Richard Blanco: Using Poetry to Illuminate Immigration, Borders, and Boundaries

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Obama inaugural poet Richard Blanco reads Tuesday evening at the Central Library.

Visiting the Central Library for a reading Tuesday to promote his newest book, titled How to Love a Country, poet Richard Blanco said he’s observed a recent spike in the amount of poetry being written and consumed in America.

“As a country, and even as a family, we turn to poetry in moments of great tragedy, and great triumph, and moments of great confusion,” said Blanco, best known as the inaugural poet at President Barack Obama’s second swearing-in.

The current moment offers confusion about immigration, Blanco said, an issue with which he is deeply familiar.

The Blanco family left Cuba in the 1967 as part of the mass migration away from the island country caused by the rise of Fidel Castro’s communist regime. They arrived first in Madrid, Spain, then emigrated to New York City, finally settling in South Florida, where Blanco grew up. He references his early family life in his 2014 memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood and autobiographical poems such as My Father in English and Mother Country, written to and about his mother:

To Love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,
my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene
I imagine as if standing in her place – one foot
inside a plane destined for a country she knew
only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos
from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored
to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched
around one suitcase, taking only what she needs
most…

Blanco described How to Love a Country as he describes himself, “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the U.S.,” emphasizing the resonances of his immigrant experience. His work delves deeply into the subject both as a personal and a sociopolitical issue, and is sometimes prophetic.

In referencing the recent image of a drowned father and daughter lying facedown after a failed attempt to cross from Mexico into the U.S., Blanco read from the 2017 book Boundaries, which pairs photographer Jacob Hessler’s images with Blanco’s poems on immigration, borders, and boundaries of all kinds. One Hessler image of the Rio Grande curving through a lush valley is paired with the poem Complaint of El Río Grande, written in the voice of the river:

I was meant for all things to meet…

Then countries – your invention – maps
jigsawing the world into colored shapes
caged in bold lines to say: you’re here,
not there, you’re this, not that, to say:
yellow isn’t red, red isn’t black, black is
not white, to say:
mine, not ours, to say
war, and believe life’s worth is relative.

You named me big river, drew me – blue,
thick to divide, to say:
spic and Yankee,
to say:
wetback and gringo. You split me
in two – half of me
us, the rest them. But
I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear
mothers’ cries, never meant to be your
geography: a line, a border, a murderer.

After the reading, Blanco said he’s been hearing about the issue of Mexican immigration to America “since I was a kid. … It’s an issue that keeps getting ping-ponged and covered up with language, while everybody else is figuring it out and making do.”

Though only a sparse audience of two dozen heard Blanco read One Today on Tuesday night, the poem he read to a crowd of 1 million people at Obama’s second inauguration, Blanco said he believes poetry can be an effective means of changing the ways people think about complex issues like immigration.

“We’ve exhausted language in terms of some of these issues,” he said. “To me it’s the same mumbo jumbo. … We just keep on talking over each other and just keep on saying the same things, and nothing ever moves.”

He hopes his own poems “would not just repeat anything that you hear in the media, but try to get us to think of the absurdity of a problem that politics has created for the sake of politics.”

Invited at the age of 44 to represent the national conscience, Blanco said until that point in 2013, as a “working-class, lower-class gay kid in Miami” and an immigrant, he hadn’t necessarily felt like a part of the American story. Reading One Today for the president and the entire country “obviously transformed all of that,” he said.

As he sat next to his mother that day awaiting his introduction by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, “I turn to my mother and whisper, ‘Mamá, I guess we’re finally americanos,” Blanco said, emphasizing the heavily Cuban-accented version of the term.

What he hadn’t realized growing up, he said, was that his mother’s story was about faith, “the eternal immigrant faith in ideals, that faith she had in this country to make that leap. … In a way my mother is more of an American than I ever could be. She was the one who should have stood up at that podium,” he said of the inauguration reading. “I bow to that courage and that faith that she had.”

In the last passage of Mother Country, Blanco reveals his mother’s response to what he whispered to her before reading his inaugural poem:

… You know, mijo,
it isn’t where you’re
born that matters, it’s where
you choose to die – that’s your country.

San Antonians have another chance to see Blanco read from How to Love a Country Thursday at 7 p.m. during a promotional event for the Macondo Writers Workshop, of which he is a founding board member.

After Blanco’s reading, the workshop’s founder, Sandra Cisneros, will perform a stage adaptation of her 2012 book Have You Seen Marie? The event takes place at the McAllister Auditorium at San Antonio College, with more information available here.

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