Martin Espada
The Sinking of the San Jacinto


    For my father, Frank Espada (1930-2014)


Coming to this country was the worst thing 

that ever happened to me, you would say.

The steamship called the San Jacinto

dragged you from Puerto Rico to New York. 

You swore in Spanish, dangling from the rails

like a nauseous acrobat, a seasick boy 

who prayed to plunge over the side 

and disappear into the green water.


A Nazi U-Boat trailed behind the San Jacinto 

on the voyage back to Puerto Rico.  The torpedo

splintered the deck, six thousand tons creaking

and sinking into the sea. Among the dead: 

Ramón Castillo, who shoveled the coal

into the furnace down below; Antonio Cortez,

who cleared the plates in the officer’s mess,

day-dreaming of La Parguera, the luminescent  

bay, illumination of water on a moonless night.


You escaped the U-Boat. Seven decades later

the torpedo catches up to you, ripping through

your heart, and you sink into a moonless sea

like the six thousand tons of the San Jacinto,

Ramón Castillo and his shovel full of coal,

Antonio Cortez and his armload of plates.


I kissed the ground, you would say, sitting

at the kitchen table in Brooklyn, and I tried

to imagine licking the dirt off my own lips.

Years after the San Jacinto took you away,

you would return to your island, step off

the plane, drop to your knees at the airport

and kiss the ground. Back you came to Brooklyn,

a car stalled on the highway, steam pouring 

from the hood, when all you wanted

was the sand of the beach burning your feet. 


Now, if your ancestors wait for you anywhere, 

they wait on the shores of the bay at La Parguera.

May you navigate through the night without 

the compass devoured by the salt of the sea.

May you rise up in the luminescent bay,

stirring the microscopic creatures in the water 

back to life so their light startles your eyes. 

May the water glow blue as a hyacinth in your hands. 

Found In Volume 44, No. 02
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Martin Espada
About the Author

Martín Espada has published more than fifteen books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His forthcoming collection of poems is called The Leaves of El Moriviví (Norton, 2016).  Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011), The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Alabanza (Norton, 2003). His honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (South End, 1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.