Professor Martín Espada shares his poetry and passion for social justice at the 2021 Commonwealth Honors College plenary lecture

Students gain insight into the world of social justice through the creative work of the Puerto Rican poet

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By Corinne Arel, Collegian Correspondent

On Oct. 15, University of Massachusetts English Professor Martín Espada shared with students the importance of advocating for social justice and how their ideas can change the world. Espada captivated the audience through an outstanding performance of his poetry about different social justice issues.

Espada fought for social justice for decades through his work as a former tenant lawyer, poet and professor. With over 20 published books, the Puerto Rican poet shares his experiences involving a variety of social justice issues and current events in order to convey the importance of advocacy.

Espada began the Fall 2021 Commonwealth Honors College plenary lecture with his poem, “Alabanza,” a poem that focuses on the deaths of hundreds of immigrant food workers during the 9/11 attacks. With the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11, Espada opened with this poem in order to share the importance of “making the invisible, visible.”

He talked about his career as a tenant lawyer in Chelsea, Massachusetts within the Latinx community. He then performed his narrative poem, “Jumping off the Mystic Tobin Bridge.” This powerful piece shared the story of the discrimination that Espada experienced while in a Boston city cab. He conveyed the message, “to change the world, we all must build bridges and walk across them.”

The lecture then shifted focus onto specific social justice events that Espada writes about. Espada performed a piece titled “Floaters” from his most recent book. “Floaters” honors the loss and life of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeri. Ramirez and Valeri were a Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in 2019 while crossing the Rio De Grande. Sharing this heartbreaking poem with UMass students exemplified why it is critical to give light to stories of those who can’t tell their own.

Espada then performed two poems that captured the life lessons that he learned through his family and friends. The first poem, which he categorized as a political love poem, was about his wife Lauren Marie Schmidt. Prior to his performance of “Aubade with Concussion,” Espada shared that his wife was a talented poet and dedicated teacher. Espada described the days that Schmidt would get up for work before the sun even rose and not come home until late at night

“To change the world, we need that kind of commitment,” he said.

After he performed his political love poems, Espada spoke about his friend and mentor, Louis Garden Acosta. Acosta was a Puerto Rican activist and co-founded different organizations that helped Latinx communities. He continued by explaining, “to change the world. we need visions and we need visionaries. This poem is called, ‘Morir Soñado,’ which literally means to die dreaming.”

The poem was not only a dedication to Acosta but it also helped to capitalize on the idea that in order for there to be change, people need to have dreams and ambitions.

Espada’s last poem of the plenary lecture was titled, “Letter to My Father.” He closed with this poem to emphasize that, “to change the world we need more people like my father, who channeled his anger into art and put his art at the service of his community.”

From the unique perspective of speaking to his father through his ashes, Espada’s poem captured what it means to respect, honor and learn from the loved ones in our life.

After two rounds of ferocious applause from the audience, Espada held a Q&A for UMass students and faculty. Responding to questions about hopefulness, poetry and family he ended the lecture by giving the audience words of advice and encouragement.

“We are living through one of those times now. It is so hard to be hopeful, but consider the alternative,” Espada said. “Every single one of you got up today. Every single one of you got dressed. Every single one of you came into this room. Every single one of you is listening to me now. That’s the embodiment of hope.”

Corinne Arel can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @CorinneArel_09.