In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Inaugural presence says Cuban Americans belong here

It will be a moment to savor, a ground-breaker, in a people’s decades-long journey to become a part of this country.

When President Barack Obama takes the oath of office Monday for a second term, the inaugural ceremony will be filled with symbolism about reconciling a diverse America — and two Cuban-Americans, a poet and a priest with ties to Miami, will be at the forefront.

Who could have imagined this history-making moment during the fervor of the presidential campaign?

Who could have imagined this 13 years ago when a boy plucked from the high seas tore this country into two camps – the Cuban-Americans who wanted to save Elián González from growing up in a dictatorship and the rest of a nation that felt the child belonged with his Fidel-worshiping father on the island?

But behold the two Cuban-Americans who will bask in the national spotlight of a Democratic president’s Inauguration Day.

Delivering the benediction will be Rev. Luis León, who fled Cuba in 1961 alone as an 11-year-old child in the secret exodus of unaccompanied minors known as Operation Pedro Pan.

The Episcopal priest who leads St. John’s, the church across from the White House attended by presidents, lived in Miami with a foster family for several years after his arrival. He also delivered the benediction in 2005 for President George W. Bush.

Poet Richard Blanco — son of exiles, Miami-raised and educated, part of the city’s literary arts community until he moved to Maine to live with his partner a few years ago — will read a poem he was asked to compose for the occasion.

Blanco, 44, will be the first gay man and the youngest inaugural poet. But it’s the soulful voice with which he writes about his family and ordinary moments like sitting on his mother’s porch in the quintessential Cuban enclave of Westchester that has elevated him to a starring role held by luminaries like Maya Angelou.

“Everything I am is here still,’’ Blanco writes about that porch.

With millions of Americans watching, their words will ring with a sprig of hope to those of us who have endured the stereotype of a monolithic, intolerant community, one that pundits all too conveniently pack into neat little political boxes. One that was disparaged without an iota of understanding during the Elián saga — and that most recently surprised even the experts when close to half of the Cuban-American vote went to Obama.

Surely Obama the strategist was conscious of the political good will he would foster among Cuban-Americans with his choices of Blanco and León, who became the stand-in for an unsuitable pastor who had delivered a sermon saying that being gay was a sin.

But regardless of the political calculations — we are, after all, only a community of 1.8 million in a country with 53 million Hispanics — this is a moment to celebrate.

With a poem and a prayer, the nation will see that Cuba’s loss has been the United States’ gain, and that while we, the Cuban-Americans, may still long to see a free Cuba, we belong here.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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