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Richard Blanco Kicks Off Babel Season

Richard Blanco

Just Buffalo Literary Center will kick off the new season of BABEL with poet Richard Blanco, on Tuesday, October 22, at Kleinhans Music Hall.

An engineer by trade who pursued poetry as a side passion, Blanco was catapulted into the national spotlight on January 21, 2013 when he delivered his poem, “One Today,” at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Previous inaugural poets have included Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. Not only is Blanco the youngest person ever selected for this honor but also he’s the first immigrant, first Hispanic, and the first openly gay inaugural poet. These “firsts” are just a few of the reasons that make Blanco such an inspiring figure.

Born in 1968 Spain to Cuban exile parents, Blanco immigrated to the US when he was only 45 days old—his first baby picture is from his green card—and was raised in a predominately Cuban community in Miami. Caught between the homeland that everyone around him yearned for but which he would never fully know and the idealized “América” that seemed forever out of reach, the young Blanco grappled with the complexities of dislocation.

This longing to belong is woven throughout each of Blanco’s books: City of a Hundred Fires, recipient of the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize; Directions to the Beach of the Dead, winner of the 2006 PEN American Beyond Margins Award; and Looking for the Gulf Motel, which was awarded the Patterson Poetry Prize.

Recently, at the Babel @ Betty’s book discussion led by Olga Karman—herself a Cuban exile and poet who met Blanco many years ago at the renowned Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference—the conversation zeroed in on one of his emblematic poems, “When I was a Little Cuban Boy,” which opens: “O José can you see…that’s how I sang it, when I was / a cubanito in Miami.” The poem continues by recounting the young boy’s desires to assimilate:

I wanted to eat yams with the Indians, shake hands

with los negros, and dash through snow I’d never seen

in a one-horse hope-n-say? I wanted to speak in British,

say really smart stuff like fours core and seven years ago...

Capturing the innocence of childhood in these humorous bastardizations, Blanco manages to playfully interrogate the cliché of the American Dream, deftly questioning “the glossy pages of my history book” which depicted an American ideal of “everyone white, cold, perfect.”

It is striking to note the repetition of “say” throughout the poem, underscoring the immigrant experience as silenced and without a voice. Hence, the stirring opening words to the “Star Spangled Banner”—that anthem of American baseball as much as a celebration of nationalistic military prowess—is missing the word “say” in Blanco’s opening line, replaced instead by “O José can you see,” a subtle reminder that one’s racial identity is often coded in one’s name if not also visible in one’s skin color or physical appearance.

This poem, like so much of Blanco’s body of work, epitomizes the art of poetry, managing to convey so much with so little. And, isn’t this also the promise at the heart of the American Dream, that an immigrant could arrive on these shores with so little and yet achieve so much? Surely, Blanco’s story is a testament to this dream. This little Cuban boy who dreamt of one day finding his voice in fact grew up to be the voice of America, standing at the inaugural podium on the steps of the Capitol building.

Blanco brings his story to Western New York on October 22. It is not to be missed. Tickets can be reserved by calling 832-5400 or online at

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