require much effort to establish, but does (witness the continued abuses and inequality in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries) perpetuate naivete and American complicity with those abuses.

Copyright © 2001 by John Marsh