In the poetry collection Conversations with My Skin (2011), Peggy Robles-Alvarado shares her resilient story of becoming pregnant at fifteen and her subsequent life as a single mother. Robles-Alvarado is a Latina poet raised in Washington Heights and a resident of the Wakefield section of the Bronx. She suffered through an abusive relationship that tore her life apart as a young woman, and she did everything that she could to protect her daughter from the violence. Robles-Alvarado survived and thrived, and this book is a poetic testament to that strength. It’s a significant poetic work about the Bronx, about the experiences of Latina women, and survivors of relationship abuse.
Conversations with My Skin is largely autobiographical. Like Robles-Alvarado, the speaker in the poems is a young woman who experiences teenage pregnancy, the birth of a daughter, and the end of, and recovery from an abusive relationship. The speaker takes up themes such as strength, relationships, and power dynamics to analyze her life experiences. In the beginning, the young woman realizes that her boyfriend is not only an abuser, but also a liar and a cheater who isn’t going to be present in his daughter’s life. Due to the dissolution of their relationship, the young woman has to raise her daughter on her own, and she doesn’t want to be labeled as just a “baby momma.” Robles-Alvarado writes of “trying to wash away the pain / of being with someone / yet feeling so alone / having to raise a child on my own” (14-15). The collection is dedicated to Robles-Alvarado’s daughter, Shanice Devin Robles.
Over the course of the book, we see the speaker in the poems develop into a determined woman who can forgive herself and continue making progress. “Picking at stubborn scabs / wiping at tears etched into my cheeks,” writes Robles-Alvarado, “I refuse to fall and not get up” (36). The speaker’s scab imagery is a reminder that even if she falls down, she will pick herself up again. Her scars and scabs represent her story and are the proof that she is able to heal. In the end, the young woman realizes how powerful she is while also expressing gratitude to her daughter who brought light into her life. In the poem “Daddy,” written from the daughter’s perspective, the daughter asks her mother questions about her absent father whom she has never met. Robles-Alvarado’s speaker explains to her daughter that she is grateful to have her and she is not a mistake, her father was. She describes the daughter as “iron strong” (51), a description that shows her belief in her daughter’s worth and potential.
A Puerto Rican and Dominican artist who expresses her emotional journey through poetry, Robles-Alvarado credits the Bronx for teaching her how to use her voice and for becoming a performer (“Personal Interview”). In 2017, she was named one of the “25 Most Influential Women in the Bronx” by The Bronx Times. Robles-Alvarado attended Hunter and Lehman Colleges and became a teacher with the Department of Education. She currently works at P.S. X114, an elementary school in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, where she teaches her students about courage and expresses her life as an artist and a professional. She performs her spoken-word poetry regularly, both in New York City and nationally.
Conversations with My Skin delves into sensitive themes that touch upon the importance of the mother–daughter bond. During an interview I conducted with Robles-Alvarado, she discussed how necessary it was to speak with her daughter about her experiences: “The painful truth I had to tell her; to help explain how she saved me when she decided to make me her mother (“Personal Interview”). In one poem, the daughter asks her mother about her father, and the mother never knows how to answer the probing questions. As Robles-Alvarado explained the difficulty to me later, “How do you tell a child that they carry the DNA of an abuser? How do you explain that the boy who gave you your first kiss, the one you thought was your first love was actually the one who tried to break you into a million shards? This book, these poems, this brave experiment, is an honest letter to my child to explain that we don’t break; we gracefully stretch (“Personal Interview”).
Robles-Alvarado has shown courage in writing about such topics and sharing them with the world. When her teenage daughter first read the book, she was extremely emotional because she became aware of the truth behind her father’s absence. Robles-Alvarado explained to her daughter that many of “the most beautiful things in life are derived from pain, our growth being one of them (“Personal Interview”). In this way, Robles-Alvarado uplifts her daughter (as well as her readers), reminding us to stay strong during the hard times in life. A strong mother and an inspiration, Robles-Alvarado used to bring her daughter with her to night classes at Lehman College because she didn’t have a babysitter. She told me that, after reading Conversations, her daughter “understood why I worked many odd part-time jobs off the books and how I tried to make Christmas special even if we could only afford a tiny 10-inch tree with a few presents. All her memories made sense in the context of single motherhood and she appreciated our journey together” (“Personal Interview”).
While Conversations is very much about this interpersonal journey, it is also one set in the Bronx, depicting men and women, and the sometimes unhealthy gender relations that the poet observes. In her Bronx neighborhood, Wakefield, Robles-Alvarado noticed that many children were brainwashed by the men in the community. The young girls seemed to have daddy issues and lack adequate supervision. The speaker in the poems refers to these careless men as “t-shirt wearing men” in the poem “Baby Mamas Wanted.” The t-shirts, with slogans on them, are also worn by the abusive ex-boyfriend. His t-shirts read “heartless,” “womanizer,” and “unemployed.” The speaker wishes that she had noticed the kind of person the ex-boyfriend was in the beginning as she now realizes the truth behind his actions. The children in her neighborhood were considered “fast” because, at the encouragement of men, they started having sexual experiences at a young age. “You see it’s t-shirt wearing men of this nature / that have little girls replacing Blowpops / with blowjobs / a bit too soon” (17). This early sexual activity left girls feeling confused and deprived of their childhoods.
The young woman’s environment rubs off on her, but after she becomes a mother and ends her relationship with her daughter’s abusive father, she realizes that she doesn’t want to fit into this society. Her neighborhood is not solely a source of negativity; it also teaches her how to stay strong, and she doesn’t let the negative messages about women and girls ruin her chances for recovery and self-betterment. While everything seems like it is falling apart, she always reminds herself that her daughter depends on her.
Domestic and relationship violence, a crucial theme in this book, is unfortunately very common in the Bronx, which is the borough with the highest rate of intimate-partner violence in the city (“More People to Listen” 5). This is why the healing process, bravely discussed in Robles-Alvarado’s poetry, is so important. In a book on the subject by Patricia Evans, it’s noted that “healing is about the process of growth and the strengthening of your personal power. Personal power is not power over others. It is the power to be who you were meant to be—to grow into the person you really are” (92). Robles-Alvarado demonstrates that we must heal in order to grow, no matter what situation we are going through. The young woman in Conversations begins to feel whole when she discovers that she is a strong Latina. “But now / I’m whole / whole like full moon / like entera y completa / like cool river water / like fresh cut fertile grass / like ocean current strong” (25; emphasis in the original). Robles-Alvarado learns that her past doesn’t define her forever, and she can become a whole and healed person.
Other Latina poets from the Bronx have also written about domestic violence. Gretchen Gomez, the author of love, & you (2017), also represents women who have experienced traumatic relationships. Like Robles-Alvarado’s, Gomez’s poetry is a way for her to express difficult emotions. She uses her voice in her poetry to demonstrate that women are powerful, and that we have the ability to overcome heartbreak and mistreatment. Both Gomez and Robles-Alvarado learned to love themselves, and they were able to heal after their toxic relationships ended. They share a message of learning from the past and staying strong in your journey of healing. Their poetry shows how powerful women can be when they are determined.
When I took a walk down Mosholu Parkway, in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, in early March 2019, I experienced Robles-Alvarado’s environment. I saw the tall apartment buildings, the diversity of people, the Spanish and Italian restaurants, the young children, and the single mothers. I imagined Robles-Alvarado, a single mother herself, living in this bustling neighborhood. A place for shopping, commuting, and dining, Mosholu Parkway is busiest on weekdays when the children are released from school and they take public transportation home. As I listened to the vulgar language they used in communicating with their friends, I thought of the moment in Conversations when Robles-Alvarado notes that the children in her neighborhood grow up too “fast” because they are improperly influenced by adults.
Those who have experienced domestic violence would benefit from Robles-Alvarado’s poetry the most because they are able to relate to her. As the literary critic Amberly Jimenez argues, “Robles-Alvarado demonstrates her self-acceptance and pride in her mestizaje heritage through her poetry. She declares her Dominican-Boricua pride by demanding her place in the United States.” The rich emotional panorama in Robles-Alvarado’s poetry of the Bronx is vivid and captivating for readers. We are able to understand the trauma that she had to go through to survive during her teenage years. This book deserves recognition from all over the world, but especially in the Bronx, because domestic violence is a too-frequent occurrence in our borough. Robles-Alvarado’s story set in poetry can transform someone’s life, and this can give them an opportunity to recover, to get better, and to share their own story of empowerment with the world.
For more on Peggy Robles-Alvarado’s journey, watch her interview with Miguel Perez, host of The Bronx Journal:
Evans, Patricia. Victory Over Verbal Abuse: A Healing Guide to Renewing Your Spirit and Reclaiming Your Life. Adams Media, 2011.
Garcia, Gabriela. “Poet Gretchen Gomez Gets Honest About Heartache & Knowing Your Worth.” Modern Brown Girl, 11 Apr. 2018, www.modernbrowngirl.com/blog/category/gretchen-gomez.
Gomez, Gretchen. love, & you. CreateSpace, 2017.
Jimenez, Amberly. Dominican-American Literature: Expanding Women’s Voices and Understanding Their Identity through Poetry. 2018. Lehman College, CUNY, undergraduate honors thesis.
“More People to Listen”: Legal and Social Service Needs of Bronx Communities Affected by Intimate Partner Violence. Bronx Domestic Violence Roundtable and Bronx Legal Services, 2015.
Robles-Alvarado, Peggy. Conversations with My Skin. Robles-Alvarado, 2011.
Robles-Alvarado, Peggy. Personal interview. 4 March 2019.
Zayna Palmer is an English Professional Writing major at Lehman College and a future journalist. She is a beauty blogger who writes for a digital magazine company. Her dream is to inspire people all around the world.