Visiting Cuba is always an emotional journey for poet Richard Blanco.
“There are all these layers of complications,” says President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Poet, who grew up in Miami as the son of immigrant Cuban parents and still feels the lingering pressures of his upbringing. “Every time I go to Cuba, I feel like I’m doing something bad, even though I’m just going to stay with family. I’m not staying in fancy hotels. But there’s just an almost taboo feeling. There’s always this ghost of you in Cuba. You always wonder who that Richard would have been. Would he be a poet? Would he still be an engineer? It’s an odd and unique experience.”
This week, Blanco — the first Hispanic Inaugural Poet and author of a poem he read at the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2015 — gets to have another unique experience: He’s traveling to Havana with the CubaOne Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that sponsors free trips to Cuba for young Cuban Americans.
Blanco will escort 10 young writers from different disciplines for five days of artistic and cultural immersion. He’ll be joined by anthropologist and fellow writer Ruth Behar, who was born in Havana and grew up in New York and created the Bridges to Cuba blog, which collects and shares stories of the country.
Author of the memoir “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood” and “For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey,” Blanco — who is on CubaOne’s advisory board — believes the trip is invaluable.
“I wish there had been CubaOne when I was their age,” says Blanco, 49. “It’s not just about seeing Cuba. ... When you hit twentysomething, you ask those big questions: ‘Who am I? Where am I from? Where do I belong?’ I know those questions were critical for me. They started me writing poetry. I feel this is a critical time in their lives.
“The idea is that this generation will come back with more authentic stories about Cuba and use their talents — as writers or journalists or graphic novelists — to tell stories.”
The trip, which will include writing workshops with Blanco and Behar, will introduce the young travelers to a variety of artists: painters, hip-hop artists, a street opera company. They’ll visit Hemingway’s house, which Blanco has never done.
Behar, who planned the five-day agenda and has visited the country regularly, says understanding their heritage is vital to young writers — and young people in general.
“You’ve heard about Cuba all your life. You have pictures of Cuba in your house. You hear the stories. To be able to actually go and ground yourself in what life there is like is a good thing for young people,” says Behar, 60, who visited Cuba for the first time in 1978 against her family’s wishes.
“It lets them witness Cuba themselves and have their own memories rather than inherit them from their parents.”
The situation is different for this next generation, says Lili Ashman, Advancement Partnership Director for CubaOne.
“It’s really important for our generation to step forward and lead and do that in a respectful way,” she says. “The only way to move forward and continue bettering U.S./Cuba relations is by going to the island and engaging with the Cuban people.”
Talk of restrictions on travel to Cuba hasn’t affected CubaOne. But Behar and Blanco, who wrote a poem in response to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, hope that Trump’s policies won’t cause stagnation in cultural exchanges.
“I always say writers tell the emotional history of the people,” Blanco says. “I think when things get tightened back up, and everyone has to be on a tour group and it’s very monitored, it’s going to limit authentic experience.”
“Americans in general could lose exposure to a vibrant culture,” Behar says. “We lose the goodwill that has been established, that idea of ‘Let’s talk to each other rather than being antagonistic.’
“And of course, other countries will still be investing in Cuba. Americans might lose the chance to be part of this change.”
So for now, Behar treasures the ability to reconnect with the city in which she was born and hopes the travel group experiences similar epiphanies.
“I go back to the building I lived in as a little child,” she says. “I’ve gone many times to see it. ... A lot has changed, but so much has stayed the same. The urban landscape, the rural landscape — it’s so similar. And the friendliness, the laughter, the joking, the spirit — all of that is still there. This younger generation can see that a culture can be carried from place to place. That’s what Cubans did when they came to the United States. They brought it here in their imaginations and their suitcases. We see these connections. We have to thank the exile generation for that.”