When I Became La Promesa

For every unexpected illness that required medical insurance,
every second-trimester miscarriage, every chaos unemployment
caused, every looming eviction, every arrest warrant gone
unanswered, the women in my family made promesas to plaster
cast statues worshipped in overcrowded apartments with rum
poured over linoleum, nine-day candles coughing black soot
until the wick surrendered, Florida water perfuming doorways
and the backs of necks.

Promesas: barters/contracts with a God they didn’t vow to
change for but always appeased/ bowls of fruit/ paper bags filled
with coconut candy and caserolas de ajiaco/ left at busy intersections,
an oak tree in High bridge park, the doorway of the 34th precinct,
and when mar pacifico and rompe saraguey refused to grow on
Washington Heights windowsills, the youngest became part of
the trade.

Unsullied and unaware: cousin Mari pissed about having to dress
in green and red for twenty-one days to keep Tío Pablo out of jail/
Luisito scratching at an anklet made of braided corn silk to help
Tía Lorna find a new job/ and my hair not to be cut until Papi’s
tumor was removed.

Gathered in tight buns or sectioned pigtails, falling long past my
waist when asymmetrical bobs were in fashion, unaware my crown
had the necessary coercion to dislodge a mass from a colon, I grabbed
my older brother’s clippers, ran thirsty blades across my right temple
to the back of my ear, massaged the softness that emerged as strands
surrendered on bathroom tiles. My desire to mimic freestyle icons,
whose albums my cousins and I scratched on old record players,
wagered against Papi’s large intestine.

My unsteady hand: a fist
in the face of God.

Related Poems

How to Dismantle a Heart

My mother used to say the heart makes music, but I've never found the keys. Maybe it's the way I was brought into the world: dragged across a river in the night's quiet breathing, trampling through trash and tired runaways as if tearing a window's curtains. We were barred from entry but repeatedly returned, each time becoming a darker part of a tunnel or a truck bed. The sky was so still the stars flickered like carbide lamps. We told time through the landmarks of the dead like cataphiles—the warren of a little girl’s murder, the wolf’s irrigation pipe. When you see enough unwinding, beating is replaced by the safety of wings. This isn't goodness. The voiceless are never neutral. Bones sway to elegy. Ebony burrows into the earth as a refugee. I grew up, eventually, but the sun was like a cliff with a false bottom: you'd drop and come out the top again. Enough carcasses draped over the dry brush. Enough water towers empty as busted rattles. When you're a child, the heart has a stiff neck and demands to be played. Later, it limps. Before my knees could begin to ache, I crawled to the levee looking for a broken string. Some wayward zil. I stretched my heart over a manhole and drummed it with broken pliers. It wouldn’t even quaver. It snapped back into a seed, dry and shriveled and blank.

El Florida Room

Not a study or a den, but El Florida
as my mother called it, a pretty name
for the room with the prettiest view
of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up
against the windows, the tepid breeze
laden with the brown-sugar scent
of loquats drifting in from the yard.

Not a sunroom, but where the sun
both rose and set, all day the shadows
of banana trees fan-dancing across
the floor, and if it rained, it rained
the loudest, like marbles plunking
across the roof under constant threat
of coconuts ready to fall from the sky.

Not a sitting room, but El Florida where
I sat alone for hours with butterflies
frozen on the polyester curtains
and faces of Lladró figurines: sad angels,
clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed
blue and gray, gazing from behind
the glass doors of the wall cabinet.

Not a TV room, but where I watched
Creature Featureas a boy, clinging
to my brother, safe from vampires
in the same sofa where I fell in love
with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo
watching westerns, or pitying women
crying in telenovelas with my Abuela.

Not a family room, but the room where
my father twirled his hair while listening
to 8-tracks of Elvis, and read Nietzsche
and Kant a few months before he died,
where my mother learned to dance alone
as she swept, and I learned Salsa pressed
against my Tía Julia's enormous breasts.

At the edge of the city, in the company
of crickets, beside the empty clothesline,
telephone wires and the moon, tonight
my life is an old friend sitting with me 
not in the living room, but in the light
of El Florida, as quiet and necessary
as any star shining above it.

We All Return to the Place Where We Were Born

What remains of my childhood
are the fragmentary visions
of large patios
extending
like an oceanic green mist over the afternoon.

Then, crickets would forge in the wind
their deep music of centuries
and the purple fragrances of Grandmother
always would receive without questions
our return home.

The hammock shivering in the breeze
like the trembling voice of light at dusk,
the unforeseeable future
that would never exist without Mother,
the Tall tales that filled
with their most engaging lunar weight our days
—all those unchangeable things—
were the morning constellations
that we would recognize daily without sadness.

In the tropical days we had no intuition of the winter
nor of autumn, that often returns with pain
in the shadows of this new territory
—like the cold moving through our shivering hands—
that I have learned to accept
in the same way you welcome
the uncertainty of a false and cordial smile.

Those were the days of the solstice
when the wind pushed the smoke from the clay ovens
through the zinc kitchens
and the ancient stone stoves
clearly spoke
of the secrets of our barefooted and wise Indian ancestors.

The beautiful, unformed rocks in our hands
that served as detailed toys
seemed to give us the illusion
of fantastic events
that invaded our joyful chants
with infinite color.

It was a life without seasonal pains,
a life without unredeemable time
a life without the somber dark shadows
that have intently translated my life
that slowly move today through my soul.


 

Todos volvemos al lugar donde nacimos

 

De mi infancia solo quedan
     las visiones fragmentarias
          de los patios tendidos
               como un naval terciopelo sobre la tarde.
 
 Entonces, los grillos cuajaban sobre el aire
     su profunda música de siglos
          y las fragancias empurpuradas de la abuela
               meciéndose en la noche
                    siempre recibían sin preguntas nuestra vuelta al hogar.

La hamaca temblando con la brisa,
como la voz trémula del sol en el ocaso;
el futuro imprevisible
que jamás existiría sin la madre;
las leyendas
cargadas de su peso lunar más devorador;
—todas esas cosas inalterables—
eran las constelaciones diurnas que reconocíamos sin tristeza.

Entonces no se intuía el invierno,
ni el otoño que retoña con dolor
entre las sombras de este territorio
—como el frío entre las manos doblegadas—
que hoy he aprendido
a soportar
de la misma forma en que se acepta
la incertidumbre de una falsa sonrisa.

Eran los días en que el solsticio
acarreaba humaredas polvorientas
por las ventanas de las cocinas de zinc
donde el fogón de barro milenario
decía oscuramente
el secreto de nuestros ancestros sabios y descalzos.

Las rocas deformes en nuestras manos
     parecían darnos
          la ilusión de eventos fabulosos
               que invadían nuestras gargantas de aromas desmedidos.

Era una vida sin dolores estacionales
     Vida sin tiempos irredimibles:
          Vida sin las puras formas sombrías
               que se resbalan hoy lentamente por mi pecho.