Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco Talks Labels, Immigration And The First Time He Felt American

Inaugural Poet On Immigration: 'We Need To Start Telling The Story Differently'
BOSTON - MAY 30: Poet Richard Blanco at the Boston Strong pre-show press conference at the TD Garden. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - MAY 30: Poet Richard Blanco at the Boston Strong pre-show press conference at the TD Garden. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

When poet Richard Blanco took to the podium to read his poem "One Today" at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, he became the first immigrant, first Latino and first openly gay poet to hold the honor.

But perhaps more importantly to 46-year-old Blanco, who was born to his Cuban parents in Spain but moved to the United States when he was just 45 days old, that historic day marked the first time he felt genuinely American.

"The whole process of writing that poem and getting up to the podium was transformational to me," Blanco, who lives in Bethel, Maine, with his partner, Mark, recently told The Huffington Post. "I still felt not quite American, that being American was some other story and that I wasn't part of that narrative. So this was all a revelation to me."

The powerful moment catapulted the poet, who is also a certified civil engineer, into the national spotlight and led him to new opportunities, including the release this fall of Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, a memoir about his experience growing up and coming to terms with his multi-hyphenated identity.

It is a work that is incredibly poignant at one moment, yet hysterically funny with the turn of the page. In one chapter, Blanco writes of how his grandmother, abuela, was hesitant to embrace "Anglo" supermarkets and their products. Having tempted her with news of how much cheaper the chickens were at the neighborhood Winn-Dixie than at the Cuban store they typically frequent, a young Blanco is allowed to shop at the "Anglo" store. In addition to the chickens, he brings home a can of Easy Cheese, a treat he had desperately wanted to try after seeing it in television commercials between the re-runs of "The Brady Bunch" he loved as a child.

His grandma loves it -- "¡Que rico!" she exclaims. More "Anglo" foods soon follow and "Cómo inventan los Americanos" becomes a common refrain in Blanco's household.

It is a heartwarming story that has resonated with Blanco's fans in a big way. At a recent reading, a fan approached the author afterward and offered him a gift.

"I held it in my hands and I immediately knew what it was. A can of Easy Cheese," he laughed. "The magic of writing is that sometimes you feel like you're shooting darts in the dark, when what seems less important to me is something almost universal."

Sometimes the "less important" things are, indeed, most universal -- and that's something that also comes across in "Until We Could," a poem Blanco was commissioned by marriage equality group Freedom to Marry to write as the basis for a remarkable video poem celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Rather than offering a stock-image caricature of marriage equality -- elaborate wedding receptions and groom-and-groom or bride-and-bride cake toppers -- the short film focuses on the quieter, more intimate moments of a relationship and centers on a simple message: "Love is love."

"The power of the moving image adds 10 times to the poetry," Blanco told HuffPost. "I hope it really lives on."

The author notes new framing might also be in order for the issue of immigration reform.

"It's such a complex issue, and I don't think we may have hit the tipping point yet," he said of the status of immigration legislation in Washington, D.C. "Maybe we need to ask different questions or frame the issue in a new way to get to the heart of it. Maybe we need to start telling the story differently. But I think it's slowly changing. Our president is the perfect example of how it's changing."

Immigration, he says, has always been the American story, and it will always be an important part of his personal story as well.

On the heels of one celebrity recently bemoaning "labels," Blanco said he can relate to the frustration some have in being constantly identified and defined by racial, ethnic or sexual terms. But he also sees it as a chance to deepen his readers' understanding of the world around them. For that, he says, he is grateful "for the richness of all the dimensions of my life."

"I don't want anyone to take those [labels] away from me. I think it's my job as a writer to take the label and expand on it, to explore what it means," Blanco said. "I like taking the opportunity to teach people through my writing and work about our common humanity. What else am I going to write about if it's not about being a gay, Cuban engineer and poet? What else am I made of? I'm not sure."

Richard Blanco speaks Sunday at Northwestern University School of Law's Thorne Auditorium, 373 E. Chicago Ave., in Chicago as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.


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