Obama’s Inaugural Poet to Talk Immigrant Experience At Trinity

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Poet Richard Blanco in April 2013.

Courtesy / Craig Dilger

Poet Richard Blanco in April 2013.

Home is “that big word [that] informs everything … I write about,” poet Richard Blanco said while on his way to his home airport in Maine prior to traveling to San Antonio for his visit to Trinity University this week.

Blanco, who read at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, will speak as part of the university’s Reading TUgether program, which asks all incoming first-year students to read the same book and invites students, faculty, staff, and alumni to participate. The lecture is free and open to the public, Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Laurie Auditorium.

Home is a more figurative than literal term for Blanco, who was born in Spain as his Cuban parents fled the Castro regime when the 1950s Cuban revolution took hold. They left Spain for the United States, first landing in New York City and then settling in a Miami suburb with the help of Blanco’s abuela, who features prominently in the story of his childhood.

On Wednesday, Blanco will speak about his early life as chronicled in his new memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, which he describes as the “cultural coming of age” story of a gay Cuban American growing up in Miami.

The cocuyos (fireflies) of the title refers to El Cucoyito, the Miami bodega where Blanco worked for his grand uncle Pipo starting at age 12. His parents later gave him three career choices: doctor, lawyer, or engineer. The “math whiz” chose the latter, Blanco told the New York Times in 2013, and studied civil engineering at Florida International University.

As his cultural awareness developed, Blanco went on to study creative writing. Though he was named after his father’s favorite president, staunch Castro opponent and Republican Richard Nixon, Blanco’s career eventually led him to an unexpected place.

The Times profiled Blanco when he was appointed as inaugural poet for Obama’s second swearing-in in 2013. The poem he wrote for the occasion, titled One Today, employs unifying images of the sun, sky, and Earth. Its last stanza begins:

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always – home,
always under one sky, our sky.

The idea of home became an obsession, Blanco said, calling to mind family, community, place, and identity. His own life as described in The Prince of Los Cocuyos touches on household economics, cultural expectations, gender roles, and the lives of immigrants, Blanco said.

“… My memoir and poetry is about … the very universal topic of finding home,” he explained, a “fundamental human drive, that sense of wanting to belong to someone, something, someplace.”

That longing is perhaps “more pronounced in my place,” he said, as an immigrant, gay, Cuban American man. With a conservative cultural upbringing and a later identification with the life experiences of Obama, Blanco does not identify with the polarized politics of today, but as an artist who works in “the gray area,” which he said signifies “the conversation we’re not having.”

One of the key challenges of our time, he said, is this: “How do we realize that, despite our different colors and cultural backgrounds, we’re all connected?”

Though Blanco’s life story is highly individualized, its appeal is potentially wide. “Richard Blanco’s writing, broadly speaking, is about the fantasy of what’s possible in America,” said Michael Soto, Trinity associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of English.

Soto described Blanco’s identity as both national and hemispheric, evident in the use of an accent in the title of one poem, América.

“He’s eager to allow his writing to blur that geographic distinction, because it holds us accountable to what’s best in all of us,” Soto said.

A story that appears in that poem is also featured in the new memoir. As a youngster, Blanco tried to introduce his fervently Cuban exile family to the traditional American holiday of Thanksgiving, which “becomes an occasion for a lot of hilarity,” Soto said.

But “it’s also a moment in which we really interrogate what it means to be an American superficially, and more importantly, what it means to be an American deep down in the well of our souls.”

Throughout the book, Soto said, readers learn that “superficial forms of American identity are really trivial, when you compare” them to “the more lasting values of self-improvement” and the wish to make one’s community a better place.

In 2013, Blanco said the spirit of togetherness exemplified by “salt-of-the-earth” Americans “after 200-plus years is still there.”

Asked whether such communal spirit remains present in American society today, Soto said, “I certainly hope so,” but that the question is best put to the younger generation, including the 700 first-year students Trinity will welcome this fall semester.

“It’s up to them to decide if it’s still there,” he said.

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