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Photo of Martin Espada, poet, and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Credit: Ram Devineni.
Photo of Martin Espada, poet, and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Credit: Ram Devineni.

Martín Espada is the first Latino to win the Ruth Lilly poetry prize

Martín Espada, the "mythological" Puerto Rican poet/lawyer, has achieved the dream of many by becoming the first Latino to receive the Ruth Lilly poetry prize…

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“In the Republic of poetry,

the guard at the airport

will not allow you to leave the country

until you declaim a poem for her

and she says Ah! Beautiful.

Martín Espada

 

Martín Espada's dream has come true in many ways.

His career as a poet has been honored, becoming the first Latino to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize – an honor to living American poets with an exceptional career, according to the press release of the Poetry Foundation, in charge of awarding the prize.

But his work as an activist and as a "poet/lawyer" dedicated to the struggle of the most defenseless has also been recognized through a complete work that reflects the intersection of American culture and the melancholic baggage of the Latino that emerges beyond labels.

"Martín Espada’s work and life tell the real and lived story of America," said Poetry Magazine editor Don Share, "(a story) in which the importance of poems and legal rights go hand in hand.”

Espada (61), of Puerto Rican descent, is an English teacher at UMass Amherst, and his award marks a milestone in the expectations of many who hope to make a living as poets. This is the first time that the Ruth Lilly Prize has been awarded to a Latino since its foundation in 1986.

Born in Brooklyn, the poet graduated in history from the University of Wisconsin, and in law from Northeastern, as the Boston Globe recalls. His career as a lawyer included work at Su Clínica Legal, a legal services platform "for low-income tenants and Spanish-speakers in Chelsea," the paper continues.

The statement of the Poetry Foundation recalls that "Martín Espada has dedicated himself to the pursuit of social justice, fighting for the rights of Latino/a communities and reclaiming the historical record from oblivion. His greatest influence is his father, Frank Espada, a community organizer, civil rights activist, and documentary photographer who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project”.

Institutions such as the Pulitzer Prize, for which he was the second runner-up with his 2006 collection “The Republic of Poetry”, have recognized his work as a poet.

In his interview with Gabriel Thompson, Espada recognizes that "poetry isn’t just about history (…) it’s also about whatever we need to address right now", referring to his last poem "A Letter to My Father" about the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and "followed by more devastation in the form of government neglect, fueled by a racist, colonial mentality."

Espada revives "the frustration and heartbreak" when seeing the images of the destruction of the town of Utuado (where his family comes from) that was what finally inspired his poem, and analyzes the historical and idiosyncratic background of the situation:

"Donald Trump is a New Yorker born in 1946, raised with the stereotypes of Puerto Ricans endemic in the generation that followed World War II. The primary stereotype was the myth of Puerto Ricans on welfare. I grew up with the same stereotypes, at the same time, in the same city. The difference is that he internalized the stereotypes, and I saw them refuted everywhere, including in my own activist household. When he tweeted that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them, this is what he meant. Now, however, this stereotype has lethal consequences."

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