Martin Espada’s “My Native Costume”

Here's a final poem from Martin Espada's Imagine the Angels of Bread, one that, while perhaps not as shocking as the previous poem, almost seems to suggest that the prejudice against minorities is deeper than the previous poem suggested.

Despite the fact that the narrator has managed to become successful enough to become a lawyer the "teacher from the suburban school" can't quite manage to see him as anything but a Puerto Rican:

My NATIVE COSTUME

When you come to visit,
said a teacher
from the suburban school,
don't forget to wear
your native costume.

But I'm a lawyer,
I said.
My native costume
is a pinstriped suit.

You know, the teacher said,
a Puerto Rican costume.

Like a guayabera?
The shirt? I said.
But it's February.

The children want to see
a native costume,
the teacher said.

So I went
to the suburban school,
embroidered guayabera
short sleeved shirt
over a turtleneck,
and said, Look kids,
cultural adaptation.


Now, I'll have to admit that I'm so culturally unaware that I had to Google guayabera to find out what it was. Turns out the only costumes I've seen a Puerto Rican in is a Mariner uniform, the one Edgar wore for eighteen years.

As a former teacher, I'm as embarrassed to hear this teacher make such a ridiculous request as I was by the racist teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird. So, I guess I shouldn't really have been surprised that having an "education" doesn't inoculate people against stupidity and prejudice; it's just that it's easy far too easy to forget the truth when you haven't been confronted by it recently.

Perhaps what I like most about this poem, though, can be found in the last two lines, "Look kids/ cultural adaptation." There's something uplifting in the poet's ability to still find such prejudice humorous and be able to find an effective way of countering such prejudice.

One thought on “Martin Espada’s “My Native Costume”

What do you think?