Tuesday - Jul 16, 2019

The Puerto Rican diáspora of Frank Espada

by José de la Isla

HOUSTON — In the early 1980s, Frank Espada set out to capture, through pictures and words, the story about why so many people left their Caribbean homeland and where they went. The result is a traveling gallery of photographs that has toured much of the United States. Now there’s the book, “The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People.”

Espada himself is part of that diaspora. Now 77, he approaches getting the story across at a time when conventional ways have become sclerotic, where not much ofimportance gets through. It takes imagination to get reality out.

The Puerto Rican exodus started at the beginning of the 20th century when the United States acquired the island at the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898. A devastating hurricane hit the island the following year.

By 1901, 5,000 Puerto Ricans had already migrated to Hawaii, lured to do back-breaking, strike-busting work in the sugar industry. The same industry had squeezed Puerto Rico from near self-sufficiency to dependency on sugar as a cash crop. Land tenure increasingly moved into the hands of foreign investors and local elites. These were the catalytic elements to the 50 years of exodus.

People fled to places where security and family wellbeing were a prospect. Sixty communities with 10,000 or more Puerto Ricans exist today on the U.S’ mainland. Among the first destinations were Hawaii and East New York.

The conditions in reaching Hawaii were often horrendous.Those who know about the lives of migrant workers are familiar with the lifecycle of a promised-land myth and hell to pay getting there.

For a few there was escape and renewal. Some jumped ship en route to start life anew in San Francisco, For those who reached the Hawaiian cane fields there were abuses, humiliations and beatings in an existence best described as indentured servitude. Many of the émigrés’ descendants live today along Hawaii’s Kona Coast. Espada’s pages include the face of Santa Rodriguez, who explains she was born 70 years ago and has never been to Puerto Rico “to see where my parents came from.” Yet, “I still feel very Puerto Rican.”

Another descendant, Rodney Morales says, “Me, my sisters, brothers — we grew up in a world where there are not many Puerto Ricans around. My brother’s wife is Hawaiian/Chinese/Haole. My younger sister is married to a black; my older sister is married to a Filipino. Their kids are all mixed up.”

In that sense, so too is the whole world.

On page 40, in the section on East New York, there’s a 1965 photo of Agropino Bonillo in a fedora. The sidebar on the next page tells you he was 57, worked two jobs, lived in a bad-ass apartment house and was mugged on the way home one night. He was dead the next morning.

Several thousand people participated in a candlelight procession through the neighborhood. Where Agropino Bonillo fell, a box filled up quickly with flowers and dollars and coins. The community grief led to a call to action.

On the rest of the page, Frank’s acclaimed poet son Martin writes a literary version of the same facts: “a reminder of the wakes too many and too soon.” A woman “slick in a drizzle of tears” drops some money in the box.

Three weeks later, when a black youngster in New Lots was killed, blacks and Puerto Ricans were pitted in the urban jungle against Italians. Several people were killed.

“Many promises were made but soon forgotten,” Frank wrote about the Agropino Bonillo incident.

This, he suggests, is what led to the urban disturbance. “And the beat goes on,” he concludes.

Frank Espada (www. frankespada.com) was for many years a key activist on the New York civil rights and community development scene. During that era, few events in the formation of a national Latino identity occurred without him. He later moved to San Francisco where he taught photography at the University of California, Berkeley, Extension Program.

Espada’s book is a testament to how art, not only photojournalism, can open up readers’ consciousness to truth. That’s where reality comes from and what makes the beat go on.

[José de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3@yahoo.com. © 2007