Inaugural poet Richard Blanco’s Cuban stories engage students

Richard Blanco, the poet from President Obama's second inauguration, talks to students at Miami Country Day School, near Miami Shores, Wednesday Sept. 16, 2015. He is talking about his grandmother's first visit to a Winn-Dixie supermarket.
Richard Blanco, the poet from President Obama's second inauguration, talks to students at Miami Country Day School, near Miami Shores, Wednesday Sept. 16, 2015. He is talking about his grandmother's first visit to a Winn-Dixie supermarket. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The very first assignment in Richard Blanco’s MFA creative writing class was to write a poem about America.

Twenty years later, he received the same assignment from President Barack Obama, to be read at his second inauguration on Jan. 21, 2013.

“Don’t worry, Obama,” he said he remembered thinking, “I’ve got this.”

On Wednesday, Blanco spoke to high school students at Miami Country Day School, just outside of Miami Shores. The private school paid him a fee for his day-long session with the students.

He discussed his 2014 memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: a Miami childhood.” The book details his Cuban roots — he was born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents — and his Miami upbringing. He moved to the United States when he was 45 days old and grew up in Westchester, graduating from Christopher Columbus High and Florida International University.

“My life is literally an open book that you’ve read,’’ he told the students.

Blanco is one of five inaugural poets in U.S. history. He was the first Latino, first gay and youngest inaugural poet (44 at the time). He read his poem, “One Today,’’ an homage to immigrants, at the inauguration.

Blanco, who jokes that he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Madrid and imported to the U.S.,” said every author has a central obsession around which his or her body of work revolves. For Blanco, that’s the idea of home.

His work explores what he calls his navigation between two imaginary worlds: the old world of Cuba and the Brady Bunch-esque view Blanco held of Anglo America.

This dichotomy is starkest in Blanco’s vivid description in his memoir of grocery shopping at Winn-Dixie — “the most Anglo place out there” — and local bodegas.

“I was finally in Winn-Dixie. The air conditioning there smelled as crisp and clean as Lysol, each of the 10 checkout lines was numbered with an illuminated sign, and the cashiers all wore pressed polyester uniforms. Instead of worn squares of dingy linoleum, the polished terrazzo floors gleamed and soft violin music rained from the speakers in the ceiling. I was finally in America,” he read to the students.

Within Winn Dixie’s hallowed walls were the stereotypically American junk foods he said he craved: Oreos, Crunchberry cereal and best of all, Easy Cheese.

“My favorite thing about speaking to a Miami audience is I don’t have to explain Winn-Dixie,” he told the crowd.

The descriptions of Cuban culture resonated with the students. Chiara Settineri, a 16-year-old junior whose mother’s side of the family is Cuban, said Blanco’s description of his grandmother rang true with her.

“The way she spoke and the Cuban ideals remind me of my family,” she said.

Blanco, 47, showed students photos of key locations in his book, including Lincoln Road, the old department store, Burdines, and the now-defunct Jewish Miami Beach deli, Wolfie’s.

Students asked Blanco about his relationship with Cuba —Blanco read his poem, Matters of the Sea, at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in August. He said he felt a “cautious optimism’’ among the Cuban people.

He also discussed his coming to terms with his sexuality, or, as the question was phrased in Spanish, “Coming out of the armoire.” He came out when he was 24, the same year he began writing.

“There’s a period where you’re out to yourself, but not the world,” Blanco told the students. “It was like the pink elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about.”

Joshua Hug, a 16-year-old senior at the school, said the passages about Blanco’s sexuality were important to the narrative of the memoir.

“It drove some of his decisions,” Hug said. “He wasn’t able to fully be himself until the truth was out.”

Miami represents the perfect blend of two integral aspects to his personality, Blanco said: the Latino and gay side. He sees his identity as a mirage that’s constantly shifting on the horizon, something that he had always considered out of the American norm.

At the inauguration, he realized that his story isn’t the outlier of American stories, but it’s essence.

“I felt finally that I belonged in America in a way I never thought I could,” he said.

Follow me on Twitter @harrisalexc

Fast facts on Richard Blanco:

  • He has a degree in civil engineering (1991) and a creative writing master’s degree in fine arts (1997) from Florida International University
  • He and his partner of 17 years, Mark, split their time between Bethel, Maine, a town of 1,500, and Boston.
  • His mother was seven months pregnant when she left Cuba for Spain. Blanco was born in Madrid in 1968, and immigrated to the U.S. when he was only 45 days old.