Martín Espada on banned books, poetry, and resistance


Martín Espada & Odilia Galván Rodríguez will read from their work tomorrow night as part of the UA Humanities Festival. After the reading, there will be a panel, moderated by Mari Herreras, about poetry and resistance. In particular, the poets will talk about Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, an anthology edited by Rodríguez and Francisco X. Alarcón. The anthology collected poems in response to Arizona S.B. 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine immigration status of a person who is detained or arrested based on "reasonable suspicion" that person is undocumented. The aspects of this law that activists say encourage racial profiling are still in effect. Espada will also speak about Arizona H.B. 2281, a law which banned the Mexican American studies program in Arizona public schools. H.B. 2281 was recently ruled unconstitutional. We recently asked Espada to talk more about these issues.


Martín, thanks for taking the time to talk with us about poetry and resistance.


You’re very welcome.


Your book Zapata’s Disciple was part of the banned curriculum through HB 2281. How did you feel about your work being taught as part of the Mexican American studies program in Arizona? In what ways did that seem like a good fit and home for that work?


I was glad and proud to have my work taught as part of the Mexican American studies program in Tucson. I am a Puerto Rican writer, but the book in question, Zapata’s Disciple, is a collection of poems and essays that also deals with issues relevant to the Mexican American community: immigration and the immigrants I served as a tenant lawyer in Greater Boston; bilingualism and the repression of the Spanish language in the schools; racist violence committed by the state against those who perceived to be dangerous. The “Zapata’s Disciple” of the title is actually my father, Frank Espada. The journalist James Graham, in his book The Enemies of the Poor, witnessed my father’s work as a community organizer in Brooklyn back in the 1960s and compared him to a guerrilla-disciple of Zapata, the famed Mexican revolutionary. I always understood, from the beginning, that the Puerto Rican struggle and the Mexican-American struggle had much in common.


How did you find out that your work was being banned? Did you hear from students during this time?


I found out relatively late that my work had been banned, from in article in The Progressive magazine in 2012. I urged the editor of the magazine to publish the responses of writers whose work had been banned in Tucson. And that’s what happened. Here is my statement:


"Another Bomb Threat in Tucson


In January (2012), 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."


Your work has continuously been challenged because it has been seen as “too political” – one of your essays speaks to the experience of being censored by NPR. How has the HB 2281 ban and this continuous censorship affected you and your work?


As I say in an introductory essay to the new edition of Zapata’s Disciple:


"Being a banned author is not as romantic as it might seem. The dirty secret is that book banning works in this country, as a legal, political, economic and educational tactic. Most of the time, we never learn what books have been banned, or where, or why.  There is no need for the burning of books in the public square, with blackshirts jackbooting around the fire in triumph. The process of suppressing books is typically quiet, hidden and perversely polite. By comparison, what happened in Arizona was the equivalent of a marching band falling down a flight of stairs.

A book has a life span, and, contrary to popular belief, the banning of a book shortens that life span. The banning of a book does not instantly turn that book into a bestseller. Television crews do not camp out on the front lawn.

Books go out of print. Publishers, especially small press publishers, go out of business. Writers die—and when a writer dies, most of the time, the writer’s work dies with the writer.


Exposing the suppression of a book is necessary, but not sufficient.  The sales of Zapata’s Disciple did not spike in 2012 when the book appeared on the list of books banned as part of the Mexican-American Studies curriculum in Tucson.  Sales for that year may have spiraled into the high two figures.  In July 2014, the publisher, South End Press, declared bankruptcy. Sales of all South End books, including this book, ended abruptly, not with a bang, but with bankruptcy.  


But for the timely intervention of Northwestern University Press and editor Gianna Francesca Mosser—who approached me a year after South End’s demise about reissuing a new edition under the Curbstone imprint—this book would have dissolved into the dim stacks of a few libraries and used bookstores, themselves threatened with extinction.  Bearing in mind the life and brief death of this particular book, I wonder how many books on that list have disappeared in the last four years, not only from the classrooms of Tucson but from circulation everywhere."


Poets across time have tackled politics in their writing. What do you think it means to be a “political poet”? To “resist” as a poet?


To be a “political poet” means both to bear witness and to act as an advocate. The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano articulated the impulse to advocacy this way: “I write for those who cannot read me.” Indeed, I write for those who do know, and those who do. How could I know what I know, and not tell what I know?


We live in an age of hyper-euphemism (i.e. “alt-right”), where words increasingly become divorced from meaning. We all crave meaning. Poets can and do reconcile words with meaning. If phrases like “alt-right” drain blood from words, poets can and do put the blood back in the words. That is an act of resistance.


Of course, poets can resist in many ways. Like others, we must organize ourselves, get out in the streets, get into the corridors of power. And make noise.


At tonight’s event, you’ll also be talking about writing in the time of SB 1070. Can you say more about this?


SB 1070 and HB 2281 are inextricably linked. They are two wings of the same vulture. They are two branches of the same poisonous tree. The law is anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Latino/a, and anti-human, antithetical to the principles of empathy that this country allegedly embraces. (As such, it is perfectly consistent with the culture of Trump, a president utterly lacking in empathy for the hurricane victims of Puerto Rico.)


I was grateful to be included in the Poetry of Resistance anthology that arose in opposition to SB 1070, and I will read my poem included in the anthology, “Isabel’s Corrido,” at the event. I owe many thanks to the editors, Odilia Galván Rodríguez and Francisco Alarcón. It is, after all, the same struggle.


Thank you!