LAWRENCE - He started as a bilingual education lawyer in the Boston area. Then he defended tenants against ruthless landlords in Chelsea.
But the whole time, Martin Espada was really a poet.
Since 1982, the Brooklyn-born, Northeastern University-trained lawyer has published eight collections of poetry and has become one of the most regarded poets in Latino and American literature. He has given readings around the world and appeared on PBS poetry specials.
This month, Espada, 50, returned to the muse of some his early poems: Lawrence.
As part of Northern Essex Community College's Hispanic Heritage Month, Espada gave a reading to a packed room of mainly Latino students and recited some of his earliest pieces about Latino life in Massachusetts. A mesmerized audience listened as Espada read - in English and Spanish - such poems as "The New Bathroom Policy at English High School," "Justo the Painter and the Conquest of Lawrence," and "Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989)."
Students laughed. Some took notes. One woman cried.
Afterward, Espada signed free books for students and was met with a long line. Organizers ran out of books. He then led a workshop with students in a creative writing program.
During his reading, Espada, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, also spoke about writing, Thanksgiving at the in-laws, and, of course, Latino immigrants. In a booming voice, he argued that creative writing is a political act because the writer has the ability to record the lives of those rarely covered in the media and mainstream literature.
"One of the paradoxes that the Latino community in the United States faces today is the paradox of invisibility," he said. "How is it possible that 40 million people can also be invisible" in art, movies, literature, and media?
It's something he has sought to change, he told his listeners. For example, many years ago, as a lawyer he got involved with Lynn English High School parents who were angry at school officials who banned Spanish at lunchtime. Espada showed up at the school to discuss the matter with what he said was his greatest weapon - a copy of the US Constitution. The school backed off its policy, but it inspired him to write "The New Bathroom Policy at English High School."
The boys chatter Spanish
in the bathroom
while the principal
listens from his stall
The only word he recognizes
is his own name
and this constipates him
So he decides
to ban Spanish
in the bathrooms
Now he can relax
"One of the advantages of being a poet is the opportunity for revenge," Espada said, with a wink.
Gisela Nash, assistant director of federal Title V programs at the college and one of the organizers of Hispanic Heritage Month, said it was important to bring someone like Espada to campus because of his connection with the Latino population in Lawrence. Not only is he writing about area Latinos, he is also approachable and an example that Hispanics can be writers, too.
"He was great," she said. "The students loved him."
In the five years since Northern Essex Community College started its Hispanic Heritage Month, the school has expanded its offers to invite nationally known scholars, writers, and performers to campus. In addition to Espada, the school this year invited flamenco guitarist Jonathan "Juanito" Pascual and merengue scholar César Sánchez Beras.
Landing someone like Espada was "perfect" for the school, Nash said, because he is sought for readings at big state universities nationwide.
A post-Nuyorican Poets Cafe movement writer, Espada was one of the first to tackle Latino life in the Boston area. It was something that he said came naturally to him given his upbringing in Brooklyn as someone living "between two cultures" and developing his craft in New England. (The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in Manhattan's Lower East Side, introduced the first wave of US mainland-born Puerto Rican poets who mixed literature and music.) But he said he was able to evolve his voice by images he saw as a lawyer.
"I see the poet's role going beyond pure poetry," he said. "It was a process of finding your own voice and realizing it's a bridge. It's a responsibility I have."
One Christmas, he recalled, he was walking the streets of Chelsea when he noticed musical instruments in a pawnshop. In his mind, Espada believed that those instruments were tools of musicians who had to pawn them for some unknown reason, and in the process they were also selling away their dreams. That led him to write "Latin Night at the Pawnshop."
Though he gives readings to different groups around the world, reading in places like Lawrence holds a special place for Espada because of the influences the community has had in his work. But he also relishes teaching the works of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at UMass and leading creative workshops in prisons. His latest collection of poetry, "The Republic of Poetry," was about the power of poetry in influencing politics and was a finalist for last year's Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
"The world keeps changing and spinning," Espada said. "All I'm trying to do as a poet is try to keep up with it."
Russell Contreras can be reached at email@example.com.