The Faces We Envision in the Scrapbook of the Dead

Martín Espada

For Camilo Pérez-Bustillo and the city of El Paso


A freak fall, you said. A bad landing, you said, a Colombian from Queens

always wandering a map of unknown places. The tumble down the stairs

of the brownstone in Brooklyn ripped your knees from their moorings,

ruptured both quadriceps, and in the whirlwind of an instant you could see

the flash between walking and not walking, breathing and not breathing,

like a fighter wheeled away from the ring on a stretcher as everybody prays.


The surgeons resplendent in white, priests hearing the god of ripped bodies

speak only to them, screwed your knees back on, sat you in a wheelchair

the way a ventriloquist props up the dummy, and then sent you home.

In El Paso, with braces on both legs, blood seeping through the bandages,

the bathroom a soccer field away, you waited for the boy you named Centli

to lift you up, his arms suddenly thick, your head suddenly on his shoulder.

You called all your compañeros the night he was born, jolting them from sleep,

translating the Nahuatl name, tender grain, deity of maíz in the Valley of México.

Now, on weekends, he drove for Lyft, steering inebriated soldiers from Fort Bliss

to the strip clubs and back, as they balled up dollar bills by the fistful for him,

then the garters of the girls. Your girl, Lucecita, crossed the bridge from Juárez

to join you, a waitress swerving from table to table at the diner, her mother’s

name on the badge of her uniform. For you, she scrambled eggs with green chiles.


The wheelchair gone, the braces ready to go, came the day you saw in your sleep,

the day of muscle gripping bone like vines curling around the wrinkled trunks

of trees, the day you could walk with a cane in each hand. At the Walmart by

Cielo Vista, around the corner from the movie house where you would see

Centli’s Marvel heroes and their ropes of muscle, you picked out your canes

with ceremony, your boy and girl as witnesses, scrutinizing the aluminum

bones, the gray rubber handles, the suction cups anchored to the floor, those

diminutive spaceships. You paid for the tools of liberation and a roast chicken

at the checkout counter. No one could envision the faces in the scrapbook of the dead.


You would stand with the solitary man, all the way from Brooklyn, and his sign that

said Free Them at the migrant adolescent internment camp in the desert of El Paso,

and found your lawyer’s tongue as a carpenter finds the hammer, words nailed

in the air, then evaporating in the heat for reporters who could never write as fast

as you could talk, who said Could you repeat that, and so you did, till the delegations

from Congress swept into the desert with calls to investigate. You would stand again

at the microphone, thin as the mike stand, to tell the rally of the militia patrolling

the desert in camouflage, to name the men who hallucinated code names like Viper,

who raged of invasion to the migrants shivering in the sand at gunpoint, so you

kept talking, as if at gunpoint yourself, till the vigilantes evaporated in the heat.


August 3rd, 2019: at the table with Centli and Lucecita in the Ciudad de México,

you saw again the flash between walking and not walking, breathing and not

breathing in the headlines from El Paso. The shooter left his job selling

popcorn at a movie house to navigate six hundred fifty miles across the map

of Texas, stopping only to scald his throat with coffee or stare in the mirrors

of gas station bathrooms, the manifesto he nailed to the message board

shimmering in the mineshaft of his head: the Hispanic invasion of Texas,

open borders, free health care for illegals, cultural and ethnic replacement.

He meandered through the aisles of your Walmart by Cielo Vista, another

boy who would drizzle extra butter on the popcorn, then came back

wearing headphones and safety glasses, like a mantis with eyes swiveling

in search of prey, the AK-47 at his shoulder, the Mexicans in his sights.


Later, as the scrapbook of the dead flipped across screens and newspapers,

you saw a face you knew, a man oblivious to the headlines and captions

creeping at the edges of his snapshot like a wreath. He was a bus driver

for the city of El Paso, marched for the Army and the Chicano Movement,

sat a few times at the back of your class called Human Rights on the Border

and would raise his hand. How you long for a beer in a bar with him now.

How you wonder if your lawyer’s fireworks show of words burst in the sky

of the boy with the rifle, why he drew a circle on the map around El Paso.


In the vision you cannot swat from your eyes, you lean on your canes

at the Walmart, close to the checkout counter where the bus driver bags

the last of his groceries, as the crowd stampedes to the back of the store

with the gunshots popping in the parking lot, and your knees tell you

what your thudding heart already knows, that you cannot flee to dive

and roll under a table or a storage bin. Centli and Lucecita stand with you,

refusing to run with the others, leaving their father wobbly on his canes

in the medical supply aisle to face the bullets alone. Your boy’s arms

are suddenly thick around you. Your head is suddenly on his shoulder.


Espada Headshot

Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His latest book of poems is called Floaters, winner of the 2021 National Book Award and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), Alabanza (2003) and Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, a Letras Boricuas Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays and poems, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Author photo by Lauren Marie Schmidt

Header photo by Flor Del Desierto