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.


Copyright © 2020 by Peggy Robles–Alvarado. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 6, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I am the daughter of a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father, born and raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan when the community was mostly comprised of immigrant and migrant Caribbean families. My family has always practiced a strong clandestine faith that amalgamated catholic iconography with Afro Caribbean spiritual practice. Offerings or acts of self-sacrifice also known as promesas were regularly made to help ease the pain that accompanied immigrant life such as unemployment, illness, and tense encounters with racist law enforcement. Viewed as innocent and unsullied, children often became involved in a promesa to help their family. I wrote this poem after learning that I was unknowingly part of several promesas to help heal my father and why a simple act of cutting my hair as a preteen was seen as more than just an act of defiance. As memories of more promesas surfaced, I learned that acts of faith rooted in spoken words, offerings made with well-intentioned hands, and a clear heart were essential for the survival of immigrant and migrant families like mine whose ideas of home and safety were unsteady and ever-changing.”
Peggy Robles-Alvarado