Martín Espada

The Right Foot of Juan de Oñate

On the road to Taos, in the town of Alcalde, the bronze statue
of Juan de Oñate, the conquistador, kept vigil from his horse.
Late one night a chainsaw sliced off his right foot, stuttering
through the  ball of his ankle, as Oñate’s spirit scratched
and howled like a dog trapped within the bronze body.

Four centuries ago, after his cannon fire burst to burn hundreds
of bodies and blacken the adobe walls of the Acoma Pueblo,
Oñate wheeled on his startled horse and spoke the decree:
all Acoma males above the age of twenty-five would be punished
by amputation of the right foot. Spanish knives sawed through ankles;
Spanish hands tossed feet into piles like fish at the marketplace.
There was prayer and wailing in a language Oñate did not speak.

Now, at the airport in El Paso, across the river from Juárez,
another bronze statue of Oñate rises on a horse frozen in fury.
The city fathers smash champagne bottles across the horse’s legs
to christen the statue, and Oñate’s spirit remembers the chainsaw
carving through the ball of his ankle. The Acoma Pueblo still stands.
Thousands of brown feet walk across the border, the desert
of Chihuahua, the shallow places of the Río Grande, the bridges
from Juárez to El Paso. Oñate keeps watch, high on horseback
above the Río Grande, the law of the conquistador rolled
in his hand, helpless as a man with an amputated foot,
spirit scratching and howling like a dog within the bronze body. 

 

* This poem originally appeared in Hanging Loose #102 (2013). Reprinted by arrangment with the author. 

Isabel’s Corrido
                      Para Isabel

Francisca said: Marry my sister so she can stay in the country.
I had nothing else to do. I was twenty-three and always cold, skidding
in cigarette-coupon boots from lamppost to lamppost through January
in Wisconsin. Francisca and Isabel washed bed sheets at the hotel,
sweating in the humidity of the laundry room, conspiring in Spanish. 

I met her the next day. Isabel was nineteen, from a village where the elders
spoke the language of the Aztecs. She would smile whenever the ice pellets
of English clattered around her head. When the justice of the peace said
You may kiss the bride, our lips brushed for the first and only time.
The borrowed ring was too small, jammed into my knuckle.
There were snapshots of the wedding and champagne in plastic cups. 

Francisca said: The snapshots will be proof for Immigration.
We heard rumors of the interview: they would ask me the color
of her underwear. They would ask her who rode on top.
We invented answers and rehearsed our lines. We flipped through
Immigration forms at the kitchen table the way other couples
shuffled cards for gin rummy. After every hand, I’d deal again. 

Isabel would say: Quiero ver las fotos. She wanted to see the pictures
of a wedding that happened but did not happen, her face inexplicably 
happy, me hoisting a green bottle, dizzy after half a cup of champagne. 

Francisca said: She can sing corridos, songs of love and revolution
from the land of Zapata. All night Isabel sang corridos in a barroom
where no one understood a word. I was the bouncer and her husband,
so I hushed the squabbling drunks, who blinked like tortoises in the sun. 

Her boyfriend and his beer cans never understood why she married me.
Once he kicked the front door down, and the blast shook the house
as if a hand grenade detonated in the hallway. When the cops arrived,
I was the translator, watching the sergeant watching her, the inscrutable
squaw from every Western he had ever seen, bare feet and long black hair. 

We lived behind a broken door. We lived in a city hidden from the city.
When her headaches began, no one called a doctor. When she disappeared
for days, no one called the police. When we rehearsed the questions
for Immigration, Isabel would squint and smile. Quiero ver las fotos,
she would say. The interview was canceled, like a play on opening night
shut down when the actors are too drunk to take the stage. After she left,
I found her crayon drawing of a bluebird tacked to the bedroom wall. 

I left too, and did not think of Isabel again until the night Francisca called to say:
Your wife is dead. Something was growing in her brain. I imagined my wife
who was not my wife, who never slept beside me, sleeping in the ground,
wondered if my name was carved into the cross above her head, no epitaph
and no corrido, another ghost in a riot of ghosts evaporating from the skin
of dead Mexicans who staggered for days without water through the desert.

Thirty years ago, a girl from the land of Zapata kissed me once
on the lips and died with my name nailed to hers like a broken door.
I kept a snapshot of the wedding; yesterday it washed ashore on my desk. 

There was a conspiracy to commit a crime. This is my confession: I’d do it again.

 

*This poem appears in the collection The Trouble Ball (W.W. Norton, 2011). Reprinted by arrangement with the author.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Rodríguez Have Been Deported,

Leaving Six Children Behind With the Neighbors

Please donate shoes
to this family
care of the Mesilla Cultural Center.

Rodríguez family shoes sizes:

Marina, age 17: size 6
Rocío, age 15: size 5
Memo, age 13: size 7
Jesús, age 12: size 7
José, age 8: size 4
Ana, age 5: size 3

 

 

*This poem appears in the collection The Trouble Ball (W.W. Norton, 2011). Reprinted by arrangement with the author.


The Trouble Ball
         For my father, Frank Espada

In 1941, my father saw his first big league ballgame at Ebbets Field
in Brooklyn: the Dodgers and the Cardinals. My father took his father’s hand.
When the umpires lumbered on the field, the band in the stands
with a drum and trombone struck up a chorus of Three Blind Mice.
The peanut vendor shook a cowbell and hollered. The home team
raced across the diamond, and thirty thousand people shouted
all at once, as if an army of liberation rolled down Bedford Avenue.
My father shouted, too. He wanted to see The Trouble Ball.

On my father’s island, there were hurricanes and tuberculosis, dissidents in jail
and baseball. The loudspeakers boomed: Satchel Paige pitching for the Brujos
of Guayama.
From the Negro Leagues he brought the gifts of Baltasar the King;
from a bench on the plaza he told the secrets of a thousand pitches: The Trouble Ball,
The Triple Curve, The Bat Dodger, The Midnight Creeper, The Slow Gin Fizz,
The Thoughtful Stuff. Pancho Coímbre hit rainmakers for the Leones of Ponce;
Satchel sat the outfielders in the grass to play poker, windmilled three pitches
to the plate, and Pancho spun around three times. He couldn’t hit The Trouble Ball.

At Ebbets Field, the first pitch echoed in the mitt of Mickey Owen,
the catcher for the Dodgers who never let the ball escape his glove.
A boy off the boat, my father shelled peanuts, waiting for Satchel Paige
to steer his gold Cadillac from the bullpen to the mound, just as he would
navigate the streets of Guayama. Yet Satchel never tipped his cap that day.
¿Dónde están los negros? asked the boy. Where are the Negro players?
No los dejan, his father softly said. They don’t let them play here.
Mickey Owen would never have to dive for The Trouble Ball.

It was then that the only brown boy at Ebbets Field felt himself
levitate above the grandstand and the diamond, another banner
at the ballgame. From up high he could see that everyone was white,
and their whiteness was impossible, like snow in Puerto Rico,
and just as silent, so he could not hear the cowbell, or the trombone,
or the Dodger fans howling with glee at the bases-loaded double.
He understood why his father whispered in Spanish: everybody
in the stands might overhear the secret of The Trouble Ball.

At Ebbets Field in 1941, the Dodgers met the Yankees in the World Series.
Mickey Owen dropped the third strike with two outs in the ninth inning
of Game Four, flailing like a lobster in the grip of a laughing fisherman,
and the Yankees stamped their spikes across the plate to win. Brooklyn,
the borough of churches, prayed for his fumbling soul. This was the reason
statues of the Virgin leaked tears and the fathers of Brooklyn drank,
not the banishment of Satchel Paige to doubleheaders in Bismarck,
North Dakota. There were no rosaries or boilermakers for The Trouble Ball.

My father would return to baseball on 108th Street. He pitched for the Crusaders,
kicking high like Satchel, riding the team bus painted with four-leaf clovers, seasick
all the way to Hackensack or the Brooklyn Parade Grounds. One day he jammed
his wrist sliding into second, threw three more innings anyway, and never pitched again.
He would return to Ebbets Field to court my mother. The same year they were married
a waiter refused to serve them, a mixed couple sitting all night in the corner,
till my father hoisted him by his lapels and the waiter’s feet dangled in the air,
a puppet and his furious puppeteer. My father was familiar with The Trouble Ball.

I was born in Brooklyn in 1957, when the Dodgers packed their duffle bags
and left the city. A wrecking ball swung an uppercut into the face
of  Ebbets Field. I heard the stories: how my mother, lost in the circles
and diamonds of her scorecard, never saw Jackie Robinson accelerate
down the line to steal home. I wore my father’s glove until the day
I laid it down to lap the water from the fountain in the park. By the time
I raised my head, it was gone like Ebbets Field. I walked slowly home.
I had to tell my father I would never learn to catch The Trouble Ball.

There was a sign below the scoreboard at Ebbets Field: Abe Stark, Brooklyn’s
 Leading Clothier. Hit Sign, Win Suit.
Some people see that sign in dreams.
They speak of ballparks as cathedrals, frame the pennants from the game
where it began, Dodger blue and Cardinal red, and gaze upon the wall.
My father, who remembers everything, remembers nothing of that dazzling day
but this: ¿Dónde están los negros? No los dejan. His hair is white, and still
the words are there, like the ghostly imprint of stitches on the forehead
from a pitch that got away. It is forever 1941. It was The Trouble Ball.

 

*This poem appears in the collection The Trouble Ball (W.W. Norton, 2011). Reprinted by arrangement with the author.


Another Bomb Threat in Tucson

In January of this year, I read an article by Matt Rothschild on the website of The Progressive magazine called, "Banned in Tucson,” where I saw, for the first time, the reading list of the forbidden Mexican-American Studies Department.

One of my own books, Zapata's Disciple: Essays, turned out to be on the list. Indeed, this book has been banned before—by the Texas state penal system, on the grounds that it might incite the inmates to riot. Being banned in Tucson, however, is a far greater honor.

On the list of banned authors I am keeping company with the likes of César Chávez, James Baldwin, Henry David Thoreau and Howard Zinn, four great icons of resistance in this country. I am keeping company with ancestors. I am keeping company with some of the finest Latino and Latina writers alive today. May our words always trigger the sweating and babbling of bigots.

There is an essay in Zapata's Disciple called "The New Bathroom Policy in English High School.” This is how the essay ends:

On October 12th, 1996—Columbus Day—I gave a reading at a bookstore in Tucson, Arizona. The reading was co-sponsored by Derechos Humanos, a group that monitors human rights abuses on the Arizona-México border, and was coordinated with the Latino March on Washington that same day… At 7 PM, the precise time when the reading was to begin, we received a bomb threat. The police arrived with bomb-sniffing dogs, and sealed off the building. I did the reading in the parking lot, under a streetlamp. This is one of the poems I read that night, based on an actual exchange in a Boston courtroom:

Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings

Judge: Does the prisoner understand his rights?
Interpreter: ¿Entiende usted sus derechos?
Prisoner: ¡Pa'l carajo!
Interpreter: Yes.

I’d like to think that this tale of Tucson had something to do with the book being banned in Tucson, but this would give the censors too much credit. They need not read the books they ban. Theirs is the logic of fear, the reasoning of racism.

In fact, this book is banned because it appears on the reading list of the banned Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson. All I had to do to give offense was to appear on a list. Consider the almost ritualistic significance of lists to Joseph McCarthy and the repressive apparatus of McCarthyism.

In the end, this is just another bomb threat. All they have done is force us to evacuate the building. We will gather ourselves in the dark, and keep reading to each other in whatever light we can find.

 

Martín Espada

<em>Edit Libroafricante</em> Martín Espada

Martín Espada is the author of more than fifteen books. His latest collection of poems, The Trouble Ball (Norton), received the Milt Kessler Award and an International Latino Book Award. A previous book of poems, The Republic of Poetry (Norton), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (South End Press), has been banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Espada teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

(Photo credit: Patrick Sylvain)