Sunday, March 22, 2015

Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco at Southwest Florida Reading Festival

Oh, how this man touched my heart! It was just the right day, the right time for me to sit and hear his message of love for the immigrant experience as he and his family lived it. To think that Richard Blanco spoke for our president's second inauguration to hundreds of thousands gathered on the mall in Washington, yet barely drew one hundred southwest Floridians to his afternoon talk in Fort Myers, makes me want to weep. But those of us who attended will not soon forget it.

The back story here is that I moderated a book discussion at my library on Thursday. As I mentioned in a previous blog post we were discussing "Americanah." I was, as always, very well prepared with questions, answers, thoughts, and favorite quotes. What blindsided me was the small but vocal contingent of participants who turned the conversation into a "them" versus "us" tirade against immigration.

To paraphrase one woman speaking of the Somali immigrants in Minnesota, "They come here expecting everything to be given to them, they don't know what it is to work for it the way we did." I had so hoped that this old trope had been laid to rest. Were we not all immigrants once? I see so many hard working people out on the streets every day, trying desperately to get their kids educated, working all day, meeting their tutors in the evening. I marvel at their tenacity.

As I tried to get us back on task, I floated the idea to these women that it's possible their Somalis had fled for their lives from the militant group Shabab, maybe with little but what could fit into a suitcase. Is it possible that  they are not "arrogant" but rather out of their depth, uncomfortable, not yet as familiar with our language as they would like to be? Who, I wondered, remembered Andre Dubus's "House of Sand and Fog."

For a few hours I questioned whether I was on the wrong side of history. Was I still living back in the '60's? Make love, not war? But I conferred with my sister and realized I'm not crazy. Then I showed up at the Harborside Event Center to hear Mr. Blanco speak. I was mesmerized. What if his parents had not left Cuba with only a single suitcase? His mom was pregnant with him at the time, yet in an act of profound courage, she left everyone and everything she knew behind so that her unborn child could be free.

Mr. Blanco has an exquisite voice. It is intimate, soft yet powerful. He read from his new memoir "The Prince of Los Cocuyos," about his childhood in Miami. He recited poetry, he shared photos of his family, his partner, with whom he now lives in New England, and of course, he told of the day that the call came from President Obama. He had only three weeks to write three poems that would change the trajectory of his life.
I think that what Richard Blanco acknowledged and what touched my heart most of all, was that we all, no matter where we're from or where we've settled, have a universal yearning to be home, to find a place where we are content, ourselves, and at peace. Those of us who have found that nirvana would never dream of denying it to someone else. Perhaps my angry book discussion ladies are unhappy or unsettled themselves. I hope that they will find their home. As Mr. Blanco said of home, "It is not where you're born but where you choose to die."


Lori Lowery said...

Great post, Sally! Richard Blanco was a very nice man, I wish I had been able to hear him speak.

Jenny said...

Dear Sally,
Thank-you for sharing your thoughts, reactions and musings from such diametrically opposed back to back experiences. As usual, you find a way to empathize with those who seem bereft of that attribute themselves. My next read will definitely be Richard Blanco starting with his 3 poems for the inaugural. Jenny

Sallyb said...

Hi Jenny and Lori, Thanks so much for responding.