Skip to main content

June 19, 1998 -- Frank and Martin Espada share a legacy of struggle as a father and son who have endured jailings, disappearances and censorship. Among their crimes are committing poetry, art, rage and mercy.

Incidentally, they are Americans -- Puerto Ricans, to be precise.

The Espadas incarnate the nuances and possibilities of manhood when it is dedicated to justice. Their legacy defies assumptions about gender, race and power, both positional and personal. Martin notes the power of poetry from prisoners who write to him. "How do you prove you have a heart? You write a poem." 

Frank grew up in an era "where brown skin could be boiled for the leather of a vigilante's wallet," writes his son, Martin. At age 15, Frank organized Puerto Rican parents to demand English as second language instruction in New York City.  

In 1949, Frank was a soldier on furlough from San Antonio heading home to New York. Instead, he spent a week in jail in Biloxi, Miss., because he refused to go to the back of the bus. "I figured out what to do with the rest of my life (while) locked up with black people." On his return, he rode in the front of the bus. 

"Puerto Ricans 'hanged' themselves in jails all over Manhattan," recalls Frank. Job advertisements in newspapers instructed, "No Puerto Ricans need apply." 

Frank has been a leader in the civil rights movement since the 1950s, serving as a bridge between Puerto Ricans, Chicanos an  African-Americans. Martin, an attorney, poet, author and English professor at the University of Massachusetts, describes his father as the one-time leader of a million Puerto Ricans in New York City. 

As Frank said, "I gave up my creative years" to create a movement. After years of being in it, though, he was finally able to pursue his passion, photography, creating the stunning exhibit The Puerto Rican Diaspora. It has been shown 45 times, capturing the moments of a "tough people" who have been forged "by the prejudice in this country." He also merges his photograpy with his son's poetry.  

Frank was arrested and "disappeared" for five days in 1964 following a shutdown at the World's Fair in New York, when 800 people were arrested for protesting at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion because the brewery did not hire African-Americans or Puerto Ricans. The protestors used the time in in jail to organize seminars, recalled Frank. 

Martin thought his father was dead because no one knew where he was. After his release, Frank commenced his son's political education, taking him to rallies and meetings. "These were imprints on my imagination," said Martin.

Frank was once compared to a guerrilla teacher in Emiliano Zapata's army and inspired the title of Martin's forthcoming book of essays "Zapata's Disciple" (South End Press). Also in Martin's "lineage of consciousness" is a great-grandfather who was a leader in the Puerto Rican independence movement. 

As result of many civil rights legends coming to their home, Martin surmised that "boundaries are made to be crossed." In doing so, Martin's poem "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent," was censored for defending Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther on death row for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer.  

National Pubic Radio commissioned a poem and then refused to broadcast it "because it was about Mumia and because of its political sympathies," Martin said. NPR had canceled Mumia's radio commentaries, which critics claim was because of pressure by the Fraternal Order of Police and for fear of losing congressional funding. "Many people walk around with the delusion that they have freedom of speech," Martin said. 

One can see how the circle has been completed for these two. Upon hearing of NPR's action, Frank told Martin: "Oh, you know you like it ... I raised you for this kind of fight. Now go in there and fight." Despite a bomb threat in October 1996 at his Tucson, Ariz., reading, Martin read poetry outside, under a street lamp. 

Espada means sword in Spanish. In the legacy of these two swords is also another, Martin's son Clemente, who was once hospitalized for a serious illness. Upon hearing of his son's imminent recovery, Martin started translating for the ignored Guatemalan parents of another ill child in the hospital room. "I had to give thanks," he said. And then he wrote a poem, "Because Clemente Means Merciful."