Richard Blanco, Barack Obama’s inaugural poet, doesn’t have to think too hard about where he wants to meet for an early lunch. He wants La Carreta on Calle Ocho.
It’s a matter of ritual for Cuban-Americans who live far from the heartbeat of Miami, who land here and rush to dose on syrupy cafecitos, on pastelitos and palomillas and that patriotic spirit that survives six decades into exile, still longing, still loyal — but more settled now in the notion that there is no going back, that Miami is, in some ways, the homeland.
“I’ve been to Cuba to visit relatives and to fill in the blanks about all of those stories my parents told me when I was growing up,” says the soft-spoken Blanco, who arrives at his favorite Cuban restaurant in a perfectly pressed black linen guayabera and jeans. “And when I talk about these trips, I tend to say, ‘The first time that I went back to Cuba …’ Except I wasn’t going back to Cuba that first time. Because I had never been before.”
Conceived in Cuba, born in Spain and raised in Miami, Blanco is the prototypical son of Cuban exile, an award-winning poet with a stronger command of his second language than his first, an American through and through who nonetheless pines for the sepia-toned past of an island that was never technically his. Like so many others of his generation, he lives a secondhand nostalgia instilled by parents who had vowed their stay in the States would be temporary and battled to ensure they didn’t lose their children to assimilation.
They instilled much more than love of country, however. Much more than a passion for mamey milkshakes, the mambo and the poetry of Jose Marti. They also handed down their melancholy, their sense of loss, their regrets about the people they left behind.
“It’s a theme that runs throughout my work, that secondhand nostalgia. There has always been for me the psychological trying to return to the paradise that I lost. Miami felt more like a benevolent purgatory. Maybe that’s why I’ve moved around so much. Why every time I travel, I look around and think, ‘Maybe this is my Havana of the 1950s.’ But the truth is, Miami is my Cuba,” says Blanco, 45, who lives with his partner Mark in the picturesque mountain town of Bethel, Maine, but returns regularly to the 3-0-5 to visit his mother and other relatives.
“At first when I would come back, I would get a little angry at the changes I saw in Miami. And Miami is constantly changing,” he says over a toasty media noche and a Diet Coke, which he follows with a straight-up cafecito. “I felt like my mother, who has gone back to Cuba and been devastated by the changes there, like, ‘How dare they change the name of the town where I was born!’ We all want a sense of permanence. But a couple of years ago I finally made peace. I finally said, ‘OK, Miami, you are who you are and I’m going to accept you.’ ”
Blanco’s dueling identities and his struggles to find a sense of belonging fueled his poetry from the start, from the days when he was a young civil engineer rising through the professional ranks but studying poetry at Florida International University — not because he had any fantasies of becoming a famous poet, but because the craft simply called.