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He'd Do It Again

Melinda Palacio -- April 23, 2011

I sat down with poet Martín Espada at the recent Border Book Festival in Mesilla, New Mexico. Among other things, we discussed Espada's new book, The Trouble Ball, Norton 2011.

In the poetry collection he dedicated a poem to Denise Chávez. The "found poem" was actually culled from Chávez's often lengthy emails regarding all things having to do with the Mesilla Cultural Center, the Border Book Festival and the surrounding areas of Las Cruces, El Paso, and beyond. Pay attention next time someone sends you a thoughtful and thorough email.

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

For Espada the challenge of a found poem is in the title. "The title carries information the way a mule carries water," he said. In the poem, "Mr. and Mrs. Rodríguez Have Been Deported, Leaving Six Children Behind with the Neighbors," the title says it all. In Espada's words, "in contrast with the heated rhetoric against immigration, the poem's understated directive sums up the inhumanity and real devastation of immigration policies and social attitudes."

The Trouble Ball is dedicated to four of Espada's mentors who have passed on. The title poem mourns the joy taken away from his father, Frank Espada, who wanted to see the great Black ballplayers, such as Satchel Paige who pitched in Puerto Rico for the Brujos of Guayama, but was not allowed to play in the major leagues, still segregated in 1941, when the eleven year old Frank Espada went to his first big-league game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

In dedicating poems to each of his mentors, Espada goes one step further than the traditional elegy. Instead of focusing on a tribute to lifelong achievements or overall character, Espada writes about the turning point that made the individual who he was. For his friend Adrian Mitchell, the turning point is the poet's discovery of Walt Whitman.

Most of the elegies in the collection celebrate life, with the exception of the poem, "Isabel's Corrido." This poem recently appeared in La Bloga's On-Line Floricanto and is the true story of a young Espada's (age 23) first wife. Espada's personal story humanizes issues that confront Arizona's immigration policies and laws that were recently blocked by the US Court of Appeals. "Isabel's Corrido" was the last poem added to The Trouble Ball. It took Espada decades to be able to write about the woman, for whom he had developed feelings. The marriage may have been seen as a necessity or a convenience, but Isabel's death remains a tragedy. Espada continues to be haunted by Isabel's treatment by her neighbors and society.

"I finally wrote the poem, not only to address issues of my own guilt over what could have been done differently thirty years ago, but also to address the ongoing dehumanization of immigrants in this country today. Poetry has a power to humanize that few other media can match."

In his reading last Saturday in Mesilla, Espada reiterated what he foresees for our nation:

"History will judge us as a society by how we treat immigrants today. We have to begin with the power of the word, vocalizing what we feel, giving immigration a human face. Among other things, this is a poem about the defiance of an unjust law."

Espada's last words to the packed audience echoed the poem: "I'd do it again."

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.