by Daniel Borzutzky

In December 1969, the New York branch of the radical civil rights organization the Young Lords (also known as the Young Lords Party) took over the First Spanish Methodist Church in Harlem. For eleven days, the organization occupied what it renamed the “People’s Church,” offering breakfast, health, and other community programs. Pedro Pietri recited his poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” at this historic takeover and at other demonstrations and activist gatherings. For Pietri and the Young Lords Party, the struggle for labor rights was enmeshed with the struggle against colonialist, capitalist, and racist imperialism. Moreover, as the YLP’s 13-Point Program makes clear, the organization’s primary political demand was for self-determination for not only “Puerto Ricans” but “all Latinos” and “all third world people.”1 Inspired by the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords similarly became a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, which targeted political groups deemed subversive with the aim of disbanding them.

In “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Pietri writes:

They worked
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
without permission
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like

Latinx poetry has long contributed to resistance movements and organizing in the face of racial and economic violence, and in “Puerto Rican Obituary,” the YLP activists and supporters clearly saw a reality they recognized. “Puerto Rican Obituary” speaks poignantly and musically about the unequal position of Puerto Rican laborers in the continental U.S. Without the representation of a union, they are unable to challenge their employers. Furthermore, their status as racialized, colonial subjects makes them second-class citizens who do not receive protective legal rights.

“Puerto Rican Obituary” repeats the names of its protagonists (Juan, Miguel, Olga, Milagros, Manuel) so as to make their presence more pronounced. Their lives are demarcated by work, death, and debt. Through repetition, rhyme, and a rhythm that is performatively propulsive, Pietri shows us how the deadening quality of labor exploitation turns a community against itself.

died hating Miguel because Miguel’s
used car was in better running condition
than his used car
died hating Milagros because Milagros
had a color  television set
and he could not afford one yet
died hating Olga  because Olga
made five dollars more on the same job [. . .]

The competition to live a life in lesser poverty than your neighbor’s destroys communities. “Puerto Rican Obituary” keeps these struggles from being invisible, and in the process it illustrates how the death drive of labor and capital leaves poor people filled with hatred for both themselves and their neighbors. As the poem progresses, however, we see the possibility of transformation through a recognition rooted in, on the one hand, a liberatory Puerto Rican nationalism and, on the other, a recognition and resignification of the racist and classist ideologies that have enabled this communal destruction.

If only they
Had turned off the  television
And tune into their own imaginations
If only they
Had used the white supremacy bibles
For toilet paper purpose
And make their latino souls
The only religion of their race [. . .]

As the poem ends, Pietri asks us to imagine a Black and brown utopia where Spanish is not demonized or criminalized and where, in fact, Spanglish is the lingua franca of an organized and powerful community.

Se Habla Espanol
All the time . . .
Aqui Que Pasa Power is what’s happening

If Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary” illustrates the anticapitalist struggles of urban workers and the sociocultural consequences of those struggles, then Gina Franco’s “The Line” takes us to the borderlands of the Southwest and the murderous realities of white supremacy and genocide, beginning with the poem’s epigraph from an unattributed quote in a newspaper in Texas during the 1910s, referring to Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans: “a serious surplus population that needs eliminating.”2 Repeated references to “the line” in this poem are unfixed. The line refers, at once, to the border between the United States and Mexico; a fishing line used to catch a “leviathan,” and a picket line that  will lead to death if crossed. The speaker of the poem is plural; “we” are in a river, perhaps the Rio Grande, and we are eyeing “El Otro Lado.” However,  there are no illusions about safety or happiness on the U.S. side. The “we” in the river do not imagine a United Statesian promised land. Instead, we see violent imagery: “Ropes,  belts, canteens sway in the tree” even though “The last good  lynching /  was long ago.” This presumably refers to the history of  Mexicans lynched by white supremacists in the borderlands in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While these lynchings may have happened in the past, the poem’s speakers understand that there are still white supremacist dangers awaiting migrants when they cross, be they mercenary vigilantes like the Minutemen, who hunt and capture border crossers, or Border Patrol agents and the police, whose well-documented practices of racist abuse toward migrants animate the realities of a state that abuses human rights in its supposed “protection” of the border.

“Lines” are not the only things that are blurred in Franco’s poem. “The sweet-blood smell of the hook right through, the impaled / form” suggests that the characters have ostensibly caught a fish, but the references to lynching remind us that this fish might also be a person, who “sways / under  water— guts in skin—it sways from the other side, verdad.”

In “The Line,” labor, always infused with danger, is about sustenance: fishing for food and crossing the border to survive. While in Latinx history, labor organizing has been a fundamental means of improving lives, in this poem something darker is happening at the intersection of migration and unionization. As they are fishing in the river, the “we” of the poem

. . . crossed the swinging bridge and found
effigy and sign, Death to scabs crossing the line,
a volleyball head and a pair of shovels for limbs,
the hanging white sheet, the slashed body of many

These lines are unsettling. The scabs are obviously those who might cross a picket line. But the poem makes us think that perhaps the scabs might also be migrants who are crossing a different line, the border. And indeed, the hyperbolic and politically convenient fear that Latinx migrants might “replace” U.S. workers has for decades fueled the rhetoric and violence of the anti-immigration movement. Unions, of course, have historically improved the lives of Latinx workers by increasing wages, expanding employment rights, fostering solidarities to create political power. But the labor movement is not a monolith; and unions have also had a history of scapegoating immigrants. As noted in the San Antonio Current in 2015: “in the 1960s and 1970s during  labor strikes, companies would hire undocumented immigrants as scabs in attempts to break  union strikes.”3 On a larger level, Chavez and the United Farm Workers held complex and often unfriendly views  toward the undocumented. Nevertheless, as we see in the poem, the dangers of migrant life are multiple: in the crossing of lines and borders; in the unregulated and often perilous work that immigrant laborers are subjected to; and in the violent response of white supremacists and xenophobes who propagate narratives of replacement and erasure.

This poem bears a poignant connection to Valerie Martínez’s 2010 book Each and Her. In this spare, powerful book, Martinez documents with facts, names, and narratives the deaths of hundreds of young Mexican girls and women along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of these  women worked in the foreign-owned factories known as maquiladoras and were subjected to torture, rape, and murder.

the number of girls and women
working in the post-NAFTA
maquiladora industry
while they can be hired legally
at the age of 16, it is common
for these girl-women
to get false documents
start work at 12, 13, 14

Another section of Each and Her simply lists names of women and the dates of their deaths:

Jessica Lizalde Leon (3.14.93)
Lorenza Isela González (4.25.94)
Erica Garcia Morena (7.16.95)

Each and Her asks us to pronounce the names of the dead, to acknowledge the infernos they lived through; Martinez’s poems root us, without abstraction, in the female lives that were lost at the intersection of capitalism, narco-violence, and government and military collusion.

Each and Her harks back to Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” (from her collection U.S.  1, 1938), a seminal work of documentary poetry that uses testimonies, congressional records, and medical diagnoses, among other documentary evidence, to make visible those who suffered and died in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in 1930. Rukeyser famously stated that “poetry can extend the document,” and in the process it can give voice to those who are excluded from official records. This impulse to extend the document drives Martínez’s Each and Her. Interestingly, like Pietri, Martinez focuses on names and invites us to say them out loud and to investigate their lives. If the historical and political records won’t properly acknowledge the lives of the dead, then for Martinez and other Latinx writers, poetry can acknowledge these absences and counteract them by keeping the memories of these slain workers and women alive.

Martínez also gives us an entryway into the gendered aspects of labor and migration, with which we might consider the untold sacrifices of female workers. This notion, often attributed to societal expectations of femininity—the sacrifices of childbirth, motherhood, etc.—is all the more weighted given the reality of racialized labor exploitation. Adopting a much different approach, Blas Manuel de Luna memorializes the women who give up “the fire of their lives / to get the peaches to the market” in his poem “To Hear the Leaves Sing.”  Here, the women remain nameless and voiceless, and it’s almost as if the poem’s speaker wishes to reverse the injustices that have been done to them by throwing peaches back into the trees. But only “the leaves sing, / the tiny branches break,” observations that gesture, perhaps, to the vast wordlessness surrounding the stories of their lives.

“Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” by Martin Espada, is also driven by this same need to acknowledge the lost lives of migrant workers. The poem is dedicated to forty-three kitchen workers and members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100 who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center. Alabanza, the Spanish word for “praise,” is repeated in the poem as if part of a call and response, and the poem spotlights the Latinx workers who provided invisible labor in this center of capitalism and finance.

Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, República Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh

Espada’s “Alabanza” offers an analogous gesture to that of “Puerto Rican Obituary” and the Young Lords Party’s advocacy of an international struggle for anticolonial revolution. The Latin American laborers in the World Trade Center worked with and died alongside mi grants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. “Alabanza” ends with a gesture of solidarity, and, interestingly, it is the Spanish language that provides a bridge between Afghanistan and Manhattan (somewhat akin to the vision of Spanglish as a lingua franca in “Puerto Rican Obituary”). This gesture, along with the poem’s drive to make visible the Puerto Rican and immigrant kitchen workers, counters the nationalism of the immediate post–9/11 moment, when a dramatic heightening of patriotic and anti-immigrant discourse resulted in racist and xenophobic changes in rhetoric and policy, most conspicuously in the Patriot Act. By centering migrants, Espada provides an alternative history of the World Trade Center attacks that reframes the loss of life through the complicated politics of colonialism, globalization, and migration.

Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean artist and poet also included in the Latino Poetry anthology, and who has been in the U.S. since 1980, shares a similar drive to document the disappearances of Latin American and Latinx laborers. Notably, on September 29, 2001, a few weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, Vicuña performed at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, and in this performance poem she tells the story of a disappeared man named Luis Gomez, an Ecuadorian migrant living in New York, who was “digging a hole for Con Edison.” Unbeknownst to his employers, Luis was buried underground in July 1998 and died:

And his brother
came to the work place and said:
Where is my brother Luis?
Your brother Luis? Nobody even remembered him
And this is very telling
because this is like our position
the position of the little dark ones
Nobody even notices
whether we are
or we are not
And this man, the brother,
insisted: He’s here in this hole [TAPPING THE LECTERN]
And they fought him and said no, no he’s not
He probably disappeared
He went somewhere else
If he was here we don’t remember
Denying the whole thing
Until he pressed, he pressed, he pressed, and finally they
opened the hole and there it was:
Luis, crushed, like this
Of course, he was dead4

Vicuña’s poem-performance responds to labor exploitation with documentary poetics. When Latinx or migrant laborers are made invisible by the state, their employers, and historical documents, then poets like Pietri, Martínez, De Luna, Espada, and Vicuña, among other Latinx writers, have used their art to inscribe them into the record. In the process, these poets give the workers more respect than their employers ever gave them. Their poems illustrate how, for Latinx communities, poetry has served to document, organize, and imagine alternative worlds.


1 See Darrel Enck- Wanzer, ed., The Young Lords: A Reader (New York: NYU Press, 2010).
2 As cited on the website of the organization Refusing to Forget (
3 Mark Reagan, “Cesar Chavez’s Legacy Includes Controversial Immigration Stance,” San Antonio Current, April 1, 2015, controversial-immigration-stance-2413773.
4 Cecilia Vicuña, New and Selected Poems, trans.  Rose Alcalá (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey Street Press, 2018), 262. An accompanying note in this volume refers the reader to a New York Times article about Gomez and his death: ends-in-debt-and-death-by-burial.html.

Discussion Questions

1. What might Blas Manuel de Luna’s poem reveal about the relationship between unjust working conditions and gender?

2. What is the story being told in Gina Franco’s “The Line”? How does the repetition of “the line” mold our understanding of this story? What are its literal meanings and metaphorical connotations? What might this image reveal about the relationships between organized labor and immigration?

3. How does Martín Espada’s “Alabanza” help us arrive at a deeper, more multifaceted understanding of the tragedy of September 11? What does it reveal about the perspectives through which history is told? What role does poetry play to complicate and enrich our understanding of history?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Lorna Dee Cervantes, “Bananas”
Eduardo C. Corral, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”
Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary”
Gary Soto, “Mexicans Begin Jogging”
Virgil Suárez, “El Exilio”
Carmen Giménez, “(after Pedro Pietri’s ‘Puerto Rican Obituary’)”