Beginning in the early 1960s, photographer Frank Espada (1930–2014) attended rallies and boycotts, snapping images of New York youth and the battles fought by them and their families.
Before receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for his famous documentation of the Puerto Rican diaspora in 1979, Nuyorican (a term used by people of Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent in New York City) photographer Frank Espada had a history of organizing and activism with African American and Puerto Rican organizations in New York.
I always felt that the closer you are to the community, the better. Frank Espada, 2007 Interview with Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman
Born Francisco Luis Espada Roig, Frank Espada’s life experiences instilled in him a passion for social justice. Espada was only nine years old in 1939 when his family migrated from Utuado, Puerto Rico, to Brooklyn, New York. In New York, the Espada family lived in community with other low-income Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and African American families. After graduating from high school, Espada briefly attended the City College of New York. He dropped out and joined the Air Force.
In 1949, in route from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, back home to New York, he passed through Mississippi. When he refused to move to the back of the bus, a bus driver called the police on Espada, who was in uniform at the time. The police arrested him and took him to jail. This weeklong imprisonment led Espada to dedicate his life to advocacy and photography, a new interest introduced to him by a cousin three years earlier. Following a second stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, Espada used the benefits of the GI Bill to attend the New York Institute of Photography where he was mentored by W. Eugene Smith. He worked as an electrical contractor to make ends meet and used his spare time to talk and organize with his community about their needs.
Everyday Life of Children
Espada’s early photography in the late 1950s can be characterized as “street photography.” At its core, street photography relies on an urban landscape and chance encounters. This approach was common during the 1960s when photojournalists were hired by news outlets to drive a message of the dangers of urban life. But Espada, in his own words, “was not preprogrammed by some know-nothing editor to bring back more proof as to the miserable lives.” He was a documentarian, not a photojournalist; a distinction important to Espada who emphasized he was a member of the Puerto Rican community he was documenting. This thinking/approach is visible in the shift of Espada’s craft into the 1960s. Though he always maintained a lens of kindness, he became more intentional and less reliant on chance.
I had plenty of opportunities to photograph people hurting themselves, but I have never done that. Frank Espada, 2009 “Showcase: The Puerto Rican Diaspora” in The New York Times
Espada was deliberate in the message behind every snapshot, especially when it came to the African American and Puerto Rican youth of New York City. To pose freely, these communities required a level of trust to be built. And often that trust that was cultivated between Espada and the children of New York shone through the images. In some photographs, such as Three Girls with Umbrellas, one can even see bystanders in the background smiling and appreciate the interaction between Espada and the girls. Espada always carried a soft spot for young people. Jason Espada, his son, even named a collection of Espada’s photographs “Frank’s Kids.”
Whether he was behind the camera or out in the community, Espada maintained that people deserved a say in how they’re represented and how they live their lives. He believed in agency.
Civil Rights Movements—March on Washington, School Boycotts, and NAACP
Espada’s activism began in education reform. He experienced the lack of resources and opportunities for marginalized students in New York City’s public school system. Espada became a leader for ASPIRA, an organization that empowered Puerto Rican youth, founded by Antonia Pantoja in 1961. During the 1960s, he became recognized as a major architect of school and rent strikes, while his activism also extended into welfare rights, voter registration, and anti-poverty programs.
In 1963, Espada founded the volunteer-based coalition East New York Action (ENYA) in Brooklyn, one of the first organizations in the city that used rent strikes as a political tool. The organization quickly evolved to include educating African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side on welfare rights and voting rights. ENYA became the foundation for other organizations co-founded by Espada, such as the Welfare Recipients League (1964) and the Black Independent Voters (1969).
Espada and his neighbors’ community organizing was part of larger movements for civil rights happening across the United States during this period. He and other Puerto Rican activists from Brooklyn traveled to Washington D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington in solidarity and to learn from other civil rights leaders. While photographing the march, he met Bayard Rustin, a co-organizer of the demonstration. Rustin and Espada kept close contact over the years, with Espada even traveling to a neighboring town of Rustin’s hometown for his Puerto Rican Diaspora Project nearly two decades later.
Following the March on Washington, Espada, ENYA members, and members of the Harlem Parents Committee (HPC) returned to New York City with a newfound vigor. And they were not alone. They were joined by Reverend Milton A. Galamison, a Presbyterian minister at Brooklyn’s Siloam Presbyterian Church and community activist, who chaired the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools (est. 1963). The committee, which was supported by national and local organizations (such as the HPC), aimed to desegregate New York City’s public schools. On behalf of the committee, Rev. Galamison asked Rustin to organize a school boycott to protest segregation and unequal conditions for February 3, 1964. Rustin agreed and worked with several community leaders, including Espada, in the months leading up to the boycott. With nearly half a million participants, the New York City school boycott, known as Freedom Day, is considered the largest civil rights protest of the 1960s.
Although the boycott did not immediately achieve its objective of desegregating New York’s public schools, for Rustin, one significant achievement was the unity of the African American and Puerto Rican communities to pull off such a feat. The February 1964 New York City public school boycott and the two New York school boycotts that followed are some of the lesser-known events from the Civil Rights Movement. However, many well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were involved in the boycotts. Though Rustin didn’t organize the second school boycott in March 1964, Espada was involved and present with his camera. Martín Espada, Frank Espada’s son, remembers his father and Malcolm X once shared a podium at a rally. It was likely the March 1964 second school boycott rally where Espada captured the image on the right of Malcolm X, a public supporter of the boycott.
Espada’s involvement with the third school boycott is uncertain, but by the mid-to-late 1960s, he began participating in anti-poverty programs and national organizations. In between attending the 1964 and 1967 NAACP conferences, Espada was named chair of the Welfare Recipients League and accepted a role with the Council for a Better East New York. Following the Spring 1966 national welfare rights meeting at the University of Chicago, the first time that leaders of the movement gathered together, Espada saw a need for a national coordinating committee and established the Citywide Community Action Committee, dedicated to representing those in anti-poverty programs at the bureaucratic level. He also helped co-found the City-Wide Coordinating Committee of Welfare Groups, one of the largest organizations of the Welfare Rights Movement.
In September 1966, the CCAC decided to organize a Poor People’s March in Washington D.C. With only two weeks to plan, Espada proposed Rustin as the co-organizer. The CCAC rejected the idea, instead choosing George Wiley and Edwin Day from the Poverty/Rights Action Center. The three men worked tirelessly with the organizations of the Welfare Rights Movement. Their September 1966 march helped inspire the Poor People’s Campaign two years later. Espada’s national organizing eventually moved him to Long Island in 1970 then Rockville, Maryland, in 1973. In his final months in the boroughs, Espada became acquainted with and photographed the New York chapter of the Young Lords.
The Young Lords were a Chicago “gang” turned civil rights organization formed in the fall of 1968 under the leadership of José “Cha Cha” Jiménez. Modeling themselves after the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican nationalist group had chapters throughout midwestern and eastern states. The New York City chapter was founded in East Harlem on July 26, 1969, and renamed the Young Lords Party (YLP) in May 1970. Their first initiative was the Garbage Offensive, a series of demonstrations spanning from the end of July through August, focusing on the Department of Sanitation’s neglect of East Harlem. Espada’s East New York Action Center protested the same issue earlier in the decade.
But as Pablo Guzmán [founder of the YLP said], [Frank Espada] led with his soul. David Gonzalez, 2014 “Parting Glance: Frank Espada” in The New York Times
While the Garbage Offensive brought attention to the Young Lord Party, it was the Church Offensive that shot them into the spotlight. After spending several weeks asking East Harlem’s First Spanish United Methodist Church permission to use their space for a day care, breakfast program, and other community services, the Young Lords took the space over on December 28, 1969. The takeover lasted for eleven days. Despite news outlets painting the takeover as hostile, Espada’s photographs of these events capture the community care the Young Lords Party centered in their activism.
Goodbye, New York City
Sometime in 1970, Espada accepted a position with a Washington consulting firm specializing in urban problems and his family moved to Long Island. Three years later, the family moved again so Espada could work with the Drug Abuse Council, this time in Maryland. Espada was 49 years old in 1979 when he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to begin his life-long dream of documenting the Puerto Rican diaspora, which eventually turned into the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project. In 2006, with the help of his long-time friend Julio Rodriguez, Espada self-published a book based on the project titled The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People.
The impact Frank Espada left on New York City is just as large and significant as the impact it left on him. Espada founded or was involved in numerous organizations advocating for Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York. Strategies created by Espada were adopted into the National Welfare Rights Organization when Wiley founded the organization. Espada’s change in engagement-forward photography from the 1950s into the 1960s became the foundation on how he formatted the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project. By always talking with and putting his community first, Espada earned a reputation of trust that aided him as he traveled across the country for the project. Frank Espada was truly a force and his impact continues today.
Frank Espada’s work is represented across Smithsonian collecting units.
Written by Daisy Jaime, Cataloger
Published on July 7, 2023