The Poetry of Protest
Martín Espada’s poetry is a weapon for justice for those who aren’t white, who don’t speak English, whose work as migrant laborers is exploited.
Tony tossed the Tootsie Roll paper over his shoulder as he entered my room. “I’m not your mama, Tony, I said. “Pick up that mess.”
“Ms. Christensen, the custodians are paid to clean up,” Tony responded. “If I didn’t leave anything on the floor, they’d lose their jobs.”
Ruthie Griffin, the custodian, would disagree. But Ruthie and Marlene Grieves, the cafeteria worker who serves them lunch, are largely invisible to students. Their brooms or spatulas might as well be held by robots. That’s one reason why I teach the poetry of Martín Espada — a Latino poet, activist, and former tenant lawyer who grew up in Brooklyn — in my classroom.
Martín Espada’s poetry is a weapon for justice in a society that oppresses people who aren’t white, who don’t speak English, whose work as janitors and migrant laborers is exploited. His poetry teaches students about the power of language — he writes in both Spanish and English — and he makes “invisible” workers visible. What Espada writes about Pablo Neruda’s poetry is also true for his own: “[T]he poet demanded dignity for the commonplace subject, commanding re- spect for things and people normally denied such respect.”
In my work as an English teacher, I want to introduce students to writers, like
Espada, whose art speaks out against injustice, as well as give them the tools to write their own poems of empathy and outrage.
Recently, Espada refused Nike’s offer to produce a poem for them for TV commercials they planned to air during the 1998 Winter Olympics. The Progressive magazine published Espada’s letter to an ad agency listing the reasons he refused Nike’s poet-for-hire offer:
I could reject your offer based on the fact that your deadline is ludicrous. … A poem is not a pop tart.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that you must be totally and insultingly ignorant of my work as a poet, which strives to stand against all that you and your client represent. Whoever referred me to you did you a great disservice.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that your client Nike has — through commercials such as these
— outrageously manipulated the youth market, so that even low-income adolescents are compelled to buy products they do not need at prices they cannot afford.
Ultimately, however, I am rejecting your offer as a protest against the brutal labor practices of the company. I will not associate myself with a company that engages in the well-documented exploitation of workers in sweatshops. …
Espada’s public refusal to serve as yet another artist-for-sale is reason enough to present his work to students. In my curriculum, I want to highlight writers who put their talents at the service of humanity, not profits. Espada is right: Nike must be ignorant of his work. But my students shouldn’t be.
I use Espada’s poetry, in English and Spanish, to teach students how to use metaphors and how to write a “persona poem,” I also use Espada’s poetry because he shows how to make visible the work of those who toil in physical labor. In particular, I often use the following poem by Espada:
JORGE THE CHURCH JANITOR FINALLY QUITS
No one asks
where I am from,
I must be
from the country of janitors,
I have always mopped this floor.
Honduras, you are a squatter’s camp outside the city
of their misunderstanding.
No one can speak my name,
I host the fiesta
of the bathroom,
stirring the toilet
like a punchbowl.
The Spanish music of my name is lost
when the guests complain
about the toilet paper.
What they say
must be true:
I am smart,
but I have a bad attitude.
No one knows
that I quit tonight,
maybe the mop
will push on without me,
sniffing along the floor
like a crazy squid
with stringy gray tentacles.
They will call it Jorge.
POR FIN RENUNCIA JORGE EL CONSERJE DE LA IGLESIA
Nadie me pregunta
de dónde soy,
tendré que ser
de la patria de los conserjes,
siempre he trapeado este piso.
Honduras, eres un campamento de
afuera de la comprensión.
Nadie puede decir
yo soy el amenizador
de la fiesta en el baño,
meneando el agua en el inodoro
como si fuera una ponchera.
La música española de mi nombre
caundo los invitados se quejan
del papel higiénico.
lo que dicen:
pero tengo una mala actitud.
que esta noche renuncié al puesto, quizá el trapero
seguirá adelante sin mi
husmeando el piso
como un calamar enloquecido
con fibrosos tentáculos grises.
Lo llarmarán Jorge.
In the Rethinking Schools publication Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, the editors write about the need to ground our teaching in our students’ lives, equip students to “talk back” to the world, pose essential questions, be multicultural, anti-racist, and pro-justice, participatory, joyful, activist, academically rigorous, and culturally sensitive. “A social justice curriculum must strive to include the lives of all those in our society, especially the marginalized and dominated,” the book’s introduction notes. Teaching students to respect the custodian who mops their halls, the short order cook who makes their tacos, or the field worker who picks their strawberries, should be a part of our critical classrooms.
Here are some ways teachers might use Espada’s poetry.
- Before reading Espada’s letter, ask students if they would ever turn down money if it compromised their beliefs. What are some examples? Read Espada’s letter and discuss why someone would give up a chance to earn $3,000. Would it really be such a big deal if Espada let Nike use his poem? What does he stand to lose by not agreeing to write a poem for them? What does he gain? Why did he make his letter public?
- Ask students to read the above poem in both languages. (This validates students who speak Spanish as well as locating writing in the broader linguistic world. I encourage students who speak more than one language to write in either or both languages.)
- Discuss the poem. Who is the narrator? How do people treat Jorge? What evidence in the poem tells us that? What does he compare the mop to? What does Espada want us to know about Jorge? How do we learn that?
- After reading and discussing, return to Espada’s letter. He wrote, “I could reject your offer based on the fact that you must be totally and insultingly ignorant of my work as a poet, which strives to stand against all that you and your client represent.” Ask students to identify evidence in this poem that might indicate why Espada would turn down Nike’s money.
- Ask students to make a list of “invisible workers” they know whom they could make visible, for example, hotel maids, strawberry harvesters, the seamstress who sewed their shirt or blouse. A few students could share their lists to help stumped classmates find a topic. (For younger students, I sometimes begin by asking them to write a paragraph or two about the worker or situation. Later, they can underline details and language to arrange into a poem.)
- Direct students to write for 15-20 minutes. I demand silence, so we can all write, but I do allow students to move to more comfortable places in the room as well as listen to their Walkmen while they write.
- Then we share. My classes are arranged in a circle. I tell students to consider their classmates as teachers and to learn from each other’s techniques that make powerful writing. So while students read, I expect them to listen and take notes on what they like in the piece — specifically, the incident/story, the use of metaphor, the illumination of injustice or a person who is invisible, the use of language, a particular line. I also speak about the importance of positive feedback: We want people to keep writing. If we criticize them instead of praise them, they might not want to write or share again.
We live in a society where it appears that everything is for sale — including movements for social justice. Students need stories about people who work for change, people who refuse to allow their work to be commodified. They need models of people whose work is animated by society. They need to know about poets like Martín Espada.