Charles Harper Webb reads Richard Garcia’s “El Zapato”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
Not the wooden spoon, primordial source of sweetness and pain, flying across the kitchen— I barely bothered to duck. Not my father undoing his belt— I would be gone before he’d whack the tabletop in a sample nalgada, but my mother’s shoe, El Zapato: its black leather soft as the mouth of an old, toothless dog, black laces crisscrossing its long tongue all the way up, heavy sole and thick square high heel. Shoe from a special old lady store, shoe from olden days, puritanical shoe, bruja shoe, peasant shoe, Gypsy shoe, shoe for zapateo on the grave of your enemy, shoe for dance the twisted, bent over dance of los viejitos. Not the pain, humiliating clunk of leather striking upside my head, but her aim, the way I knew that even if I ran out the kitchen door, down the back stairs and leapt the fence, when I glanced over my shoulder El Zapato, prototype of the smart bomb, would be there, its primitive but infallible radar honed in on my back. Not the shoe for suicidal anger of come out of hiding or I’ll throw myself out the window. Not the shoe for carpet-chewing Hitler anger—the throwing herself down, taking an edge of rug between her teeth anger. But the shoe for everyday justice she could unlace, whip off and throw faster than Paladin draws his gun, shoe that could hunt me down like the Texas Rangers, even if it took years, even if she died while she was throwing her shoe, even if she managed to throw it from the ramparts of heaven, the way she threw it from a third story window while I stood half a block away, laughing at her with my friends, thinking, it could never hit me from this far, until I stood suddenly alone, abandoned by my cowardly friends, alone in the frozen cross-eyed knowledge that El Zapato, black, smoking with righteousness, was slowly, inevitably spinning toward my forehead.
Charles Harper Webb on Richard Garcia’s “El Zapato”
Transcription of Commentary
Richard Garcia’s “El Zapato” speaks eloquently about immigration into the US while never mentioning the subject, let alone the word. I love the casual way in which Garcia uses Spanish, as if—though he was born in San Francisco and grew up speaking English—it’s the most natural thing in the world. To him, of course, with a Mexican mother and Puerto Rican father, it is. With its nalgada, bruja, zapateo, and dance of los viajitos, “El Zapato” reminds me of how my own father echoed his parents’ working-class Yorkshire vernacular. When I was slovenly he would call me a buck-navvy; when I was dirty he’d command, “Draw that bath.” Yet, “El Zapato” never preens over its Latino-ness, it doesn’t divide the world into us and them. It shows the speaker to be 100% human, 100% American, although his forbearers came—as even Native Americans did—from somewhere else.
The poem invites me, and anyone of any ethnicity, to enter the world of the fearsome shoe. Just because my mother didn’t throw shoes at me—her weapon of choice was the hairbrush—and wouldn’t have called them zapatos if she had, doesn’t mean I can’t relate. I love the comedy of this poem, a comedy that rises out of the mother’s very real, intense, and probably justified anger—not just at her son, and also out of the grim truth that conflict between generations and individuals seems an unavoidable part of the human condition. Yet I love, too, the child’s sense of his parents’ omnipotence. “How did she know?” I used to think when my own mother caught me in same kind of misbehavior I’d taken pains to hide. “El Zapato” makes me yearn for that time when I was watched over by seemingly all-powerful adults who punished but also could protect, and did both out of what I knew even then was their sense of duty, care, and love.
“El Zapato” brims full of energy and humanity. It inspires me to mine my own cultural background for poems. It reinforces my belief in the effectiveness of narrative and humor in poetry, as well as my belief in the importance of a strong central image. Richard Garcia has made “El Zapato” live as vividly in my mind as if it had been hurled at me. I see it now, the black, old lady’s shoe, launched by my own inequity, spinning through the air unerringly, hunting me down.
“El Zapato,” by Richard Garcia, Rancho Notorious.
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2001.
By permission of the author.
- “Rancho notorious: poems” by Richard Garcia (catalog record)
- “Shadow ball: new and selected poems,” by Charles Harper Webb (catalog record)
Charles Harper Webb
Charles Harper Webb (1952- ) was born in Philadelphia and educated at Rice University and the University of Washington. He is the author of six poetry collections and editor of three poetry anthologies. Webb’s honors include a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Felix Pollack Prize, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is a professor of English at California State University, Long Beach.
Richard Garcia (1941- ) was born in San Francisco and graduated from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He is the author of four books of poems and the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Garcia has taught creative writing at Antioch University at Los Angeles and the College of Charleston.
Learn more about Richard Garcia at The Poetry Foundation