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.
And then, there he stood on a freezing January morning, the country’s first Hispanic and first openly gay inaugural poet, a Cubanito in winter coat reading his poem about inclusion to the hundreds of thousands who crowded the streets around the capitol and the millions more who watched on TV.
“One of the first things I thought when I heard the news that I had been chosen as the inaugural poet is that this would be the culmination of the story that started when my mother and father left Cuba, when they made the choices they made for me and my brother, when they had to find the courage to leave certain things behind.”
But something even more profound crossed Blanco’s mind as he sat there waiting to be called to the microphone, his mother at his side, the president and first lady within arm’s reach.
“You hear the talk about the peaceful transition of power and in that time that you’re sitting there it comes to you that no matter how much bickering there can be, no matter how ugly politics have become, every senator, every representative, Beyonce, James Taylor and the hundreds of thousands standing behind you are all there for the same purpose, for this moment — a breath, like the poem says — when we could all honor everything that America is.”
And in that collective breath, Blanco finally understood that he indeed belonged.
“I was teary. I thought, ‘For once, I don’t feel like I’m without a country.’ That moment brought the sense of what home really was and that it actually has been in front of me the whole time. I turned to my mother and I said, ‘I think we’re finally American.’ ”
And later that evening, another revelation for Blanco, who as a young man struggled with his sexuality and the internalized homophobia he says was instilled by his grandmother, who attacked him even as a small boy for anything he did that she deemed effeminate.
“We went to the Human Rights Campaign ball that night and you know, that day was rush, rush, rush. I walk in and five minutes later they’re introducing me and that huge crowd [of mostly gay people] went nuts. And then I realized just how important the moment really was, to be able to stand at that inauguration as an out gay man. And again I felt, ‘Wow. I’m home. This is another home.’ Maybe it was a home I took for granted, or maybe because I had struggled with my sexuality it was a door that I was afraid to go through. But here was another grand acceptance.”
On March 17, he’ll feel that embrace again when he is honored at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach by Equality Florida, a statewide gay rights organization.
Blanco, who has been working on a memoir about growing up in Miami, says he doesn’t exactly know how he came to be selected by Obama’s inaugural committee. He was in his car when his agent called to tell him the news.
His initial reaction?
“I thought it was one of my friends pulling a prank. To this day, I still don’t know exactly how it happened. I have this fantasy in my head that Michelle and President Obama were snuggled in bed reading my poetry and one of them says, ‘Honey, maybe we should bring him over.’ I’d rather think that than know what is likely some drier, more boring story.”
And did he get to hang with the first couple?
“I thought I would be playing with the kids and the dog at the White House. But it’s Washington. They were all busy,” Blanco jokes.
“But when I went to read, the president and the first lady both stood up and shook my hand and they whispered something into my ear. And God, I wish I knew what it was. I’m sure it was a thank you, something like that. But it gave me the boost I needed to get up there. I felt like they literally had my back.”