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Spaces for congregation and creative play: Martin Espada's and victor Hernandez Cruz's poetic plazas.

In The Lettered City, Angel Rama argues that colonial Latin American cities were designed to produce and reflect an idealized order that oriented subjects toward the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. City blocks planned in geometrical grids with central plazas were, Rama writes, "creations of the human mind" and "the embodiment of social order," with "a frankly rationalizing vision of an urban future" (1996, 1). Rama's argument focuses not on the built environment per se or how it was lived, however, but on how this "social order" was produced through writing. He describes the ways in which various official forms of textual production by bureaucratic letrados ("lettered men") enforced hierarchical social norms that excluded the vast majority of citizens--mostly indigenous, mestiza/o, and/or illiterate--from participating in the public sphere and thus from shaping the uses of public space and the direction of the state. This exclusion from public space of all but criollos--"pure" descendents of Spaniards--produced a clear perspective on conceivable modes of action in Latin America. These types of action, Rama notes, diverge from those thought feasible in the US:
  If myths condense collective desires about the world, then in the
  case of the United States they gain wide play from positive
  perceptions of the capacity of the individual, while in the Latin
  American case they rest on an acute sense of individual helplessness
  in the face of monolithic state power. In other words, Latin American
  urban societies model action more collectively and their social myths
  configure opposition in terms of groups: spontaneous protests, mass
  demonstrations, multitudinous demands. (Rama 1996, 55)


Rama links these suggestive "myths" to the collective, sometimes "spontaneous," possible actions determined in part by guiding beliefs about power and public space. Whatever the factual basis for these "myths" about Latin America, and there is a strong one, when global capital is added to "monolithic state power," Rama's articulation draws into focus the ways that public spaces can facilitate and constrain action. Surrounded by government palaces and cathedrals, plazas have been, and continue to be, the stages for these possibilities and exclusions, so that the symbolic sources and locations of power in cities are also sites for the congregation of opponents who gather to voice "multitudinous demands." (1)

This essay argues that two contemporary Puerto Rican poets, and two of the most prominent US Latino poets, Martin Espada and Victor Hernandez Cruz, conceptualize Latin American plazas as transactional public spaces in which exchanges are enacted between various social actors and the economic and political structures that constrain and empower them. The term "transactional" encompasses a breadth of positive and negative exchanges between agents, including economic, cultural, and political ones. It is thus useful for suggesting how Espada's many poems set in plazas dramatize contests for the symbolic and material control of space across the Americas and how Cruz's poems represent plazas as spaces for linguistic play and historical reinterpretation. Both Espada and Cruz imagine plazas as sites for performing linguistic and cultural exchanges that undermine their traditional uses for reinforcing the "myths" of hegemonic power. Although Espada and Cruz use vastly different poetic languages to depict plazas, they both write primarily in English and their poems together "embody," to take Rama's words, the possibility for a new "social order" that promotes inclusion, social justice, and creative action. (2)

Espada and Cruz imagine Latin American plazas from a specific location both apart from and part of Rama's comparative framework for action in Latin America and the US: Puerto Rico. Reading their poetic plazas together as interventions in this divide foregrounds Roman de la Campa's two-part claim about the ideological construction of the Americas in terms of location[s]" and "myths": that this construction "has always been an arbitrary exercise in location, a site not far from the lines of Utopia and nostalgia" and that its "myths are abundant and prone to constant revision" (2001, 373-74). De la Campa cautions against the ever-tenuous myth of the "North / South divide" (374) and suggests instead that we find "new ways of imagining the Americas [located] within, as well as between, nations" (383). Plazas, which do differentiate Latin from North America, and Puerto Rico, which exists at its constantly overlapping, shifting interface, are fascinating sites of convergence at which Espada and Cruz locate their own poetic practices in the Americas.

Puerto Rico is in this way a unique vantage point from which to consider poetic representations of plazas because the island has been shaped by Spanish and US colonialism and the economic policies of a stringent form of capitalism that have guided its development, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century. In 1948 the US imposed the liberal economic structural measures of "Operation Bootstrap" on Puerto Rico, and in 1952 the island became a US "commonwealth." Jamil Khader calls this Puerto Rico's "paradoxical situation, in but not of the U.S. federal union" (2003, 142; original emphasis), just as it might be said that the island is of but not in Latin America. Espada's and Cruz's poetic plazas are precisely positioned interstices from which to interrogate the convergence of "monolithic state power" and neoliberal capital promoted by US economic policies in their cooperative conversion of public spaces into privatized sites for consumption. Nowhere is this blurring of distinction between market and public space reserved for the exercise of citizenship rights more symbolically powerful than in Puerto Rico's Plaza Las Americas, the second largest shopping mall in Latin America. In Puerto Rico, then, "plaza" takes on a complex range of connotations that bundle together the Spanish conquest and colonization, US political and economic imperialism, global processes of capital accumulation and development, and consumption as a primary citizenship practice, not to mention the mixing of iconic North and Latin American forms: the mall and the plaza.

Many scholars argue that plazas have served as spaces of physical and ideological containment, enforcing--sometimes with violence--the powers of church, state, and capital in varying iterations at different historical junctures. Plazas have also served as spaces of exclusion, and in this regard Plaza Las Americas extends the class-based exclusions well-established in colonial Latin America and continuing into the twenty-first century. Setha M. Low, for instance, calls the Latin American plaza "a preeminent public space, a source and symbol of civic power, with a long tradition as the cultural center of the city," and she claims that it "provides a physical, social, and metaphorical space for public debate about governance, cultural identity, and citizenship" (2000, 35, 32). This appraisal serves the status quo unless plazas are also measured as "syncretic forms" in which "cultural conflict and contestation" are "encoded in the built environment" (105, 101). (3) As the root of other words, "plaza" can be modified to indicate how its referent might be reshaped through contestation; in addition to revising the meanings and uses of the places themselves, these alterations evoke the ways in which Espada's and Cruz's poetic representations "play" with and in plazas and thus revise their symbolic possibilities and potential uses. For example, "desplazar" means "to displace," while "desplazamiento" can mean "displacement," and a "desplazada/o" is a "displaced person." Each shares linguistic roots with plaza, symbolically indicating that to be in the plaza is to have a place in society, while to be outside of it is to have none--to displace, then, is to remove from the plaza, from public space itself, to have neither place nor voice. The experience of "desplazamiento," then, is the forcible removal from the public sphere, particularly if the plaza operates as a synecdoche for public space as a whole. Ruth Hill, for example, demonstrates that colonial leaders in Bourbon-era Lima "limited access to [central] public spaces" to preserve their use for criollos and to prevent access by "common people," indigenous, and mestizos (2006, 219-20). Yet when the verb is made reflexive, "desplazarse" means "to travel"; this shift emphasizes active movement rather than displacement as well as the substitution of mobility for exclusion and containment.

Espada's and Cruz's poetic revisions counteract the violence of desplaza-miento and "release," in the former's words, "a voice caught in the collective throat" (1998b, 8). In interpreting a range of plaza poems and drawing from my research on the Martin Espada Papers in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, I develop a viewpoint of plazas as sites of tension between the congregation of those who attempt to build alternative collective identities that are difficult to form in US public spaces and the often violent forces of exclusion and containment that produce desplazamiento while promoting official, consumer-based identities. The idea of "congregation" is important to Espada's work because it converts the neutral term "crowd" into a sacred gathering in public space and the power of the church to congregate to the will of the people to do so. (4) Whereas Espada's plazas are set in specific historical and geographical locations, and Cruz's seem to float across space, unmoored from temporal and geographical specificities while maintaining a distinctive place-based consciousness of the mixing of cultures in the Americas, both poeticize plazas as transactional spaces of possibility, where poetic languages confront discourses of hegemonic power. (5) Espada's plaza poems often begin with bylines specifying dates and locations, and Cruz focuses on the symbolic significance of plazas across geographical contexts, but both mind the risk of generalizing about Latin America, if not always successfully. In introducing The Lettered City, John Charles Chasteen defends Rama's approach to Latin American cities as a discrete unit of study even as he warns that '"Latin America' is too large and diverse to be a useful category for many sorts of analysis" (1996, xiii). By taking an imaginary measure of plazas, and thereby insisting that an accurate sense of the imaginary can configure a concrete apprehension of places, Espada and Cruz poeticize what Santa Arias has called, in reference to Espada's work, the "history of locations" of US Latinos (1996, 232). For each poet, these "locations" are complex because they share characteristics with other locations; one challenge of reading Espada's and Cruz's plaza poems, then, is to illuminate the shared cultural, political, and economic conditions that shape plazas while minding what is distinctive to the contexts of each.

Cruz's "Mountains in the North: Hispanic Writing in the U.S.A." addresses this issue of particularity by describing how local iterations of Spanish in Latin America defy the unspecific knowledge of outsiders. Yet even he generalizes to illustrate the dynamic:
  Sometimes when a word jumps over to the next country, it takes on
  an opposite meaning, or a word which you can yell in the plaza at the
  top of your voice, like popusa in El Salvador, moonlights as the
  private part of a woman in Guatemala. Anglos have difficulty
  grasping the variety of our world and have a tendency to slip us all
  under the same blanket in a careless act of generalizing. (Cruz 1991,
  90; original emphasis)


In this passage, Cruz rightly warns against generalizing about Latin America and US Latinos, but he takes "the plaza" as a static space across nations, a problematic unit of analysis in its own right that refuses sociolinguistic variations within nations. "Plaza" is indeed a word that "takes on," if not "an opposite meaning," then at least divergent connotations and historical significances depending on its location. To take just one possible constellation of "plazas"--say Los Angeles Plaza, Tlatelolco and the main Zocalo in Mexico City, Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, and Plaza Las Americas in Puerto Rico--and to conflate their meanings is to ignore how each has been materially and symbolically shaped by different power struggles and that, for instance, Mexico City's main plazas were Aztec ones razed by Cortes and built over by the Spanish. (6)

Like many of Espada's poems, "When Songs Become Water" (1993, 80, 82) directly enters a specific historical context with a byline that includes a date and location, and in this case, a dedication: "FOR DIARIO LATINO, / EL SALADOR, 1991" (original emphasis). As in numerous Espada poems, this one also begins with prepositional phrases that situate the text in space and time: "Where dubbed commercials / sell the tobacco and alcohol / of a far winter metropolis" (my emphasis). The first stanza is structured through five of these "where ..." phrases before ending with a "there ..." phrase; the second through a single "when .../[...]/ then ..." syntax; and the third begins and ends with "where ..." phrases. "Plaza" appears just once in the poem, in the fourth "where ..." phrase, but this single instance subtly coordinates oppressive state power to multinational corporate capital in their joint conquest of public space: "where olive uniforms keep watch / over the plaza / from a nest of rifle eyes and sandbags. "The act of "watch[ing]" by government soldiers should be read in conjunction with the "dubbed commercials" of the first line, as they too must be watched; this watching, therefore, becomes an act of complicit--if not a shared strategy--between corporate power, state violence, and the economic imperialism of the "far winter metropolis" in the US. To this end, early handwritten drafts of "When Songs Become Water" in the Espada Papers show the poet moving between "marketplace" and "plaza" in describing this space. In the first draft, "the army keeps watch / over the marketplace"; in the second, "marketplace" is crossed out and replaced with "plaza" (Espada 1991-1992, n.p.). This well-marked revision, along with a metonymic substitution of the faceless menace of "olive uniform", for "the army" in the published poem, suggests that "plaza" is more accurate and effective language than "marketplace" for dramatizing state-sanctioned (and in this context, US-funded) and market-promoted violence. (7)

This revision from "marketplace" to "plaza" stakes a claim for public space apart from the functions of capital, but it also draws upon the symbolism of the latter word and the ways in which it distinguishes Latin America from North America and its "commercials." Mary P. Ryan points out that the US "lexicon of spatial forms," including "Main Street," "Downtown," and "the Mall," emphasizes economic transactions and lacks terms like "plaza," "which suggest places with mixed use--not just buying and selling but also assembling, governing, debating, protesting, worshipping, playing, parading, performing and cultivating a civic identity" (2006, 457). These flexible uses make plazas spaces in and of play that, paradoxically, must be defended from the forces, such as "olive uniforms," that purport to do so. "When Songs Become Water" testifies to the role of poetic language in this progressive defense of public space. In a letter to the poet Gary Soto dated 8 May 1992, Espada cites this poem in discussing the manuscript of City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993). His explanation of the poem's import is slightly different than the one that appears prior to the poem in the book:
  One poem in here, "When Songs Become Water," has a history. In
  January, 1991,I had some poems published in Diario Latino, an
  opposition newspaper in El Salvador. The following month, Diario
  Latino was burned down, doubtlessly by the same forces the
  newspaper had opposed so openly. The newspaper rebuilt, a page at a
  time, until a year later it was at full strength again. In February,
  1992, the one-year anniversary of the fire, Diario Latino published
  "When Songs Become Water" in Spanish translation. The poem is a
  tribute to Diario Latino and the opposition in El Salvador, but is
  lso an homage to any people anywhere trying to raise their voices
  above the flames. (Espada 1990-2003, n.p.)


By emphasizing the specificity of the historical context within a broader framework for action against injustice ("people anywhere"), and by revising the original handwritten title, "Letter to El Salvador" (1991-1992, n.p.), to the published title, which stresses the role of "songs" / poems in dousing flames of oppression across geographical contexts, Espada links the power of "songs" to the defense of public space and public speech. Espada, like Cruz, uses the nation to strike this balance between the local and particular and a universal sense of justice; thus the poem does not take place in San Salvador, where Diario Latinos offices are located, but in El Salvador, and "songs" / poems become water that flows across national borders and through historical time.

Whereas "When Songs Become Water" does not directly specify its location within El Salvador, and its plaza is of peripheral importance to the poem's narrative arc (but central to its symbolic registers), "Sing Zapatista" (Espada 2003,216-17) is configured at a precise confluence of historical conditions on an exact date in the plaza of Tepoztlan, a small pueblo outside of Mexico City. (8) A byline locates the poem in space and time during the 2001 EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberation National, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) march from Chiapas to Mexico City shortly after the election ofVicente Fox; the byline homes in on one visit from the Zapatista delegation on its way to the capital: "March 6, 2001 / Tepoztlan, State of Morelos, Mexico'" (original emphasis). (9) The poem's eight quatrains each begin with a command to "Sing the word ...," the first of which is "Sing the word Tepoztlan, Place of Copper." The nine italicized words--"Tepoztlan," "Zapata" "Zapatista," "Felix Serdan" "comandante," "durito" "zapateado," and "Marcos"--are Spanish-language words and proper names with the exception of the first, which is derived from the indigenous language, Nahuatl, spoken by more than one million people in Central Mexico. The disconnection between singing Spanish and Nahuatl words in an English-language poem registers acutely with Espada. He translates "the word" for English-only readers, directly as in the initial example above and indirectly in others. Further, in a series of emails about the poem culminating on 16 April 2001, he excitedly asks his friend, translator, and frequent collaborator, Camilo Perez-Bustillo, who teaches in Mexico and writes about the Zapatistas, to translate the poem and to have that translation published in Mexico. Espada calls the poem what "came out of the Tepoztlan visit" and "proof that [his] time in Mexico was appreciated and well-spent" while Perez-Bustillo says that the poem is an "incredible" distillation of their "all too brief all too disorganized taste of Zapatismo together" (2001-2002, n.p.).(10)

I am not reading this email correspondence as an insight into how Espada's visit to Tepoztlan inspired the poem; instead, it provides further context for the poem's modeling of the relationship between "the word" and "place" and how their inextricability can be used to create and defend public spaces such as plazas. The emails establish Espada's imperative to make the poem emerge from the specificities of place and his belief that historically accurate images are necessary to "sing" well. Espada asks Perez-Bustillo numerous questions about Tepoztlan, Emiliano Zapata (born in Morelos),the Zapatistas, melons, and Quetzalcoatl, and at the end of the correspondence Perez-Bustillo proudly calls it "our poem" and Espada's "first on the topic which has given structure and meaning to my life the last seven years" (2001-2002, n.p.). Espada's precise images begin with Tepoztlan, which indicates immediately that the first word that the poet must "sing" is the place from which any language draws its power. This image of the town and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, according to legend born in Tepoztlan, conjures a place settled within both its natural environment and the symbolic meanings that are shaped by and within it: "pueblo of cobblestone and purple blossoms / amid the cliffs, serpent god ablaze with plumage / peering from the shaven rock."(11) From here the quatrains implicitly trace the history of the original Zapatistas during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to the Zapatistas who began their insurgency in Chiapas on January 1, 1994 (the day that NAFTA went into effect). The two merge into a shared logic of struggle in the Tepoztlan plaza in 2001. (12) As a logical extension of Zapata, the poem suggests that the Zapatista movement must be understood in terms of a relationship between place and language. In this way, the poem posits an alternative logos that strikes a pact between Nahuatl, Spanish, and English by defining the plaza as a sacred space where "the word" can be given life.

The final four quatrains take place in the plaza where a "platform" holds, the twenty three "faceless / masked" Zapatista delegates. Here an alternative sacred congregation collectively "sings the word" of struggle, and the church that abuts the plaza is neither hostile nor neutral, but resolutely supportive of the Zapatistas. This act of reclaiming the sacred "word" from the church and the state is activated not through abstractions or proclamations but through groundedness in the earth. Like Zapata and the rebels of 1910, who are described as "peasants of Morelos husking rifles / stalk by stalk from the cornfields," the present-day Zapatistas and their supporters are "scarab-people" "the color of earth, "but they travel "in a caravan without rifles." These images insist that the Zapatistas are an organic extension of and from the earth and thus naturally justified in their revolution.(13) This connection between the word, the earth, and the "scarab-people" is fully activated in the plaza, where the church "bells bang / to welcome the rebels" who are "smuggling Mayan tongues [from Chiapas] to the microphone in the plaza / where the church drowses in dreams of Latin by rote." While the church "drowses" and its "bells bang" as if in unison with the alternative "word," the plaza grows increasingly loud with song and dance. Here the "tap and stamp of women dancing in the plaza / to the hummingbird rhythms ofVeracruz" and the congregation of people "shouting their vow never to be crushed by the shoe" transform the poet's command to "sing the word" to a collective "chanting" of the final word in the sequence: Marcos. Subcomandante Marcos, the clandestine Zapatista leader, disappears into the collective when he responds to the crowd: "Marcos does not exist. I am a window. I am a mirror. / I am you. You are me" (original emphasis). While the deference is an EZLN strategy for focusing on the people's rather than their leaders' goals, the effacement of the speaker in favor of the collectively chanted word also makes the poet himself recede, thereby allowing his words to be sung by a congregation of readers. (14) Moreover, the creative play in the "vow never to be crushed by the shoe" "shouted" by "scarab-people" makes the power of the "shoe" property of the many gathered in the plaza rather than of the oppressive few. It also echoes subtly the fact that the movement is named after a leader's surname with a masculine ending removed from the Spanish word for "shoe" (zapato).

In "Sing Zapatista," then, Espada insists that it is necessary and possible for progressive movements to claim local, decentralized power through the collective "singing" of poetry. A robust conception of "place," which is ety-mologically related to "plaza," is fundamental to this possibility. Arif Dirlik argues that to intervene productively in critical discussions about relationships between the local and the global (which the Zapatistas attempt to do between Chiapas and the forces of neoliberalism enforced by the Mexican state), "place" must be "conceived as [a] project" (2001, 23) that begins from the ground up, rather than as a set of static conditions imposed by national and global institutions. Dirlik writes:
  Groundedness, which is not the same thing as immutable fixity, and
  some measure of definition by flexible and porous boundaries ... are
  crucial to any conceptualization of place and place-based
  consciousness. Place as metaphor suggests groundedness from below,
  and a flexible and porous boundary around it, without closing out the
  extralocal, all the way to the global. What is important about the
  metaphor is that it calls for a definition of what is to be included
  in the place from within the place--some control over the conduct and
  organization of everyday life, in other words--rather than from
  above, from those placeless abstractions such as capita! [and] the
  nation-state. (Dirlik 2001, 22-3; my emphasis)


"Sing Zapatista" models a "place-based consciousness" that metaphorizes a "groundedeness" in the natural world and long-standing cultural traditions; Tepoztlan, in this view, is constituted as a "place from within the place" through the singing in the plaza but also in the struggle against the prover-bial "shoe" that crushes "from above." At the same time, the poem draws "a flexible and porous boundary" around this conception of place--""the cliffs" and "the shaven rock" that hover over the pueblo are clear boundaries, but they do not prevent either the arrival of marchers from Chiapas nor the brutal history of conquest embodied by the Catholic Church nor the "[twentieth] century's harvest of campesino skulls / abundant as melons" that are undoubtedly the product of collusion between global capital and nation-states. Against these violent abstractions from above, Espada envisions the pueblo of Tepoztlan undergoing what Setha M. Low calls in her study of plazas a "social construction of space" that "contextual [izes] the forces that produce it" while also "showing people as social agents constructing their own realities and symbolic meanings" (2000, 127-28; original emphasis). These grounded "symbolic meanings" help create a place-or plaza-based consciousness that resists desplazamiento. (15)

Another site of a complex place-based consciousness, albeit contrary in type to Espada's depiction of Tepoztlan, is Puerto Rico's Plaza Las Americas. In her study of the massive mall, Laura L. Ortiz-Negron writes that "the island's urban design, where suburbs and highways have at their center a mall and are linked by cars, is the spatial surface of Puerto Rico" (2007, 44). She shows further that the state, global capital, and the church tacitly and often explicitly encourage consumption as a form of good citizenship (44-45). These circumstances, Ortiz-Negron argues, undermine the "assumption" of "anticonsumption discourse" that the problem of consumerism is the province of individuals (45). As one of her interviewees says, citing how "'major churches come to inaugurate the additions to the shopping malls,'" '"to consume is a legitimate activity'" (44). Ortiz-Negron concludes that "the mall is the new plaza" (46). (Given that residents refer to the mall as "Plaza" and that to specify one is going to an actual "plaza" one must use its proper name, this claim reinforces the mall's erasure of geographical and cultural specificities.) However, at "the new plaza," she writes, some citizens gather to "reappropriate and transform a situation imposed by political and economic power" (46). She sees hope for progressive change in this "situation" and uses the example of a citizen group, "Caminantes de Plaza," that has "transformed" the mall into "a recreation and therapeutic space," thereby wresting some agency from global capital (46). Her position echoes Nestor Garcia Canclini's claim that in Latin America citizenship roles and participation are carried out as consumer decisions and that identity is largely a function of consumption (1995), but it also indicates how desplazamiento pushes citizens out of civic public spaces and into globalized consumer spaces.

Yet Ortiz-Negron does not account for the symbolic dimensions of Plaza in relationship to plazas or for the exploitative role of global capital in interpolating citizens in the Americas. This absence is especially unsatisfying given that Plaza Las Americas positions itself as an extension of the Spanish conquest. The mall logo features three sails that symbolize Columbus's three ships. This logo evinces an untroubled celebration of the so-called discovery of the "New World" by ignoring the constitutive genocide of indigenous peoples and the consumption of native and African bodies in order to create and consolidate the material wealth of Spain. The mall's official slogan--"el centra de todo" / "the center of it all"--erases the conquest as well as the role of plazas as centers of civic life, while also substantiating Low's point that "urban public spaces that planners and administrators say are designed for the common good are often designed to accommodate activities that will exclude some people and benefit others" (2000, 181), in this case multinational corporations and those with disposable income. The mall's slogan begs a question: the mall is "the center" of what exactly? Logo and slogan together suggest that Plaza Las Americas is at the center of the conquest of global capital. (16) On this point, David Harvey notes that the conquest of geographical space is understood as "progress" in the western imaginary, and he shows that the era of neoliberal capital has ushered in "an intense phase of time-space compression that has had a disorienting and disruptive impact" on cultural processes (1990, 205, 284). Wendell Berry, moreover, argues that the history of the Americas from the conquest to the present cooperation between corporate capital and the state is at its core an exploitation narrative (1996, 7). He writes, "It is as if the future is a newly discovered continent which the corporations are colonizing" (58). Plaza Las Americas and its remarkable logo should be understood within the context of these succinct claims: it disorients public and private spaces, compresses "Las Americas" into a single shopping mall, and ultimately conquers geographical space and historical time in the names of "progress" and consumption.

"Plaza" and its uses and meanings clearly are subject to revision by global capital, and this revisionary process is where Victor Hernandez Cruz's poems intervene as moments of play that enliven "plaza" and plazas with creative possibility. Unlike Espada's poems set in particular plazas in specific places and times, (17) Cruz's plazas often function as cardinal reference points, moving in relationship to the body's location in space and providing it with creative direction. This simultaneous flexibility and stability is on display, for example, in Red Beans (1991)--twelve of its thirty-five poems include at least one "plaza" reference. These instances demonstrate a remarkable range of linguistic variations. They include: "in the eyes of the plaza" (16); "It is raining up / Not water / But belly buttons in / The plaza" (19); "plazas of water" (21); "through / a festive plaza" (28); "Inviting the estrangement of / The planet to come and sit / In the plazas" (42);"gene Plazas" (82); "Spanish plaza" (38); and "Areyto plazas" (77). Cruz's idiosyncratic variations on "plaza" employ prepositional phrases (the first five above) that imagine plazas as extensions and manifestations of the human body, as spatial forms for modeling bodies of water, and as spaces that welcome "the planet"; the final three in the list utilize adjectival modifiers that configure plazas as Spanish and indigenous ("Areyto" is a Taino ceremonial dance), and thus a space for the mixing of"gene[s]" in a process of mestizaje. This mixture of possibilities reinforces Setha M. Low's argument that plazas are "syncretic form[s]" derived from both European and Mesoamerican indigenous sources (2000, 105), but it also suggests how Cruz makes plazas spaces for creative combination.

"Financial Report" (Cruz 2001,106) includes less celebratory word play on "plaza" than these examples, but is more germane to my argument given its veiled reference to Plaza Las Americas that interrogates how private capital overtakes public space. (18) The poem begins, "No, no get plata free / Only lata gives here translated plains "Two Spanish word--"plata" (silver or money, more generally) and "lata" (tin can or nuisance, figuratively)--are the basis for the poem's linguistic play. This play produces no firm meanings and nothing approaching a clear "financial report"; instead it builds upon the diminishing rhyme "plata" / "lata," the first indicating financial value and the second a lack thereof. The poem then enacts a smelting process that blends the valuable metal with the cheap one, so that when "They put fire to the lata / Flame to the can / Heat to the silver / [and] Bend nickels," they do so to "sell you public opinion / And make centuality out of your / Fears" (my emphasis).These lines suggest that "they"--in the words of Arif Dirlik "those placeless abstractions such as capital [and] the nation-state" that "control ... everyday life ... from above" (22-23)--design each "financial report" to manipulate "Fears" and to "sell" them back to you. The next three lines equate not having "plata" with not having "plaza" or "Plaza": "No have plata ni plaza ni neo Plaza / Where you have plasta of plata / Just a kind of lata which gets fevers." These lines begin with a direct transliteration of Spanish syntax into English, from No tengo (which would be translated as "I do not have") to "No have." The speaker has neither ("ni") money nor ("ni") place nor the new ("neo") Plaza, which appears to refer to Plaza Las Americas, especially given Ortiz-Negron's identical claim. This latter Plaza is the place where "you" finally "have" something: "plasta of plata."A difficult-to-translate colloquial slur, "plasta" can signify a dull, boring person; a soft, thick mass; or, simply, shit. Even if Plaza Las Americas' "plasta of plata" can be understood as something like shitioad of money, it is further qualified three times in the poem as a "lata," or nuisance: "Just," "a kind of," and "which." In this string of linguistic plays, Plaza Las Americas becomes both a negation of "plaza" and a retrenchment of class-based desplazamiento from plazas. The mall becomes part of a "fever[ed]" "financial report" that conjures excrement and fire from a hyper-consumption that produces and depends on heated, and dangerous, metals.

This reading of "Financial Report" might strike some readers as overly definitive given the poem's elusiveness, particularly in its final lines, which include "Plateforms," "Platanos," and two concluding phrases: "Plain things remembering / Two landwhichis." This "financial report" is not nonsense, but it is certainly opaque and disorienting, as many financial reports are to many citizens. The workings of global capital are indeed designed to elude capture and comprehension--in this regard a financial report is little more than the rattling of "latas" (tin cans). Espada's "Cockroaches of Liberation" (1993, 23-24), on the other hand, directly depicts a Puerto Rican plaza as a space for resisting desplazamiento by hegemonic power. The poem dramatizes the ways in which students "congregating on the plaza" utilize the plaza's built environment to conduct creative public protest. Handwritten drafts in the Espada Papers show how he revised the poem's prepositions in order to make its spatial dimensions precise. In three early drafts of "Cockroaches," he shifts from: "they congregated on the plaza" to "in the plaza" back to "on the plaza"; "stampeding the plaza" to "stampeding through the plaza"; and "they rushed back onto the plaza" to "into the plaza" back to "onto the plaza" (1991-92, n.p.; my emphasis).These slight revisions do not alter significantly the poem's sound qualities, but they do impact substantially its spatial dimensions. By choosing "on," "through," and "onto," Espada creates a poetic map of public space, which is three-dimensional and can be located, entered, and traveled "through," but which is also "on" the ground, two-dimensional, and accessible rather than solely "in" the imagination.

The careful prepositions of "Cockroaches" and their "groundedness" make its plaza a stage for the convergence of market, state, and local place-based forces. Each formulation of the plaza is framed by how its space facilitates and produces music, poetry, and sound. First, students "congregat[e] on the plaza / with songs taunting / the governor and the chancellor / in rhyme, Jive beats of the clave" (1993, 23-24; my emphasis here and below). Second, police "canter" and "mmbl[e] on cobblestone / through the plaza." Third, students "cre[ep] back onto the plaza, / calling to each other / with the wooden clap of the claves." In the previous paragraph I emphasize prepositional phrases that join human actions to the space of the plaza; in these three movements, on the other hand, I draw attention to the sounds created in and by the plaza. The students' orchestrated songs follow the beat of the clave, a 1-2 pause 1-2-3 rhythm that Cruz says is "the undertow of any Latin tune" (1991, 97). In these movements the plaza is more than the site for a "congregation" to sing against injustice; the space enables and amplifies sound, so that student "hands [are] slapping time till / the beat bounce[s] off cobblestone. "This empowerment, it should be noted, does not belong either to students or to the police, but is produced through the interaction of sound and space, as the police's "canter" and "rumbling" are also amplified by the cobblestone. There is one key difference, however: the students keep time and "call" to each other in rhythm whereas the police "rumble" without rhythm. As in "Sing Zapatista," Espada joins the "congregation" to the discipline of a collective poetic practice while acknowledging the simultaneous, threatening presence of official power. Espada has written that "poetry of the political imagination is a matter of both vision and language," and that any such imagination must move "beyond protest to articulate an artistry of dissent" {1998b, 100; original emphasis). (19) "Cockroaches" models "an artistry of dissent" that belongs not to particular individuals or essentialized communities, but to the voluntary "congregation" and its collective declamation of songs / poems to the beat of claves--the "wooden rhythm sticks" used for percussion (Espada 2008, 67)--and in the time of the clave--the rhythmic pattern the students keep. Espada's artistry of protest, then, conjoins material culture (claves, plural) to poetic rhythm (clave, singular) in the material and symbolic space of the plaza.

This reading sharpens Maria Elena Cepeda's argument that Espada's poems model simultaneously a discourse of opposition and resistance, in which the former is understood as subversion and the latter as an active attempt to overturn oppressive structures (2000, 518). Although Cepeda shows that these concepts converge rather than diverge in significance (527), the terms do not clarify how Espada configures plazas as spaces in which power can be called to account. In "Cockroaches," the student strikers hold "placards accusing collaboration" between the "governor," "chancellor," "bankers," and "the Marines," a precise symbolic configuration of state, market, and military forces that converges on the plaza. The students do not, strictly speaking, oppose or resist these forces because the congregation becomes part of (and thus indigenous to) the built environment, so that the space itself allies with the students in counteracting this "collaboration." This conceit is similar to the way in which "Sing Zapatista" understands the Zapatistas as an organic emergence from and an extension of the earth ("husking rifles / stalk by stalk from the cornfields" [Espada 2003, 216]). Not only does the students'rhythm respond to and correspond with the spatial dimensions of the plaza, their bodies become part of the surrounding space. When the police enter the plaza at night, the students have "a spell for disappearing, / a secret for dissolving / between the grillwork of balconies / and fire escapes." It is critical that the "congregation" of students, rather than the "collaboration" of oppressive forces, possesses the "spells" and "secrets" for using the plaza and what surrounds it. The congregation also claims the right to "disappear" that has been the province of many governments in Latin America. Here when students "disappear" and "dissolve" the plaza becomes "an empty postcard"--the congregation thus becomes the space and vice-versa, just as the "songs become water" in El Salvador. This "postcard" image also reveals what is most important about plazas that postcard photographs usually omit: people. In other words, the plaza is useless without the congregations who gather there: it is "empty," without the possibility of transaction or creative communication.

Thomas Fink argues that "Cockroaches" employs a "multiplication" technique as an "oppositional strategy" (1999, 214). This "multiplication" incrementally wrests control of the plaza from the "collaboration" of state, market, and military forces. The poem ends when the students begin
  multiplying in the dark
  like cockroaches of liberation
  too quick for stomping boots
  that circle back on the hour,
  immune to the stink
  of government fumigation. (Espada 1993, 24)


Elsewhere in Espada's work the cockroach is a metaphor for oppression and injustice. "Imagine the Angels of Bread," for instance, envisions their extinction: "this is the year that cockroaches / become extinct, that no doctor / finds a. roach embedded / in the ear of an infant" (1996, 16).(20) In the poem at issue here, however, cockroaches are a force for "liberation," and the students are able to "multiply" like them. This "multiplication" of forces of and for "liberation" is staged in and from a plaza, where the students cannot become desplazados because, as in "Sing Zapatista" where beetles "the color of earth" cannot be "crushed by the shoe" (2003, 216-17), they are "too quick for stomping boots" (1993, 24). In both poems, the " congregation "from below is inextricable from the spaces it attempts to defend. Finally, the student movement's collective song in "Cockroaches" can be understood as "the product of an urban literate culture" central to Latin American history that is "without equivalents" in the US (Rama 1996, 55). This poem thus circles back to Jamil Khader's claim that Puerto Rico is in but not of the US (2003, 142) and my extension of it that Puerto Rico is of but not in Latin America.

In comparison to the sequential order, short time frame, and specific location of Espada's "Cockroaches of Liberation," Cruz's "El Poema de lo Reverso" (2001, 155) condenses over five-hundred years of history into a single moment. The poem begins in an unnamed Latin American plaza and ends in a Spanish plaza before their departure for the New World, just as the poem's Spanish practically begins and ends with the title. But the poem does not simply reverse history or the reader's language expectations, nor does it erase figuratively the violence of conquest. It does not reverse the conquest (i.e., indigenous peoples from the Americas conquering Europe); rather, it imagines the history of conquest being rewound, or re-spooled as in a film strip: "In which everything goes backward / in time and motion / ... / The years go back / ... / Panama hats are seen upon skeletons / walking the plazas." Further, the speaker "see [s] Columbus's three boats / going backwards on the sea / Getting smaller" until they reach the "ports of Spain. "The poem thus figuratively sends the three-ship logo of Plaza Las Americas back to Spain. More importantly, the poem's perspective is a pre-Colombian vantage point gazing onto Europe, rather than a gazing from Europe onto the supposedly gold-laden tabula rasa of the New World. This gaze reverses the historical one, but it is also important to note that boats do not, cannot, sail "backwards"; rather, captured (filmed) images of boats can be made to go backwards if they are rewound, making the filmic image of doom approaching on the horizon, then arriving, conquering, and so on, grow "smaller," rather than larger as it would in forward motion.

The poem ends (and begins, as it were) when the conquistadors are rewound into their mothers' bodies:
  they re-enter the wombs of their mothers
  till they become glances
  Clutching a pound of bread
  through a busy plaza
  that becomes the taste
  of the sound of church bells
  in reverberation. (Cruz 2001, 155)


By "re-enter[ing]" spaces of confinement and dependence ("wombs") without voice or agency of their own, the "sailors" return to a state of supposed innocence, but one that renders acutely the plight of indigenous peoples after the conquest, when they became subject to the diseases and care (or lack thereof) of the "mother": the Spanish Crown. Rather than re-write, revise, erase, or reverse the history of conquest, the poem calls up the sense-bending properties of synaesthesia in order to make the Spanish agents of conquest mere "glances / ... / through a busy plaza." Part of what fascinates at the poem's conclusion are the vastly divergent image stores of its beginning (New World) and its end (Old).The former features "Palm trees," "Mangos," "the eyes of Indian / women," and "Panama hats," whereas the latter has "bread" and "church bells." Their single commonality is the plaza. In this way, plazas join Old World and New; they are portals of departure and return, the ligature of possibility that binds Spanish to indigenous cultures. (21) On this point, Mike Davis writes that "the most intense and creative convergence" of Spanish and Mesoamerican cultures is "their shared conviction" that civilization "is constituted in the daily intercourse of the plaza" (2001, 65; original emphasis).

In "El Poema de lo Reverso," "The past starts to happen again" but in a reverse "creative convergence." Whereas "Cockroaches of Liberation," "Imagine the Angels of Bread," and other Espada poems stage reversals while minding the structural violence that produces injustice in the Americas, Cruz's poem, and so many of his others, searches for a more harmonious, celebratory interplay between the sources of Latin American identities, particularly in the Caribbean: indigenous, European, and African. The implicit correspondence between plazas in "El Poema de lo Reverso" is part of this tactic. Although the poem certainly takes some venom out of the conquest, it does not make light of the violence. On the contrary, its airy rewinding reinforces the conquest's tragic consequences: history could have been otherwise. In this way, the poem's apprehension of historical time as a "going backwards" reverses the Western understanding of progress, particularly its meliorist strains. To these ends, the poem does not take a snapshot of history, nor does it erase it; instead, it imagines the entire reel of five hundred plus years, from pre-conquest into the present, as rewindable but not reversible. This point suggests that the conquest and its aftermath might be better understood, and its consequences better ameliorated, if it could be watched again. Cruz's poem thus conceptualizes an idiosyncratic historical imagination that his poetics model aesthetically. Carmelo Esterrich argues that Cruz "force[s]" language "through phonetic, morphological and syntactical deformations that eventually produce a new language composed of the ruined remains" of English and Spanish (1998, 44). "El Poema de lo Reverso" morphs Latin American history in order to create a sense of harmony from the dissonance between languages and cultures. This "new language" emerges in part from creative play with the contexts and meanings of plazas.

To conclude, Martin Espada's and Victor Hernandez Cruz's many poetic plazas are conceptualized as symbolic and material spaces for challenging the machinations of hegemonic power, for developing alternative "congregations," and for facilitating a range of creative actions. In interrogating the "collaboration" of state and market forces in displacing people from public space, together these poems model variations on a flexible "place-based consciousness" that might be more accurately revised to a "ptaza-based consciousness" that validates the symbolic and practical power of the iconic spaces while undermining official "myths" and reinforcing those "myths" that "configure opposition in terms of groups" (Rama 1996, 55). For both poets, plazas are public stages for the enactment of plays that imagine alternative realities. By poeticizing plazas as transactional spaces in which a range of conflicting economic, political, musical, and cultural exchanges can occur, Espada's and Cruz's poems advance a robust iconography of public space against that of global capital and its iconography of corporate logos--like that promoted by Plaza Las Americas--as the object of citizens' duties and desires.

Yet Espada's and Cruz's poetic representations of plazas also suggest how desplazamiento exists in the interface between Latin and North America where Puerto Rico negotiates its identity. In a 1998 editorial, marking one hundred years of US control, Espada writes, "The island remains a political anachronism, a throwback to the age of gunboat diplomacy." He continues, "Puerto Rico is the oldest colony in the world: four centuries under Spain, and a century under the United States" (1998a, n.p.). Whereas scholars such as Frances Negron-Muntaner argue that Puerto Rico's political ambiguity is typical rather than anachronistic in an age of citizenship multiplicity, migration, and displacement (2007,10-12), Espada's point intimates that turning to Latin America for models of communal formation highlights the double desplazamiento of Puerto Ricans.22 This turn is necessitated by the North American public spaces that haunt my argument in their absence. Throughout Espada's poetry, these spaces are defined by exclusion and injustice for Latinos, immigrants, and the poor; in Cruz, they are often defined by their inanity, as in "IfYou See Me in L.A. It's Because I'm Looking for the Airport" (1997,102-106) where they are places from which to escape. (23) This lack of spaces for the exercise of communal identities as they have been performed in plazas allows Espada to recover local and specific place-based consciousnesses (as in "Sing Zapatista") balanced with broader values of equality in light of shared structural conditions ("collaborations") across the Americas. This lack also facilitates Cruz's fluid linguistic play in conjuring a more expansive sense of place that spans the Americas and the Atlantic. For Cruz, "The muse" "has no place"; it is "Sprinkled into the ocean" and leaves on the "Tongue of a lizard / To make trees and plazas." To "own it" "imprison[s] the wind" (1991, 141). Unlike Puerto Rican poets such as Gloria Vando, who Khader argues "chooses to belong" neither to the US nor to Puerto Rico in her writing (2003, 141), Espadas and Cruz's poetry "belong[s]" to Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the US; this multi-valenced belonging implicitly critiques the exclusions of US cultures for Latinos and the lack of spaces such as plazas for "congregating" to "sing the word." (24)

Reading these two poets concurrently strikes a balance between the flexible "muse" that "has no place" and the specificities of places that Rama suggests have plagued Latin American cultural production since colonial Spain "oppos[ed] all local expressions of particularity, imagination, or invention" (1996, 10).This balance also expands Teresa Longo's claim that Espada works against the idea that "Latin America [is] a resource to be consumed by the United States" (2002, xx). Espada's and Cruz's poetic plazas indicate that the US could learn something about the value of public spaces from Latin America, a possibility that leads Davis to conclude that Latinos will help the US save its "urban commons" (2001, 65) by valuing and using them more than North Americans. Yet for US Latinos this fact affirms a double displacement given that for many Latinos plazas are imagined and/or remembered rather than lived, a point repeatedly suggested in Cruz's essays, including "Home Is Where the Music Is," where the plaza is a touchstone image in his childhood memories (1997, 11, 12, 15). For both poets, then, plazas are sites for reimagining an "urban commons," reclaiming historical memory, and sustaining dynamic poetic practices. Espada's and Cruz's poetic plazas model imaginative possibilities for these creative congregations while accounting for the economic and political forces of desplazamiento and exclusion that make such possibilities so difficult to achieve.

Michael Dowdy is an assistant professor of English a! Hunter College /CUNY, where he teaches Latina/o literature and twentieth-century US and Latin American poetry. He has published a book, American Political Poetry into the 21st Century (2007), and a chap-book of poems, The Coriolis Effect (2007).

Notes

(1) See Mary P. Ryan for background on the Laws of the Indies (1573), which outlined the Spanish plan for building New World settlements (2006, 459).

(2) Cruz's and Espada's divergent aesthetics embody similar thematic concerns. Even so, they do not seem like kindred spirits. A letter dated 6 October 1992 in the Martin Espada Papers (which I draw on extensively in this essay) from Cruz to "Senor Espada" solicits poems for an anthology. Cruz asks Espada for "fresh new work full of linguistic earthly celestial spirit that carries the message of your being. "The brief correspondence that follows is polite but indifferent (1992, n.p.). Their interaction stands in stark contrast to Espadas sustained correspondence with poets such as Rafael Campo, Robert Creeley, Adrian Louis, and Gary Soto.

(3)Measurement through conflict is often ignored in official accounts of public space. The Organization of American States' Carta de Quito (1967) outlines a plan to preserve Latin American historic districts, using neutral language in calling them "living settlements ... strongly conditioned by a physical structure stemming from the past, and recognizable as being representative of the evolution of a people" (cited in Scarpaci 2005, 9-10). Manuel Castells, on the contrary, writes: "the built environment, and its meaning, is constructed through a conflictive process between the interests and values of opposing social actors" (2004, 64). Low's account of plazas (2000) foregrounds the convergence of indigenous and European forms.

(4) In addition to its reference in "Cockroaches of Liberation" (1993), which I discuss at length in this essay, "The Meaning of the Shovel" documents the reclamation of space for "the congregation of the landless" in Managua, Nicaragua (1996,53-54).

(5) Confronting types of desplazamiento anchors the work of many contemporary-poets of the Americas, including Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegria, and Jose Emilia Pacheco, as well as US Latina/o poets such as Jimmy Santiago Baca and Lorna Dee Cervantes.

(6) Nestor Garcia Canclini points out that the "monumentalist aesthetic" of "his toric spaces in Latin America" was designed "to compete with the grandiloquence of indigenous architecture" (2005, 212). Cruz also stereotypes Anglos and often embraces the generalizations in iconic discourses about the Americas by Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, and Jose Vasconcelos.

(7) Similarly, Espada's "Where the Disappeared Would Dance" pictures a plaza in Ponce, Puerto Rico "crooked with detours / and stopped construction" and "bright rough signs / that trade in dollars" guarded by "anglo-american soldiers" (1994,22-23).

(8) Tepoztlan, located south of Mexico City, should not be confused with Tepotzotlan, a small town north of the capital in the State of Mexico. Tepoztlan is the subject of two well-known ethnographies that initiated debates about ethnographic practice in the field of anthropology. See Oscar Lewis (1960) and Robert Redfield (1973, originally 1930).

(9) For background on this and Zapatista march strategies generally, see Mariana Mora (2003).

(10) Espada rejects many of the tropes of travel writing, and his work is concerned with witnessing injustices rather than playing tourist. He makes a cheeky remark to Perez-Bustillo about this issue: "I know that there must be melons in Mexico. The Lonely Planet tells me so" (2001-02, n.p.). See also Perez-Bustillo (2001) on the Zapatistas.

(11) The pyramid overlooking Tepoztlan is dedicated to Tepoztecatl, not Quetzalcoatl, however.

(12) Espada's "Imagine the Angels of Bread" (1996, 14-19) was originally com missioned as a New Year's poem for All Things Considered on NPR. Espada notes that it "aired on January 2, 1994, in the same broadcast as the news of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas" (1998b, 125), implicitly linking the poem's powerful rhetoric of revolutionary reversals to the Zapatista cause.

(13) This trope connecting the natural world with resistance and liberation is central to Pablo Neruda's Canto General (1950). For instance, "The Liberators" begins, "Here comes the tree, the tree I of the storm, the tree of the people. I Its heroes rise up from the earth / as leaves from the sap" (1991, 71; original emphasis). See Longo (2002) for Neruda's influence on Espada's work.

(14) See Castells for background on Zapatista communication strategies (2004, 75-86).

(15) It should be noted that the main plaza in Tepoztlan is frequently covered by market stalls, thus obstructing its use for formal congregation like that depicted in "Sing Zapatista." However, this market should not be conflated with the "free" mar ket forces of global capitalism. The former is deeply indigenous, thoroughly local, and rich with cultural tradition.

(16) See the mall's website for its astounding list of stores: [GREATER THAN]http://www.plaza-lasamericas.net/[LESS THAN]. Its name expresses a desire to make the island central to the Americas, paradoxically by effacing its presence.

(17) In another of many examples, "Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas" (2000,59) shows San Juan's main plaza as a stage for spectacle and consumption. Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas (2008) gathers Espada's published poems about Puerto Rico.

(18) See also Urayoan Noel's Las Flores del Mall (2000), where the Puerto Rican poet juxtaposes the mall to Baudelaire. Cruz's poem also works as a reference to the Plaza Hotel in New York.

(19) Low describes three types of protest in her study of plazas: "manifest," "latent," and "ritual" (2000, 183). Elements of each are present in Espada's poem.

(20) See also "My Cockroach Lover" (1996, 48).

(21) Cruz's "An Essay on William Carlos Williams" also celebrates an improvisational language of contrasts located in a plaza: "Spoken while it happens / Direct and pure / As the art of salutation / of mountain campesinos come to / the plaza" (1991, 52).

(22) Espada's most recent book of new poems begins with such a turn: "In the republic of poetry, / a train full of poets / rolls south in the rain" (2006, 3).

(23) Espada's "City of Coughing and Dead Radiators" (1993,39-41) is one exam ple among many. His "Blackballed by the Rainbow Girls" refers to "Yankee segregation clean and quiet / as the town common in winter" (1993, 65). Here Espada rep resents the New England corollary of the plaza as heartless, cold, and exclusionary.

(24) Los Angeles Plaza is perhaps one of the few exceptions to this claim. See Ryan (2006).

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Title Annotation:Essays
Author:Dowdy, Michael
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:10191
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