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Modern Essays by East Coast Latinos
Reviewed by Gary Soto

Zapata’s Disciple, essays, by Martín Espada
South End Press, $14.00 paper; 142 pages

Something to Declare by Julia Alvarez
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $20.95 hard; 300 pages

Martín Espada, a poet and former bilingual education lawyer serves up personal interpretations of race and social class, particularly Puerto Rican. The title, though, leads us to conjure up Mexico with smoking pistola. Zapata is indeed at the heart of these eleven essays, all tidy in length, finely rendered in logic, and caring but not sniveling for his subjects. Espada delivers like the poet he has become. For starters, his poetic irony is contained in a few titles: “Zapata’s Disciple and Perfect Brie,” “The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son,” “The Good Liar Meets His Executioners,” “The Poetics of Commerce: The Nike Poetry Slam,” and “All Things Censored: The Poem NPR Doesn’t Want You to Hear.” From the get-go, we’re intrigued.

The initial essay, “Zapata and the Perfect Brie,” pays homage to the poet’s father, namely Frank Espada, a former electrician and now noted photographer, who was and probably still is a man of firm convictions. The essay starts off with a brief description of his father in December 1949, in Biloxi, Mississippi and his refusal to sit in the back of the bus. It’s this refusal which led to his father’s one-week stay in the county jail, Espada says, and from “which I evolved, as son and poet, contributing to my awareness of class and its punishments.”

The essay is in part about his father, but also Martín’s own years of growing up in the 60s in the projects of East New York and, later, in the seemingly soft suburbs of Long Island, where he was kicked around for being Puerto Rican. Adolescent hazing? Ethnic hazing? Who knows, finally, but such taunts led him to write poetry in order to “explain myself to myself.”

We are engaged by Espada’s personality; we learn about his odd jobs as janitor, door-to-door salesman, pizza cook, car washer, bouncer, and caretaker in a primate laboratory; he lets us in on his literary leanings toward Neruda, Clemente Soto Vélez, Claribel Alegria, Eduardo Galeano, among others.
We pick up on Espada’s hatred of snobs, particularly literary snobs. He writes about judging a literary contest and coming across a manuscript of vacation poems and the poet’s claims of having gone to Paris and “lunched on perfect Brie.” The problem, of course, is not brie in itself (hell, I like it), but the poetic expenditure of savoring brie on crackers in a foreign country. Is this the epitome of travel? This irks Espada to no end. It irks him because it’s a literary life that rings of fakery.

Espada presents opinions about bilingual education, Rodney King, NPR, Nike the shoe maker, politics and the poetic imagination, and cultural warfare — not unlike Zapata, he intends to defend ground no one else dares touch. And unlike other poets from his generation, poets who relish literary gibberish, Espada bravely confronts issues that others only read about in newspapers. He argues in favor of multiculturalism, which he thinks scares universities as well as the middle class; he argues that institutions, no matter how muscular with talent or academic brilliance, are not immune to the forces outside their confines, meaning the world outside the classroom. Universities are, indeed, think tanks — mobile at times when the scholars take the show on the road — and Espada believes it’s time for the academy to bring some knowledge to the people who, after all, help sustain it in such places.

Alvarez’s essays — all twenty-four, equally divided under the headings “customs” and “declarations” —   are what I can describe as delightful. I feel as though I’m sipping a cup of Earl Grey as I describe her books with such a word — ah, simply delightful. But it’s about the truest observation I’m going to make today. These essays, elegant but never pretentious, examine her life from her childhood in the Dominican Republic and New York to her completed promise of being a full-time writer living knee-deep in the Vermont snow.

The “customs” part scans her years in the Dominican Republic and her life in New York and beyond. The section advances more or less chronologically, beginning with the whimsical essay, “Grandfather’s Blessing,” which is a preamble of things to come. As a child of six, she wished first to be a bullfighter, next a cowboy, then an actress (well, of course, for she is described by her mother as a chatterbox), and, finally, a writer — all of these career leaps within a single year.

Alvarez is one of four daughters from a family of intelligent and worldly folk. Her father was a doctor and her grandfather a world traveler who had seen London, Madrid, and Rome, and enjoyed a stint as a cultural attaché with the United Nations. Her mother was schooled in Boston. Books crowded her household; her grandfather recited poetry in clips here and there, and her spinster aunts enjoyed the opera.

But her sweet childhood comes to an abrupt end in “Our Papers,” a piece about her family under the political watch of the SIM, Dominican dictator Trujillo’s unofficial regiment of thugs. They move to the United States where Julia discovers almost immediately that she likes her new surroundings and wants to be “American,” in spite of spats of racism from her classmates. During her adolescent years, as she reflects, she felt “embarrassed by the ethnicity that rendered me colorful and an object of derision to those who would not have me be a part of their culture...” — a common experience of immigrant children of the sixties. In time, Alvarez loses her ability to speak Spanish (“Did you eat an English Parrot?” her grandfather asks) and falls into the readily available American pastimes, including The Miss America Pageant on television. The program had a hold on everyone in the 60s, and her family was no different, all gathered on the bed, her father convinced that “personality” was the ultimate gauge for beauty. But his eyes bugged out at the fuller-shaped women.

There are essays about first opera, the loss of her native language Spanish, being a picky eater, and an imagined motherhood — she never had children. While these essays are charming recreations of her childhood and adulthood, this reviewer is drawn to the “declaration” part, in which she offers opinions regarding writing, literature, the monk-like poverty of writers, teaching, and, in short, her ars poetica. Perhaps Alvarez did swallow an English parrot, as her grandfather said, because there is so much to chew on in her handsomely wrought prose. There is literary ambivalence, too. She wavers about where she stands as an ethnic writer, admitting that she sweats over the questions audiences will at times ignorantly ask — does she write on “Latino subject matter,” in a “Latino style,” about “Latino concerns.” They won’t let her be just a writer.

We learn in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” of her vagabond teaching career of eighteen years, she a migrant scholar of sorts who went from one part-time teaching post to another in a half dozen states. Finally when she finds a home in a university and tenure, she gives it up — adios to the regular paycheck in spite of her own warnings that it’s a tough world out there for writers.

Unlike Espada, who seems a willing candidate to poke around politics and kick up dust at the drop of a hat, Alvarez is leery about spreading herself too thin. She is a writer first and foremost, and says that maybe a writer can do two things but no more. Playfully she takes roll of human abilities, summing up that she can write and be in a family; she can write and teach; she can write and do political work. But she can’t write, teach, fall in love, learn to cook new and fancy dishes, do political work, or take in a waif from the street. In other words, writing is at the core of her soul or, that old fashioned word, her “calling.”

Readers will be so pleased with her calling that when they reach the last page they will want to close the book for a day and open it once more and begin again.

Gary Soto is a poet, author of children's books and a frequent contributor to El Andar.

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