Richard Blanco on transnational identity and belonging

Poet Richard Blanco, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, reads a poem about his mother at the CMC Athenaeum Sept. 24. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Where do we belong? That is a question many of us may ask ourselves, especially as we move from one place in life to the next.

Students and professors listened to Richard Blanco Sept. 24 at the Athenaeum, the writer and engineer who became the first Latino and the youngest inaugural poet in 2008 after he presented his poem, “One Today” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Throughout his works, he said he draws inspiration from his personal experience as a gay Cuban American.

“I like to say I was made in Cuba, born in Spain, and assembled in America,” Blanco joked. He explained that this cross-national identity has been a driving force for his poetry and self-discovery.

Blanco said he believes most poets are always writing one poem their entire life; that is, there are certain themes and obsessions which drive writers to keep creating and exploring. His focus is on the idea of home. He talked about how this obsession started when he began to investigate his parents’ past.

As the child of immigrants, Blanco said he owes his success to his parents, specifically to his mother. When she left Cuba, she left behind all that she knew in hopes of creating a new life. For that act of faith, he said, “my mother is more of an American than I could ever be.”

Blanco introduces a poem about his father. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Home, to Blanco, represents belonging, acceptance, and an understanding of one’s self and identity. Speaking on his complicated relationship with his American identity with appreciation and criticism, he quoted José Martí: “Nuestro vino es amargo, pero es nuestro vino,” which translates to “Our wine is bitter, but it is our wine.”

When asked by a student if he still believes in the American Dream in the current political climate, Blanco responded: “What choice do we have?”

He then noted that the American Dream has always implied a certain consumerist and capitalist motivation, but he added that it is constantly evolving.

Blanco concluded by recounting his trip to Cuba for the reopening of the American embassy in 2015, an experience which reflected a combination of his many identities, reminding him of his family’s history while pushing him toward the future.

He said he hopes his work reaches and inspires LGBTQIA+ youth and encourages artists to keep asking questions. After all, Blanco said: “Good art answers questions. Great art asks them.”

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