A Poem for the Laborers

by Maria Luisa Arroyo

para Martin Espada (1993)

Mami called us away from the roach trap line
where novice factory workers, fresh from the island,
and I, fresh from Germany, poked
protruding yellow chunks of roach bait
into black traps with long-stem Q-tips
we dunked in alcohol.

Another safety meeting. My first.
El jefe de la factoría faced us
and heard nothing by the silence
of women hablando y bochincheando
in Tidy-Bowl blue uniforms. "Safety shoes should....
Factory goggles are .... Hairnets must...."

All the Spanish he knew could have fit
into one of those trampas, too little to translate
what Flora, Aida, and Teresa needed to know.
A heavy box fell and crushed a few of Flora's
dedos del pie. Alcohol splashed into Aida's ojos.
The uncovered motor yanked out one of Teresa's trenzas.

I broke rank and stood. "If safety is first, then why
aren't your updates translated into Spanish?"
How all uniforms blue shrank away from me,
from my nasal twang, from that language that sounds as if
I were chewing papas calientes o mucho chicle.

For once, though, my mother was proud of my English.

El jefe told me I could have been promoted
to the shampoo line.

(Hat tip to the terrific Split This Rock database of social justice poems.)