Two years ago this month, Richard Blanco — conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, raised in Miami — made history as the first immigrant, first South Floridian, first Hispanic and first openly gay inaugural poet when tapped by President Barack Obama to write and read to the nation a poem that would capsulize his second term.
Blanco’s powerful, heartfelt One Today epitomized the universal theme in his work — our struggle to find a sense of place, self and identity. The poem catapulted the Florida International University engineering school graduate from the quiet world of poetry and turned him into a cause celeb.
Now 46, Blanco is tackling the same theme in a longer form in his recently published memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (Ecco, $25.95).
He was recently interviewed by Cuban-born Miami Herald Editorial Page writer, Luisa Yanez, who has led several projects for the newspaper aimed at preserving the history of Miami’s Cuban exiles:
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In recent weeks, we’ve experienced two big events that’ll bring seismic changes to those who call Miami home: One is the normalizing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. We both grew up in Miami homes traumatized by what happened to our parents in Cuba. Your parents fled for Spain in 1968 while your mother was pregnant with you. My parents arrived in Miami on a Freedom Flight a year later. How do you feel about this historic change?
It’s like there are several layers to digesting this news. You have to let it sink in. I’ve been asking my relatives in Miami how they feel and they’re strangely quiet. They keep saying: ‘We’ll see what happens.’ I’ve always said let’s get rid of what I call the ‘emotional embargo,’ but now that it may happen it’s weird. It’s like mourning the death of a friend who’s always been there. Exiles have to rewire their brain to a life without the embargo. I just hope this normalizing benefits the Cuban people and comes with financial gain and freedom for them.
At the Miami Herald Editorial Board, we’ve received many letters from non-Hispanics, saying Cuban exiles should just get over their fight with the Castro brothers. Do you think they get the nuances of what the embargo means to them?
No. They don’t get the primary reason the embargo exists. This happened during the real “red scare.” They say it didn’t work; it didn’t’ bring regime change, but the embargo is a glue to the exile community. It does serve a purpose. Many exiles know the embargo is not working, but is lifting it going to work? Once the embargo ends, there will be reconciliation, but we’ll have two sets of Cubans with totally separate life experiences. I’m currently trying to write an essay on this topic.
Gay marriage becomes a reality in Florida on Tuesday. You were commissioned by the Massachusetts group Freedom To Marry to write a poem to celebrate the state’s 10-year anniversary of marrying same-sex-couples. You came up with Until We Could. You’ve been in a relationship with your partner for 15 years. Are you planning to get married?
We can marry in Maine but we haven’t had the time. I haven’t stopped working or traveling since the inauguration. After 15 years, we’re not all goo goo eyes. We have a mature love. We’ll probably go to city hall in Miami-Dade and Maine and then have a barbecue in the backyard. But it’s nice to have a choice. I’m glad there will be marriage equality in Florida. But there’s still work to be done. We have to spread the word that bullying of gay teens is not OK.
That’s a very personal topic for you. You painfully write in your memoir how your grandmother, Otmara, who lived with your family, tried to shame you out of being gay and chastised you for being too effeminate. Have you forgiven her?
You know, I thought my grandmother was just a typical Cuban abuelita until I stepped into my therapist’s office. He hated her. But she was a real character. She was funny and she ran a bookie business out of our house; she was always wheeling and dealing. She was a great contradiction. Sometimes in life our greatest teachers are our greatest torturers. She was homophobic. She called me a mariquita and a pato, but there was a silver lining. She was also my biggest cheerleader. She turned me into a writer and a poet. She made me shy and introverted because I didn’t want people to know I was different. I was not a participant but an observer, so I learned to read people quickly emotionally. Writing the book and going through that process made me hate her, understand her, forgive her and, yes, love her.
Your most famous work remains One Today, the poem for President Obama’s second inauguration. Today, when you read the poem, do you wish you could make changes or have written it differently?
No. It’s the opposite. I thought I had written a poem about America, but now I see I actually wrote a poem about myself and how I think of America. Everytime I read it, I discover something new.
For those of us who grew up in a home where America was the greatest country in the world for taking us in, but Cuba was not to be forgotten, your memoir is a mirror. It’s grounded on the Cuban-American experience for the children of exiles in Miami.
For me, growing up in Miami was like living between two imaginary worlds. One was the Cuba of your parents’ and grandparents’ memory — the place they came from, this place where I too was from, but had never visited. (Blanco has since traveled to Cuba four times.) And the other sort of mythic place was America, because growing up in a very monolithic Cuban community, it really did feel like America was certainly, not in Miami. I truly believed that there was a Brady Bunch house to be had even though Que Pasa, USA was closer to the truth. To this day, I'm still addicted to reruns of The Brady Bunch. My favorite Brady kid was Peter… but my gay side was always attracted to Marcia.
Do you make New Year’s resolutions?
No, but I have two projects I’m dedicating myself to this year. One is to come up with a sort of dramatic one-man show; the other is a dream of mine, which is to write an updated version of the first bilingual Cuban exile sitcom, Que Pasa, USA, which was based in Miami.
Many children of Cuba exiles leave Miami, but eventually return home to this mixture of cultures that you can’t find anywhere else. How much does Miami still tug at you?
You know I’m the first in my family to leave Miami. My parents still live in the same Westchester home I grew up in. Nowadays, I never say no to an offer to speak in Miami and when I’m there all I do is eat pastelitos and croquetas.
But, physically, Miami is no longer the place I grew up in. That Miami doesn’t exist anymore. From that realization, I’ve come to understand how my parents felt about the Cuba they left. Miami is not the same place. It’s not for good or bad, it’s just different. The schools I attended, St. Brendan, Columbus High, FIU, they’re not the same. Now, I rely on the human connections I have in Miami.
The Works of Richard Blanco
▪ ‘The Prince of los Cocuyos,’ memoir
▪ ‘One Today’
▪ ‘For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey’
▪ ‘Looking for the Gulf Motel’
▪ ‘Directions to the Beach of the Dead’
▪ ‘City of a Hundred Fires’
▪ ‘Boston Strong: The Poem’