Richard Blanco in “How to Love a Country,” a book of his poems that he published in 2019, recalls a comment he made to his mother shortly before he read a poem at President Obama’s second inauguration six years earlier.
“I remember turning to my mother and whispering, ‘Mamá, I think we’re finally americanos,'” he wrote. “That indelible moment and my experiences as the first Latinx, immigrant and gay man to serve as Presidential Inaugural Poet set a newfound place for me at the proverbial American table, one that I had not expected.”
“Indeed, I came to definitely understand and believe that my story — alongside the stories of millions like me from marginalized walks of life — is, and always been, a grand part of our country’s cultural and historical narrative,” added Blanco. “Granted, it’s a part that has witnessed outright discrimination and oppression, and has been scarcely acknowledged and barely honored. But it’s also one that has been, and continues to steadily be, written into the work-in progress that is our nation.”
Blanco, 52, was born in Madrid less than two months after his mother and family fled Cuba. They emigrated to the U.S. 45 days after Blanco was born.
“Richard Blanco was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States — meaning his mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of the family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid where he was born,” reads his bio. “Only 45 days later, the family emigrated once more and settled in New York City, then eventually in Miami where he was raised and educated.”
Blanco grew up in the Miami suburb of Westchester in which many Cuban exiles live. He graduated from Florida International University with a degree in civil engineering in 1991. Blanco in 1997 received an MFA in creative writing from FIU.
Blanco in 2015 read a poem at the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana after the Obama administration moved to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“How to Love a Country” contains poems that, among other things, address the Pulse nightclub massacre and Blanco’s ability to marry his partner of more than 20 years, Mark Neveu, after same-sex couples received marriage equality in the U.S. in 2015.
Blanco and Neveu are now engaged and plan to get married once the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Blanco on Monday told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from his home in Bethel, Maine, that “How to Love a Country” also details his struggle to reconcile his identity as a gay Cuban American man within American society that he said President Trump and his administration made even more difficult.
“I finally felt accepted in this place, and suddenly it has turned its back on me, sort of speak, and suddenly all those ugly narratives started coming back up and there’s only a certain America that’s right and having to reexamine all of that and my relationship with that country was a kind of divorce and I really thought about it,” he said. “I thought, how much can I stick it out? What do I do as a poet? What do I do as a human being?”
Amanda Gorman ‘perfect choice’ for Biden inaugural poet
Blanco spoke with the Blade two days before the inauguration of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris.
The inauguration will take place at the Capitol, even though Trump supporters on Jan. 6 stormed the building.
Upwards of 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to the nation’s capital, and authorities have cordoned off large swaths of downtown D.C. because of security concerns in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. The Presidential Inaugural Committee had already limited the number of inauguration attendees and in-person events because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Blanco described the inauguration to the Blade as a “moment that’s supposed to be about this wonderful tradition and celebration.” He also said he has spoken with former Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, 22, who is this year’s inaugural poet, after she reached out to him on Instagram.
“She’s just an amazing human being, inside and out,” said Blanco. “Her poetry is amazing, a real presence and so humble. And I think just a perfect choice for this time right now.”
Blanco said he told Gorman “what a beautiful experience it’s going to be, regardless of these weird circumstances for this inauguration.”
“I wish that’s what somebody would have told me because you’re going to write a poem and you’re living in all this apprehension and rush here and do that,” he told the Blade, recalling his own experience at Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. “In my case I had to read a poem in front of a million people. I just told her trust it’s going to be one of the most beautiful experiences of your life, just center yourself, it’s going to be gorgeous.”
“It was truly a wonderful, amazing experience and I just wanted to make sure she knew that,” added Blanco.
Blanco said he plans to watch the inauguration — and Gorman’s reading — from his home.
“I live in a small town here in Maine, so I will just be watching, watching Amanda of course,” said Blanco.
Blanco told the Blade he is “of course relieved” Biden will become president and the country will be “moving in a different direction.”
“It’s not over just because someone else won an election,” said Blanco. “A lot of things have come up, a lot of issues that we’ve been sweeping under the rug, a lot of issues that we haven’t had our moment of reckoning with and I just hope that the presidency can take that on. We really need another conversation in this country.”
Blanco also said the humanities can play an important role in healing the country after Trump leaves office.
“One of the things that the humanities does best is that it humanizes abstract issues that we can continue talking about in political terms,” he told the Blade.
“The humanities, not just poetry, teaches us to have empathies for ourselves, to get in touch with ourselves, first and foremost, and understand our own strengths, our own biases, our own assumptions and also then empathy for others,” added Blanco. “And by empathy I don’t mean sympathy and I don’t mean getting a pass either. I mean the idea that there’s something underneath the conversation that we’re having … there’s something else, there’s a deeper place to get to.”
Blanco, paradoxically, also said he is unsure whether the country is “ready to heal” after Trump.
“We don’t even know what we’re suffering,” said Blanco. “I mean we sort of do, but we haven’t really gotten down to the nit grit and we can’t heal until you really, really have a good diagnosis. And I think the humanities help us get to that diagnosis.”