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.
En la esquina Photo by Frank Espada The Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, 1979-81
Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World
For the community of Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty students and six educators lost their lives to a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012
Now the bells speak with their tongues of bronze. Now the bells open their mouths of bronze to say: Listen to the bells a world away. Listen to the bell in the ruins of a city where children gathered copper shells like beach glass, and the copper boiled in the foundry, and the bell born in the foundry says: I was born of bullets, but now I sing of a world where bullets melt into bells. Listen to the bell in a city where cannons from the armies of the Great War sank into molten metal bubbling like a vat of chocolate, and the many mouths that once spoke the tongue of smoke form the one mouth of a bell that says: I was born of cannons, but now I sing of a world where cannons melt into bells.
Listen to the bells in a town with a flagpole on Main Street, a rooster weathervane keeping watch atop the Meeting House, the congregation gathering to sing in times of great silence. Here the bells rock their heads of bronze as if to say: Melt the bullets into bells, melt the bullets into bells. Here the bells raise their heavy heads as if to say: Melt the cannons into bells, melt the cannons into bells. Here the bells sing of a world where weapons crumble deep in the earth, and no one remembers where they were buried. Now the bells pass the word at midnight in the ancient language of bronze, from bell to bell, like ships smuggling news of liberation from island to island, the song rippling through the clouds.
Now the bells chime like the muscle beating in every chest, heal the cracks in the bell of every face listening to the bells. The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the moon. The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the world.
Young Man Holding Puerto Rican Flag Photo by Frank Espada The Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, 1979-81
Martín and his father, Frank Espada, 1964
For Frank Espada (1930-2014)
The Spanish means: I died, I lived. In Puerto Rico, the leaves of el moriviví close in the dark and open at first light. The fronds curl at a finger’s touch and then unfurl again. My father, a mountain born of mountains, the tallest Puerto Rican in New York, who scraped doorways, who could crack the walls with the rumble of his voice, kept a moriviví growing in his ribs. He would die, then live.
My father spoke in the tongue of el moriviví, teaching me the parable of Joe Fleming, who screwed his lit cigarette into the arms of the spics he caught, flapping like fish. My father was a bony boy, the nerves in his back crushed by the Aiello Coal and Ice Company, the load he lifted up too many flights of stairs. Three times they would meet to brawl for a crowd after school. The first time, my father opened his eyes to gravel and the shoes of his enemy. The second time, he rose and dug his arm up to the elbow in the monster’s belly, so badly did he want to tear out the heart and eat it. The third time, Fleming did not show up, and the boys with cigarette burns clapped their spindly champion on the back, all the way down the street. Fleming would become a cop, fired for breaking bones in too many faces. He died smoking in bed, a sheet of flame up to his chin.
There was a moriviví sprouting in my father’s chest. He would die, then live. He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail, called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town, his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck. He would come to know the jailhouse again, among hundreds of demonstrators ferried by police to Hart Island on the East River, where the city of New York stacks the coffins of anonymous and stillborn bodies. Here, Confederate prisoners once wept for the Stars and Bars; now, the prisoners sang Freedom Songs.
The jailers outlawed phone calls, so we were sure my father must be a body like the bodies rolling waterlogged in the East River, till he came back from the island of the dead, black hair combed meticulously. When the riots burned in Brooklyn night after night, my father was a peacemaker on the corner with a megaphone. A fiery chunk of concrete fell from the sky and missed his head by inches. My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging bullets. He spoke at a rally with Malcolm X, incantatory words billowing through the bundled crowd, lifting hands and faces. Teach, they cried. My father clicked a photograph of Malcolm as he bent to hear a question, finger pressed against the chin. Two months later the assassins stampeded the crowd to shoot Malcolm, blood leaping from his chest as he fell. My father would die too, but then he would live again, after every riot, every rally, every arrest, every night in jail, the change from his pockets landing hard on the dresser at 4 AM every time I swore he was gone for good.
My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die, then live. He drifted off at the wheel, drove into a guardrail, shook his head and walked away without a web of scars or fractures. He passed out from the heat in the subway, toppled onto the tracks, and somehow missed the third rail. He tied a white apron across his waist to open a grocery store, pulled a revolver from the counter to startle the gangsters demanding protection, then put up signs for a clearance sale as soon as they backed out the door with their hands in the air. When the family finally took a vacation in the mountains of the Hudson Valley, a hotel with waiters in white jackets and white paint peeling in the room, the roof exploded in flame, as if the ghost of Joe Fleming and his cigarette trailed us everywhere, and it was then that my father appeared in the smoke, like a general leading the charge in battle, shouting commands at the volunteer fire company, steering the water from the hoses, since he was immune to death by fire or water, as if he wore the crumbled leaves of el moriviví in an amulet slung around his neck.
My brother called to say el moriviví was gone. My father tore at the wires, the electrodes, the IV, saying that he wanted to go home. The hospital was a jailhouse in Mississippi. The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded the chambers of his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film, the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives.
Photo by David González
Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published almost twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new collection of poems from Norton is calledVivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006),Alabanza (2003), A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000),Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993) and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands(1990). His many honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, an American Book Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and will be issued in a new edition by Northwestern University Press. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston’s Latino community, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.