Yesterday was quite the day for little Winthrop. Our own Bailey Library hosted a poetry reading by Richard Blanco, who describes himself as “[m]ade in Cuba, assembled in Spain, imported to the U.S.A.” And now Blanco lives in Bethel, Maine, which is not that far from Winthrop. Lucky us!
Blanco, you will recall, read at President Obama’s second inauguration, and his poem “One Today” emphasizes the bonds that connect us, a message this divided country needs to hear over and over again: “One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,” (Donald Trump, are you listening?)
As Richard Blanco is only one of five poets to have read at a presidential inauguration, I think it’s fair to call him the Mick Jagger of the poetry world. Not surprising, then, that the auditorium at the high school was packed. The estimate was between three and four hundred people. I’d put it closer to four hundred. By the time Blanco started his presentation—part personal history, part slide show, part poetry reading—there were no good seats left.
Blanco’s theme—or obsession, as he calls it—is home. He maintains that his obsession began in the womb, when his family left Cuba, “that land that is near yet so foreign.” He was born in Spain, and while he was still a baby, his family came to Miami—so close to the United States, he joked—and as far as Blanco was concerned, everyone in Miami was Cuban. (He also joked that he and his partner moved to Maine for the diversity.)
Television brought the non-Cuban world to Blanco, and from an early age, he realized that he and his family were outside the cultural norm. Blanco yearned to be in America, and for him, the grocery store Winn-Dixie symbolized everything that America represented. And ate. All the food Blanco and his family ate came from small Cuban grocery stores. Nowadays, of course, we think it is cooler to go to small shops rather than chains, but in the 1970s, when Blanco was a child, that was not the case.
Blanco’s grandmother, who sounds like quite the force of nature, refused to shop at Winn-Dixie. It was too expensive, she said, and they didn’t belong there. But when she saw a flyer advertising chicken at a great price, she relented. Blanco went to Winn-Dixie with his grandmother, and “I was finally in America.” I suppose, in a way, he was. Or at least one version of it.
As Blanco grew older, he learned the value of his own culture, but like anyone who is born outside the cultural norm, it takes a while. Indeed, his experience sounds so much like the experience my generation of Franco-Americans had. Many of us, at some point, rejected our heritage, only to come back to it as adults, to realize that there was an incredible richness in being Franco-American.
But I understood the embarrassment he felt when going on vacation with his parents, who, lets face it, didn’t really fit in outside their small Miami circle. Their budget was tiny, their suitcases were battered, and they brought their own food, which definitely did not come from Winn-Dixie. My inner child cringed along with Blanco as he described the experience.
Blanco also had to come to terms with being gay and with a grandmother who was not exactly accepting, shall we say. This, combined with being Cuban American, is very rich material for a poet. As the writer Geoffrey Wolff has put it, a good story is a hell of a gift.
For over an hour, the audience sat in rapt, silent attention as he read poetry and charted his journey to find home. “America is still a work in progress. It is our duty to contribute to that narrative.” Then, “The question of home is a global one.” Also, ” Nature is the universal home.” (This is one of the reasons he was drawn to Maine. Along with the diversity.) And finally, “We are always home.”
When he finished, Blanco received a standing ovation, which he certainly deserved. As a poet, as a speaker, he is warm, funny, sad, and wise. His use of language is both beautiful and down-to-earth. Blanco is a true artist, and after listening to him, I felt enlarged.
I have only touched on the territory Blanco covered last night, and I highly recommend reading his books, both the poetry and the memoirs. Here is a link to his website, where his books can be ordered.
“What a story teller!” Clif said when we got home.