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Poet, priest give Obama’s inauguration a Cuban touch

Both men shared a stage Monday with President Barack Obama for his second inauguration. Both spoke before hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall and millions more online and on television. And both have proud ties to Miami’s Cuban community.

A child of Cuban exiles who was raised in Miami, Richard Blanco recited his poem, One Today, before a frigid but festive inauguration crowd.

“One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies,” Blanco began.

Joining Blanco: Cuban-born Luis Leon, an Operation Pedro Pan veteran, who delivered the final benediction.

“Gracious and eternal God, as we conclude the second inauguration of President Obama, we ask for your blessings as we seek to become, in the words of Martin Luther King, citizens of a beloved community, loving you and loving our neighbors as ourselves,” said Leon, who spoke briefly in Spanish toward the end of his remarks.

Blanco is the youngest inaugural poet at 44, the first Hispanic (he was born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami) and the first gay person to be chosen (he lives with his partner of 12 years in rural Maine). Other inaugural poets include Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.

In his 583-word poem, one of three poems he offered for the ceremony, Blanco weaved in thoughts about his mother, his immigrant experience and the beauty of America.

“Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días in the language my mother taught me — in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips,” Blanco said.

In a telephone interview with The Miami Herald after the ceremony, Blanco said the central message of unity came from growing up in Miami in the 1970s, which he described as “an urban village.”

“There was a feeling that everybody is essential, and that’s how we get things done,” Blanco said. “There is a sense of comunidad, and that’s what I wanted to communicate in the poem but on a larger scale for the whole country.”

Many people watching from South Florida were moved by Blanco’s eloquent words.

“I thought it was very unifying, but still personal,” said Liz Buzone, who was in Blanco’s elementary and middle school class at St. Brendan in Miami. “It was so beautiful the way he described day-to-day simple things.”

Readers told The Miami Herald the most striking images were Blanco’s description of his father working in sugarcane fields and his mother ringing up groceries to provide for him and his brother.

Bill DelGrosso, a credit manager who grew up in Miami and now lives in New York City, said he was impressed with Blanco’s ability to use rich imagery of scenes that were both common and unique to Miami.

“There were so many tones that were remarkable,” DelGrosso said. “It’s odd that a poet can write something that’s so reflective and at the same time so universal.”

Blanco made what appeared to be a Miami reference when he spoke about the “Freedom Tower,” but he told the Herald in an interview Monday night that the reference was a nod to the new building rising from the site of the World Trade Center.

He decided to use “Freedom Tower” instead of the official One World Trade Center because he was thinking about “our Freedom Tower in Miami, which is its own symbol.”

He reached for the plurality of American experiences: painting scenes both urban and rural — mentioning “one sun,” at the beginning, and later describing “one ground.”

Blanco concluded the poem with the image of “home/always under one sky, our sky,” and the task of naming new constellations “together.”

Just after Blanco finished his poem, the Rev. Leon gave a final benediction.

Leon, born in Guantánamo, replaced Atlanta-based preacher Louie Giglio who backed out over controversy surrounding anti-gay comments he made in a sermon 15 years ago.

Leon is a priest at St. John’s Church, an Episcopal church near the White House that is known for accepting gay members and priests.

Nury Perez, 37, a medical assistant clerical coordinator who was born and raised in Miami by Cuban parents, said the “multicultural” showing at the inauguration was inspiring, and an indication of how the country has changed.

“What I was looking at the most was the diversity of all types of people,” Perez said. “It was very moving.”

Blanco said the whole inaugural experience was “more intimate than you would imagine,” because for two hours all the leaders of the United States shared the same stage.

“It felt like the fundamental idea of the American sense of democracy,” Blanco said. “There was a sense of camaraderie that was pretty amazing; it was truly a beautiful moment.”

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