To anyone who knows me, it’s no secret I love Martín Espada’s work. I first came learned of him when I was working at Young Chicago Authors back in 2007 and saw him read in the basement of the Newberry Library. His selected works Alabanza left with me that afternoon.
I was teaching a series of workshops that spring to sixth graders at a school in downtown Chicago. One of the writing exercises I did with them was based on the poem “Alabanza,” which is a praise poem for the 43 members of the Local 100 who died while working in the Window to the World restaurant in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The poem does so many things that make me keep going back to Espada: it tells the stories of regular working folks who were part of an extraordinary moment in history, it talks about music as a way of communicating among people who speak different languages, and it mentions Roberto Clemente, who should be written into more poems.
The poem that I have engaged with over and over is “Coca-Cola and Coco Frío,” which I taught last semester in a composition class that used food as its focus. If we are talking about incorporating personal experience into poetry, I feel like this one really hits the mark without coming off as too personal (if that makes sense). I reckon it’s the third-person (maybe this poem isn’t actually about Espada, but it feels very personal). What also gets me is the exactness of the images: the fat boy, the cool spotted hands of the aunts, the unsuckled coconuts. It’s also a great poem to teach because it requires a discussion of cultural expectations and Americanization.
Here is the poem, taken from the poet’s website:
Coca-Cola and Coco Frío
On his first visit to Puerto Rico,
island of family folklore,
the fat boy wandered
from table to table
with his mouth open.
At every table, some great-aunt
would steer him with cool spotted hands
to a glass of Coca-Cola.
One even sang to him, in all the English
she could remember, a Coca-Cola jingle
from the forties. He drank obediently, though
he was bored with this potion, familiar
from soda fountains in Brooklyn.
Then, at a roadside stand off the beach, the fat boy
opened his mouth to coco frío, a coconut
chilled, then scalped by a machete
so that a straw could inhale the clear milk.
The boy tilted the green shell overhead
and drooled coconut milk down his chin;
suddenly, Puerto Rico was not Coca-Cola
or Brooklyn, and neither was he.
For years afterward, the boy marveled at an island
where the people drank Coca-Cola
and sang jingles from World War II
in a language they did not speak,
while so many coconuts in the trees
sagged heavy with milk, swollen
from City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (W.W. Norton & Company, 1994)