By María Luisa Arroyo

Poet María Luisa Arroyo was the featured speaker at the 40th anniversary celebration of the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, one of the oldest domestic and sexual violence prevention organizations in the region, serving north-western Massachusetts. What follows is an edited version of her remarks.

I am the daughter of hard working Boricua or Puerto Rican factory and foundry workers, who, before they met and fell in love in a club in Springfield, Massachu-setts, moved from Puerto Rico to find better-paying jobs, to help support their large, finan-cially struggling families. In each of their instances, they were raised with beatings as a means to communicate, beat-ings as a way to silence, beat-ings as a way to discipline children.

For that young couple, my parents, in the 1960s in Springfield, physical and verbal abuse in the home—soaked in my father’s alcoholism—was as natural as breathing:


The Magic in These Cans

The Magic in These Cans
Three years old, she lines up beer cans like blocks.
Her photo eyes – one red, one brown – peer over the tin border.
Mami y Papi laugh so hard her pierced ears hurt.
She already knows that when she doesn’t fuss,
sits quietly in that short, powder-blue dress
that lets her legs stick to the cold metal chair,
they will forget her. And then she will feel safe.
Her sidelong glance wonders at the magic of these cans
that rattle like tinny maracas when she drops a few tabs in
and shakes shakes shakes that magic that makes
Mami y Papi hug and kiss and talk and sing. Here,
but not at home. Where, even though
she already knows how to keep still.
Where, even though she knows how to swallow
words that usually bubble up like champagne
in children’s mouths, Papi yells
& Mami cries & papi spanks her
when she colors outside the lines, spills
her milk, uses too much toilet paper,
wets the bed. Her fingers gripping the table
edged in white ache to take
one of these magic cans home.

Three brothers later, Mami chose to work second shift in the factory as an act of survival against Papi’s physical disciplining while sober, beatings while drunk. She thrust me, at age nine—the same age that she was taken out of school in order to earn money for her family—into the role of taking care of three kids and dealing with my father, que en paz descanse/may he rest in peace—a brilliant musi-cian, a generous man to his friends, a hard working man, and a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic.
Here is the fragmented poem:


Girlhood Flashbacks, 1970s

Back door unbolted. I see a teen stagger
in the sun, a bleeding flower on his chest.
When the rusty nail slices the skin between
my thumb and forefinger, you see nothing.
He rocks and rocks behind the closed door
until his second crib leans and breaks.
The first clotting of womanhood smells
like wet pennies and makes men pant, Mami warns.
Sunday School movie only for girls: a baby’s
vacuumed to pieces as the boys play football.
Sunday parties, callused hands pass plates,
shot glasses, brush against girl buds.
Ignore the thick rub of a man’s pants against
your belly as he hoists you up to dance.
School means poems about birds, teachers who praise,
perfect attendance, two meals a day.

During my junior year of college in Germany at the Universitaet Konstanz am Bodensee, I fell in love in a club with my ex-husband. Unsere gemeinsame Liebessprache, our common love language, was German. He, a liberal, educated Iranian who spoke Farsi and German; and I, a liberal, educated Boricua and American who spoke Spanish, English, and German. When we started to date and write letters together to Amnesty International to learn about the status of two of his brothers, MIA, during the Iran-Iraq War, I rationalized to myself, and to my worried girlfriends, his physical abuse.


arroyo 2Soldier You, Exile You

You shared memories that broke off
Inside you. I stayed every time you hit
me. At nineteen, I thought that was love.
Soldier you smoked opium to forget boys,
whose high-pitched voices chimed promises
of bikes, rice above rations, even a lamb.

Short on tanks and men, Khomeini ordered soldiers
to take boys, taught them a new game, mine-sweeping.
Those who won shaheed shod, became martyrs.

Open-air trucks dropped off boys near the front
where your troop was ordered up dunes to man
anti-aircraft guns. Boys fingered plastic keys

painted gold, oohed at khaki jackets stamped:
“Permission from Imam Khomeini to enter heaven.”
They didn’t question the rope looped between their wrists.

Exile you chain-smoked Marlboros, tried to forget them,
but the more you tried, the harder it was for your fists to open,
to remember why you even loved me.

July 22, 1998, marked the last night he ever hit me, marked the last time I would ever hear my son, then two years old, ask: “Mommy, why is Daddy hitting you?” Thanks to close friends, I fled the next morning with my son to a battered women’s shelter in eastern Massachusetts.


after the police drop-off, 1998

as I stand on the steps
of this battered women’s shelter,
you make me want to bolt back
to a violent known:
familiar twist of fingerbone
sucker punch to smash lips against teeth
shoves into counter edges
that bruise my back and slipping shoulders
shield my face against the butt of his head

as I stand on the steps
of this battered women’s shelter,
you make me want to bolt back
to a violent known:
his hands will touch me here, want sex,
and this will break the brittle silence
that will have lasted for days
and we will not talk about
what our son has witnessed again
pretend everything is fine
until the next time

as I stand on the steps
of this battered women’s shelter,
my son cries
and I open the door
yes, Fear, to this unknown space

While we lived in a shelter for six weeks, I was keenly aware of my educational and financial privileges. At the time, I had my master’s from Tufts University, my bachelor’s degree from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and was entering into a PhD program at Harvard University in Germanic Languages and Literatures. Because I had a full scholarship, I became independent financially when I transitioned out of the shelter. For many of the other women, there were complications in their transitions, including to name a few issues: finances, housing, multiple children, citizenship, language, relocation, and tremendous emotional stress.

Understand that physical and verbal violence against women happens across class, education, race, and cultures. And know that every generous donation you make to [support battered women’s organizations] helps a woman like my mother, a woman like me.

In closing, here is a poem that speaks to the power of women.


Sostento: Sustenance

Manatí, Puerto Rico, 1893 for my great-grandmother Luisa Manzano
Three soldiers splinter our door with rifle butts,
scatter my corn husk dolls, shout “¡Disidentes!” Then stop.

In our one-room wooden house, dirt floor swept smooth,
they see me, six, and Mami, cast-iron pan in hand

but nowhere for a man to hide. They stomp out, chicken shit
and feathers clinging to their boots. I pass nails to Mami

as she hammers planks to fix our door, praises me
for living up to my name, Luisa, “famous in war.”

After dark, the two men who braced themselves for hours
under the heavy frame of Mami’s bed

drop down into dust, mouths ringed white with thirst
as Mami ladles sopa de pollo into our bowls.


María Luisa Arroyo is author of the poetry collection, Gathering Words: Recogiendo Palabras (Bilingual Press, 2008), and coeditor with playwright and poet Magdalena Gómez of an intergenerational multicultural anthology, Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confes-sions, and Catharsis (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012). She was named the first poet laureate of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2014. The first two poems above are from Gathering Words; the last poem is from Flight (Thousand Hands Press, April 2016). To purchase an autographed copy of Gathering Words: Recogiendo Palabras ($12) or Flight ($10), please write