Feb 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Poet Martín Espada knows a thing or two about banned books

Poet Martin Espada stands for a portrait wearing  a black hat.
Martín Espada: Photo: Courtey of Espada

Martín Espada, the recipient of the 2021 National Book Award for poetry whose past works were the targets of conservative outrage, is urging authors of recently banned bo0ks to forge on.

The big picture: The Brooklyn-born poet is one of only a handful of Latinos to win the award.

Details: Espada tackles the everyday lives of people struggling with poverty, migration, climate change and loneliness in his latest collection, "Floaters: Poems"

  • His title poem, "Floaters," is based on the infamous 2019 photograph of migrants Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his toddler daughter, Valeria, who were found dead in the Rio Grande.
  • "Floaters" is a term used by some in the Border Patrol to described drowned migrants.

What they're saying: "The same insidious forms of racism that motivated me to speak as a poet 30 plus years ago...is still there," Espada told Axios.

  • "It's important for us not to let the oppressors expropriate language and take it away from the rest of us...The word floaters is obviously a case in point."

Yes, but: While Espada says he's encouraged by racial progress and more Latino writers getting published, barriers remain, and actions like books bans are attempts to reverse gains.

  • "There is always a movement afoot to pull books off shelves...But we always find a way to read them. Bans don't work."

The American Library Association said it tracked 330 book challenges just from September through November 2021, showing a massive rise in attempts to ban books.

  • In 2020, amid the new pandemic and remote schooling, it cited only 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services.
  • Books by Elizabeth Acevedo, Alire Sáenz, and other Latino and Latina authors have landed on banned book lists tracked by the American Library Association.

Flashback: Espada's 1998 collection of essays, "Zapata’s Disciple," was the target of book bans in Texas and Arizona.

  • Conservative critics took issue with his essays about censorship, Latinos fighting poverty and language.
  • At one reading in Tucson, Arizona, a bomb threat forced Espada and his audience into the parking lot while police scanned the bookstore.

Don't forget: Espada started as a bilingual education lawyer in the Boston area before becoming a lawyer.

  • The post-Nuyorican Poets Cafe movement writer was influenced by the Puerto Rican writers before him like Sandra María Esteves, Nicholasa Mohr and Jack Agüeros.

Further reading: Hear Martín Espada read "Latin Night at the Pawnshop" from Russell Contreras' 2007 Boston Globe story on the poet.

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