When Presidential Inaugural Poet, author and civil engineer Richard Blanco was growing up in Miami with his Cuban-exile family during the early 70’s, he longed to be a “true American” like one of the kids in “The Brady Bunch.”
He describes it as living between two imagined worlds:
One world was the 1950s and ’60s Cuba of my parents and grandparents — that paradise, that homeland so near and yet so foreign to where we might return any day, according to my parents. A homeland that I had never seen . . .
The other, less obvious world was America . . . Typical of a child, I contextualized America through food, commercials, G-rated versions of our history in textbooks and television shows, especially The Brady Bunch. More than a fiction or fantasy, I truly believed that, just north of the Miami-Dade County line, every house was like the Brady house, and every family was like them.
Much of Blanco’s poetry centers around his search for cultural identity. Over and over, he asks the questions, “Where is my home? Where am I from? Where do I belong?”
When he was a graduate student at Florida International University, he wrote the following poem, inspired by a childhood memory of wanting an “authentic” Thanksgiving meal.
by Richard Blanco
Although Tía Miriam boasted she discovered
at least half a dozen uses for peanut butter —
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer —
Mamá never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.
There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eve,
even on Thanksgiving day — pork,
fried, broiled, or crispy skin roasted —
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips, and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of Eighth Street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything — “Ese hijo de puta!”
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
By seven I had grown suspicious — we were still here.
Overheard conversations about returning
had grown wistful and less frequent.
I spoke English; my parents didn’t.
We didn’t live in a two-story house
with a maid or a wood-paneled station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marcia;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on the Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either —
they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn’t have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.
A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s majesty,
“one if by land, two if by sea,”
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the “masses yearning to be free,”
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.
Abuelita prepared the poor fowl
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamá set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I translated from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolas,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworth’s.
Everyone sat in green velvet chairs
we had upholstered with clear vinyl,
except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated
in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.
I uttered a bilingual blessing
and the turkey was passed around
like a game of Russian Roulette.
“DRY,” Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly — “esa mierda roja,” he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie —
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then Abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family
began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,
sweating rum and coffee until they remembered —
it was 1970 and 46 degrees —
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.
The beauty of Thanksgiving is that there is no wrong way to celebrate it. Just like Blanco’s family, millions of others will proudly serve their own ethnic dishes along with or instead of the traditional turkey with all the fixins’.
When I was growing up in Hawai’i, we always had turkey and ham. Yes, mashed potatoes and gravy made an appearance, but so did sushi, Chinese noodles, sashimi, and kimchi. Each year, my extended family met for a big potluck lunch hosted by a different relative. The host always roasted the turkey, and later in the afternoon, my aunties made a big pot of turkey soup, which we enjoyed for dinner with lunch leftovers. Oh, and there was chicken too, because my maternal grandmother hated turkey. 🙂
Much has changed since Blanco’s early growing up days in Miami. After visiting Cuba several times, living abroad for over a decade, returning to Miami, and then finally settling in Bethel, Maine, he has a better understanding of who he is as an American. He had ‘almost’ resigned himself to forever being a “banished man without land,” until he was invited to write a poem for President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
He realized that “One Today” was infused with his longing for the idea of home:
While sitting on the platform next to my mother, waiting to be called up to the podium to read my poem to the entire nation, I turned to her and said: ‘Well, I guess we are finally americanos.’ She gave me a gentle smile as if saying, I know, I know. For the first time in my life I knew I had a place at the American table. I had found my place. The greatest gift of the whole experience was to realize that I was home all along — home was in my own backyard, so to speak.
An inspiring message from the youngest, first immigrant, Latinx, gay inaugural poet to every citizen of this country: we are all the richer, more colorful, more interesting, stronger, and more delicious, because of what each of us brings to the table. We are all home. We all belong.
Listen to Blanco reading “América”:
What are your favorite Thanksgiving dishes? Are there any special foods unique to your ethnicity included on the menu?
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🍆 KIMBERLY MAGGION!! 🥑
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Please send along your snail mail address so we can get the book out to you pronto — and do let us know if you ever make any of the recipes. 🙂
Rebecca Herzog is hosting the Roundup at Sloth Reads. Be sure to zip on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Have a nice weekend!
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