a childhood thanksgiving memory: “américa” by richard blanco

“The Cup of Coffee” by Cuban artist Lorenzo Romero Arciaga (1940)

 

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.

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AMÉRICA
by Richard Blanco

I.
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.

 

II.

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.

 

III.

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.

 

IV.

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.

 

V.

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 —
in América.
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.

~ from City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998)

*

 

Gouache painting by Cuban artist Alicia Leal

 

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.

 

Richard with his mom Geysa

 

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.

 

Blanco (white t-shirt) with his family in Miami at around the time he wrote “América” (via Parade).

 

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”:

 

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What are your favorite Thanksgiving dishes? Are there any special foods unique to your ethnicity included on the menu?

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🍴 WHAT’S COOKING AT 10 GARDEN STREET GIVEAWAY WINNER 🥣

Thanks to all who entered the giveaway for Felicita Sala’s wonderful book last week. We are very pleased to announce that the lucky person who’s won a brand new copy is:

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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. 🙂

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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!

 


*Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

29 thoughts on “a childhood thanksgiving memory: “américa” by richard blanco

  1. Jama, I usually wait to read your posts after a day of work. I come home to the richness you provide. But, today I just couldn’t wait. The poetry….the blending of food, language, culture, inner selves. It’s so dear to me. My children would LOVE your Thanksgiving. I grew up on traditional WASP foods. And, they are comfort foods to me. But, I’ve befriended and adopted other ethnicities and cultures into my life so that now my favorite foods are truly what brings loved ones to the table. Thank you for this rich, rich post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post this morning, Linda! I agree that the best foods are simply the ones that bring loved ones together. I do miss my childhood Thanksgivings with the entire extended family.

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  2. I am blessed with a variety of people in my family, for whom we’ve tried to include from favorites from their homeland, too. Now all spread apart, my daughter and I have the usual turkey and all the rest, no new things except she has moved to a wonderful vegetable dish of brussels sprouts, yams, onions that are grilled with garlic. No marshmallows there! The thing I smile over is the memory of Thanksgiving at my mother-in-law’s, all the usual plus more than one “Jello” salad. I spoke with a deli person at my store & she said Jello was a staple at their home, a ‘whipped’ version at Thanksgiving! The poem is a lesson in coming home, isn’t it? I love “pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.” Thanks, Jama

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your daughter’s brussels sprouts dish sounds delicious! And thanks for sharing about the Jello salads. It was also a staple on our family table; I usually make a cranberry jello mold for Thanksgiving. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We do have turkey, but we also have ham, partly because my Korean American sister loves it. She gets up early and drenches the ham in a bottle of honey and I don’t know what. We make a carrot casserole recipe we got from my half Filipino American sister’s mother-in-law. My mom makes this amazing cranberry cake with hot butter sauce that’s kind of caramel-y. So our Thanksgiving meal is pretty traditional, but then, there is always kimchee and rice in our fridge!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My Thanksgiving memories include an aunt’s giant multi-layered, multi-colored jello… and chopped liver! My kids’ Thanksgivings always began with Quaker grace, a tradition inherited from my mother-in-law. No chopped liver on my table!

    Thanks for this beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I so loved this poem. I remember, when I first got married, that it took us a few years to figure out what exactly what we would cook for our family each Thanksgiving. Would it be my mom’s or his mom’s pumpkin pie recipe? Broccoli or green bean casserole? And we both came from families that cooked pretty traditional Thanksgiving meals. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to come to a new country and feel stuck between the two cultures as Blanco (and so many other immigrants) do. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess when it comes to holiday meals it’s all about compromise. Something from both sides of the family, or taking turns each year. In any case, we should be grateful that we do have so many choices. 🙂

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  6. What a delicious feast you serve up with today’s poetry! I love the idea of Thanksgiving being a potluck–everyone bring your favorite dishes. I do like turkey (the leftovers are my favorite part), but we also serve venison sausage and some years even just soups and chilies–and lots of desserts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A potluck makes a lot of sense when you have a big group — and it’s more enjoyable because usually it’s nice to eat a dish someone else made instead of you. Venison sausage? I’ve never tasted venison in any form, mostly because of our “pet” deer. 🙂 Let’s hear it for lots of desserts — and I agree that leftovers are the best part.

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  7. What a poignant and lovely poem, and you’re right about there being no wrong way to celebrate it. It’s the family/friends you’re gathered with that make that day special and make you grateful for all of the other days. My husband’s side of the family has a different meal every year. We never know what we’re going to get, but we know we’re going to enjoy being together.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you so much for this post. Here in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving in October. My father’s family were of German origin. All our celebratory dinners included German cuisine of some kind or another. Ham and cabbage rolls were a necessity, but cooked mashed turnips integral to those gatherings as well. (shudder) In spite of dealing with anti German sentiment during the war years, my white family ended up fitting in well. I can see that it would be much more challenging if your family is a visible minority.
    I agree that in the end it is all about being together in love.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for this flavor-filled Thanksgiving post Jama, what a treat. Richard Blanco draws you in and never lets you go. I like cranberries so I’ll be making a cranberry bread of sorts along with some pies, the pies were requested, and my daughter will help–fun to have the whole family together. Sending wishes for a lovely Thanksgiving for you and your family Jama!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jone! Thanks for the birthday wishes. I turned 39, you know. 😀 Love that you’ll be having some favorite family recipes on Thanksgiving. Bleu cheese casserole sounds interesting!

      Like

  10. This poem is such a wonderful reminder of what makes us “American” and all the varied blessings we as individuals bring to the table. I grew up with a very traditional Thanksgiving, but now, with a family of my own, we’ve traded turkey and stuffing for chicken schnitzel, and tend to decide on the sides together—they vary from year to year. This is the first year in ages that my parents will be joining us. I’m looking forward to it, but have also informed them that if they want tradition, they’ll have to bring it themselves. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I absolutely LOVE this poem. I love how he catalogues the differences between his life and what he saw on TV, and I love the food details, but what I love most is the older generation listening carefully to what he had to tell them and then changing how they did things to accommodate him. Of course they were not impressed by the turkey, but just the fact that they were willing to try it is so sweet to me. The paintings are wonderful, too. Just an extra-specially great post today, Jama! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree — it was good of his family to try to accommodate his wishes to be more “American.” Also good is the realization is that they were American all along. Love Blanco’s work!

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  12. We have always had the traditional turkey and a capon, because my dad did not like turkey! Along with all the traditional sweet potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce, we also had mushrooms with white wine sautéed in garlic and olive oil dressed with parsley. We also had oven potatoes in olive oil. And the antipasto before with prosciutto, dry sausage, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts and red pepper slices in vinegar. I also make marinated mozzarella balls and a Stromboli. Dessert is traditional, pumpkin and apple pie! I’m stuffed just writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everything sounds so delicious, Joanne! Love all that olive oil :)! You dad sounds like my grandmother with his dislike of turkey. Actually I think the side dishes really make the meal. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

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  13. Oh, I loved journeying through this post.
    (“By seven I had grown suspicious — we were still here.” – Powerful stuff.) Thank you for finding such expressive art to complement this personal history and the poetry – such gifts, all around.
    Favorite food for Thanksgiving? Well, as vegetarians, we have lots more room for the cranberry sauce (I make that every year), the sweet potato casserole, and all the DESSERTS. Thanksgiving hugs to you and yours, including all stuffed members of the family (cotton-stuffed, I mean). XO

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A vegetarian Thanksgiving sounds good to me — because I consider dessert the most important part of the meal. Cranberry sauce is good too :). Enjoy the holiday, Robyn! Special hugs from Mr C.

      Like

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