The Artist As An Activist

I would like to introduce my father as an example of the artist as an activist. This is so important, not only for students and teachers of Latinx and Puerto Rican studies, but for all artists, activists, educators, and aspiring documentarians…


My father was a minority within a minority. He was both Puerto Rican, and a progressive, or a radical. And not only have latinos and Puerto Ricans in general been marginalized in this country, discriminated against and excluded in this culture, but as you can imagine, the progressives among them are even less visible.

This is understandable, after all. To be a progressive, by definition, is to be anti racist, and anti colonial; it is to fiercely oppose the rich and the powerful that have exploited people in the past, and that continue to do so today. Of course, this isn’t exactly welcomed by the government, and by institutions here, including its universities and museums. In fact, we all know it’s resisted.

It may be that this is slowly changing, but these historical forces are real, and they need to be contended with to even begin to speak about such things as human rights and social documentary work.

When it comes to the current state of Puerto Rican studies, I am told that it has largely been subsumed under what we now call Latinx Studies. And so, I have to question:

To what extent has the loss of specifically Puerto Rican studies been an erasure of this unique history and culture?

As I wrote to one scholar here in California:

My father always had a very strong sense of himself as Puerto Rican. Period. When asked if he was Latino, he made it clear that he didn’t feel this label described him and other Puerto Ricans well enough, if at all, and for those who don’t aspire to assimilate, as with simply becoming ‘Americans’, the dangers of marginalization, being co-opted, and erasure, are always present.

When he came to California in 1985, my father faced a new set of challenges to maintaining his sense of identity, and finding ways to support others in remembering their history, and celebrating their culture.

As various groups now gather in 2023 under this new umbrella term ‘Latinx’ it’s as clear to me as ever that we need to choose to maintain our unique cultural and historical identities.

Going forward, as distinct groups, we are all lifted up, and made stronger by our individual histories and cultures being maintained in manifold ways, and honored.

This, to me, is where we find the United States at its best – as the realization of a harmony and a mutual enrichment among different peoples.

How can we then begin to speak of our struggles, and triumphs, our dynamic unfolding histories, and daunting challenges today? How can we communicate them in a way that values these histories, and our lives now?

If a story is just told in its bare form, as with so much news, or bland, perfunctory education, we are left unchanged by it. Something more is needed. We need the arts, to paraphrase Kafka:

Art must be an ax to break apart the frozen sea inside us.

I know I have an ally in every scholar who understands the necessity of using art in education – poetry, drama, photography, film, music – all are needed.

Without the depths and power of what artists help us to see and to feel, history and the events that are happening now remain abstract when they should be compelling; they remain just one thing among many competing for our attention, when they should be our priority.

Ideally, someone coming away from viewing Frank Espada’s work, and hearing about him will understand his story;

and because of this, and because of his documentary, they will know something more about the Puerto Rican experience in this country;

they will experience the beauty and power of photography, and of social documentary photography in particular,

and they will understand that it is essential to use art in education.

In a word, they will be inspired.

The vitality of a culture is its educated people who are educating others, and so, pass it on. What people may then do with their creativity and intelligence has no limits.

We can use this encouragement, as my father did with his teaching, to encourage others, to help them to believe in themselves, and to point out that we have the resources to change things for the better in our lives, in our communities, and in our world. It may not be once and for all, but this is the essential work.


Interviews with Frank Espada:

Video;    Audio Iand II

The Puerto Rican Diaspora

The Frank Espada Galleries

A Sketch of Frank Espada’s Life

For a comprehensive collection of resources on the Frank Espada Archive, visit

A Frank Espada Bibliography.