At the age of 19, during the Jim Crow era in the South, Frank Espada was arrested in Biloxi, Mississippi, because he wouldn't sit in the back of an empty bus.
The young man, a native of Puerto Rico, was on a seven-day furlough from the army and traveling home to New York City to see his family for the holidays. He never made it. The judge sentenced him to seven days in jail.
"My father said that was the best seven days of his life because he figured out what he wanted to do," said poet Martin Espada, who visited Holyoke Community College this week as a guest of professors Monica Torregrosa and Jim Dutcher in their Honors Colloquium course, "The Immortality of the Revolution: Resistance in Latin America."
What his father did, after leaving the army, was head back to New York City, where he became a union advocate and a civil rights activist.
That scene figures prominently in one of the poems Espada read from his collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, in which the Latino experience, and the theme of resistance, also figures prominently. Espada, the former poet laureate of Northampton and a poetry teacher at the University of Massachusetts, writes poems that tell stories about family, friends and, often, himself.
Espada said he first became aware that his father was an activist when he was seven years old. Later on, as a young adult, Espada worked as a ditch digger. He later went to law school and became a tenant lawyer for low-income Latinos in Chelsea, where, he acknowledged, justice sometimes required "extra-legal" action.
"I've been an activist for a long time like my father before me, and I know change doesn't happen overnight," Espada said.
Photos: (Left) Poet Martin Espada, right, talks to students at HCC. (Right) Poet Martin Espada.