En La Tradición: Reflecting on the Legacy of Frank Espada in an Age of Erasure

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Photo: Frank Espada

By: Rich Villar

In the tradition of
All of us, in an unending everywhere at the same time line…

-Amiri Baraka, “In The Tradition”

The room is filled with your mentors—those without whom there is no Nuyorican, no Young Lords, no activist decades to study, or even romanticize. These are the men and women who made you who you are: a poet, able to speak with immediacy and clarity.

They are gathered at El Puente Center for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg, a community organization built to support and defend the historically Puerto Rican community en los Sures, a neighborhood beset by rampant gentrification and population change. It is also a neighborhood, as essayist Vanessa Mártir points out, in which new residents have openly mused to reporters: “There’s nothing Puerto Rican here.”

If that were ever true, it is certainly not true at El Puente. In the front row is Elba Cabrera, la Madrina de las Artes. The writer and former public television producer, Pancho Cintrón, is going over what he wants to read. The Agüeros family, still mourning their father Jack, are attending to Natalia’s and Chris’ new baby. Frances Lucerna and Luis Gárden Acosta, who run El Puente, are greeting guests. Nuyorican poet Sandra María Esteves is in the building, as are two college presidents: Victor Alicea and Ricardo Fernández. Photographers are present. Eduardo López, who directed Harvest of Empire, is present and on the program. Political figures and old school activists are present. And seated down front is Martín Espada, who asked you to host this thing in the first place. Everyone is here to pay tribute to his father, Frank Espada, our most brilliant documentarian, whose photography and activism paved the way for literally everyone in the room. Everybody is family. Everybody is Boricua.

You are friends with most of them. They thank you for doing this thing. You don’t how to start saying My pleasure. No problem. It’s my honor. It’s all too much.

Try this: You are a Latino poet in a nation that practices erasure, both of people and their literature, on a daily basis. You are a politicized Puerto Rican writer in a literary culture that would prefer you to stick to safer narratives—or, barring that, to shut up. You are told to separate your activism from your art. Who tells you this? On any given day, it changes: the critic who depoliticizes you and your mentors; the publisher who will not take a chance on your story; the academic who recontextualizes your history. Claim any sort of ethnic identifier, and you and your art will be classified without forethought. You are Puerto Rican, invisible, claiming a nationality from a place that is not a nation. You are here to work and rise above. You are here to assimilate.

And you find yourself surrounded by the people who have rejected that narrative for better than fifty years. None of them asked permission. All of them bear something on their faces. There is weariness, but there is hope. There’s an unkillable knowing in this room. You can literally feel it when José Joaquín García sings “El Yunque y El Cordero,” Pedro Ortíz Dávila’s nationalist anthem, without a microphone:

Pero en vez de imitar a la montaña,
somos débil reflejo del Cordero,
y da rabia mirar cómo se ensañan
traidores y extranjeros con mi pueblo.

Dónde vamos, qué esperamos, qué queremos,
ya está bien de esclavitud: van cuatro siglos.
Ya está bueno de ser como el Cordero:
seamos como el Yunque de Luquillo.

These are not people defeated, caricatured, or dishonored. This is a roomful of dignified gente, and you’re one of them. The moment tends to work itself through your pores, into your bone marrow, and stays there. You are at the center of a shift, history making itself.

Then, in the week following, the shooting of women in California by a rampaging misogynist. An article in the New York Times about Latinos increasingly identifying as white. Your own cousin held at gunpoint in North Carolina, her subsequent witnessing of her assailant’s murder.

The reminders come. You witness patriarchy, racism, and violence, and it affects your community disproportionately. And then, as if you needed something else to tell you what must come next, the poet Maya Angelou passes away, on the heels of your friend, the poet Joe Gouveia. The need rises inside you to write, and agitate.

You want to call this a burden, but that’s not the word.


Frank Espada

I’m sitting home now, holding a copy of Frank Espada’s magnum opus, his photo essay The Puerto Rican Diaspora. Eduardo López, his former darkroom assistant, spoke about Frank’s use of bleach and pencil-thin paint brushes to bring out faces and scenery. Flipping through the book is an arts education all by itself. His is the level of exacting detail—the careful execution of subject, tone, editing, and historical longevity—that good poets strive toward. Frank Espada did not call himself a poet, but I know this is the poetics lesson he gave to his son, and to me.

In an era when no one wanted to look at pictures of Puerto Ricans, Frank told our stories anyway. We were not the Sharks of any Broadway musical. In Frank’s photographs, we are a people surviving and thriving in the cities that wanted us erased. He shows the worlds in which we worked and created, where we raised families and struggled. He tells the histories of East New York, Chicago, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and even the Boricua community in Hawaii. As Luis said in that rousing opening tribute, introducing Frank’s photographs: “What you will see are posters and visuals urging us, empowering us, to struggle for peace and justice. And, driving that struggle, celebrating the struggle, reinforcing the struggle is our art and our culture.”

If a poet is supposed to give voice to the voiceless, then Frank Espada gave a face to the faceless.

Frank’s face was there too, in the person of his son Martín—without question, the greatest champion of his father’s legacy. In poetry, and in the impassioned memory of a son missing his father, Martín spoke to us of the need to keep the fires lit—the same ones that built El Puente, and drove Frank Espada’s life.

“How do we carry on the legacy of the generation now passing before our eyes?” Martín writes in the speech he presented. “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.”

More than one teacher has told me to repress this instinct—that art can be anything it wants to be, so no need to lower it to the level of politics. If what they mean by politics is the base political jabbering on the average cable news show, then they might be right. But we are Puerto Ricans not simply living in the social media age. We are living in a new era of erasure and assimilation, and we must be the artists who resist it. So, I will follow in one of the grandest artistic traditions of the 20th Century. Cuentame en la tradición de Frank Espada, de la Gran Generación Puertorriqueña, unburdened by the work waiting to be done, insisting.


Rich Villar is a freelance writer, editor, and curator originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He is the author of the poetry collection Comprehending Forever (Willow Books, 2014), and his poetry and essays have appeared in Black Renaissance Noire, Hanging Loose, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sou’wester. He is a co-founder of Acentos, a grassroots project fostering audiences for Latino/a literature since 2003.

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