For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Estaban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks

I have noticed that the hostess in peasant dress,
the wait staff and the boss
share the complexion of a flour tortilla.
I have spooked the servers at my table
by trilling the word burrito.
I am aware of your T-shirt solidarity
with the refugees of the Américas,
since they steam in your kitchen.
I know my cousin Estaban the sculptor
rolled tortillas in your kitchen with the fingertips
of ancestral Puerto Rican cigarmakers.
I understand he wanted to be a waiter,
but you proclaimed his black dreadlocks unclean,
so he hissed in Spanish
and his apron collapsed on the floor.

May La Migra handcuff the wait staff
as suspected illegal aliens from Canada;
may a hundred mice dive from the oven
like diminutive leaping dolphins
during your Board of Health inspection;
may the kitchen workers strike, sitting
with folded hands as enchiladas blacken
and twisters of smoke panic the customers;
may a Zapatista squadron commandeer the refrigerator,
liberating a pillar of tortillas at gunpoint;
may you hallucinate dreadlocks
braided in thick vines around your ankles;
and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies
to the menu wait for you in the parking lot
at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.

— Martín Espada

Poet and activist Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Frank Espada, was active in the labor and civil rights movement. Much of Espada’s poetry focuses on immigration, Latino rights, and the working class experience in the United States.

Invisible Walls, Whose Walls?

Father
Where are we going
Smoke is curling
Galaxies, fossils, modern living
Streets and cities footsteps thronging
Stars arranged in rows of buttons
Gravesites chewing streams of people
Phosphor spittle rinsing memories
Treeroots, grassroots touch the sunlight
Lao Tzu, Confucius, one after the other
Wandering soul in lonely craniums
Five thousand years beating diamond grains
An earthworm a pendulum going through back and forth
Empty shell
Crackling universe
The city’s sharp teeth
Abacus moved so quickly by whom
Crowded earth like a flood
Crowded and crowded again
Wind’s soft fingers flicking tree boughs
Organ music in the clouds
Doves in the folds of the roof hide their wings
Green bacilli jumping in the remains
Your claws are teasing mother’s nipples
Under wrinkles
Uterus exposed
Universe exploded
Images shattered
Blood stream voyage
Foundering on reefs distant comets
Amniotic fluid with seven duckweeds
Root of life in water and fire burns into one fish after the other
What kind of fish are we then
Why are there no duckweeds for us to repair our roofs on this world
Pale blue flames scorching the heavens
Stars like flies blinking eyes in the bloom of the night
Fu river rubbing the feet of the city
Crows return and hide with the sunset
Fireflies flickering
Amber, the moon and the stars
A box
Of pearls pressed by clouds into marble pillows
Shining hermits
Wings take flight from mother’s breasts
Many fishhooks
Desire controlling lines of time the rod of the mind
Under the bait of life
Long, long necks stretching out from the soil
Mouths pitted against other mouths
Head fish emit psychedelic drugs
Innumerable mothers in labor float down a bottle
Hungry feet stretch out fingers with the kid’s leaky bowls going begging
Lamps, lamps, lamps
Who occupied the everburning lamp that shines on all things
Yellow earth everywhere
So many people
So many boats
Many pairs of soft oars killed by their feathers
Night’s frosty cave
Fallen leaves splashing splinters of jade
Dark snakes build their nests on ancient roofs
Water fowls trample ripples like pearls
Eyes look up and down picking food in the eyelashes
Stepping into the River of Chu and the border of Han
I am looking for flowers in the mist
Father
Our family’s flowers, where do they bloom?
Who cut away the writing at will
On the Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth
Emperors spinning tops with their whips
“Tied up mouths as the Middle
Whips surrounding as Kingdom”
Misty waves and rolling waters
Sunken ships pile up five thousand years
Reeds blooming, sails billowing, random whistling, pulling the net
Hopping about at the harbour fish market
Stone steps at the ferry crowded with beggars hunting for fleas
One
Two
Three
We, you, they
So many people, so many mouths, so much blood
Heads flocking in front of the temple
Countless bugs jumping in crotches
Two oval scalpels dismember people rapidly into millions of fish
It is raining
It is raining
Who poured a big pot over the skies
So many people, so many mouths, many underlings
Flood, famine over heaven and earth
Where is King Yu
People are drowning themselves
Living space
Where is their living space
Ruins remain
Ruins of temples and palaces inscribed with laws and color glaze
Only the dead are classless
So many skulls under our shoes in silent protest
Ignored by the living
Harmonica tune comes from afar
Whose little mouth swallowed up
In this world
In the museum’s display cases
Stuffed with rigid ears and eyes
Terracotta warriors phalanx
Sent to battle
Sculpted by the Qin and Han
Skulls are cast with molten lead
So many people
Many contests in a row
Who will reach the goal most slowly
Sun sucking blood out of the earth
Draught, the fields are cracking up
Empty souls in rustling leaves
From the wind the brains go wandering
Some shriveled seeds taking root, sprout and bloom, forming fruits
In the end in harvest’s empty spaces
Waiting to be cast into fire
In the ashes
We are but nursery attendants and arsonists
In the year of
1989
Nineteen-eighty-nine
Someone set fire at his own door
Golddiggers
Rows and rows of golden crowns
Holding down tear-drenched history records
Gravestones of characters buried alive
Banquets all over
Heaps of bones on plates and bowls
Wipe the night’s impurity
Sun drunk as a fish
Wind meridians
Play on glazed tiles
My old dad
Last night hugging mother drunk and tired in the dregs
Did he try to count the grain
He would need to buy wine
How many baskets of cowries
Facing the heavens
My blazing eyes put out by thunderstorms long ago
To be alive is a wall
Death is the only plasterer
Snowstorms raging in winter
People are still building laws with ice-cubes
Waiting for the sun in spring
Only the sea, ever surging with spirits
Steaming, leaping, ejected, dispersed
Prison van, raising wind, moving clouds
Water forced into rain, into ice, into mist, into fire
Since time immemorial
Who has refused sugar-coated bullets
I only heard many times someone said
That he could
Eat the sugar and hand the bullets back to the bribers
Hemmed in by swamps
We look for wood piles, saws, screws and chains
Gods leaking fluids in their coffin-like statues
Death rippling deep under the skin eroding supports
Oh my helmsman!
Are you still steering my taxi boat paddling back and forth between water and land?
Home is a broken branch going down by the day
Green claws rip up sunlight
Stars go out in your mouth one by one
Bees fly by soft moist pistils
In rubber teats
Art, philosophy, religion mixed in a magic liquid
Ants in a row carry one rotten leaf after the other into their cave
Countless explorers dig out from the hole of that full stop one shiny gold coin after the other
Tablets collapsed
Human heads evolve into squares
Scales shell hairy verdigris covers your vision
Pained eyes reflect blood-dripping holes
Maple leaves sweep autumn shades
Footsteps from afar coming
Close
Who pounds at my study windows
Chains are coming debt collecting
Usury for generations
From our fathers, forefathers
?
Debt bills flowing in our blood
Down from the peaks of our ancestors
Inheritance is our spring
Whether it is clear or muddy
We can’t change it anymore
No-one can pay back
The debts of his forefathers
Tell me
?
Who will press out our last drop of blood
Then hand us back to the underworld banks
When we go to our deaths
Who will go to their lives
Go on, take it
My skull is my capital
Where are we going
Where are we going
Oh my god
Your hips are clasping me, it hurts
I cannot move
Heavenly dog eating the moon
Fish heads jump in a row before the rain
Storms crushes the balls of the stars
With one fist I punch out my own eye
Rushing blood in river beds
Warden dressed up as the sun
Walking back and forth outside
Traitors with a million reasons short of one drop of blood
Cheaters with a million features short of one honest look
Tyrants with a million knives short of one human heart
Destiny with a million chances short of one past
The world has always been like this
After aeons
Life is a blank page every time

— Li Bifeng
1992, Sichuan #1 Prison, Nanchong

In 1989, dissident poet Li Bifeng was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. After his release in 1994, he became a labor rights activist. He was arrested in again in 1998 and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was arrested again in 2011 and given 12 years in prison for “contract fraud.” He is currently in Chuanbei Prison in Sichuan province.

Nostalgia

Oh if a man could crawl out of here
as a snake or lizard, and go — no!
Grow wings
and take flight, fly
to a place where the world no longer resembles a dirty rumor
a place where the scorched feast of sand
stretches
To be alone without
even hands or feet, without head, without cock
to be . . .
And the sea wash him constantly
like the luminous presence of a stone, smooth
circular
the sea wash him constantly

— Reza Baraheni

An Azerbaijani Turk from Iran, Reza Baraheni was imprisoned, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement by both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Black History, Abridged

When I was four, an elderly white woman bought my elementary school while I was still going to school inside it. Tore the building down. Now, it’s a parking lot.

— Joshua Bennett

Raised in New York, poet and performance artist Joshua Bennett studied English and Africana Studies as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania before earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

[Research note: Joshua Bennett, “Black History, Abridged,” The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016) p. 53; Phillip Williams, “Poet to Watch: Joshua Bennett,” Glappitnova (December 27, 2014)]

Never Shall I Forget

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long
night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed
into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the
desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned
my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
Never.

— Elie Wiesel

A deserted street in Sighet Marmatiei after the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto. Taken May 1944.
Image courtesy: US Holocaust Memorial Museum & Albert Rosenthal

Along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population, fifteen-year-old Elie Wiesel was confined to a ghetto in Máramarossziget (Sighet), Hungary, in March 1944 when the German army occupied the country. In May 1944, the Wiesel family was sent to Auschwitz, where Elie’s sister and mother were murdered. Elie and his father were later sent to Buchenwald, where Elie’s father subsequently died — taken to the crematorium in the middle of the night.

Sandhills Sandwich Town

I can still feel my wet bare feet
slippin’ on the hot summer concrete
coming home from your old swimming pool
Alliance, you are the Sandhills’ sandwich town
with country-fried-chicken hospitality
so proud to be white-skinned
churchgoing and somewhat dim
Bible school, Boy Scouts, and bigotry
the mighty Lakota Sioux falling-down drunk
in your gutters
unending arrests, subsequent suicides
four dead in the time it takes a life to begin
AND I WON’T LET YOU FORGET
Jo No Leaf
Chillo Whirlwind
Arthur Gene Black Horse
Irene Blackfeather
not even Clarence Pumpkin Seed
the 250 times you locked him up
before they found him frozen stiff
in Whiteclay
so picture Chillo, at eighteen he’s kicking
the wastebasket he’s standing on
picture his bath-towel necktie
picture Gene’s thin leather belt
and Jo’s wine-stained sweatshirt
picture them dangling
in your jail cells
after they cut the bodies down
picture poor Irene coughing her lungs out
your chief cop who thought
she was just inebriated
and your doctor whose sleep
was more important than her life
then picture
the agony of nails pounded through the hands
of Jesus Christ

— David Hugh Bunnell

Between October 1970 and June 1971, four members of the Lakota tribe died or were murdered in the Alliance (Nebraska) City Jail. Angered by the town’s failure to sufficiently investigate the deaths, David Hugh Bunnell, still in his early twenties and a long way from his career as a computer magazine mogul, submitted Sandhills Sandwich Town to the annual “Poetry Day” edition of the Alliance Times-Herald. His father, then editor of the newspaper, printed the poem on October 15, 1971. “My word ignited a firestorm,” Bunnell later said. “Subscriptions were canceled and advertising pulled, and letters to the editor flooded the newsroom; at home my dad received anonymous threatening phone calls and my mom was embarrassed. I became a persona non grata.”

[Research note: David Hugh Bunnell, Good Friday on the Rez ( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017)]

Borderbus

A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to come
A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to get us hermana
Pero qué hicimos but what did we do
Speak in English come on
Nomás sé unas pocas palabras I just know a few words

You’d better figure it out hermana the guard is right there
See the bus driver

Tantos días y ni sabíamos para donde íbamos
So many days and we didn’t even know where we were headed

I know where we’re going
Where we always go
To some detention center to some fingerprinting hall or cube
Some warehouse warehouse after warehouse

Pero ya nos investigaron ya cruzamos ya nos cacharon
Los federales del bordo qué más quieren
But they already questioned us we already crossed over they
already grabbed us the Border Patrol what more do they want

We are on the bus now
that is all

A dónde vamos te digo salí desde Honduras
No hemos comido nada y dónde vamos a dormer
Where are we going I am telling you I came from Honduras
We haven’t eaten anything and where are we going to sleep

I don’t want to talk about it just tell them
That you came from nowhere
I came from nowhere
And we crossed the border from nowhere
And now you and me and everybody else here is
On a bus to nowhere you got it?

Pero pore so nos venimos para salir de la nada
But that’s why we came to leave all that nothing behind

When the bus tops there will be more nothing
We’re here hermana

Y esas gentes quiénes son
No quieren que siga el camion
No quieren que sigamos
Están bloqueando el bus
A dónde vamos ahora
Those people there who are they
they don’t want the bus to keep going
they don’t want us to keep going
now they are blocking the bus
so where do we go

What?

He tardado 47 días para llegar acá no fue fácil hermana
45 días desde Honduras con los coyotes los que se – bueno
ya sabes lo que les hicieron a las chicas allí mero en frente
de nosotros per qué íbamos a hacer y los trenes los trenes
cómo dire hermana cientos de
nosotros como gallinas como topos en jaulas y verduras
pudriendóse en los trenes de miles me oyes de miles y se resbalaban
de los techos y los desiertos de Arizona de Tejas sed y hambre
sed y hambre dos cosas sed y hambre día tras día hermana
y ahora aquí en este camion y quién sabe a dónde
vamos hermana fíjate vengo desde Brownsville dónde nos amarraron
y ahora California per todavía no entramos y todavía el bordo
está por delante
It took me 47 days to get here it wasn’t easy hermana
45 days from Honduras with the coyotes the ones – well
you know what they did to las chicas
right there in front of us so what were we supposed
to do and the trains how can I tell you hermana hundreds
of us like chickens like gophers in cages and vegetables
rotting on the trains of thousands you hear me thousands and they slid
from the rooftops and the deserts of Arizona and Texas thirst and hunger
thirst and hunger two things thirst and hunger day after day hermana
and now here on this bus of who-knows-where we are going
hermana listen I come from Brownsville where they tied us up
and now in California but still we’re not inside and still the border
lies ahead of us

I told you to speak in English even un poquito
the guard is going to think we are doing something
people are screaming outside
they want to push the bus back

Pero para dónde les damos hermana
pore so me vine
le quebraron las piernas a mi padre
las pandillas mataron a mi hijo
solo quiero que estemos juntos
tantos años hermana
separados
But where do we go hermana
that’s why I came here
they broke my father’s legs
gangs killed my son
I just want us to be together
so many years hermana
pulled apart

What?

Mi madre me dijo que lo más importante
es la libertad la bondad y la buenas acciones
con el prójimo
My mother told me that the most important thing
is freedom kindness and doing good
for others

What are you talking about?
I told you to be quiet

La libertad viene desde muy adentro
allí reside todo el dolor de todo el mundo
el momento en que purguemos ese dolor de nuestras
seremos libres y en ese momento tenemos que
llenarnos de todo el dolor de todos los seres
Freedom comes from deep inside
all the pain of the world lives there
the second we cleanse that pain from our guts
we shall be free and in that moment we have to
fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings
to free them – all of them

The guard is coming well
now what maybe they’ll take us
to another detention center we’ll eat we’ll have a floor
a blanket toilets water and each other
for awhile

No somos nada y venimos de la nada
pero esa nada lo es todo si la nutres de amor
por eso venceremos
We are nothing and we come from nothing
but that nothing is everything, if you feed it with love
that is why we will triumph

We are everything hermana
Because we come from everything

— Juan Felipe Herrera

The son of Mexican migrant workers, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. As a young man, he became involved street and spoken-word performances as part of the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from high school in San Diego, he earned a B.A. in Social Anthropology from UCLA, a Masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. He is a Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside and CSU-Fresno.

[Research note: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Borderbus,” Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2015), pp. 59-63]

Power

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being
ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a 10-year-old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove that. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size or nothing else
only the color.” And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black woman’s frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

— Audre Lorde

On April 28, 1973, Thomas Shea, a white police officer in Queens, NY, shot ten-year-old Clifford Glover in the back. In 1974, a jury of 12 judged Shea not guilty of murder, prompting American (black, feminist, lesbian) poet Audre Lorde to write Power. This poem was included in her 1976 collection Between Our Selves.

[Research note: Jim Dwyer, “A Police Shot to a Boy’s Back in Queens, Echoing Since 1973,” New York Times (April 16, 2015)]