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:


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.

Martin Espada’s Imagine the Angels of Bread

On Wednesday I went to the bookstore to look for some carving books because I’d just finished my first carving and was looking for a new pattern, more specifically, a pattern for a river otter.

Naturally while I was there I had to stop by and browse the poetry section just to see what was there. I spent the next hour picking up potential books to buy. Most of them were easy decisions because far too many of the poetry books at stores like this are merely copies of famous or “popular,” read bad, poets who have somehow managed to capture the public’s good will. Still, this is one of the ways I manage to find new poets I haven’t encountered elsewhere, notable recent examples being Sam Hamill, Naomi Nye, and Bruce Weigel.

Wednesday I discovered Martin Espada’s Imagine the Angels of Bread and have finished the first half of the book. Of course, if I’d heard his name somewhere before I could have explored his poetry by doing a Google search and discovering Modern American Poetry’s page on him, but then I would probably buy all my books at Amazon rather than having the fun of discovering them at the local book store.

Perhaps my fondness for his poetry merely shows my liberal leanings and my limited experience as a welfare worker, but I find many of his poems powerful and moving though quite different than most of the poetry I like best and have presented on this site.

Here’s one of my favorites of the first sixty pages of the book:

-Chelsea, Massachusetts

“Mrs. Lopez refuses to pay rent,
and we want her out,”
the landlord’s lawyer said,
lugging at his law school ring.
The judge called for an interpreter,
but all the interpreters were gone,
trafficking in Spanish
at the criminal session
on the second floor.

A volunteer stood up in the gallery.
Mrs. Lopez showed the interpreter
a poker hand of snapshots,
the rat curled in a glue trap
next to the refrigerator,
the water frozen in the toilet,
a door without a doorknob
(No rent for this. I know the law
and I want to speak,
she whispered to the interpreter).

“Tell her she has to pay
and she has ten days to get out,”
the judge commanded, rose
so the rest of the courtroom rose
and left the bench. Suddenly
the courtroom clattered

the clerk of the court
gathered her files
and the bailiff went to lunch.
Mrs. Lopez stood before the bench,
still holding up her fan of snapshots
like an offering this ulcerated god
refused to taste,
while the interpreter
felt the burning
bubble in his throat
as he slowly turned to face her.

Of course, this poem is much more powerful in the context of the book, particularly since the previous poem describes a lawyer’s attempt to turn her electricity back on. Still, it’s a powerful poem perfectly capable of standing on its own, managing to convey the injustice of a system stacked against the poor.

In a few words it reveals a system more interested in punishing criminals, “all the interpreters were gone,/ trafficking in Spanish/ at the criminal session” than rendering justice to a victim of the system’s greed. The poet never tells us the deck is stacked against the woman, but the “poker hand of snapshots” reveals that quickly and more effectively than a political polemic would.

Most effective of all, is the image of the poor interpreter, realizing the injustice of the system, left to stand alone against the system and personally face its victim, “the burning bubble in his throat,” especially since we, the reader, are left in precisely that same position.

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