“Ode to the Soccer Ball Sailing Over a Barbed-Wire Fence” by Martín Espada, Floaters: Poems (USA 2021) by Martín Espada, Latino Migrants, Puerto Rican American Poet Martín Espada, Racism and Migration
My Poetry Corner January 2023 features the poem “Ode to the Soccer Ball Sailing Over a Barbed-Wire Fence” by Martín Espada from his poetry collection Floaters, winner of the 2021 National Book Award in poetry. Espada, a poet, editor, essayist, and translator, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957 to a politically engaged Puerto Rican family.
After studying history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Espada earned his law degree from Northeastern University-Boston. For many years (1987-1993), he was a tenant lawyer and legal advocate for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a town across the Tobin Bridge from Boston. Today, he teaches poetry and English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In his conversation with Peter Mishler of Literary Hub on January 22, 2021, Espada said that he used the opening poem, “Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge,” to frame “the present through the lens of the past, the crisis on the border in light of my own experience as a lawyer in the courtrooms of Chelsea….” It is a past filled with “the insidious legacy of racism, the perception of dangerousness that is, itself, dangerous.”
What the hell you doing here? said the driver of the cab to me in my suit and tie. You gotta be careful in this neighborhood. There’s a lotta Josés around here. The driver’s great-grandfather staggered off a boat so his great-grandson could one day drive me across the Mystic Tobin Bridge, but there was no room in the taxi for chalk and a blackboard…. I’m a José. I could see the 40-watt squint in his rearview mirror. I’m Puerto Rican, I said…. I’m a lawyer. I go to court with all the Josés.
In the closing stanza, Espada returns to the present:
Last night, still more landed here, clothing stuffed in garbage bags, to flee the god of hurricanes flinging their houses into the sky or the god of hunger slipping his knife between the ribs, not a dark tide like the tide of the Mystic River, but builders of bridges. You can walk across the bridges they build. Or you can jump.
Floaters is the term some U.S. Border Patrol agents use to describe migrants who drown trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to the U.S. The title poem itself, the second in the collection, was inspired by a 2019 photograph that went viral and became a symbol of the horror: the bodies of two Salvadoran migrants, a father and his twenty-three-month-old daughter, lying face-down in the river after trying to swim across it. Espada humanizes the two dead migrants by sharing their stories based on several background sources.
And the dead have names, a feast day parade of names, names that dress all in red, names that twirl skirts, names that blow whistles, names that shake rattles, names that sing in praise of the saints: Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos. See how they rise off the tongue, the calling of bird to bird somewhere in the trees above our heads, trilling in the dark heart of the leaves.
Without acknowledging the grief of Tania Vanessa Ávalos, Óscar’s wife and Valeria’s mother, some in the Border Patrol Facebook Group alleged that the photo had been doctored or staged. They had never seen floaters this clean. In the closing stanza, Espada imagines justice for Óscar and Valeria:
When the last bubble of breath escapes the body, may the men who speak of floaters, who have never seen floaters this clean, float through the clouds of the heavens, where they paddle the air as they wait for the saint who flips through the keys on his ring like a drowsy janitor, till he fingers the key that turns the lock and shuts the gate on their babble-tongued faces, and they plunge back to earth, a shower of hailstones pelting the river, the Mexican side of the river.
In the third and featured poem of the collection, “Ode to the Soccer Ball Sailing Over a Barbed-Wire Fence, Espada grants humanity to the dehumanized immigrant children housed in the Tornillo Tent encampment, a detention facility in Texas which, during its seven months of operation, processed 6,200 undocumented migrant children. In his “Notes on the Poems,” the poet shares that this poem “relies in part on personal conversations and emails with Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, former advocacy director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas, and an organizer of the successful campaign to shut down the camp, who interviewed incarcerated migrant children at the Tornillo camp.”
Unlike the first two dense narrative poems, the featured poem is a breather with only twelve, two-lined verses. A soccer ball, kicked over the barbed-wire fence, becomes a symbol of escape, freedom, and resistance. The excerpts include verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, and 9:
Praise Tornillo: word for screw in Spanish, word for jailer in English. word for three thousand adolescent migrants incarcerated in camp. Praise the three thousand soccer balls gift-wrapped at Christmas, as if raindrops in the desert inflated and bounced through the door. […] Praise the boys and girls who walked a thousand miles, blood caked in their toes, yelling in Spanish and a dozen Mayan tongues on the field. Praise the first teenager, brain ablaze like chili pepper Christmas lights, to kick a soccer ball high over the chain-link and barbed-wire fence. […] Praise the soccer ball sailing over the barbed-wire fence, white and black like the moon, yellow like the sun, blue like the world. Praise the soccer ball flying to the moon, flying to the sun, flying to other worlds, flying to Antigua Guatemala, where Starbucks buys coffee beans.
Immigration on America’s southern borders, mainly of peoples from Latin America and the Caribbean, remain a divisive issue. No solution has yet satisfied all parties involved in addressing this issue. Through this collection of twenty-nine poems, Espada hopes that “we as a society can recover our collective vision and deepest sense of justice.”
To read the complete featured poem and learn more about Martín Espada’s work, go to my Poetry Corner January 2023.