Richard Blanco met the moment on that chilly January day in the nation's capital.

Delivering former President Barack Obama’s second inaugural poem, “One Today,” Blanco spoke of hope being “the new constellation.”

“Waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it, together,” he said in closing that day from the podium with Obama on his right side and former Vice President Joe Biden seated to his left. 

“It’s an amazing, once and a lifetime experience,” Blanco said of that fateful day seven years ago. “The biggest feeling was to feel like I was part of the United States, like, finally as a gay man as an exile as a child of exiles. That sense of belonging was very overpowering. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be because of that, there’s a sense of something sacred in an inauguration, something that is bigger than any one person, it’s about our country and that sort of puts your nerves at rest. And also it’s too big to fail, you just can’t mess this one up. In some ironic way the pressure is off because failure is not an option.”

Blanco said he was surprised to be asked to participate in the ceremony.

“It was a complete surprise,” he said. “It’s not anything you apply for or anything like that, there’s no shortlisting or anything like that, you just get a call from the White House one afternoon. In conversations with the president, my sense is that there’s kind of an interesting connection in the sense that we both grew up in very untraditional sort of environments and households and cities. Always around a question of cultural identity and belonging — what does it mean to be an American and all the rest. I think that was the connection in some ways.”

Blanco came to the United States from Cuba via Spain. His family escaped the authoritarian rise of the late President Fidel Castro. 

“They left in 1967, part of the second wave, not the ones that left-right at the revolution, they tried to see what the revolution and what changes were all about,” Blanco said.

Blanco said his parents arrived in the U.S. with modest means.

“They weren’t the rich Cubans, they were the working class, the agricultural class,” he said. “They were not liking where everything was headed and so they applied to exit the country. My mother left seven months pregnant with me. There were no diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba so we had to go to Madrid and apply for immigration into the United States from Madrid.”

Blanco said he has no problem with labels, freely admitting he is gay.

“The conversation about labels is a little misconstrued,” he said. “I am a gay Cuban American writer. I am not a Lebanese Japanese writer and I’m not straight. That’s what I write about, I don’t care. If labels lead to stereotypes that’s problematic and so I cherish my labels, I gave them to myself. It’s really interesting that today’s cultural climate of fear of appropriation or whatnot in some ways is an owning of labels. It’s part of my work, it’s who I am and it’s part of my journey.”

Blanco’s journey from a Miami Catholic prep school to the White House can provide inspiration to new generations of queer Latinx people. He has published multiple books of poetry and has maintained a two-decades-long same-sex relationship.

“As you get older you lose touch,” said Blanco, 52. “We need to be there as examples as elders as people they know that they can look towards to lean on for advice just to have some kind of role model in their life. Not that I’m the perfect role model or anything like that, I know I grew up without many gay role models so I’m always cognizant of what I can offer the younger generation.”

In a recent poem for The Atlantic, Blanco offers a glimpse at the joys of marriage.

say my husband and I will keep on honing

our home cooking together, find new recipes

for love in the kitchen: our kisses and tears

while dicing onions, eggs cracking in tune

to Aretha’s croon, dancing as we heat up

the oven. Say we’ll never stop feasting on

the taste of our stories, sweet or sour, but

say our table will never be set for just one,

say neither of us dies, many more Cheers!

to our good health. Say we will never end … 

Blanco called the writing, Say This Isn’t the End, his “pandemic poem.”

“Most of my work is characterized more about hope and connection and I really don’t do tragic poems very well,” he said. “So I was trying to find something positive to say and that’s where the idea of looking beyond the pandemic and sort of casting one’s mind at the other end of this hopefully we come out of it much wiser and stronger and much more compassion and emphatic.”

The novel coronavirus pandemic, while a giant in its own right, is just one issue that Americans are wrestling with as the presidential election is underway. 

“I’m an eternal optimist, I don’t see any hope per-say in this situation but I think in longer arches — longer historical arches — I’m seeing everything that this country is going through right now as a necessary kind of reckoning that has to happen,” Blanco said. “That at the other end of this we’re going to be a much better country and all these social-political issues we’re dealing with now have always been there. They’re really never gone away. They’ve gotten better but they’ve not really gone away. In that sense, that gives me some hope that maybe in my lifetime we’ll see a much fairer, equitable, compassionate and empathetic country that gets along much better than what we’re doing right now. It’s a necessary reckoning.” 

Next week, Blanco joins jazz singer/songwriter Von Henry, authors Benjamin Garcia and Jesus Chairez and performance artist Miles Ocampo for ORGULLO’s spoken word night. The annual event is a celebration of Hispanic and Indigenous communities.  

What: Spoken Word, Jazz & Eats

When: Oct. 8, 8 p.m.

Where: Online, Facebook, YouTube

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