Emmanuel Ortiz performing spoken word at a January 2013 Lowertown Reading Jam. (Illustration: Ta-coumba Aiken/Ta-coumbaAiken.com)
Emmanuel Ortiz performing spoken word at a January 2013 Lowertown Reading Jam. (Illustration: Ta-coumba Aiken/Ta-coumbaAiken.com)

Every generation has its historical moments
Of collective grief and disbelief
Moments we forever remember
Exactly where we were when . . .

The deaths of Kennedy, King, Clemente
The space shuttle Challenger explosion
When the planes hit the towers on 9/11

Some of these things I was around for
Some I was not.

But I remember the day Marvin Gaye died
It was the day I saw my father cry.

In 1984
I was halfway to manhood,
Living halfway between Motown
And Michael Jackson’s hometown,
I knew nothing of Orwell’s Big Brother,
Beirut, or the Contras.
My world consisted of playing guns with my brothers
A meager allowance
And the Dallas Cowboys.

I was nine years old—almost 10—
That April Fool’s Day.
My father and I seated side by side
On the burgundy brick-patterned couch,
Living room awash
In the electric blue-gray glow of the television
Father and son
Sharing a can of Pepsi
As fathers and sons are wont to do
In the last remnants of a spring Sunday evening
Before it slips away into work and school.

The talking head announces
The shooting of a soul
By his father in a furious fit
On the day before his forty-fifth birthday.
My own father,
Barely thirty,
Slumps back
As if a bullet has struck him in the chest
Puts his working man’s hands
To his music lover’s ears
As if by blocking out the messenger’s voice
He can make the message come undone.
I watch my father
Watch the newscaster,
Waiting for the whole thing to be called a ruse,
An April Fool’s Day prank,
So we can laugh and say
“That was a good one,
They really had us fooled!”

But the punch line never comes
There is no rebuttal.
The newscaster is onto the next story,
And my father’s face
Is a Pamplona of tears.

In 1984
Marvin’s “Sexual Healing”
May have been my father’s soundtrack,
But Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was mine.

More than a decade would pass
Before I’d come to fully understand and appreciate
Marvin’s gift for music,
His turbulent life,
Or my father’s sense of loss that day
Weeping for a man he never knew
But a soul whose troubles mirrored his own.

So what’s a boy to do
When his father cries like a baby
For the crimes of another son’s father?

He reaches out his nine-year-old arms
Brushes away the saltwater bulls
Running down his father’s face,
Wraps his small arms around his neck
And hugs him until . . .

And should I someday be blessed
With sons of my own
May they never be afraid
To sing like Marvin
Cry like my father
And love
As if eternally nine.


Emmanuel Ortiz is a Minneapolis-based poet and community organizer. He has published two chapbooks of poetry, The Word Is a Machete, and Brown unLike Me. He is a founding member of the Minnesota-based Latino poets’ collective Palabristas: Latin@ Word Slingers.

Illustrator Ta–coumba Aiken is a Twin Cities artist, arts administrator, educator, and community activist who focuses on public art and collaborative projects. His “rhythm paintings” on paper and canvas are loose and lively. He has participated in the creation of over 300 murals and public art sculptures, with themes ranging from local history to the artist’s own style of rhythmic pattern and spirit writing. His works can be found in public and private collections, including those of the Walker Art Center, General Mills, Herbie Hancock, Taj Mahal, and Maya Angelou. www.Ta-coumbaAiken.com