Time and history sometimes intertwine in ways more poetic than linear, such as the multiple crimes associated with the date September 11 and the legacy of bearing witness to suffering that led journalist James Foley to his death in Syria, as MartÃn Espada explained to Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Most Americans associate 9/11 only with the tragic events in 2001 but the date has a very different meaning to Chileans and others who remember the U.S.-backed coup in 1973 that overthrew Chile’s elected President Salvador Allende and plunged that peaceful South American nation into the nightmare of military repression.
In recognition of those mixed legacies of September 11th and the more recent tragedy of the Islamic State’s execution of American journalist James Foley on Aug. 19 award-winning Latino poet MartÃn Espada reflected on these moments of courage and brutality. Espada was one of Foley’s college professors and encouraged his commitment to serving others.
Espada, who has been called “the Latino poet of his generation,” was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957 and has published more than 15 books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator.
His latest collection of poems, The Trouble Ball, is the recipient of the Milt Kessler Award, a Massachusetts Book Award and the International Latino Book Award. The Republic of Poetry received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
A previous book of poems, Imagine the Angels of Bread, won an American Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Collections of poems have been published in Spain, Puerto Rico and Chile. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple, published by Southend Press, has been banned in Tucson as a part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona.
A graduate of Northeastern [University] Law School, and a former tenant lawyer, Espada is currently a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where James Foley was one of his students.
DB: When people think about September 11th, almost overwhelmingly, especially if you are white, they think about the Twin Towers. But September 11th is an incredibly important date … September 11th, 1973, because that’s when the United States participated in a coup to overthrow the duly elected government, the socialist government of Salvador Allende. You want to talk a little bit about how these come together for you, these two dates? One date … two incidents?
ME: Well, the poet and essayist Ariel Dorfman said, “11 September has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, ever since that Tuesday in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup.” The fact that people in this country only associate 9/11 with events of September 11, 2001, says something about our historical amnesia. It was only in 1973, less than a generation before, when we as a nation hid our collective eyes at the sight of our government orchestrating a military coup in Chile.
For me, this is what happens when you live in the belly of the beast, as they say in Latin America with reference to the United States. What happens when you develop historical amnesia? What are the consequences of forgetting? How is it that, in the end, countless numbers of innocent people are killed? Whether it’s on this continent, or that continent, or lands thousands of miles away that have nothing to do with the Americas
DB: Before we go any further,.I would really like you to read “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” because it sort of covers the terrain, if you will, that you were just referring to.
ME: Yes. Well, Dennis, as you mentioned, this has become something of a tradition on 9/11, with your program, for me to read this poem. This is the title poem of my collection Alabanza: New and Selected Poems from Norton. I wrote this poem about six months after the attack on the towers, the attacks on 9/11, that killed thousands of people, as you well know. I was struggling at the time it all took place, like everyone else, to make sense of it. I was struggling to find, you might say, a part that would stand for the whole, to find a focus.
Over the days and weeks following 9/11, a new story began to emerge very slowly, began to emerge, as I recall, through the BBC, about one particular restaurant called Windows on the World, and the members of a union there, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, Local 100. Forty-three members of that union had been killed that day, most of them immigrant and many of them undocumented, invisible in life and even more invisible in death, to the extent that some families of these victims couldn’t even come forward to claim benefits. They literally vanished without a trace. I consider it a mission of mine — and in this respect, I’m working very much in the tradition of Neruda and Whitman — to make the invisible visible.
I began to think about this poem, to research this poem. Ultimately I was able to write it about six months after the fact. Later on, I should say, it appeared in an anthology I want to mention called Poets Against the War, from Nation Books, edited by Sam Hamill, who himself was the founder of Poets Against the War.
DB: I have that right upstairs. I was just reading through it.
ME: Getting back to the poem at hand, it is entitled “Alabanza” — that’s the Spanish word for praise — “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, MÃ©xico, RepÃºblica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
DB: Beautiful. Martin Espada reading the poem, “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100.” Well, MartÃn, I want to talk to you about your former student, James Foley, in this context. Because he was a victim of this sort of all war, all control of global resources that the United States has adapted with western Europe. And I have to see him, James Foley, as a victim of that. Do you want to talk about your student, and how he sorts of fits into this?
ME: Well, it’s very important for us to remember, regardless of what lessons we or our government take from this, or think we’re taking from this, that Jim Foley was very much alive, that he was a real human being, that he wasn’t a political symbol, he wasn’t a political abstraction, he was an extraordinary individual. A lot of people loved this man. That was surely true during the time Jim Foley spent at the University of Massachusetts. He got an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I teach.
I’ve taught there for more than 20 years in the English Department. I got to know Jim because he took my classes, particularly a class called Reading and Writing Poetry of the Political Imagination. Jim was very interested in serving the community, and the Latino community, in particular. This is a little-reported aspect of the story. Maybe it doesn’t fit into the master narrative. I don’t know.
There has been a little bit of discussion in the national press about Jim’s work with Teach for America, which he did in the 1990s. He taught at a place called the Lowell Elementary School, in Phoenix, in the barrio. And he loved it. When he came to us he wanted to do more of that sort of thing. Something I haven’t seen reported anywhere is the fact that Jim ended up teaching at a place called The Care Center, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which is about 25 minutes from here.
Holyoke is, you may be aware, an old mill town. Like most Massachusetts mill towns, the mills are long gone, leaving high unemployment, high rates of poverty, and so forth. A substantial percentage of that population is Puerto Rican. The Care Center is an alternative educational program for adolescent mothers who have dropped out of the public school system in Holyoke. The majority are Puerto Rican, and many of them speak Spanish as a first language. This was even more true when I first associated myself with The Care Center almost 20 years ago.
Jim Foley went over to The Care Center after I referred him there, and they gave him a job. This was either 2001 or 2002. He was an anomaly in a lot of ways. He was a guy from New Hampshire, very tall, athletic, always smiling. He was also bilingual. He spoke fluent Spanish. He ended up teaching what used to be called ESL; now it’s sometimes called ELL. He was teaching English to their monolingual Spanish speakers. And they loved this guy.
My connection with him was, in large part, a connection with somebody who wanted to perform a service for the Latino community, who was raised with the ideal of service to community. I had long conversations with him in my office about doing the right thing, about his future, about how he would act on principle to make his way in the world. I can tell you many times that’s not the tenor of the conversation you have with a student, especially with a student who’s going to graduate with an advanced degree, or whatever it might be.
But that was Jim. He was very interested in doing the right thing, speaking for those who did not have an opportunity to be heard, serving as a voice for the voiceless, performing a service. That’s what he was doing in the barrio in Phoenix. That’s what he was doing in the barrio in Holyoke. He went on to teach at the so-called “Boot Camp” of the Cook County Jail. That’s another alternative education program. I remember we talked about teaching incarcerated people, because I had done that at the Worcester County House of Corrections, and elsewhere. That was the Jim Foley I knew. There’s so much more I could say.
DB: Well, let me just jump in for a moment, Martin. You say in one article that I read, “I’m heart sick, just heart sick.” And then you described Jim Foley as a born storyteller. And I remember the lines from the poet Muriel Rukeyser that says “No, we’re not made of atoms, we’re made of stories…” And it seemed to me as a storyteller, as a born storyteller, this would be somebody who would be the perfect person, to go abroad to tell our story, and learn the stories of the people who we don’t understand, and tell their stories.
ME: Oh, absolutely. To give you some indication of the sort of storyteller Jim was, the novel he submitted for his MFA thesis at UMass was entitled The Cow Head Revelations. It’s all about a young man from the Northeast named James Foley who teaches in Arizona. Clearly, it was an autobiographical tale, to whatever degree. Yet that was Jim telling stories. And think about where Arizona is today. Think of the ways in which Arizona has turned into the new Mississippi, for this generation of civil rights activists, and for those suffering under the racist regime in Arizona.
Those students working with Jim, who spoke through his fiction, are now adults and are living through some hard times in Arizona. So he put his finger on something. Right? Likewise, when Jim became a war correspondent, he went first to Libya (where he was abducted the first time), and then, later on, he went into Syria (where he was abducted the final time), it was his impulse to go to places where there was not a lot of reporting going on, and to bring back something like the truth. This was somebody who had both physical courage and moral courage, a combination that is very rare indeed.
DB: Amazing. I guess I want to turn your attention back to Chile, now, and let you tell your story. There are many stories in your many poems about Chile, but would it be too much to ask you to read the poem about Villa Grimaldi? And let people know because it talks about U.S. related brutality while the U.S. is lecturing the world on brutality.
ME: I’m conscious of the fact that we are leaping from place to place in terms of histories and time lines and tragedies, but what we will see shortly as we tie all these disparate elements together — 9/11, the murder of my student, Jim Foley, the Villa Grimaldi poem — is the urgent necessity to bear witness, and how that will sometimes put those who are committed to bearing witness at great risk. I believe in bearing witness as a poet. I don’t compare myself to Jim Foley in terms of risk, but I would say that bearing witness is something that poets ought to do.
DB: You certainly got into it as a tenant lawyer, as a lawyer helping tenants dealing with slumlords. You definitely were on the front line.
ME: Yes, absolutely. Some of that was very interesting, indeed. As a lawyer or as a poet, I believe in the principle of bearing witness. Let me just say this one last thing about Jim before we transition into talking about Villa Grimaldi, because it has to do with bearing witness, and it has to do with poetry. I mentioned earlier that Jim Foley was in my class called Reading and Writing Poetry of the Political Imagination. This was the spring of 2002. This is relevant because 9/11 had just happened the previous September. The invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces followed.
I decided to design this course immediately after that. I began with a unit on war as a response to 9/11, as a response to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, with the dropping of bombs. The very first poet I began with was Wilfred Owen. That should be a familiar name to many people listening. Wilfred Owen was a British officer during the First World War. He suffered a breakdown. It was called shell-shock in those days; today it would be called PTSD. He spent some time at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was there that he met Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who would mentor him. Owen went on to write some of the great anti-war poems ever penned in the English language.
However, Owen decided, after returning home for a spell, that he would go back to the front. This outraged Sassoon, who threatened to stab him in the leg if he went back to the front. But Owen felt that he had to go back to the front in order to bear witness. That was the only way. The best way for him to bear witness was to be there. So he went back. Owen was killed a week before the Armistice was signed in France. The telegram announcing his death was delivered to his family’s home while the Armistice bells were ringing, announcing the end of the war.
We flash forward to the present day. Jim Foley took that course with me. I taught Wilfred Owen to Jim Foley. Now, I’m not saying this is why Jim Foley went back. I’m not saying that Wilfred Owen was uppermost in his mind. I have no intention of saying that. But the parallels are inescapable. He went back after being abducted in Libya, after being held for 44 days, after being released, after coming here, after seeing his family again.
Just like Wilfred Owen, Jim Foley went back to the front lines so he could bear witness. He felt that was the only way, the best way to bear witness, I believe. I’m not going to pretend to speak for him. But I think that’s what happened.
Likewise, when we talk about bearing witness we have to speak not only in terms of the present but in terms of the past, to see if we can connect the past with the present, to see to what extent we are making the same mistakes, ignoring the lessons of history.
As we talked about earlier in this program, on September 11th, 1973, there was a military coup in Chile overthrowing elected socialist president Salvador Allende, bringing to power the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who would not be dislodged for 17 years.
I visited Chile twice. The second time I visited Chile, I went to a place called Villa Grimaldi. This was some years after Pinochet had been ousted. Chile is still very much coming to grips with the national trauma, the national devastation
of the coup, with thousands killed, with tens of thousands tortured and incarcerated during the dictatorship. Chile is still coming to terms with that, still trying to tell the story, and still bearing witness to the crimes committed there. How do they do it? Well, one way that the people of Chile have decided to go about it is to create commemorations here and there.
One such commemoration is at Villa Grimaldi. Villa Grimaldi was not a prison; it was a center of interrogation, torture and execution during the Pinochet dictatorship. It has now been reconstructed as a peace park. When the military pulled out of there, they tried to destroy the evidence of their crimes. They tried to cover their tracks. However, with the assistance of those who survived, and even a few guards, Villa Grimaldi was reconstructed.
There are also some parts of Villa Grimaldi that are original to the institution. One such original structure is, believe it or not, a swimming pool. And that useful phrase “the banality of evil” comes to mind. But consider the whole concept of bearing witness as I read this poem. It is called “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi,” Santiago, Chile.
Beyond the gate where the convoys spilled their cargo
of blindfolded prisoners, and the cells too narrow to lie down,
and the rooms where electricity convulsed the body
strapped across the grill until the bones would break,
and the parking lot where interrogators rolled pickup trucks
over the legs of subversives who would not talk,
and the tower where the condemned listened through the wall
for the song of another inmate on the morning of execution,
there is a swimming pool at Villa Grimaldi.
Here the guards and officers would gather families
for barbeques. The interrogator coached his son:
Kick your feet. Turn your head to breathe.
The torturer’s hands braced the belly of his daughter,
learning to float, flailing at her lesson.
Here the splash of children, eyes red
from too much chlorine, would rise to reach
the inmates in the tower. The secret police
paraded women from the cells at poolside,
saying to them: Dance for me. Here the host
served chocolate cookies and Coke on ice
to the prisoner who let the names of comrades
bleed down his chin, and the prisoner
who refused to speak a word stopped breathing
in the water, facedown at the end of a rope.
When a dissident pulled by the hair from a vat
of urine and feces cried out for God, and the cry
pelted the leaves, the swimmers plunged below the surface,
touching the bottom of a soundless blue world.
From the ladder at the edge of the pool they could watch
the prisoners marching blindfolded across the landscape,
one hand on the shoulder of the next, on their way
to the afternoon meal and back again. The neighbors
hung bedsheets on the windows to keep the ghosts away.
There is a swimming pool at the heart of Villa Grimaldi,
white steps, white tiles, where human beings
would dive and paddle till what was human in them
had dissolved forever, vanished like the prisoners
thrown from helicopters into the ocean by the secret police,
their bellies slit so the bodies could not float.
DB: We’re talking about September 11th. Now we’re talking about September 11, 1973, and of course, it’s always important to remember that the United States played a crucial role in bringing this slaughter, this undermining of democracy and then the subsequent slaughter about. It was a U.S. supported operation, yes?
ME: Yes. Keep in mind that Allende was seen as a threat for a variety of reasons. First of all, he was the first elected Marxist president of any country in the Western hemisphere. Castro, of course, came to power by revolution. Allende was elected. That was threatening. It was democracy in action, the ballot box.
Secondly, Allende believed very much in economic independence of his country. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that many Chiles had been taken out of Chile. He went about doing something that caused grave offense to U.S. economic interests: he nationalized the copper industry. This offended such corporate giants as Anaconda Copper, Kennecott Copper and I.T &T. And, of course, they had a great deal of sway over what happened in Chile, and a great deal of sway over what happened in the White House.
So it was that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger cooked up what was called the 40 Committee, overseeing the efforts to destabilize Chile economically and politically, setting the stage for the bloody military coup of September 11, 1973.
DB: Amazing. Well, we’re running out of time. Is there a poem you’d like to leave us with? We don’t want you to leave us at all but we have to go.
ME: Yes, I know, well, we get into these conversations and then all hell breaks loose.
DB: It’s beautiful and we appreciate it. We’ll do it again.
ME: You’re aware, Dennis, that my father passed away earlier this year. I would like to read a poem for him. In order to do that, I’m going to have to choose one of the shorter ones.
My father, Frank Espada, who was a photographer, civil rights activists, and a leader in the Puerto Rican community passed away in February of this year outside of San Francisco, in Pacifica, California. I ended up writing a series of poems after he died and this is one of them. It’s based on a story he used to tell and it’s called “The Sinking of the San Jacinto.” All you really need to know is that “jacinto” is “hyacinth” in Spanish.
The Sinking of the San Jacinto
For my father, Frank Espada (1930-2014)
Coming to this country was the worst thing
that ever happened to me, you would say.
The steamship called the San Jacinto
dragged you from Puerto Rico to New York.
You swore in Spanish, dangling from the rails
like a nauseous acrobat, a seasick boy
who prayed to plunge over the side
and disappear into the green water.
A Nazi U-Boat trailed behind the San Jacinto
on the voyage back to Puerto Rico. The torpedo
splintered the deck, six thousand tons creaking
and sinking into the sea. Among the dead:
RamÃ³n Castillo, who shoveled the coal
into the furnace down below; Antonio Cortez,
who cleared the plates in the officer’s mess,
day-dreaming of La Parguera, the luminescent
bay, illumination of water on a moonless night.
You escaped the U-Boat. Seven decades later
the torpedo catches up to you, ripping through
your heart, and you sink into a moonless sea
like the six thousand tons of the San Jacinto,
RamÃ³n Castillo and his shovel full of coal,
Antonio Cortez and his armload of plates.
I kissed the ground, you would say, sitting
at the kitchen table in Brooklyn, and I tried
to imagine licking the dirt off my own lips.
Years after the San Jacinto took you away,
you would return to your island, step off
the plane, drop to your knees at the airport
and kiss the ground. Back you came to Brooklyn,
a car stalled on the highway, steam pouring
from the hood, when all you wanted
was the sand of the beach burning your feet.
Now, if your ancestors wait for you anywhere,
they wait on the shores of the bay at La Parguera.
May you navigate through the night without
the compass devoured by the salt of the sea.
May you rise up in the luminescent bay,
stirring the microscopic creatures in the water
back to life so their light startles your eyes.
May the water glow blue as a hyacinth in your hands.
DB: We appreciate the time and the extraordinary poetry.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.