The sea has always figured heavily in the psyche of poet Richard Blanco and it inspired the poem he read just before the Stars and Stripes flew over the American Embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century.
Blanco, who in 2013 became the first Hispanic and the first openly gay man chosen to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration, wrote himself into the history books again Friday when he read his new work, Matters of the Sea (Cosas del Mar), at the ceremony marking the formal reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.
“I took as my inspiration something that has been floating around in my head since I was a kid: Cuba and the United States are only 90 miles apart, so near, yet so far,” he told the Miami Herald.
Dressed in a white guayabera, Blanco advocated unity: “No one is the other to the other to the sea whether on hemmed island or vast continent.”
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It was fitting that the poem was delivered in view of the seaside Malecon, the esplanade that stretches along Havana’s coast.
Blanco, 47, said he intended the poem for those on both sides of the Florida Straits. As he recited the poem in English on a blisteringly hot Cuban day, a translation by Cuban-born University of Michigan professor Ruth Behar was read on Cuban television.
“I insisted it had to be in both languages,” he said.
The sea, Blanco said, serves as “the invisible Berlin Wall” between the two countries, yet it is also a powerful connection between people.
“We’ve all played in the sand by the sea; we’ve all strolled along the sea shore” — the experience is the same whether in Cuba or the United States, he said.
Matters of the Sea, he said, is about “getting back to our own humanity, the shared humanity beyond the politics. In the end, it’s about coming to a place of healing, getting to that place where we can see each other as human beings.”
Indeed, Blanco closes the poem with these stirring words: “Yet, yet we all hold seashells up to our ears. Listen again to the anthem. Today the sea is still telling us that the end to our doubts and fears is to gaze into the lucid blue of our shared horizon to breathe together, to heal together.”
He compares the years of isolation between Cuba and the United States to an old married couple living in the same house who haven’t talked for 60 years. “How is that going to change anything?” he asked.
Blanco, a Florida International University engineering and Master of Fine Arts grad, said the resumption of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States is the “end of an era of silence and stalemate.
“Through communication things can happen. It’s up to my generation and future generations to keep the conversation going,” he said in an interview. “As a poet and as a Cuban-American, I am proud and grateful for the opportunity to be part of this historic moment” of improving U.S.-Cuba relations.
Blanco’s other history-making poem was One Today, which he wrote for President Barack Obama’s second inaugural. He said at the time he was writing a poem about America, but now he sees it more as a poem about himself and how he views America.
The sea has always played a powerful role in Blanco’s own life. Before he was born, his parents left Cuba and fled across the vast Atlantic to Madrid. “I missed being born in Cuba by two months,” he said. Then Blanco said he was almost immediately “imported” into the United States as an infant. His parents still live in Westchester.
Both Cuba and Miami, where he spent his childhood, have always had a magnetic draw on him. His latest book, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, is a memoir of his childhood in Miami.
Though he had always known of Cuba — or thought he did — from the stories, letters and telegrams of relatives, “Cuba was the real imagined place.”
Cuba, Blanco said, was “where the sugar was sweeter, the salt was saltier, the place that was mine but I’d never been there. It was like a movie that someone told me about.”
In 1994, he made his first trip to Cuba. He said he needed to make sure it was real and “claim it emotionally.” He has been back several times since. His short two-day trip to give his reading at the embassy was his seventh visit to Cuba.
Now, Blanco is trying to bridge the two realities of exile and island. He and Behar have created a blog called Bridge to/from Cuba that seeks to encourage dialogue between the Cuban diaspora and those on the island.
When he visited Cuba in June, he said, it seemed different.
“There was a cautious optimism, or maybe a pessimistic optimism,” Blanco said.
Despite lots of complaints from the Cuban people, he said, “There’s something in the air that change is on the horizon.”
He was most struck by the “prevalence of entrepreneurship bubbling to the surface.”
About 500,000 Cubans in a population of 11 million are self-employed and the government wants many more to take the plunge because it can no longer afford costly state payrolls.
Vintage cars are no longer just curiosities in Cuba, he said.
They’ve been refurbished and put to work by their owners ferrying passengers up and down La Linea.
“There was also a food and arts scene that I had never seen before,” Blanco said. “A lot of the private restaurants were art-themed, funky, avant garde places that you might find in Miami — and they were full of Cubans”
At casas particulares that rent out rooms to visitors, Blanco was impressed by the owners’ “pride in being hosts. They were putting out bowls of fruit for the guests and they had their business cards.”
Still, he said, such activity is only occurring in pockets of the economy, not across the board.
Nevertheless, Blanco said he was encouraged. “It made me feel very hopeful,” he said.
If Obama’s opening toward Cuba leads to more prosperity, his hope is that it “will be owned by the Cuban people.”