The Sign in my Father's hand
by Martin Espada

The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World's Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.

In 1964 I had never tasted beer,
and no one tole me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.

Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that "boycott"
is not a boy's haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.

That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father's hands
for a sign of the miracle.

Upon reading through at least five different poets all ranging in styles and topics their poetry was created from, Martin Espada’s poems composed with a common theme of social injustice and racial discrimination constantly stood out and interested me. Throughout his poetry, Espada has woven his experience of growing up in a working class and immigrant home with his strong beliefs in the fight for Latino rights. The poem, The Sign in My Father’s Hands, remains true to this theme but approaches the topic more from the prospective of a young child coming of age and learning of the struggles of racism and injustices. This poem which is composed in free verse uses poetry in a narrative type style, using the stanzas to create a story line. The poem opens bluntly with Espada stating the fact that The Schaefer Beer Pavilion “did not hire blacks or Puerto Ricans” so his father “joined the picket line.” This opening sentence establishes the tone of the poem as being that of defensive, and at the same time, the details of the story seem to be told as they are observed without a large introjection of emotion. The picket line in this case is when protestors hold up signs around a business showing their discontent, similar to the Wall Street occupiers which we have all seen on the news.
Espada uses the word “canine” or dog like hostility which the crowd openly expresses to the protestors. The cops are then introduced as they “brandished” or exhibit aggressively or in a threatening way, “nightsticks” or police officers clubs and “handcuffs to protect the beer.” These words which Espada uses all share a common tone of harshness and ruthlessness used to describe the cops and the bystanders of the New York World’s fair. In lines 9 and 10, it says “In 1964 I had never tasted beer, \ and no one told me about the picket signs.” I saw these lines not only literally but also metaphorically. To me, the beer and picket signs represented the trouble of racism and the struggle for Puerto Ricans and blacks to fight for their rights. When Espada said he had never “tasted beer” and he had never heard of the picket signs, it is showing his child like state of innocence which has prevented him from recognizing this issue until it directly affected his family. The sentence is finished again with a tone of observed violence in line 11 as the picket signs are “torn in two by the cops of the brewery.” This also portrays a battle of seemingly innocent against the sheer power and dominant control which the police force seems to exert, ripping picket signs and using nightsticks to control people.
Following these lines is the child’s perception of death, which he describes as when a cat dies and is thrown into an incinerator. This once again links the child with innocence as he describes death only in the most literal terms, not linking life itself with the dead cat. In line 15, the downtrodden tone of the poem is continued as the child immediately jumps to conclusions and claims the worst thought, that “my father was dead.” While this does not seem rational in the mind of an adult, in a child’s mind fear can overcome their mind making it easier for them to assume the worst, especially in this case where the child is just being introduced to violence and racism. The boy is then greatly affected by this somber identification of violence as portrayed in lines 16-17. He becomes “mute and filmy eyed,” which Espada uses to show the harsh effects of injustice on a maturing child. The ultimate moment of realization comes however when the child stares studying his father’s picture and sees it as a “mirror, [seeing] my darker face.” As the child has come to terms with comprehending the cruel treatment of his father, the child also realizes that he is destined to face the same fate as he too resembles his father and has a darker face. This point of the poem seems to be the pinnacle transition from childhood innocence to adult awareness.
In the next lines, the father is freed and comes home from jail, but the boy does not go without saying that “sometimes Puerto Ricans die in jail.” This shows the boys skepticism which comes with awareness of the troubles of the real world, for he cannot fully appreciate his father’s return without noting the fact that greater abuse and brutality could have and often does occur. Further, the boy comes to know the real meaning of “boycott” which his father was participating in and promoting. While his child self would think it was “a boys haircut” (26), it is in fact when a person refuses to buy a product and tries to convince others to stop from buying the item in order to make the company change a certain aspect of their business which the people are protesting, in this case the refusal to hire Puerto Rican or Black workers. While lines 28-29 still create questions for me, in the context of the stanza in which the boy is showing his loss of innocence, the claim that he can “sketch a picket line” represents his new found knowledge of the ability to protest this aggression and the fact that it is tangible to him.
The final stanza seems to take a radically different approach then the previous, which use harsh words to show the violence of the police. In lines 30-36, the boy seems to look at his father as a Christ like figure. The fact that the father “returned/ from the netherworld/easily” resembles Christ’s resurrection from the dead. When the Brewery cops could then only “watch in drunken disappointment,” for me, provides a visual of the people who tormented Jesus and forced him to his death on a cross, having to watch as he was freed from the struggle of life on Earth. The use of the word “drunken disappointment” also suggests that the cops may have had impaired judgment to blame for their hostility. The last line finalizes the relationship with religion as the boy “searches [his] father’s hand for a sign of the miracle,” a possible reference to the stigmata in Jesus’ hands which could link the father to Jesus in his ability to passively tolerate unjust cruelty which the father suffered through racism.
The link which I attached is of Schaefer beer which was actually sold at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The inspiration for this poem occurred from an actual event in which Espada’s father, a political activist was in fact arrested. This caption from Espada’s website explains a brief view Espada’s inspiration and his dad’s beliefs:
In 1964, he was arrested and jailed again. This time he was protesting against the racially discriminatory hiring practices of the Schaefer Brewing Company. There was a demonstration organized by the Congress of Racial Equality at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion during the New York World’s Fair, and my father was one of many arrested there who simply disappeared into the legal machinery.

Being seven years old in 1964, and with no other explanation forthcoming, I concluded that my father must be dead. I would hold a snapshot of him in my hands and cry. One day, to my amazement, he walked in the door. Once he established that he was not dead, he realized that he had to explain his absence. That was, you might say, my political awakening. I wrote a poem about it thirty years later:”
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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
and unsuckled.

Continuing with the commonly found theme of Puerto Rican history and immigration found in Martin Espada’s poetry, this poem, Coca-Cola and Coco Frio, is a narrative poem describing a young boy’s observations as he retreats in the tropical country, spending time away from Brooklyn. After originally researching the poem, I found that this happens to be one of his more famous works and a piece which is commonly analyzed. Discovering this after I made my own thoughts and observations on the poem, I was happy to see that many of my derived beliefs were similar to those understood by others. As with my previous poem, the research I did allowed me to make many fascinating discoveries about Martin, which continue to deepen my fascination with his life and work. For this particular poem, he remarked on an interview that his inspiration to write this was from his childhood when he went to visit Puerto Rico as a ten-year-old boy and was amazed to find the country’s obsession with Americanization. Martin uses symbolism to represent the two cultures he is discussing, carefully chosen diction, and imagery to recreate the sights he saw, in order to portray to readers, his profound shock in seeing Puerto Rican society ignore their own bountiful natural resources and beauty in an attempt to live an “Americanized” and commercial lifestyle over three stanzas.
In the first stanza, the use of imagery and diction portray a bored and aimless child “on his first visit to Puerto Rico.” Within the second line, he is sure to mention the island is “of family folklore,” immediately immersing the reader in the perceived and expected values related with Puerto Rican culture. The important word choice describing the boy’s movements as he “wandered,” further emphasizes the child’s lack of enthusiasm and excitement adding to the dismal tone of the stanza. The physical description of the boy “with his mouth open” would commonly be used to describe amazement or excitement but in this case is alluding to the facial expression of a yawn as the boy continues with boredom. An important word, which I found about half way through the first stanza, was that as he wandered, his family would “steer him.” This not only correlates to Espada’s previous use of the word “wandering” which means the family literally guides him but is also used metaphorically to show the influence of family and the importance of their opinions and influence in Puerto Rican society. Symbolism is then used as Coca-Cola is mentioned, one of the most prominently recognized global symbols of America and commercialization. This was the object and metaphorical symbol, which the boy was always pushed to by his Puerto Rican family as he recalls one of his great-aunts sang, “In all the English she could remember, a Coca-cola jingle.” This irony, which the young boy recognizes, shows the importance of American culture on the people of the world and prominently establishes the effects and impacts of globalization on even the oldest members of this boy’s family. Espada ingeniously reverts to his established somber tone as he notes “[drinking] obediently though he was bored with his potion familiar from soda fountains in Brooklyn.” The use of the word “obediently” draws attention to the fact that the child seems to be “drinking” or agreeing with his family’s fascination and promotion with American culture out of respect rather than his own personal desire. Further, the drink revered by the Puerto Rican’s is referenced as being “potion,” establishing a negative connotation rather than the promising and delightful manner in which his native family references the symbolic soda.
The second stanza immediately establishes a more exciting and contrasting tone in response to the boy’s tolerance of his family’s fascination with the culture he seems to be ever too familiar with and bored of, coming from Brooklyn. Juxtaposing the crowded scene depicted in the first stanza with the young boy being surrounded by his family advising and “steering him,” Espada uses imagery and symbolism in describing “a roadside stand off the beach.” This easily visualized location is used to symbolize seclusion and set up contrast between the underlying tones of the two stanzas. Though frequently creating divergent tones between the two stanzas, Espada is subtle in his description of the boy as he “opened his mouth to coco frio.” This image references the earlier depiction of the young boy opening his mouth in a yawning motion out of boredom, while in this case the image is instead meant to show the boy as opening his mouth excitingly as though out of pure joy and surprise. In comparison to the Coca-Cola representing American culture, globalization, and technology, the coco frio, “a coconut chilled, then scalped by a machete,” is introduced to symbolize the natural world of resources and goodness which the young child finds a fascination with. While the boy previously “drank obediently” of the soda that his family adored and promoted, once he found the coco frio, he “inhaled the clear milk” and as he “tilted the green shell overhead….drooled coconut milk down his chin.” In opposition of the “potion” which the Coca-cola was described as, the newly discovered drink was described as “a clear milk,” establishing a positive and nurturing relationship between the drink and the young child. Following this established love between the boy and the coco frio, the transition in the poem occurs as the boy comes to the realization that “Puerto Rico was not Coca-Cola or Brooklyn, and neither was he.” At this point, the boy has been exposed to both the lifestyle and culture of an American city as well as his native culture of his Puerto Rican heritage. While the boy rejects all he has grown up being immersed in in America, he also claims his heritage pride fully by acknowledging he was not an object of American culture, an human to be Americanized, but instead a pure Puerto Rican, which offered deeper roots in a more natural and physical culture.
While the first stanza is somber and robotic, followed by the exciting and enriching tone of the second stanza, the third stanza is written to be a combination of the two that mesh the boy’s interpretations. The author notes, “For years afterward, the boy marveled at an island where the people drank Coca-cola…and sang jingles…in a language they did not speak.” This summarizes the first paragraph in which the boy is fascinated by the Puerto Rican’s infatuation with American life, products, and effects of global relationships. The depressing and sobering three stanzas that follow this dumbfounded observation seem to accuse and question the people of Puerto Rico dramatically as he describes the symbol of their culture, the coconuts to be “sagged heavy with milk, swollen and unsuckled.” The vivid imagery that corresponds with the nurturing aspect that the boy linked with “the clear milk” in the second stanza provides a depiction of the culture of Puerto Rico being abandoned and lonely, describing the pain as that of a mother without a child.
Ending the poem dramatically, Espada once again, vividly depicts his interpretations of a world and culture foreign to most Americans. While the boy’s Puerto Rican family, still living in the paradise of the island long for America throughout the poem, the boy realizes they have a naive perception of America. Living in Brooklyn, especially the area which Espada was raised in, the boy knew the hardships and struggles in America due to poverty and discrimination. The boy was instead able to see the joy the natural resources and pure beauty of the island could offer the Puerto Rican inhabitants, which they are obscenely blinded to by living there. Along with the contrast between globalization and nature, the underlying theme of this poem seems to be the childish life lesson “the grass is not always greener on the other side.”

This is the setting of the scene I imagined when Espada described being secluded at a beach stand where he bought his first coco frio.
Coco Frio - Sosua, Puerto Plata
Coco Frio - Sosua, Puerto Plata

I found this image interesting because it shows the global aspect which Coca-Cola has. Living in Atlanta, the city of Coca-Cola we should be familiary with this! Especially if you have ever visited the coke museum.
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