I Had to Tell You
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Martín Espada’s poem “Letter to My Father” appears in the March 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
When I opened the March issue of Poetry, my right hand began to shake.
“Letter to My Father,” my poem in the March 2018 issue, speaks of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María, especially in the mountain town of Utuado. My father, Frank Espada, was born in Utuado. My grandmother, Luisa Roig, was born in Utuado. My great-grandfather, Buenaventura Roig, was the mayor of Utuado. My cousin, Gisela Conn, says that Utuado is “la cuña”—the cradle—of the family.
Jon Lee Anderson, writing in the New Yorker, says: “The municipality of Utuado ... has become a byword for the island’s devastation, an equivalent to New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.”
I wrote “Letter to My Father” in October 2017. My father died in February 2014.
The poem evolved from the practice of talking to my father’s earthly remains, the ashes that sit in a box on my bookshelf. Said Gisela: “I loved your father, but I’m glad he’s dead. If he were alive, this would kill him.”
My words to my father in the poem—and his words back to me, words he actually said in life, be they lyrical or bitter—perpetuate the illusion that he is still alive, as long as I can keep up the conversation. I write to him as if he is still here—and yet I report the devastation of his birthplace as if he has no way to know what happens here, in the land of the living, in Puerto Rico, an island he loved with such ferocity that he kissed the ground when he returned after many years’ absence.
Poetry arrived a few days after the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. The poem folds out of the journal lengthwise, not in half as I expected, but in thirds—like a letter hidden in a book. Unfolding the page, I felt a tremor in my right hand.
This is how the dead speak to us, not from heaven or hell, not through a spirit medium on the boardwalk, but through lost letters found folded into books, or delicately pressed into those pages like dried petals of paper and words. Yet, this is not my father’s letter to me, from the dead to the living, but my letter to him, flying in the wrong direction, from the living to the dead.
This letter is for him, but not for him. This is an open letter, a public declaration full of the intimate details, shared experience, and hard-earned confessions characteristic of private correspondence. I read the poem at “Poets for Puerto Rico: A Reading for Hurricane Relief” in New York City on November 4, 2017. The gathering at Poets House raised more than $5,000 for Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, a grassroots community kitchen providing desperately needed meals on the island.
The official government death toll as a result of Hurricane María stood at sixty-four by the end of last year, while independent journalistic investigations placed the actual death toll at well over a thousand. The failure to count the bodies piling up in morgues across the island serves a propagandistic purpose, conveying the impression that the situation is well in hand, that the crisis has been averted, that Trump, FEMA, and the governor of Puerto Rico rose up to slay the hurricane. The failure to count the bodies—as if the dead were enemies in wartime—also has ominous implications: the slackening of public attention, a plunge in funding and material aid for Puerto Rico.
Now, the island fades from the headlines, slipping like Atlantis beneath the waves of public consciousness as if it never existed. The poem is a letter folded into a book, a poet’s dissent from the official story, a reminder that the humanitarian crisis is far from over, a testimony to those “who have been waiting on line for centuries to get into history,” as Eduardo Galeano put it.
Demagogues have their own poetry. They act out metaphors. Trump tossed paper towels to a crowd of hurricane survivors in Guaynabo—where, as the poem notes, my cousin Ricardo lives—in a gesture of megalomania and contempt for the subjects of empire. The poem imagines him as a roll of paper towels, soaking in a rainstorm, exposing the hollow cardboard core at the center. Some may read this image as magical realism. This is not magical realism. We are real.
The president was born in 1946. A New Yorker of his generation grew up with the stereotypes of Puerto Ricans endemic to that city in the twenty-five years of migration following WWII. A decade separates us. I grew up with the same stereotypes, at the same time and in the same city, the difference being that Trump internalized those racist caricatures, and I saw those caricatures refuted everywhere, especially in my activist household. My father was an organizer in the East New York section of Brooklyn, a leader of the Puerto Rican community, a photographer who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project.
When Trump tweeted that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them,” he was invoking the hoary myth of Puerto Ricans on welfare, lazily shunning labor. Now, however, this myth, lacking only the sombrero and cactus of its drowsing Mexican counterpart, forms the foundation of criminally negligent social policy. Thousands of Puerto Ricans, well aware of Trump’s sneering, organized themselves into “brigadas,” work brigades armed with shovels and machetes to clear away the wreckage, opening the roads to Utuado and much more.
The reference to these brigades in the poem also indicates an awareness of “the last uprising.” There was a Nationalist rebellion in 1950, demanding independence from the United States. U.S. warplanes bombed Utuado. The authorities marched Nationalist prisoners to the Utuado police station and shot five of them dead.
This is not Puerto Rico’s first hurricane. Colonialism is a hurricane. Debt is a hurricane. Trump is a hurricane. After Hurricane María, a sign rose in Utuado, as it rises in the poem: Campamento los Olvidados: Camp of the Forgotten. The sign articulates an ethical imperative not to forget, to bear witness, to tell whatever we know with urgency. I had to tell my father. I had to tell you.
As a poet, essayist, translator, editor, and attorney, Martín Espada has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice, including fighting for human rights and reclaiming the historical record. His critically acclaimed collections of poetry celebrate—and lament—the working class experience. Whether narrating the struggles of immigrants as...