Charles Harper Webb reads and discusses Richard Garcia's "El Zapato"

El Zapato

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.

—Richard Garcia

Rights & Access

“El Zapato,” by Richard Garcia, Rancho Notorious.

BOA Editions, Ltd., 2001.

By permission of the author.


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.

Commentator's Poem

The New World Book of Webbs

I have exciting news for you and all Webbs. 
					Letter from Miles S. Webb

The brochure shows a boat passing the Statue of Liberty
while its cargo of immigrants stand gaping, 
and one small boy—dressed better than the rest—
watches from a director’s chair. He, 
obviously, is the Webb. Simple but aristocratic. 
Poor, but destined for greatness. Set apart

from the Smiths and Joneses, the Rothblatts
and Steins, the Schmidts and Hampys, the Mancusos
and Malvinos and Mendozas and Tatsuis
and Chus, by “the distinguished Webb name.” 
Excitement steams from Miles S. Webb’s letter to me. 
The very type leaps up and down. Just buy 

his book, and I will learn (I’m guessing)
about Thomas Webb, famous for his kippered 
herring jokes, and Jeb Webb of the talking armpits, 
and Genevieve Webb, convinced her left
and right feet were reversed. I’ll learn the inside story
of Solomon Webb, Dover’s greatest circus geek, 

and Lady Messalina Webb, transported to Australia
with her husband, Sir Caleb Webb, 
son of the merkin-maker Lemmy Webb of Kent. 
Best of all, inside the bonus Webb International Directory, 
one among 104,352 Webb households in the world, 
there I’ll be: the very Webb who woke this morning

at 5:53 when his new sprinklers ratcheted on
with the screech of strangled grebes—the Webb
who lolled in bed, loving the artificial rain, then cracked
his drapes and saw fat drops anoint his porch, 
and a hummingbird light on a hair-thin twig, 
then buzz away when the sprinklers hissed off. 

The lawn lay drinking, then—each blade
with its own history, each listed in the book of Heaven
(Grandma Webb from Yorkshire used to say), 
each destined to be cut later this morning by José,
one of 98,998 people to bear (his letter states)
the “brave and glory-dripping name Cortez.”  

—Charles Harper Webb

Rights & Access

“The New World Book of Webbs” by Charles Harper Webb from Amplified Dog.

Red Hen Press, 2005.

By permission of the author and Red Hen Press.

  • 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

    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.